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Niall Gavin


Learning and Accreditation Consultant

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How to become an award winner in L&D innovation

What are the key ingredients to award-winning L&D innovation?

This article is late! But I have a good excuse.

I have delayed writing this piece about 'learning innovation' because I was one of the judging panel for the 'Innovation in Learning Award' category at the Learning & Performance Institute (LPI) Learning Awards 2020. I didn't want to hint at or leak any indication of winning entries ahead of the reveal at the ceremony at the Hilton on Park Lane on 20th February.

And what an interesting category it proved to be. My fellow judge and I had eight finalist presentations to consider, evaluate and then rank for Gold, Silver and Bronze awards.

‘Who are you to judge?’ I hear you ask. I suggest the question should be ‘Why judge?’ I have over 30 years’ experience in L&D, and I've worked my way from IT trainer to Head of Learning Technologies, to independent consultant. I have judged several times now for both the LPI Learning Awards (I'm a Fellow and  Consultant for them) and the Learning Technologies Awards and I have also faced judging panels as a finalist myself in my earlier training career. I have an empathy for both the process and the aspirant award-winning finalist presenters. 

It's an opportunity for me to give something back to the profession and, just as importantly, to learn something from the front-line practitioners about their real-world challenges and – hopefully – their innovative solutions.

What does 'innovation in learning' mean?

One person's view on innovation can be very different from another's, with context and range being just some of the interpretive differentiators. Interestingly, 'innovation' seems to be generally regarded as an over-used and misunderstood term in business and tends to be most frequently used in conjunction with the application of 'technology'. 

This is traditionally a slippery slope for learning and development and where many organisations conflate (confuse?) the two to imply a co-dependency between one another. 

Let's look at some definitions of 'innovation'

‘(The use of) a new idea or method’ – Cambridge Dictionary

‘Something new or different introduced’ –

‘The introduction of new ideas, methods, or things’ – Collins Dictionary

‘The invention or use of new ideas, methods, equipment etc.’ – Macmillan Dictionary

In an excellent article from 2016, 'innovation blogger' Nick Skillicorn invited 15 leading thinkers and practitioners to share their definitions of innovation. Recognising that there was some variety of opinions, but also some recurring themes in their different responses, he then offered his distillation of their thinking in what he called 'The ultimate definition of innovation', as:

Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer.

So whilst some may see their 'innovation in learning' as significant in relation to their own business or competition and are perfectly right to do so, others may see their own 'innovation in learning' in more generic, wider world, terms. Both views are perfectly valid, and it's the judges' job to consider each presentation in a consistent and fair manner accordingly.

As a judge, I was looking to find the differentiators, the factors that made each organisation's story stand out and separate them from the rest of the pack. 

I was looking to see who had demonstrated impactive results of innovation in learning either internally or for their customers. But more than that, who had lifted their eyes up from the immediate business, had scanned the wider learning environment to see what others were doing, had looked beyond the immediate horizons of learning and technology, and had considered their place in the wider society in which their organisations were operating. 

In short, I wanted them to surprise me.

Becoming an award winner in learning innovation

How did our finalists shape up?

The full results for the 'Innovation in Learning Award' are available on page 28 of the LPI's 'Learning Awards Book of the Night', wherein you will see the judges' summaries of why the Gold, Silver and Bronze award winners – Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, LearnBox Ltd and Anders Pink – achieved their well-deserved recognition.

So what makes for award-winning innovation in learning and development? What questions should you be asking yourself if you’re striving to be a truly innovative L&D team?

If lots of other businesses, learning departments or other learning providers are already doing it, is your solution or approach really innovative? If it is, within the context of your own business or your customers, how and why? What made it different from what you have done in the past – and, critically, what demonstrable improvement has it made? 

Alternatively, how does it shape up against what others elsewhere, either in your own industry, or in L&D generally, are doing that is innovative?

Is it inclusive? Have all the stakeholders been considered? You will probably say 'Yes', but in reality, have you designed for everyone – internal, external, work-based, societal, all abilities, neurodiversity, age, experience, digital access and capability? True innovation in learning has to mean something to everyone.

Enthusiasm for and pride in an innovative approach or solution has to be matched by demonstrable results which have been proven to be effective. A pilot may have proved the concept and elicited positive outcomes, but has it scaled and delivered measurable business improvement? 

Having the surprise factor

Finally, just as a good comedian or comedy drama makes us laugh by taking us by surprise, whilst a poor one fails to do so and elicits nothing but a sense of having seen it before, what’s your surprise factor?

What generates interest, delight even, and the curiosity to know more about and to learn from your innovative solution? What have you done differently with what you’ve already got that has made your stakeholders re-evaluate your services and re-engage positively with you and your team?

If you can demonstrate that you have, as Nick Skillicorn suggests, executed an idea that addressed a specific challenge and achieved value for both the company and customer then maybe we’ll see you as finalists in the awards next year.

My thanks to the Learning and Performance Institute for inviting me to participate again this year and to all the finalists for leading the way for others in our industry to follow.


Author Profile Picture
Niall Gavin

Learning and Accreditation Consultant

Read more from Niall Gavin

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