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Charles Jennings

TULSER, 70:20:10 Institute, Duntroon Consultants


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Three L&D actions for developing business impact in 2021

Director of Tulser, Charles Jennings, investigates how to deliver business impact in an uncertain world.

As L&D leaders set out their strategies and work plans for the next 12 months, the need to prioritise will be at the top of their minds.

We all know that the demands for L&D services will always outstrip the supply of resource and time available and at this time of the year, L&D leaders are likely to be confronted with demands for a range of ‘urgent’ or ‘critical’ learning solutions from their internal clients. New compliance modules in response to changed regulations, updates to leadership programmes and sales enablement courses, converting face-to-face to online (even though much of this had been done in response to the Covid-19 challenges in 2020), and many other requests besides.

If L&D leaders are to make the ‘centre of learning’ approaches work, then focus and activities must extend beyond formal learning and beyond embedding formal learning into the workplace. 

So, how might L&D leaders prioritise all these requests and select those that will deliver the greatest impact for their organisation? Here, I will discuss three important focus areas and actions L&D leaders should take if their teams are to meet the right demands in the right way and deliver improved solutions and greater impact in 2021.

In summary, these are:

  • Action one: make delivering measurable business value your prime goal.
    Focus on using the right business metrics to quantify the value you are delivering for your organisation.
  • Action two: embed co-creation in your operating model.
    Ensure you co-create solutions transparently with your key stakeholders and don’t simply serve up ‘black box’ packages.
  • Action three: make work the centre of your learning approaches.
    Bring learning and working together. Look to exploit opportunities to embed learning in, and extract learning from, the daily workflow in your solutions.

Action one: measurable business value

Over the festive holiday break, I read Tim Harford’s How to make the world add up. It was both insightful and a light relief at the end of the most disruptive year the majority of us have lived through. I would recommend the book to all L&D leaders.

Harford is an economist and senior columnist for the Financial Times. He is also a broadcaster for the BBC and has spent the best part of the past 20 years studying data in all its forms, making sense of it, and clearly communicating the truths and falsehoods behind the numbers. Never was this skill more needed than in today’s world.

The sub-title of Harford’s book is ‘ten rules for thinking differently about numbers’. His first rule, rather surprisingly, is ‘search your feelings’. Through illustration of an infamous fraud in the art world and other cases, Harford demonstrates how we often want to be fooled, not just by people, but also by numbers and by other things.

Harford quite rightly points out that “all the statistical expertise in the world will not prevent you believing claims you shouldn’t believe and dismissing facts you shouldn’t dismiss”.  

L&D leaders need to take heed of this when they decide which data is to be collected and used to demonstrate the business value they are delivering.  

Both pitfalls Harford mentions need to be avoided, namely: making claims that, under scrutiny, can be proven to be unfounded, and ignoring data and facts that should not be ignored. In other words, make sure you’re measuring the right things (business impact rather than learning impact) and make sure you’re drawing solid evidence-informed conclusions.

Some of the pitfalls that loom large on the horizon for L&D leaders are those that ‘big data’ bring. There is no doubt that big data is revolutionising our world, but its use should come with some health warnings for L&D.

In his book, Harford explains that big data is often less trustworthy than ‘small data’ in that small data is more transparent and can be more easily scrutinised by analytical tools. In contrast, big data sets tend to be generated by opaque pattern-recognising, commercially sensitive black boxes.  

Lots of data alone doesn’t necessarily lead to the right causal conclusions. Added to which, many of the big data sets HR and L&D leaders rely on regularly intermingle correlation and causality. There’s a reason for that.  

Many of the leading big data thinkers (such as Chris Anderson, one of the ‘fathers’ of the discipline) argue it is pointless to step beyond correlation. This is a dangerous road to tread and should be walked carefully. L&D leaders need to use measurement approaches and metrics that provide clear measurable direct evidence of business impact. Cause-and-effect.  Correlation is neither enough in terms of proof, nor is it reliable enough.

Evidence suggests that false causal assumptions based on correlations abound in our profession as in any other. There are many classic examples such as the infamous Google Flu Trends initiative.

An example of a false causal assumption in HR and L&D is the common belief that employee engagement leads to improved employee and business performance, whereas research suggests that the converse is more likely – high performers tend to be more engaged employees and good business performance tends to lead to higher levels of employee engagement (we all like to be on a winning team).

The reality in this case is that better business results will be delivered if HR and L&D focused on improving task performance rather than on actions to improve levels of engagement.

Harford’s book provides some valuable insight to help L&D leaders achieve their aim of demonstrating business impact to key clients in their organisations.

  • Search your feelings: be aware of personal or institutional ‘emotional biases’, only finding what you hope is there, overlooking what you don’t want to see.
  • Select the right metrics: business metrics will help demonstrate business value. Learning metrics won’t.
  • Combine a ‘bird’s eye’ statistical perspective with a ‘worm’s eye’ view from personal experience.
  • Use metrics that compare and provide evidence of causality.
  • Ask tough questions about algorithms and the big datasets that drive them. Ensure openness and check inherent assumptions.

Action two: use co-creation – the engine of innovation and results

It is virtually impossible to build learning solutions that work well without co-creating with clients, with exemplary performers, and with a range of specialists in related fields. In other words, L&D cannot do it alone.

The power of co-creation has been recognised for years. The academics Venkat Ramaswamy and Francis Gouillart distilled key elements in their book The power of co-creation. They found that co-creation materially “helps enterprises learn smarter and faster and minimise the likelihood of not connecting with human experiences”.

Co-creation is essential if L&D teams are to build solutions that fit with organisational priorities and with stakeholder and user needs.

In the book 70:20:10 towards 100 percent performance we defined a specific role (the performance game changer) with the task of building relationships with key stakeholders and others, agreeing performance outcomes, working with the ‘master builders’ as they create L&D solutions and ensuring business and performance expertise is brought in when needed. All these tasks are essential to exploit the benefit of co-creation.

Co-creation is especially important when constructing performance support, due to the important social component. It is not just about working with content specialists, exemplary performers, experts, end users, managers, and L&D colleagues. The social component is the community for end-users who respond to the support and contribute to the process of constant improvement and innovation.

Action three: make work the centre of your learning approaches

For more than 20 years I have been extolling the adage ‘when working is learning, then learning is working’. Colleagues and others have similar calls to action.

I think the meaning of this adage is obvious. When working and learning are integrated, then L&D leaders and their teams are doing their job. It also implies that working and learning are two sides of the same coin. As we carry out tasks we learn, we incorporate the learning into the set of next tasks and through this process we establish a ‘culture of continuous improvement’.

We often forget that the most important factor for effective learning is not in the content, but in the context. Learning is more effective when the context and the content are aligned. I discussed this in some detail in my July 2019 article for TrainingZone, Overcoming the training transfer problem by adopting a performance-centric mindset.

Research going back at least 120 years has demonstrated that when the context in which learning occurs is very similar or, preferably, identical to the context where that learning is applied then learning is more effective.  Thorndike and Woodworth established this in their Theory of identical elements research in 1901. This is the reason context-centric performance support is, in many cases, much more effective than away-from-work training and eLearning.  

What does this mean for L&D leaders?

It means that if L&D leaders are to make the ‘centre of learning’ approaches work, then focus and activities must extend beyond formal learning and beyond embedding formal learning into the workplace. Much of the ‘workplace learning’ that L&D departments deploy is in reality ‘formal workplace learning’. L&D leaders need to stretch beyond providing formal eLearning modules and ‘micro-learning’ or ‘micro-training’ as their workplace learning solutions and think about embedding a robust workplace performance-based learning methodology.

A starting point might be adopting the PBL Methodology™ developed by my colleague Jos Arets together with Vivian Heijnen and myself.

Interested in this topic? Read What does 2021 have in store for learning and development?

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Charles Jennings


Read more from Charles Jennings

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