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Nigel Harrison



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Why do trainers find it hard to make the move to becoming business partners?


Following on from an interview at this year's World of Learning, Nigel Harrison expands on his mantra of getting the L&D function of its comfort zone and into the partnering space.

Let's consider why people make the move into training.
  • High performers who get promoted into a visible role model for how the organisation wants people to behave
  • Extroverts who gain their energy from external sources and like standing up in front of people
  • Subject Matter Experts
  • Change agents – successful managers who like to move around and face new challenges
  • Creative people who can design web materials and screens that learners love
  • Good administrators who like to take orders for training and source it effectively
So, people who go into training have many characteristics but one underlying value is that trainers are often helpful people. It is this strength that can actually get in the way of being a good business partner.

Why is this?

One of the key roles of the business partner is to act as the check between line managers jumping to quick fixes and expensive solutions (like training) and the supplier of solutions eager to get the business.

Ulrich’s three box model

About 20 years ago Ulrich proposed a three-box model of business partnership;
The benefits of this approach were that it allowed centralisation and cost reduction of shared corporate resources whilst the client has a one-stop-shop for internal suppliers. The job of the business partner is to help analyse the client's needs and contract with appropriate suppliers. When the role works well the business partner is a respected partner of the business, stops a lot of solutioneering (clients jumping to solutions) and helps to prioritise a set of realistic requirements for the suppliers.
It works badly when the business partner:
  • is merely a letterbox passing orders on to the suppliers and adds little value
  • "goes native" and gives their loyalty to the client, acting aggressively to win scarce resource before other business areas can get their hands on them
  • becomes a blockage or gatekeeper to organisational resource and wields power by not authorising solutions.
So in order to be a true business partner you have to work with the client, challenge their assumptions and check that the investment in solutions is linked to a proven benefit.
You need the credibility and ability to:
  • Build rapport and earn trust
  • Think analytically and follow a process
  • Challenge and ask questions to find the causes of problems
  • Be intuitive and creative to synthesise solutions
  • Focus on realistic action
You need to:
  • Silence your own internal dialogue
  • Be brave and authentic

So how can the trainer make the move to business partner?

In my experience trainers and L&D specialists often make the best performance consultants and business partners because of they are focused on action and the client responds to this. But when working as a business partner the trainer needs to be very aware of the risks of solutionering and follow a process to identify to real solutions to the real problems.
I think we all need to be aware of the phases that a client meeting goes though:


  • How to cope with the presenting problem - "we need training"
  • How to build trust and rapport with the clients
  • Self-awareness of their own tendency to move to solutions
  • Knowledge about the dangers of solutioneering
  • Skills in reacting positively to solutionering without promising

Facing up to the real problems

  • A performance-focused approach
  • A consulting process
  • Skilful open questioning and active listening
  • Building a picture of the current state
  • Helping the client envision where they want to be
  • Quantifying the cost of the performance gap

Building joint performance solutions

  • Knowledge of L&D solutions
  • Knowledge of management solutions
  • Open questions to encourage the client to come up with ideas
  • Creativity to generate ideas
  • Realism to focus on the most cost effective and beneficial solutions
  • Attention to detail to commit the client and yourself to realistic actions
Some trainers will be better at different parts of the process
  1. Some technical consultants I know need to work hard on building rapport and not jumping to instant conclusions and clever solutions
  2. Some L&D people feel uncomfortable talking about the business problem and quantifying the cost to the business
  3. Most feel comfortable in the building solutions phase but may jump to training solutions too early

Why do trainers find it hard to make to the move to business partners?

As usual it is a mixture of things:
·         They may think of themselves as solution people
·         They do not have a consulting process
·         Or knowledge about the business
·         They may not be so good at active listening and allowing the client to come up with ideas
·         It may be easier to deliver training solutions than engage with the client in the complexity of their real and complex problems
·         Training and L&D departments are often positioned as suppliers of simplistic training solutions and line managers do not expect them to have the skills to challenge and contribute to solving business performance problems
I have been working with trainers for many years and most still find the transition to business partner difficult. It is easy to read about a performance consulting approach but difficult to skilfully apply it. I think;
  • 20% run with it are very successful and get promoted very quickly
  • 80% take time to build their influence, credibility and skill
  • 20% revert back to the comfort of solutioneering
Reactions like these indicate that there are barriers in most organisations to people making the move. Unfortunately most organisations are not rational places where performance improvement is the real goal. Many organisations exist on a diet of quick fixes and avoidance of accountability. In this environment the training department has often played a useful role in someone helpful to give problems too, who will run with your problem without challenging you. For trainers to become business partners this has to change.

The benefits of moving to a partner role

Many trainers have nagging doubts that their training really adds value to the business. They feel vulnerable that they are being assessed for things outside their control "We will wait and see if the training has been effective". The are often "set up" by the business as willing partners in solutioneering.
The wonderful thing about working with a client in partnership is the satisfaction, energy and power in knowing that you are working on real issues with realistic solutions.
When anyone talks to you they start with safe, superficial language including a few clues. If you fail to spot the clues and opportunities to engage on a more intimate level they will read you as having a certain power and deal with you accordingly.
Client: "We need training"
Trainer: "Okay we could do x"
The client will see no threat here and deal with you on a superficial level.
Client:"We need training"
Partner: "Who do you want this training for?" "What will we see then doing after the training?"
In this case the partner has not taken a superficial, subservient role and is skilfully challenging the client to think about what they want. The client thinks this person is no pushover - I either need to resist them or work with them.
If you can earn trust and build rapport to start working with the client on their real problems the benefits are enormous:
  • Credibility and respect from line managers
  • Energy from working on real problems in partnership
  • Hard evidence for your boss on the value that L&D is contributing
  • Saving money by avoiding ineffective solutions
  • Early involvement on future problems
  • Recognition and status


So there it is. Trainers find it hard to make to the move to business partners because there are built in pay-offs from the current non-challenging solutioneering fantasy. Trainers make the change when they are natural change agents, develop the skills involved in supportive challenge and feel the power and credibility that results from successfully working as a partner. It is not easy but very rewarding when it comes off.
The current difficult economic climate is actually an opportunity for trainers to step up and out of being perceived as 'order takers'. It is no longer acceptable to see the training budget as an act of good faith. Executives are now asking for training and L&D departments to justify the investment in L&D. Trainers can use this as leverage to avoid solutioneering and start to get involved in building joint business cases and working more as a business partner.
Nigel Harrison is a chartered business psychologist and author of "How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting". He runs development programmes to help trainers, L&D, HR and technical consultant become business partners. See for learning materials and skills workshops


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