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Learning for Performance


In one of the four plenary sessions at the Learning Technologies Conference, Charles Jennings, global head of learning at Reuters, will speak about shifting from training for skills to learning for performance. TrainingZONE caught up with him before the conference to find out more about how L&D departments can adopt this approach.

TrainingZONE: How can a learning and development department ensure that staff achieve their optimum performance?
Charles Jennings: One of the key focus areas we have at Reuters is around developing people for performance rather than just skills. I think there are three main levels in measuring the impact of learning and development. One is to measure inputs such as participation in learning activity, that’s the bottom level. Then you step up to measure outputs - we tend to measure the skills that people acquire - and the third level is around measuring how those skills can be transferred into performance. It may sound similar to many people, essentially it is Don Kirkpatrick’s first three levels, but it is still a good basic model.

We also need to ensure that in learning and development departments we have people who can talk to business managers on an equal plain in their own language. It means having people in L&D who can speak to managers and say: "What is your people’s performance problem?" not: “What training do your people need?” Very often the solution to performance problems is not a training programme. So the learning and development professional needs to have consulting skills to be able to work with business managers to identify what the needs are and what success will look like.

TrainingZONE: How can L&D go about identifying performance problems within the organisation?
Charles Jennings: The common mistake is to jump to a conclusion that training can help solve individual, team and organisational performance problems when, in fact, we really should carefully analyse what is causing the performance problems first. As learning and development professionals we spend a lot of time focused on developing and delivering training. We also carry out training needs analysis, but we need to go back one more step and conduct performance analysis, starting at defining the problem and really getting under the skin of the causes. As I mentioned, quite often the problem can’t be fixed by training but may be caused by fundamental structure or pay issues.

TrainingZONE: How can training professionals recast themselves in the role of consultant in, rather than deliverers of, learning?
Charles Jennings: The bland answer is that quite a lot of people can make the change, but others can't. The real issue is around developing real L&D professionals rather than ‘training fulfilment’ people. One of the key actions is to get people into consultancy skills programmes and teach them how to work in a consultancy model. As L&D professionals, we can learn a lot from the way that consultants work, including those HR departments that have successfully transformed from transactional operations into business partners.

TrainingZONE:How can technologies help L&D departments achieve this aim?
Charles Jennings: I think that technology has a huge potential to help us to move from designing and delivering purely formal learning solutions into a model where we have good informal learning and workplace learning and so forth. Particularly in terms of short, sharp performance support and help and guidance. I think that there is a general move away from big eLearning programmes, many of which were simply relocating classroom courses to computers, and most were not doing it terribly well. We need to look at where technology can do things that we can't do, or can’t do as effectively, without technology. Technology is a powerful tool to help us overcome the “richness or reach” issue that we face with much of our learning provision - where we can either provide a rich learning environment or one that reaches many people, but not both. Computer-based simulations and rich, engaging interactive eLearning are examples where technology has really helped us in this area.

TrainingZONE: Is the role of the internal trainer as deliverer one that you expect to become obsolete?
Charles Jennings: I think there will always be a role for the trainer as deliverer, whether they are part of the L&D team, subject matter experts from the business, or external specialists. (However) delivery of training is the end of the process, it’s not the only, or even the main, component. L&D staff really have to change their mind-sets from seeing training as an immediate solution to the problems that are brought to them and their skillsets to really enable them to build capability within their organisations.

TrainingZONE: Do you feel that L&D professionals and departments are responding to the challenge to become more strategic in their approach?
Charles Jennings: I think there is an awareness of this issue and some movement. It is happening in the US and in companies that are forward thinking. I saw some data a month ago that showed that 50% of companies in the Fortune 500 now have a Chief Learning Officer at Board level or very close to board level. In the UK only 2% of companies can say that. So there’s still a way to go. Read more on this research here.

TrainingZONE: How crucial is Board buy-in to making this vision of strategic L&D work?
Charles Jennings: Many Boards still have an '80s view of learning and development as simply a support function. Learning and development really has the potential to be a strategic business tool as well. I think that the companies that use learning and development in this way will out-perform their competitors in future. For years chief executives have been saying that people are their greatest asset, but I would say that it's people who are performing well individually and in teams within the company who are actually a company's greatest asset. Once chief executives understand that, they will usually start to use learning and development strategically.

TrainingZONE: If there is one message that you would like someone attending your plenary session to take away with them, what would it be?
Charles Jennings: My first message would be “don’t under-estimate the importance of informal learning”. Research tells us that about 80% of organisational learning takes place informally. Yet our organisations spend about 80% of their budget on formal learning. We need to think about that fact and see how we can focus more on creating the right environment to encourage informal learning, whether it’s a mattter of providing an environment where people are better able to have conversations and share experiences or whether we help build professional communities and communities of practice.

My second message would be “don't under-estimate the impact of the ‘googlisation’ of everything”. The amount of information that people need to store in their heads in order to do their jobs is much less than it used to be. Very often, if we need to know something we search it on Google or similar online systems. If we, as learning and development professionals, continue to spend the majority of our time building formal learning to transfer knowledge we’ve got it wrong. It's far better to be spending out time helping people develop skills to be able to find the information and construct the knowledge they need when they need it.

TrainingZONE: What advice would you offer to someone starting out on an L&D career?
Charles Jennings: Don't focus all of your time and energy on training. Focus on understanding how to analyse performance problems well and in a structured way. Then convert the problems into solutions that benefit your business. As I said earlier, I see learning and development skillsets changing to focus more on consultative skills that training fulfilment skills..To do this effectively we have got to have deep understanding of how people learn; we have got to have a very good understand of how technology can help us; we have got understand how to consult effectively with business managers and we have to have business skills ourself. In some ways these have always been the requirements for a learning and development professional, but we seem to have drifted quite a bit over the past few years.

TrainingZONE: Is a formal learning and development qualification important?
Charles Jennings: At Reuters we have a number of people completing CIPD programmes and ASTD (American Society of Training and Development) programmes. I don't think it's so important which programme or course you follow as each will have its strengths and weaknesses. However, learning and development professionals should have a good formal grounding in both learning theory and learning practice. One without the other is pretty useless. I wouldn’t want to consult with a doctor or dentist that didn’t have both of these. I don’t imagine many of us would.

* Charles Jennings, global head of learning at Reuters, has spent 20 years leading learning, e-learning and collaborative learning initiatives for a number of business organisations. Formerly he was Professor of Electronic Communications at Southampton Business School, UK. For more information about the Learning Technologies Conference and Exhibition 2006 click here.


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