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Tom Bird

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What is the biggest challenge for L&D managers today?


Tom Bird looks at the priorities for today’s learning & development professionals if they are to survive and succeed.

Be honest: how many of you reading the title thought this might be another piece about the need to demonstrate a Return On Investment (ROI) on the impact of any training or development delivered? Whilst showing ROI for every learning initiative would be great, it’s simply not that easy to do in practice and there are some more important priorities for today’s L&D professional to focus on.

As independent training providers we have seen a change in the last few years: we are meeting many more senior leaders within businesses who want to talk about training – it is not just the domain of the L&D department. I believe there is a reason for this.

As businesses need to be ever more agile and effective in responding to the changing demands of the economy, their market and their customers in order to succeed, there is a growing focus on employee capability. Increasing the ‘speed to experience’ is now on the board-level agenda and they need help. There is more L&D representation at a senior level in business than ever before but we believe there is a real challenge for these L&D professionals: how to be seen as true performance experts in order to deliver the results in capability that the business needs. Historically, we have seen too many L&D departments seen as quick fixes to tactical needs. When times get tough their budgets have been cut and they are blamed when 'training doesn’t deliver results'.

So, what should the priorities be for training or L&D managers to best capitalise on the opportunities that exist to make a real and positive difference to business results? What should they focus on in their conversations with business stakeholders? We believe there are three key areas:

Challenge the stakeholders on what they are asking for

When a stakeholder asks for 'presentation skills training' for his key account managers, what is the real and specific need that is driving this request? Further research, challenge and questioning might reveal that the real issue is for the key account managers to develop the right kind of senior relationships within their client accounts and this might result in a very different development intervention. Your role is to be as objective as you can in the needs analysis phase, framing your questions so that stakeholders see your intention of ensuring you address the right needs.

"The best L&D managers are tenacious in getting answers to questions around what is really needed in the business and how best to ensure any learning is transferred to the work environment."

We could make a case that the responsibility for ROI actually lies with the business stakeholders. They have a responsibility to make the right decisions on the capability needed (with your help, challenge and input). If you can prove that the capability they have requested is now transferred to the work environment then you have been successful. If the changes in capability enable the business to achieve its goals then they have been successful. This is not about shirking responsibility but rather focusing on what you can and should influence as part of your role. It puts attention on making sure you are developing the right capabilities.

Challenge the stakeholders on what their role is in creating the change required

Delivering tangible improvements in capability requires stakeholders to be actively involved. They cannot simply hand over the baton to L&D and then complain when the result is not achieved.

What systems need changing, what metrics need to be reviewed, what conversations between business leaders need to be held if any development is to stand a chance of resulting in learning transfer? Stakeholders have more responsibility than simply putting their name to the initiative and turning up for the first 15 minutes of any training programme.

Challenge the stakeholders on what else needs to change to embed the learning and ensure transfer to the work environment

Capability has a number of components in addition to skills and knowledge. Mindset and environmental factors such as systems, learning and manager support, necessary resources and reward all need to be aligned. The top three barriers cited by participants in one programme for why they had not implemented what they had learnt in the training were 'lack of support from their immediate line managers', 'the difficulty in breaking away from old habits' and 'lack of time'. Training on its own is unlikely to be successful if these issues are not addressed.

The best L&D managers are tenacious in getting answers to questions around what is really needed in the business and how best to ensure any learning is transferred to the work environment. The questions are often less about training and more about the underlying issues. In Ron Drew Stone's book 'Aligning Training for Results' he poses six questions that get to the heart of the issue:

  • Are people doing what they should be doing?
  • If not, what specifically is the deficiency?
  • Why are they not doing what they should be doing?
  • How are the deficiencies in individual or team performance influencing business outcomes?
  • What else (internal & external influences) may be influencing the outcome?
  • What should be done to correct the situation & influence the outcome in a positive way?

In this article I have focused on the need to have the right conversations with the business. These conversations stack the cards in favour of the L&D or training professional being viewed by the business as a performance expert. Can you think of a bigger priority?

Tom Bird is co-author of ‘The Financial Times Guide to Business Training’ and ‘Brilliant Selling’ (Europe’s best-selling book on sales) with his business partner Jeremy Cassell. Together they design and deliver high-impact business training in all aspects of influence and provide Train-The-Trainer programmes to ensure that business training delivers results. Contact Tom & Jerry at


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