We caught up with Donald on his first-ever Australian visit to get his thoughts on the future of learning and development.
Donald, you use this great illustration of the learning landscape that’s divided into quadrants to describe the state of the L&D industry. Can you walk us through and explain what it represents?
Certainly. I use the illustration to answer a question you guys at MCI Solutions asked me on my visit: What’s next for L&D, innovation or obsolescence?
My answer is that it depends. We can become innovative and core to the business, an essential part of it. Or we may become obsolete. It depends on what we choose to do, and this illustration helps me set some background for explaining that answer.
To begin with, like most everything it’s all about change and the choices we make in response to it.
When we think and talk about change, we approach it as if it’s a linear thing and it’s either slow change or fast change, or somewhere in between. But in my experience looking at the industry that I’ve been in for so long, I think what’s important is the relationship between the rate of change of the L&D department on the one hand, signified here by the Y axis, and the rate of change of the organisation as a whole on the X axis.
In the top right-hand quadrant you would expect to find an L&D function that’s changing quickly and in synch with an organisation that’s also changing fast. That’s the place we really want to be. I call it Learning Leadership.
In the Learning Leadership quadrant, L&D is in touch with the business, knows what’s going on and changes what it does while responding to changing business needs. Here we move rapidly to get a program up and running, and if it doesn’t quite work we tweak it — or we might abandon it and move onto the next thing. L&D functions that operate in this quadrant build solutions and interact with the business on the basis of what’s required. And because the business is moving fast, the L&D function also moves fast, in lockstep.
A case in point: Instagram, a company of 12 people bought by Facebook for $US1 billion. Those numbers are true, and the L&D approach of both Instagram and Facebook is very much centred in this top right-hand Learning Leadership quadrant.
What happens if the L&D team reacts slowly and the organisation is also changing slowly?
Well, the bottom left-hand quadrant’s a quite nice place to be. You don’t have to worry too much and just do what you’ve always done, like producing the same list of courses you used last year and just changing it a bit. You deliver them and it’s all quite comfortable and pleasant until something goes wrong.
But seriously, it will go wrong because the company’s not moving fast enough. It’s only a matter of time before it goes bust and everyone loses their jobs.
So I call that area Comfortable Extinction. It’s a bit like the apocryphal frog in the pan of water. If the water’s hot when you put the frog in, it jumps out. But if the water’s cold and you heat it up slowly until it boils, the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late. It’s the same with organisations and L&D teams in this quadrant.
Another case in point. Down here we’ve got Kodak, inventors of personal photography with the $US1 brownie camera and, indeed, inventors of digital photography as well. Unlike Instagram, who are now the Learning Leaders in digital photography, Kodak put digital technology to one side because it threatened their core business. Then somebody, Instagram and others, came along and completely pulled the rug from underneath them.
And what about if the L&D department is moving fast but the business is moving slowly?
Yes, and I know lots of people who are in this space. I regularly meet them and it’s very frustrating because they are smart L&D practitioners. They go to conferences, they meet people, they‘re online having conversations. They have great ideas and they want to do smart things.
Then they go back into their business and they hear, “Just do what you did last year. That works for us. Yeah, do that. It’s great.”
I see this happening a lot and I see the frustration. It’s a bit like in the Gospels when Jesus spoke to the people of Nazareth, the town where he grew up, and said, “A prophet is not without honour save in his own country.”
That means a person’s talents and accomplishments are highly regarded by everyone — except those at home, and that why I call this the area of the Unacknowledged Prophets.
L&D professionals in this quadrant are pulling their hair out because no-one listens to them.
What then usually happens is one of two things. Either the L&D person leaves and finds an organisation that’s more open to change, or they find somebody in the organisation they can work with. That’s usually not difficult in very large organisations where there’s a manager or two they can bond with and show the rest of the business how to do it.
There’s one corner left. What’s happening there?
That’s where the organisation is moving fast but the L&D function is moving slowly.
Unfortunately, too many organisations are trapped in this strange space where the business is demanding smart ideas and responsive programs, but its L&D people have less time and more to do. They’re on a relentless treadmill.
The business sees this type of L&D function as being something weird and slightly different, sometimes even physically different — located in the basement or perhaps across the road from the main offices in a demountable building. It’s an odd place where people do things in a slightly strange way and the business doesn’t really know what happens there.
That’s what I call the Training Ghetto.
Now, the problem with the Training Ghetto is not that its people are doing a bad job — it’s that the constraints they are working within and the perception of the business are such that they can’t do the best job they can. They’re working hard but have a limited impact because they’re under pressure.
It doesn’t matter where I’ve talked about this, whether it’s in Nashville, Sydney, Istanbul or Singapore, L&D functions in this Training Ghetto are all suffering the same problem. You often see it when the organisation takes 20 percent away from the training budget and demands 20 percent more activity. When that happens, everybody who’s left in the L&D department is doing one and a half jobs. The result? Everyone’s running on the hamster mill and the only focus is delivery and getting the course out next week.
The focus is no longer on learning.
Another result is the limited range of stuff that these L&D teams can physically deliver. In my experience, this is essentially three things. Firstly, there’s compliance training. I’m not knocking compliance training because it’s really important. In fact, any L&D department can prove themselves to be a very valuable part of the organisation by doing compliance well, and there’s on-boarding, which is also terribly important — but when you’re in the Training Ghetto there’s no time to do anything else.
Finally, there’s what I call “fixing training.” Now, every L&D professional will know what this is. It’s when they get a phone call from a manager somewhere in the organisation who says, “My team’s not really performing properly. Can you organise a two-hour time management course? Next week? In the afternoon Wednesday? Thanks, bye.”
In the Training Ghetto, the L&D team’s become so busy sweating on getting things done it’s become a fulfilment service, pizza deliverers if you like, where managers can just phone them up and demand training “stuff.”
It’s counter-productive for the managers and it doesn’t work for L&D professionals.
So L&D professionals should think first where they are now in this picture, and find ways to get into the Learning Leadership quadrant.
Absolutely. The shift that L&D needs to make — whether they’re Unacknowledged Prophets, in the Comfortable Extinction quadrant or stuck in the Training Ghetto — is to move from being course providers and a fulfilment service to being real performance consultants. They need to do things in a qualitatively different way.
I could frame this in terms of dealing with how information today is shared. We all know that learners can now access almost the sum total of human knowledge via a device in their pocket and with a stroke of their thumb. Maybe we maybe don’t think about how incredible that is, but it changes everything because it changes the way people learn. The nature of learning, how people learn, has changed beyond all recognition.
Or we could talk about look at how the nature of business has changed. The value accorded to organisations by Standard & Poor’s 500 to tangible things like books, buildings and machinery was around 80 percent of the organisation’s value in 1975. The other 20 percent of an organisation’s worth was intangible – the people, the brand value, the human capital. Only 20 percent.
Fast forward to today and those proportions have flipped. Eighty percent of the value of most organisations is now intangible, stuff you can’t put your finger on and that can come and go very quickly. Businesses can be set up very quickly and within two, three or four years you have companies like Airbnb, Uber, Facebook or Google, some of the most valuable companies in the world — but which have almost negligible tangible assets.
All that means is that things change and happen faster.
Because of this everybody’s job is more competitive. Everybody’s sweating to hit their targets because their boss is telling them that their boss is telling them that if they don’t hit their targets the company is going to go bust because somebody else is coming behind them with new ideas. It’s just the intensely more competitive world we live in.
So, the way forward is to innovate.
Now, to most people that term represents a lot of tactical things, from chunking big pieces of learning down to small bites that enable true performance support. And developing systems that make relevant information accessible within the organisation, or for L&D to become curators of relevant content.
Yes, of course, but for mine the first and most important thing for L&D professionals to do if they want to innovate is to go out and talk to people in their organisation — and find ways to facilitate the learning that people need to do their jobs. They need to move away from a supply-side learning mindset to demand-side learning. That is, instead of asking, “How can I fill my classrooms?” L&D practitioners should be asking, “What’s the performance need in the business right now, in the short term?”, “What’s the capability need longer term?” and “What foundations support both?”
Answers to those questions help you innovate, and also to create a culture of continuous learning.
And once you’ve shifted your mindset, asked and answered these questions, L&D functions then need attitude. I like to use three phrases that together sum this up:
- Proceed until apprehended.
- Just get on with it, and seek forgiveness rather than permission.
- Start small, think big and move fast.
We’ve come a long way from times when quite rightly L&D people did everything ourselves. We produced stuff in our organisations that was right for us. We got our hands dirty. We loved to make things. But I don’t think we need to do that anymore because I’ll bet there’s a lot of great stuff that’s already being generated in your business that L&D can circulate, and so much great thinking that exists for free on the internet that L&D can curate.
Sometimes it’s really nice to be in a classroom and just be the expert, but you know what? It’s not always the most efficient way to do it.
So, to answer your question about what’s next for L&D, I’d say the answer lies in looking carefully at what the business is doing now and finding how L&D can improve things. As I said at the beginning, it’s all about change – and the change from supply-side learning to demand-side learning, and becoming trusted advisers to the business, is the change innovative L&D functions must make.
To find out more about how best to reach, and remain, in the Learning Leadership quadrant please call us on 1300 768 550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact Donald directly via email at email@example.com.