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The learning leader’s tips for tough times


LIGHTBULBIn the current economic crisis same-old same-old is not an option. This is a time for fresh thinking, new ways of learning and adapting to business priorities. Nigel Paine offers these five tips to help learning leaders innovate their way through the recession.


I am leading a Learning Technologies webinar and the topic is : Tips for tough times. The best five I can come up with are included below. It is not an exhaustive list, nor perhaps the best list and it may not guarantee your survival in the current economic environment, but it could!

What I do know, however, is that each one of these has had marked success in organisations I have worked with. And some have led to modest increases in investment. But this article is not about how to save your own skin when all about you are losing theirs, it is about emphasising the key role that learning and development can play in helping organisations adapt to change and deal with unprecedented circumstances. It is about putting the best case forward for maintaining an investment in people and relying on their creativity, sense of reality and awareness of the marketplace to innovate out of trouble, rather than slash and burn your way out.

Photo of Nigel Paine"The most vulnerable learning professionals are those that have no new ideas to deal with the present and argue, equally vehemently, for every element of their portfolio."

In a recent blog (see I listed ten alternatives to making people redundant. In some ways these five tips represent an eleventh way forward: leverage your investment in learning and development and enlisting the support and backing of your learning and development team.
I hope that you find them useful.

Tip 1: Not everything is equally important
In a crisis it is natural to defend your patch. But you can over defend and therefore make the whole area vulnerable. And in these times, some of what you offer is still vital, other areas can be put on hold. You should create space for innovation. And, therefore, you should be able to ‘offer up’ savings and show your willingness to align with the new reality, rather than pretend everything continues as usual.

The most vulnerable learning professionals are those that have no new ideas to deal with the present and argue, equally vehemently, for every element of their portfolio. There are no hard and fast rules, but some things must be more important than others.

Tip 2: Talk the language of business
Perhaps the most important tip, and certainly an underpinning of the learning leader’s credibility. You have to use the language of business like you mean it. This gives out the message that you are a top-table player debating the future of the organisation and the contribution your team can make to that future. Whether it is changes in leadership, values, processes or priorities, learning can play its part in preparing the organisation for the future whilst helping it survive in the present.

Talking the language of business also means writing the language! All documents should be vetted so that they ditch learning-speak and embrace exactly the same corporate perspective as any other corporate communications.

Learning strategy should completely align with the business strategy. In fact, the entire learning strategy should, simply, take the organisational strategy and show the contribution that learning and development can make to delivering it successfully.

Tip 3: Smash up the collective DNA
We all grew up in a world where there was an accepted and acceptable learning model. The: analyse, design, develop, implement and evaluate paradigm is deeply embedded in our psyche. But it is slow and linear. It can’t cope with user-generated content, incredibly fast moving environments or abrupt changes in direction. Perhaps it is time to dump it? Not for everything necessarily but for a few, new challenges.

You might, for instance implement as you are developing, or design the evaluation before you have something to evaluate, if value-added is critical for you. In a world of emergent outcomes, web 2.0, resilience and flexibility, it is dangerous to remain inflexible and tied to a model that can be slow and unresponsive? It is hard to let go of a model that has stood learning in good stead for 40 years. But there is no better time to try something new than now.

Tip 4: Help everyone else cope
In some ways this is the mantra. Focussed learning can support the whole organisation as it moves through change. This particularly applies to leaders who may have to lead in different ways to ensure the organisation has a future. It is a valuable and positive calling card when budgets are being reviewed.

Also where staff have been lost, little attention is paid to the ones who remain behind, but L&D can do much to help the remaining staff realign and gain focus and commitment.

A bank recently revised its entire and extensive leadership programmes because they were creating leaders with the wrong kind of focus for the current times. This was a massive and urgent task for the head of learning to embrace, and put the learning function right at the heart of change in the place.

Tip 5: Frame not shape
This should be the new leadership mantra. Set the frame and let people get on with making it all happen. If you try to control everything, you will control nothing. And this general theme of management applies equally as strongly to the learning team. They cannot control and shape all learning but they can establish an appropriate framework and guidelines where learning can happen across the organisation as a whole.

If you can be orchestrating rather than trying to play every instrument you will make more music and please more people. This is the time to give the talented musicians you employ their head, but make sure that they are all playing from the same score.

If you can ensure that framing is a dominant value, not just for leaders, but for the entire organisation, you will have gone someway to helping your organisation prepare for that future.

All five tips really point in exactly the same direction. This is a time where you will have to innovate to survive and throw out hard-won principles and long-standing programmes . And it is quite possible, if you do this, you will emerge from this, fitter, more creative and more flexible, and better prepared for an increasing role in the success of whatever business you are in.

Nigel Paine is a former head of training and development at the BBC and now runs his own company, Nigel Paine.Com which focuses on people, learning and technology. For more information visit his website at


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