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Learning and development at the crossroads: part 3


In the final part of this three-part series, Donald Taylor examines how the change in executive understanding has affected L&D as a whole, and the impact of the industry in future.

Executives have changed

Back in January 2009 I predicted – along with many others – that L&D departments in the UK would be hard hit by the recession and that layoffs would be plentiful. While some people unfortunately did lose their jobs, this last recession was notable for the fact that, unlike in 2002 and in previous recessions, organisational executives explicitly said they were going to retain employees and training departments because they believed that skills would be essential to come out of the recession strongly. In some cases companies reduced wages across the board rather than cut staff.
This anecdotal evidence of executives' understanding of the importance of skills was given quantitative support with the release in July 2010 of Coleman Parkes' survey of CEOs for UK-based company Capita, Learning to Change. 70% of those surveyed said that inadequate staff skills were the greatest single threat to their firms' ability to capitalise on economic recovery.
"Perhaps we're a little too comfortable where we are, doing what we’ve always done."
Very good. So executives now understand that skills are important. However, a shocking 46% of all those surveyed also said they did not believe that the L&D department was providing those skills. Only a paltry 18% believed that L&D's activities were actually aligned with business goals.
Why, with the executive spotlight so firmly on skills, is L&D not delivering? There is a variety of possible answers. Perhaps we are doing the job the executives want, but not letting them know about it. Perhaps we're doing the job that needs to be done, but which the executives are unaware of, because they're too far removed from training and skills.
But perhaps there's another, less comfortable, explanation.
Perhaps we're a little too comfortable where we are, doing what we've always done. Perhaps we stick to the role of information provider – whether in the classroom or online – because we like it too much. It's our zone of expertise, and we do it very well. We're generally less comfortable with business conversations with management where we might not be so expert.
An example: earlier this year I was running a Learning and Skills Group (LSG) webinar with Laura Overton of Towards Maturity and about 150 members of the LSG community. Laura has six years of data from 1,000 companies on how to make a strategic success of implementing technologies in your organisation. While she was very clearly laying out the steps to ensure a successful elearning implementation, I noticed a vibrant discussion taking place in the text chat area that runs alongside the presentation slides. What was the topic? Nothing to do with the strategy of elearning. It was this: 'Which tool is better for creating my elearning course – Articulate or Captivate?'. As always we seem happier in the detail of knowledge transfer than the strategy.
We'd rather focus on 'how' than 'why'.

At the crossroads

So these three drivers have brought us to the crossroads: workplace learning, technology and executives.
In this new environment, L&D needs to be doing at least these four things:
  1. Capability building
  2. Performance support
  3. Personal learning support
  4. Skills management
We're probably doing only one of these well, and almost half of all CEOs believe that we can't deliver the rest.
And you know what? I'm delighted.
This is where we've wanted to be for a long time. It is finally understood that skills matter.
Ten years ago you wouldn't have found skills on the financial pages of the newspaper. You wouldn't have found them in the newspaper at all. Now they are an essential business issue and we have the tools and the understanding to do something about it.
"We can't duck the issue of expanding our own understanding of the business we work in and of L&D in wider terms than our own delegates and courses."
Of course the stakes are high. And that's great – when executives want something, it will happen. The downside: if L&D can't deliver these skills, someone else will be tasked with it. It might be HR but I believe it's more likely to be operations or an external consultancy. In either case, L&D will be relegated to an internal training fulfilment house, a rump of what it could be, delivering only part of the bigger skills agenda. We will be – more or less – an irrelevancy.
But don't we want the stakes to be high? We cannot say that skills are important and then flinch from having to make tough decisions about providing them. We can't duck the issue of expanding our own understanding of the business we work in and of L&D in wider terms than our own delegates and courses.
From the conversations that I've had with L&D professionals over the past few months, I'm confident that we have the skills, understanding and willpower to establish L&D where it deserves to be. Not as an ancillary fulfilment house, but an integral, essential part of the organisation.
We don't have a road map yet of how to do this, but the conversations around establishing L&D in its proper role have already begun.
For all the risk involved, this is a great time to be involved in learning.
This article is based on Donald's introductory talk to the 2010 Irish Learning Showcase, organised by the Irish Learning Alliance in Dublin, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Donald H Taylor is non-executive chairman of the Institute of IT Training. members can get a exclusive discount to this year's IITT conference, Training 2010. He also chairs both the Learning Technologies Conference and the Learning and Skills Group, a free international community of learning and development professionals. Donald blogs at  - and tweets at:

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