Hey L&D, Your Underpants (gnomes) are Showing!

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This is the first of a 2-post series on the challenges L&D faces and solutions to overcome them.  In this first post, I’ll address the challenges.  In the second post, I’ll offer a suggested solution.

In Season 2, Episode 17 of South Park, the animated bitingly satirical cartoon on Cartoon Network, Cartman discovers that gnomes are stealing his underpants.  He and the boys follow the gnomes to their village and demand an explanation.  The gnomes provide the following explanation:

For a very long time, Learning and Development has worked with a version of this business model that goes something like this:


We spend millions of dollars creating and delivering ILT courses, e-learning, blended learning, games, simulations, job aids, webinars, etc. After delivery, we do limited evaluation (mostly at Kirkpatrick Levels 1 and 2), check with our stakeholders to see if they are happy (which the general answer is some form of yes/maybe when they really mean “I have no clue”), and we hope everyone believes that we’ve added value to the organization.

But we don’t really know. We don’t know if the experiences we deliver are effective at the learning level or the organizational value level.  The crazy thing is Leadership knows we don’t know, but knows that learning is important.  So the conclusion is that we must be having some impact and they approve next year’s budget.

Then there are things we do know.

Like the Forgetting Curve research that evidences that learners will forget nearly everything they learn within 90 days if it isn’t reinforced regularly.  In past practice, this would include just about everything we’ve tried to teach people.  There are those who refer to this as “Training’s Dirty Little Secret.”

We also know that by defaulting to an “order taker” mode of operation in which we build the training or tools we’re asked/told to create, we are creating training and tools that won’t impact.  We fall into this default because we don’t have the time to do a proper needs assessment, we lack the relationship with stakeholders that allows us to challenge them, stakeholders don’t value what L&D does, and/or we don’t understand how the business works.

We know that butts in seats and course completion rates have no actual bearing on learning outcomes or business goals, but we report them earnestly and leadership humors us, then gets back to real business.

This has recently been documented by two research reports released by LEO Learning and LinkedIn Learning Solutions.

In the LinkedIn Learning Solutions report, the No 1 desired result of training for leadership is proven business impact, but only 8% are seeing this reported.  The No 2 desired result is ROI, only 4% are receiving this on training.

Learners aren’t any happier either. 46% of L&D leaders say they have a hard time engaging learners.

The ability to report business impact is driven by four key challenges that L&D faces:

  • Having a limited budget
  • Getting employees to make time for L&D
  • Having a small L&D team
  • Demonstrating ROI (lack of data)

Perhaps the most shocking finding in the LinkedIn study is that less than 1/4 of L&D employees would recommend their own offerings!  Yet we are expecting our organizations to see enough value to keep funding us next year.

The LEO Learning report shows that 85% of L&D and talent leaders want to be doing the data analysis to demonstration Learning’s impact on the organization.  77% believe it is possible.  When compared to the LinkedIn numbers in single digits regarding how much leadership is seeing such impact data, the difference is shocking.  Why the huge discrepancy between desire (85%), intent (77%), and execution (8% and 4%).

The LEO Learning study also asked about how L&D was evaluated.  The results were all over the board – including 14% reporting the weren’t evaluated at all.

Data from LEO Learning, Measuring the Impact of Learning at Work, FEB 2017.

Only 35% of the LEO Learning respondents indicated they are feeling pressure to report on the impact of learning. They quote Mike Rustici, CEO of Watershed, “I think a lot of business leaders just don’t know what’s possible. …They’ve set their expectations very low in terms of what they can hold L&D accountable for and what kind of results they can expect.”

In addition, drawing data from the 2016 Towards Maturity Benchmark Report, while 93% of L&D leaders say data analysis skills are important, only 31% feel their departments have those skills.

Finally, LEO Learning identified 7 categories of difficulties in measuring the impact of learning:

Data from LEO Learning, Measuring the Impact of Learning at Work, FEB 2017.

The Towards Maturity 2016 Benchmark Report identified this list of barriers to change in L&D:

66% – Cost of development, set-up and maintenance
62% – lack of skills amongst employees to manage own learning
59% – Lack of skills amongst L&D staff to implement and manage e-learning
58% – Reluctance by line managers to encourage new ways of learning
57% – Unreliable ICT infrastructure/low bandwidth/technical restrictions firewall
54% – L&D staff lack knowledge about the potential use and implementation of technology

Towards Maturity also reported that 35% of learners find eLearning content uninspiring and 26% say it’s irrelevant to their needs.

To show that these are not new concerns, I went back to an ASTD (now ATD) study sponsored by IBM from 2006 – C-Level Perceptions of the Strategic Value of Learning Research Report.  That report found the following   (Note: CXO is used to refer to any C-Level executive other than the CLO). 

CXOs and CLOs agreed on the following:

  1. Learning provides strategic value at the enterprise, business unit, and individual capability level of an organization.
  2. Learning’s value contribution is seen primarily in business outcomes and human capital.
  3. It is difficult to isolate and measure learning’s value contribution to business outcomes.
  4. Perceptions of stakeholders (employees, business unit leaders, and executives) are a key indicator of learning’s value.
  5. The strategic value of learning is increased by strong governance processes for planning, allocating, and managing learning investments.
  6. Learning’s alignment with business needs is indicated by integration, proactivity, and responsiveness.
  7. The learning function’s efficiency can be increased by streamlining and standardizing processes, leveraging technology, and selectively outsourcing components of the function.

CXOs and CLOs differed in the following ways:

  1. CXOs are less concerned than CLOs with quantitative metrics that show learning’s value contribution to business outcomes. CXOs are more concerned with qualitative alignment of learning investment with the changing needs of the business, and with the perceptions of employees and business leaders, than they are with data from ROI studies.
  2. CLOs are more focused than CXOs on improving the performance of business units, through understanding business unit goals and performance gaps, and identifying learning and non-learning solutions to close the gap.

While stated in a different way, you can see the same themes running through these. #5 and #6 clearly show how all parties “agree” to gloss over real inadequacies.  Planning, allocating, and managing a budget are not factors in strategic value.  Integration, proactivity, and responsiveness are not business needs that L&D should align to (they are operational efficiency and relationship building goals). The issues and challenges for L&D haven’t varied much in the past 10-15 years.

For Learning and Development, the black box that is Phase 2 in the Underpants Gnome model glosses over:

  • Apathy of leadership toward holding L&D accountable in a real business sense.
  • Resource allocations that are “ballparked”, often ending up insufficient
  • Managers who don’t understand the need or role of learning in day-to-day business.
  • Learners who don’t value L&D offerings because they perceive them to be boring, irrelevant, and wasteful of their time.
  • L&D staff that are not capable of the skills needed and aren’t properly trained to do the jobs they are supposed to do.
  • Lack of business acumen amongst L&D staff.
  • Lack of learning acumen amongst operational staff.
  • Urgency overrides strategic need in L&D resource deployment.

There has been a mutual understanding between all stakeholders that these things are unimportant, too hard to address, or irresolvable.  L&D tends to be cordoned off from the rest of the organization.  And we’ve enjoyed the perceived autonomy it provides.

But there are signposts warning us that this way of operating isn’t going to last much longer.  We need to address this issues – starting yesterday.  Many feel it is an adapt or die situation.  But I blogged about this very issue in May of 2004 (adapt or die on eelearning). And we’ve not addressed it yet.  Will we now?

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.  I’d love it if you used the sharing buttons below to share this post with your social network. 


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