Hey L&D! Your Underpants are on Fire!

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

In my last post, Hey L&D, Your Underpants (gnomes) are Showing!, I discussed the black box that training and development has historically worked in.  Mimicking a South Park episode, I suggested that we have utilized the following model:


If we get honest, we don’t have any real clue if what we create actually will increase the ability of our learners to do their jobs better and impact business goals in a positive fashion.  We’ve gotten away with it because senior leadership knows that talent development is crucial to the organization’s health and ability to deal with ever more complex and changing markets.

But they are being pressured to justify every expenditure in the budget to ensure is is driving business priorities, goals and profits.  The free pass we in L&D have been receiving is about to be revoked.

We need to overcome what Matthew Syed calls “Black Box Thinking.”  We have been enabled by our organizations and the general culture to cover up and hide from our failures. One example.  If we don’t look at long-term retention of information, ignoring the forgetting curve, we can be satisfied with Kirkpatrick Level 1 and 2 responses that say our training was “great”, “just fine.”  Our learners don’t want to point out that they don’t remember what they learned a month ago – because it might make them look stupid.

We have to open up that black box and determine how to work in a new way and we don’t have much time.  Now a full-scale overhaul of L&D will take time and I’m sure that most senior leaders will work with us. If we set out a strategic plan to transform learning in our organizations and get working on the needed changes to make it so, they will give us the time to do it.  But the time to take action is now.

So what do we have to do now that we haven’t been doing?  (NOTE: these actions are interrelated.  This is not a step-by-step process.)

Data, Data, Data

And I don’t mean a compilation of smile sheets. We need data-driven evidence of the business impact of learning.  As CEB put it in a Learning Analytics whitepaper last year:

You can’t defend L&D activities to executives with anecdotal evidence, buzz from hallway conversations, or surveys that show program participants liked their instructors and were satisfied the learning experiences.

We need to build a comprehensive Learning Data and Analytics Strategy that will enable the collection, storage, analysis, and reporting of data.  Data about training efficiency, learning effectiveness, target behaviors, and business results.  Some of this data doesn’t exist today, some exists but our stakeholders “own” it (ie; sales, performance data), some might be at our fingertips, but we don’t know how to access it) and we may even need benchmarking data from outside sources.  It is vital that we work to develop an understanding of what data we need in order to answer the questions and then figure out where it will come from – is it collected manually or automatically?  where will it be stored?  who will analyze the data?  who needs to see reports of what? when? how?

We’ll have to understand how data, particularly big data, is handled, warehoused, and managed with our organizations.  What software tools do we need?  Are there IT resources to connect APIs?  to write scripts to link programs?

Change and Promote a Learning Brand

Even if you don’t think your learning has a brand, it does.  Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”  More importantly, the quality of a brand determines how much people will trust you, how loyal they will be to you, will they have your back when others attack.

What do you want L&D to be known for in your organization?   A trusted business colleague?  A problem solver?  A group that uses evidence to make decisions?  A brand is a consistent message of who you are.  That consistent message is built through conversations and commitments fulfilled.  It is enhanced by actively listening and collaboratively determining business goals with your stakeholders.  Using data to drive decision making and in reporting results.

A Learning Culture focused on Continous Learning

Move away from event-based training and toward socially energized learning experiences.  Executives and Managers need to understand that helping their employees to enhance their knowledge and skills both specific to their current job and as professionals is a part of being a leader.  L&D needs to provide support, tools, and training so that managers can fulfill this role.  If you can get learning objectives incorporated into the performance management process, all the better.

Help employees to become self-directed learners.  Our employees know that in today’s world it is imperative that they expand then knowledge, hone their skills, take on new challenges, and become better professionals.  We need to aid them in this process.  Help them to learn how to learn.  Scaffold social learning experiences online and in their everyday interactions. Reflect on their work – on their own and with others.  We need to provide them with easy access to the resources they need to do their jobs.

Change Everything about L&D

We need to take a deep and honest look at how we are, or more likely aren’t, meeting the needs of our organizations and ourselves.   This will require the courage to face the fear of admitting past deficiencies and proposing radical change.

This goes to how we design our learning experiences which need to be grounded in business goals and data-driven decisions.  How we deliver learning needs to move to a multi-faceted, extended multi-c0ntact sequence of experiences.

We need to take the time and make the effort to learn the businesses we work in.  We must become peers with our stakeholders by understanding how they contribute to the success of the business.  We need to be able to engage in conversations that explore the details of their goals and the knowledge and skills necessary to meet them.  We need to walk the walk of a true business partner.

We also need to open ourselves to new ways of thinking about learning and living in a new world that is fast approaching. The science of learning, neuropsychology, big data, learning analytics, artificial intelligence, the internet of things are changing the world around us.  Think about how mobile devices has changed not only how we need to design and deliver learning, but also how humans interact with each other and the information they need.  The changes coming are even bigger than the impact of mobile.

Partner with Stakeholders as Never Before

Any major change in an organization that affects all employees (as learning does) is going to be disruptive, difficult, and met with resistance.  In order to effect the changes discussed above, we will need partners who are committed to our success.  Partners who trust that we have their best interest in mind and who will in return have our backs when things get rough.

Change the conversation.  Let them know that you know what their goals are and that you understand their needs.  We need to find an outcome or set of outcomes and related measures for learning that they can feel co-ownership because they tie to their business goals.  We have to be consultants to their business.

But simply setting agreed upon outcomes and measures isn’t enough.  We also must demonstrate a knowledge of the influence chain within our organizations.  Who do they listen to?  Does their boss delegate authority or do we need to help them advocate to their boss?  Do they defer to another manager or operations group (if IT says it’s ok, then….).  Are there roadblocks that they may not be aware of?  Knowing the political terrain around the solution will help both of you.  Because L&D isn’t siloed, you may have an oversight of the organization that they don’t have.

Communicate Early and Often

L&D should have a comprehensive, well articulated Communication Plan.  How do we plan to promote individual programs?  How do we plan to share our brand? What reports or dashboards can we provide to our stakeholders? sponsors? learners?

We need to be transparent with the organization about would we are doing, why, what our goals are and the results.  Reports and dashboards for our stakeholders and sponsors that show how we are contributing to their success.  Work out loud.

What “Phase Two” Should Say

In the end, we want to be able to say what Phase Two involves.  It won’t be easy, but we need to break the cycle of accepting less than we are capable of.  Our new model then would look like this:


What do you think?   Do we need to stop being underpants gnomes?  Can we make these changes?  What do you see as obstacles to making these changes?  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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