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Sheridan Webb

The Training Designer's Club

Training Design Consultant and Community Manager

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Stop ridiculing order-takers in learning and development

L&D professionals need to shake off the stigma of being order-takers, says Sheridan Webb.

Historically, learning and development professionals have been told that they shouldn’t be order-takers – that anyone who takes instruction for training from a manager should be ashamed, and that if they do take orders they aren’t doing their job properly.

This attitude has always irked me.

Like it or not, most people in L&D are practitioners. We are expected to create or source solutions to real problems that can (in part) be solved via learning.

Business improvement doesn’t happen if people just go around thinking great thoughts or never move past the analysis stage. And crucially, that is not what the majority of us are paid to do.

The role of L&D

According to the Association for Talent Development (ADT), “Learning and development (L&D) is a function within an organisation that is responsible for empowering employees’ growth and developing their knowledge, skills, and capabilities to drive better business performance”.

Achieving this requires many different roles to be fulfilled and like any other profession, L&D has different levels – and those different levels have different responsibilities.

The head of marketing does not do the same job as the junior copywriter, just as the group L&D manager has a very different role to the systems trainer – but both jobs are valuable and necessary.

If you are the head of L&D for your business, of course you should be working at a strategic level.

Most people who work in L&D are practitioners – they are there to turn the plan into reality.

You should be looking at the business metrics, considering the 5-year plan, consulting with key stakeholders to uncover current, actual training needs, planning for future ones, and creating an L&D plan that is aligned with business goals.

But the vast majority of people who work in L&D aren’t the group director or department head. Most people who work in learning and development are practitioners – they are there to turn the plan into reality. They are trainers, coaches, designers, facilitators, administrators, consultants, or programmers.

These people are paid to do a job as defined by their manager. It isn’t up to them to go on a voyage of discovery and investigate every request from scratch.

Whilst they should absolutely ask questions to better their understanding of the context, to get a complete picture of the problem they’re helping to solve, to share their expertise and maybe suggest alternatives – it doesn’t help anyone if everyone goes back to first principles at every opportunity.

If this was the case, nothing would ever get done. And something done imperfectly is better than a perfect thing that is never delivered.

How L&D delivers business success

We must remember that L&D is a support function – like marketing, like finance. We don’t drive the business agenda, but that doesn’t mean our role is irrelevant. Our job is to help the business goal to be achieved.

Of course, the most senior L&D people in the business need to fully understand that goal and the environment in which it has to be achieved. They are the ones that need to put forward a plan – having analysed the situation fully – outlining how L&D can support.

They should be advising the senior managers of the best approach to solve the underlying problem and getting an agreement to implement it.

I was an order taker. But that’s what was needed to get the job done.

At that point, we should be getting on with delivering the solution, rather than constantly re-evaluating the problem/need.

When I worked as an independent consultant – helping busy L&D managers to deliver bespoke programmes – I didn’t question their analysis. I respected that they were senior L&D professionals who knew what they were doing.

They knew their business well, and it wasn’t my place to question their conclusions and decisions. Of course, I did research to better appreciate context, drivers, culture, expectations, and outcomes because I needed to understand these things to play my part. This, in turn, allowed me to offer suggestions and advice to enhance the proposed solution, but I never assumed they were wrong.

So I guess I was an order taker. But that’s what was needed to get the job done.

How to be an order taker AND add value

The subjects that we cover in training can be huge, running from time management, to customer service, to communication. We must use our skills to pick out the specific elements that will make a difference and help achieve the outcomes required. To do this we must do the following:

  1. Understand the context: in what specific situations do people need to make a change? We need to know what good looks like and what is driving this need.
  2. Reflect the culture: customer service at a checkout in a supermarket is different to that in a GP practice, which is different again to that provided by an account manager in a tech company. We can’t copy and paste solutions – for them to be successful, they need to be bespoke.
  3. Make sure content is aligned with outcomes: this means making sure you understand what they are (even if you don’t agree with them) and creating a solution to deliver it, avoiding pet topics or the latest fad. 
  4. Know the audience: what’s their starting point, motivation and expectations? What’s the reality of their day-job and what will they actively engage with? This might mean going old school and getting people in a room with a flipchart, or it may mean doing everything asynchronously online.
  5. Know the subject (so we can pick out which parts are relevant): unlike senior colleagues, order takers have to know the content in detail. They have to be able to quickly choose the exact right model, provide a perfect example, or select the right exercise. 
  6. Be up-to-date with content and methods: this will give you the information and tools to be able to advise senior stakeholders about the blend: it’s up to them to define ‘what’ people need to be able to do – we need to use our expertise to define ‘how’.
  7. Be decisive and focused: knowing which content to include and which to leave out is important, and will help ensure the training achieves its objective.
  8. Be brave: tactfully challenge those who expect certain content to be delivered (or certain methods to be used) if it isn’t right. Remember, they don’t always have the depth of knowledge that you do.
  9. Be disciplined: this will enable you to meet stakeholder expectations, deadlines, and stay within budget. Managing stakeholder expectations is a big part of the order-takers role.
  10. Be detail focused: make sure that you focus on even the smallest of details to ensure everything works, whilst never losing sight of the big picture to avoid scope creep. 

It's not realistic (or helpful) to suggest that everyone in L&D should be challenging the business. Not everyone is in a position to do that. It’s simply not possible for everyone in L&D to be a thought leader, and it is important to remember that thoughts are worthless unless they are turned into plans and those plans put into practice.

Not everyone in L&D can be a pioneer and break new ground.

Not everyone in L&D can be a pioneer and break new ground. Far more people need to be implementers and deliver tried and tested solutions to a high standard.

So don’t feel bad if you’re taking orders in L&D. Focus on your part in supporting the vision and delivering to a high standard. Eventually you’ll be the one helping to define it.

One Response

  1. Really like your 10 point
    Really like your 10 point plan Sheridan – it is common sense and implementable. It really does depend on things being in place with the organisation:
    – An L&D manager/director with their finger on the pulse of the organisation and buy-in from stakeholders.
    – An organisation that values the input from L&D and knows how to measure that value.

    The buy-in from the stakeholders is crucial, because if you do not have that, then resources and time will not be available when needed. With all the will in the world and a fantastic design, if people are not supported and released from their roles to learn the new stuff, it will not happen. Order takers also need to know when something does not feel right, so that when they do take orders, they are confident in the solution they are designing.

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Sheridan Webb

Training Design Consultant and Community Manager

Read more from Sheridan Webb

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