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Comment: Beware of what you wish for – lifelong learning has arrived!


Good or badThe right to training is what learning & development specialists have been dreaming about for years, isn't it? But Gordon Brown's vision for learning could be the stuff of nightmares unless it is carefully thought through, says Nigel Paine.

So employees are going to be allowed to ask employers for training. As long as there is a sound business reason for the skill development, employers will have to provide it. But not necessarily pay for it!

The idea comes right from the top: the prime minister himself is backing this and now he has his civil servants working furiously on the details ready for the November Queen's Speech and the new Education and Skills Bill.

Should we feel really good about this? An entire workforce with the right to development, and all they need to do is ask? Isn't this what training and development professionals have been dreaming about for years? No longer marginalised or booted out of the door at the first hint of trouble but a serious and long-term partner in the success of the organisation whether it is public or private, big or small. Lifelong learning has arrived!

Photo of Nigel Paine"What drives lifelong learning is a learning culture in organisations, not legislation."

I am a little more cautious, maybe because I am a little more long in the tooth. What drives lifelong learning is a learning culture in organisations, not legislation. If this current discussion about the idea generates some solid views on change, I am in there 100%. But it needs consensus on what a flexible, multi-skilled workforce might look like as well as working out how you build in time for learning and time for knowledge sharing and impact evaluation. If, however, it becomes an us and them confrontation - we demand and they refuse - we might be worse rather than better off.
The only possible way that this will work is if both sides see this as progress, i.e. employers can see the advantages and want them as much as employees want new skills and to do their jobs better.

If it is coupled with strong performance management, development planning, skills needs analyses, evaluation and an integrated model of what both an organisation and an individual need then the learning delivered will be focused and relevant.

If it is just about letting someone 'go on a course' then Reuters' Charles Jennings' conspiracy of convenience kicks in: performance analysis is not done, or is done poorly; business managers ask for 'training', training managers deliver it, no one measures it apart from happy sheets; there is little or no business impact and of course, everyone involved is happy!

"I don't think that any L&D professional worth his or her salt will be jumping for joy at Gordon Brown's pronouncement unless the context is absolutely right."

This will never make a company more successful or more productive except as a bi-product of the Hawthorn effect: pay someone attention and performance improves (temporarily).

The UK has not got a great track record of embracing workplace learning: the CIPD annual Learning and Development survey 2007 showed that:

  • only 12% of managers take learning and development very seriously
  • less than 50% of organisations have established methods of evaluating the impact of their L&D investment
  • whilst 56% of L&D staff feel that they do not have enough involvement in the development of the organisation's strategy

  • for 22% of organisations the L&D involvement comes too late in the strategic development process to make any discernable impact

  • Add more resources to an essentially failed model and nothing much will happen until someone notices the amount being invested and cuts it back when they discover that there appears to be no discernable impact. Simply delivering more training won't deliver John Denham's (the secretary of state at the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills) vision:

    "If the job prospects of our workforce are to improve and the country is to succeed internationally, we have to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to rise as far as their abilities can take them."

    This new idea has to be well thought through and we need to explain the processes needed to make it work. I don't think that any L&D professional worth his or her salt will be jumping for joy at Gordon Brown's pronouncement unless the context is absolutely right and we make a step change in the seriousness with which workplace learning is taken.
    Investing in people is too important to be left to whims and fancies and not to be given the kind of integrated and close scrutiny that all investment should have.

    This is an opportunity for the learning leader to move into what Americans call the 'C Suite', the hallowed turf for people whose job titles begin with 'chief' and for learning to take its rightful place as a complex and significant lever that can be used to transform the performance of individuals, companies, government departments and UK plc.

    Nigel Paine is a former head of training and development at the BBC and now runs his own company, Nigel Paine.Com which focuses on people, learning and technology. For more information visit his website at

    Read last week's feature: Legal right to training time: Good news or bad?


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