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Gary Cookson



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What’s stopping L&D’s transition to performance consulting?

Have you got the skills and capabilities required to take on this new way of working?

In the LPI’s most recent edition (January 2021) of its quarterly dashboard on L&D’s competencies and weaknesses, the three biggest themes that internal L&D teams struggled with were around demonstrating value add, showing the effectiveness of what they do and defining appropriate metrics to demonstrate their performance. Similar views were expressed in previous editions so tt’s clearly something many professionals struggle with. 

And it isn’t too surprising. A few years ago I did a talk called A Modern Learning Professional at various conferences. In it, I reflected on how different L&D was from when I first started out in the profession back in 1998 – and I’m sure many others recognise that shift too. 

The world was a lot simpler back when I was a lad. For some years all I had to be was a good presenter. 

Design, deliver, sleep, repeat.  

Evaluation was limited to the happy sheet, and was often merely an ego boost for me. No demonstrable business impact was asked for or needed. 

We have to be able to arrange learning in real time for people at the point of need.

How times have changed

Nowadays it’s markedly different and rightly so. L&D professionals need to and should be doing far more than just L&D. We should  be getting far more involved in the business, not simply so that we can become better L&D professionals, but so the business itself becomes better for our interventions. 

As L&D professionals, if we are to do our work properly, we need to know about the strategy and operations of the business, and how it judges performance at various levels. We need to be able to bring people together (virtually or in person) and help them to collaborate to solve performance issues, and to curate resources that will help them do this even better. We need to see organisations as systems, and understand their processes. 

As we are no longer the sage on the stage, the font of all knowledge or the single source of the truth, we have to be able to arrange learning in real time for people at the point of need. This involves creating video content, audio guides, encouraging coaching conversations, using VR and AR, and facilitating social learning. We have to be comfortable with people learning wherever and whenever they may be, and not just when they are in a session with us.

By doing those things we will start to behave like performance consultants and less like trainers. Diagnosing performance issues at the source, and facilitating delivery of solutions that address those issues in real time and again at the source.

The rise of the performance consultant?

The concept of performance consultancy is well established. The principles underlying it appear in the Learning and Development area of Specialist Knowledge and the Commercial Drive area of Core Behaviours in the CIPD Profession Map, becoming more critical the higher up the levels one goes. The Map can be used to self assess one's own strengths and areas for development and contains ideas and questions to help develop certain aspects of skill and behaviour.

It's also present in the LPI Capability Map, and the principles underlying it appear in many areas but also explicitly in the Performance Consultancy and Supporting Organisational Performance areas. Specific capabilities appear, such as:

  • Advocates for performance consulting with senior stakeholders

  • Coaches and mentors others to high performance standards

  • Leads the design, development and/or implementation of performance consulting and solutions across multiple, diverse environments and applications

  • Ensures alignment of performance consulting activities and solutions with business strategy

  • Maintains awareness of new industry and marketplace trends, sharing with others as appropriate

  • Steers organisation-wide investigations to identify, define and assess the current and future capabilities required to achieve the organisation’s strategy and objectives

  • Examines findings, sets the capability development strategy and prioritises solutions

  • Advises and steers related organisational HR and L&D strategy to develop organisational capability

You really need to stop thinking about L&D and start thinking about supporting and enhancing your business.

What stops this from happening now?

If the drivers for this shift in L&D focus are represented in the guidance and professional frameworks from two professional bodies, why do so many L&D professionals still struggle? What is stopping us right now?

In some organisations it may be the history of L&D and how it has been delivered in the past. That can be changed though.

In other organisations it may be the prevailing culture and the views of the leaders. Again, that can be changed.

In many organisations it may be that the L&D professionals themselves don't have the required skill set or confidence to make this kind of shift, and are remaining firmly in their comfort zones. Changing this skill set and mindset will be critical to changing the two other potential barriers – if L&D moves away from service delivery and L&D professionals start acting like performance consultants, it will impact the culture and behaviour of leaders too.

What can we do about it?

Here are five actions you can take to upskill yourself and bring greater value to the business:

  • Self assess against the relevant parts of the LPI Capability Map and the CIPD Profession Map to give yourself a baseline. Both of these will give you ideas for further development

  • Find a mentor from outside the L&D profession with an operational background and relevant industry expertise.- Consider someone from outside your organisation even, who you can talk to about reinventing L&D with a business focus, and who may be able to help you work out some of the needs your business has and what you could do to address them, in a non-judgmental way

  • Within the business, build good relationships with senior to know them on a personal level, find out what drives them and what worries them. Talk to them in their language, not using L&D language.ake off your L&D hat and become that critical friend and sounding board they need

  • With any intervention you devise, map out your stakeholders so that you know who needs to be kept informed and/or given some involvement. Consider how you'd engage them if you haven't done that already. Consider how they'd measure the value of your intervention – and be prepared for that to be different measures than you had in mind

  • Remember that value can be measured in different ways – it isn’t always about financial measures, although these will be very useful. Whatever the issue or problem the stakeholder has, if it’s solved then what you’ve done has created value

To do this kind of work, you really need to stop thinking about L&D and start thinking about supporting and enhancing your business. You need to think about performance – individual, team and organisational – and how to improve it. This requires you to act like a consultant – focusing on issues and problems, and generating solutions to them.

This isn’t what many of us were trained to do or perhaps want to do. But it's what we need to do.

And that might be the biggest challenge of all.

Interested in this topic? Read Charles Jennings' article 'How can L&D embrace business-aligned learning in difficult times?'

4 Responses

  1. Whilst I would agree with the
    Whilst I would agree with the benefits of a PC approach I would say the answer to the question is, in part, that PC being an “L&D thing” is perpetuating the siloed thinking of the past.

    In many organizational structures L&D, IT, marketing, HR, finance and other functions are all looking to “transition to a performance consultancy role” in some shape or form as part of modernising their functions. In fact, the only group that are likely to really take this role are sustainability experts who help organizations move to green performance. In reality, big business will carve up responsibilities and “learning” tasks will most likely remain aligned to “design, deliver, sleep, repeat”. However, L&D can at least challenge expectations via a PC mindset rather than specifically holding those responsibilities.

  2. “become that critical friend
    “become that critical friend and sounding board they need” – great point Gary. Most people rarely have quality time with someone who can listen and help them think through their own issues.

  3. What stops this from
    What stops this from happening now? We find that internal consultants need a shared approach to performance consulting and a refresh of their questioning and active listening skills AND most importantly the confidence to break the “solutionering” culture which makes it easier for a client to specify a training solution rather than facing up to their own performance problem. We often underestimate the pressure on L&D people t deliver solutions without asking questions. In my opinion this is one of the key obstacles to adopting a performance consuting approach. Nigel Harrison, Performance Consulting UK LTD

    1. Hi Nigel, do you think this
      Hi Nigel, do you think this is seen mostly when there is a culture of “do what the client asks for” from the top down? I may well just be lucky that I have support from my seniors to ask the difficult questions and push back on requests for “training” where there isn’t a clearly defined and and measurable benefit.
      For me, performance consultancy, from an L&D perspective at least, isn’t just about the overall business performance. It’s about learner performance pre and post learning but also client performance. I have an opportunity to support clients in defining benefits which will in turn improve their effectiveness and imprisonment the chances of success for whatever they’re trying to implement.

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Gary Cookson


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