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Andrew Gibbons

Andrew Gibbons

Management Consultant

Read more from Andrew Gibbons

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Is our learning world really changing?

In the learning industry, there’s a gap between L&D programmes and their impacts that needs to be closed. But how? We need to do more to be led by the needs of each person and be clear on purpose and expectations. We need to act as true agents of change.
silhouette photography of person, learning world

Learning and development, we have a problem.

A lot has changed, and mostly for the better, since I started ‘helping people to learn’ in 1982.

With the benefit of a 42-year perspective, I regret to inform you that a lot less has changed than ‘should’ have. Far too many of the same issues are frustrating practitioners now as then.

Every day, I read of the same obstacles to creating value from developing talent I saw in 1982. 

Every day, I grapple with the same problems with improving organisational performance through applied learning as I did in 1982.

So, why, with all the seismic advances in technology, ideas, methods and tools, is there still a clear and apparently unbridgeable gap between learning programmes and the perception and reality of them impacting positively on individual or organisational practice?

Is our focus on the unique and specific needs of every individual?

Groups really don’t work

In the learning world back in the 80s, we used to gather people with very different needs and contexts into rooms, sit them on chairs and tell them all the same stuff, giving activities to amuse them, then issue ‘happy sheets’ in a rush at the end when they want to get away. 

These days, well, what’s really changed? Do we, for all the grand talk and expensive conferences, do anything really different compared with back then? 

Is our focus on the unique and specific needs of every individual? Or is the norm still an often valueless ‘treat them all the same’ way of working? Do we have any real indication that the workplace is at last seen as where most learning happens? 

Is the administratively convenient still more of an influence on what we do than bringing lasting value by supporting individuals to do important tasks better in their different real worlds?

Have organisations and the learning world changed?

In my early days, line managers weren’t measured on their efforts to develop themselves or others. What was then called ‘training’ was an easily measured (and cut) cost. The attributable value that resulted from that was hardly ever calculated. 

The thought of actually doing things differently and/or better on return to work was, if ever raised, sometimes a tetchy conversation. One that implied fault, or painful imperfections. 

I still see too much institutional complacency. That talent development in very employee-mobile times is not a priority. The steady loss of high potential, frustrated people whose development was neither recognised nor supported. 

The persistence of a culture of ‘acceptable poor performance’ around growing, developing and retaining people.

I still see too much institutional complacency

Shiny content should serve, not lead

Did we really hand write overhead projection ‘slides’, spend hours scribbling on flip charts and inflict clanking 28 minute ‘training films’ on people in darkened rooms, even straight after lunch? We did, and that seems centuries not decades ago, given the truly impressive array of learning material and methods at our current disposal.

Despite the quality and the impressive look of our current tools, are we any better at using these to help individuals? Or would I see the same amount of group work as 40 years ago? Do we collect this wonderful content, sometimes as an expensive Learning Management System, and then seek people to work with, to share our joy? 

Could we do a lot more to be led by the needs of each person? And to, where it helps, create tailored packages of knowledge and prompters of skills development?

We are, too often, acceptors and accommodators

So, what can we do?

Much depends on how we in the learning world see our purpose. At heart, we are surely, truly agents of change – helping positive, better practices through learning and encouragement of talent.

We are, too often, acceptors and accommodators when there is more value to be gained by being challengers. Or, if needed, confronters, when clearing obstacles to, and seeking value from, our activity.

Being clear on purpose guides all we do, and with whom. I long gave up fighting the tide in units or whole organisations where taking me on would be a waste of my time and their money. It works best to be selective when possible and work with the most fertile, positive individuals and parts of organisations when resources are so stretched.

Clarifying expectations

Clarity of stakeholder expectation is another key issue. We in the learning world have a domain of responsibility for ensuring value from our time and effort. 

So too, for instance, and more significantly, do learners and, crucially, their line managers. Contracting with the two latter parties can be an uncomfortable experience. Being clear where our own ability to influence the application of learning ends and when this is largely down to a learner and their manager is simply a discussion about reality. 

I won’t be writing a ‘42 years later’ follow up. I wish you younger colleagues good fortune and hope my current frustrations are not yours far into this century.

If you enjoyed this article, read: Rethinking learning culture: Is it enough for business-savvy L&D teams?

Author Profile Picture
Andrew Gibbons

Management Consultant

Read more from Andrew Gibbons

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