Author Profile Picture

Nigel Paine

Nigel Paine.Com


Read more from Nigel Paine

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

How to build a 21st century learning organisation in five steps


There is something very satisfying about doing a good job in a domain that you are comfortable with, and where you are demonstrating your own expertise. And there are many highly skilled roles in the L&D function.

I was talking to an LMS administrator at the Learning Technologies conference in mid-February. I could no more pretend to do her job than fly to the moon. She has intensely deep skills that allow a rather old and creaky LMS to keep on doing its job. Every day she stops it falling over, and every day she solves problems that baffle other members of her team.

I am not underplaying those core skills. Large numbers of people who work in L&D can do things that are simply amazing. I am so impressed by what can be achieved when you know what you’re doing, and you have the right resources at your fingertips. What I worry about is when L&D becomes a collection of those skill sets and nothing more.

The best L&D teams do not define themselves by the accumulation of skills. They define themselves by the impact they make on the business as a whole.

Rather like having a hammer means everything looks like a nail, when you have an L&D skill everything looks like a learning problem. How do you break out of that and look at the whole system and bigger picture into which L&D slots?

If you think that the L&D team does learning, just as the finance team sorts out the money, there is a danger that the whole organisation will crash into a brick wall with everyone saying: “but I made sure the lights were working! I was in charge of tyres being pumped, and they were! I made sure the safety belts were on!” The problem? No one was keeping their eye on the road ahead.

From delivering courses to problem solving

The best L&D teams do not define themselves by the accumulation of skills. They define themselves by the impact they make on the business as a whole. And that is what every team does across the whole organisation.

Once those big, audacious organisational objectives are clear, the way the staff need to behave or change also becomes clear. That creates an agenda for action. It does not generate a course catalogue!

I watched a presentation by Network Rail at the same Learning Technologies  conference. Guy Wilmshurst-Smith presented a case study of how the company uses freely available data to build skill set profiles of the teams responsible for sections of the railway network that have broken down most often and, therefore, cost Network Rail the most in terms of compensation, and the passengers the most in terms of inconvenience and delay. They call this system ‘Dynamic Demand Planning’.

The key message I am trying to emphasise is that this shift is a mindset change, not a skill deficit.

They found that there was not always a direct correlation between competence and reliability because the data highlighted obsolete and unreliable kit that needed to be replaced. That was helpful in itself. However, there were many correlations where, for example, repeat signal failures were managed by teams with below average competence in signalling skills. Therefore, upskilling that team had a direct impact on containing cost and increasing customer satisfaction.

The previous model was based on a training budget allocated pro-rata to area managers who dished out courses from a catalogue. The impact of this change has been spectacular. Focusing on the right skills to attack the biggest problems leads to the biggest improvements.

I would argue that Network Rail has shifted from a focus on the delivery of learning to a focus on problem-solving and meeting business objectives. This has had dramatic results. Millions of pounds have been saved, and hundreds of hours of inconvenience eliminated. The courses did not change, just who accessed them and when.

L&D must shift their mindset

I would like every L&D team to have the same focus. Where are the pinch points? Where are the challenges and the constraints that hold back productivity or innovation. How can we fix this? How do we focus most of our energies on this?

The answers to these questions can be highly complex, so other things will need to be dropped or de-emphasised.  

The outcomes might be behavioural, rather than competence-based, they might involve process re-engineering rather than individual or team development. The crux is not to deliver learning, but to fix the problem.

The key message I am trying to emphasise is that this shift is a mindset change, not a skill deficit. And it would be remiss of me not to help you on that journey. Here are five suggestions to get started that are based on my work with innumerable L&D teams around the world.

Five ways to make you L&D work more impactful for your business

  1. Get out and about in the organisation. Discover what the pain points are, find out what the strategy means in terms of each business unit. Then try to work out how you can contribute to delivering that strategy either on your own or, more likely, in cooperation with other parts of the organisation. Go for big wins.

  2. Once you know this, begin with a tabula rasa. Imagine you are starting to build an L&D operation from scratch and you have a pretty freehand to do what you like. Dream the best organisation you can imagine, but one that can focus on delivering that business strategy most effectively.

  3. Examine this dream organisation closely, and decide what bits of it are in the realms of . possibility for immediate cost-effective implementation. Work out a framework to build at least some of it.

  4. You may need advocacy at this point. Share it with people at the highest level you can inside your organisation. I would go for the CEO! Begin your note: “I think we could make a much more effective contribution to delivering the aspirations and aims of this organisation by…”

  5. Regardless of whether you have been given permission, take one aspect of your new model, implement it, using limited resources and a few guinea pigs, and closely observe what is happening. If it does not work, stop and try again.


I think you get the picture. Engaging with the business is not a nice to have, or an option. It is at the heart of making learning and development relevant for 21st century organisations. Go for it!


One Response

  1. Thanks Nigel, very insightful
    Thanks Nigel, very insightful article. I like the Network Rail example you used, and what came to me from it, is that we need to become more adept at collecting and using data to identify organisational issues. Also from your five steps I particular like the last one where you write that even if we have not been given permission we should implement part of our proposed solution. I think that what you are trying to tell us here is to develop an almost entreprenuerial mindset.
    Thank you.

Author Profile Picture

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to TrainingZone's newsletter