Donald H Taylor argues that L&D would benefit from some better PR.
Everyone cares about skills. CEOs regularly proclaim that employees are their greatest asset Indeed, it seems this phrase is now more than the platitude it was a few years ago. For the past three years, in-depth CEO surveys carried out by leading international consultancies demonstrate that CEOs globally truly believe that the future success of their companies rests on their ability to attract, retain and develop the people they need. According to Forbes, 70% of executives say talent development is either important or extremely important (26%) to future growth. In PwC’s annual survey of 1,330 CEOs, ‘availability of key skills’ ranked second only to ‘increasing tax burden’ as the top threat to growth.
And these numbers have been with us for a while: skills, talent or human capital have numbered among CEOs’ first or second concerns since at least 2010. In an oftquoted review of CEO sentiment, the Lloyd’s risk index of 2011, ‘talent and skills shortages’ came second only to ‘loss of customers’ in the list of things keeping the heads of large international bodies awake at night.
So far, so good for L&D…right? Surely if executives think skills are so important, we should be the ones given the task of fixing the issue. Sadly not.
NOT AT THE PARTY
In 2011 – when the Lloyd’s risk index was published – the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) quizzed 350 leading executives as to which department in their organisation was the most agile, the department able to respond to business needs fastest, the one most able, most rapidly, to affect the organisation positively. Training wasn’t even on the list.
Of the dozen business units mentioned, training – or L&D – would most likely be found in the HR department, and in the EIU survey HR did not fare well at all. The most agile departments were – perhaps predictably – Sales and Marketing. Which were the least agile? In order: IT, HR then Legal and Compliance.
That’s how CEOs see the apparatus of people development in their own organisations – as less responsive, less directly related to business needs than Legal and Compliance. Given the importance they place on people and skills, this is a damning verdict on L&D from those who lead our organisations. It gives ample support to the idea that too many of our L&D departments are in what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘Training Ghetto’, where training and learning are seen as ancillary activities happening on the fringes of the organisation, but not really a part of it, and not involved with the businesses’ need right now for rapid change.
It might also lead to some soul searching: is L&D really that inept? Are we really just a mechanism for carrying out the onboarding and compliance training, which (although essential) is usually seen as a practical obligation rather than an essential part of the business?
No. L&D is far more than that. But it definitely does suffer from an image problem, a problem that is partly of our own making and partly a result of things we can’t control. In fact, there are three reasons why L&D isn’t on executives’ radar.
THE DUSTY CLASSROOM
The biggest reason why L&D doesn’t figure much on anyone’s radar is down to a pre-conception about training, a pre-conception that’s something like 15 years in the making.
Before they came to work, most employees, managers and executives spent at least 15 years in education, and that meant a particular approach to learning. It was mostly classroom and lecture based; it was teacher-driven and it was just-in-case learning driven by a curriculum.
It was something that parents and the law required. It might have been practically useful, it might not; it was something often simply to be endured. In other words, it was necessary, but dull.
These 15 years of experience cast a long shadow over the perception of L&D. Like it or not, L&D is an extension of the dusty classroom – necessary but dull and (as the Economist Intelligence Unit survey suggests) certainly not something that is agile and related to solving business problems.
THE BUSINESS CONNECTION
We cannot do much about the life experience of our colleagues at work. But we seldom seem to do much about their current experience either. Too often the training department falls into David Wilson’s ‘conspiracy of convenience’, where a manager asks for training and the department delivers it without either party really addressing the key question: what is the business value, if any, in this approach? What is the performance issue at stake and will it be best served by training or by some other intervention?
This approach – with L&D essentially acting as a fulfilment house for the training demands of managers (whether in the classroom or online) – simply reinforces the concept that the L&D department is like school: necessary but dull and certainly not directly related to the business.
The alternative is simple to describe, but takes time to implement. We need a different language in our communications with the business – and that begins by talking not about training, or even learning, but about performance. Begin at that point; understand the fundamentals of the business issues and many of the tacit assumptions about the L&D department will change.
A COMMON LANGUAGE?
However, even if we do adopt a performance consulting approach to learning, we still have the third major issue. Although we’re focusing on performance (the ends) rather than learning (the means) we are still not quite speaking the language of businessWhen CEOs talk about ‘skills’ and ‘talent’ in L&D we tend to hear ‘training’ and ‘learning’. But CEOs and others mean something much wider. It includes training, but only as a means to an end. And that end is ‘organisational capability’ – having the human capital to deliver on the organisations’ promises and plan now and into the future.
For the executives of an organisation, that means securing a pipeline of the right people with the right skills for now and the future – from recruitment to building highperforming teams to ensuring succession planning, in all of which L&D plays a part, but only a part.
I’d contend that for L&D to break out of the Training Ghetto and to be perceived accurately by the rest of the organisation, we need to be pushier, and to get involved in discussions beyond our traditional domain. If the organisation is busy planning for a future strategy, then let’s get involved in the discussion planning a pipeline of skilled staff to support strategy. If a new product launch is planned, then we need to be in the mix, ensuring that the skills and knowledge are there to support it.
Of course that is easier said than done. For L&D to be involved in planning meetings, we need to be able to both contribute meaningfully to the conversation and to deliver afterwards. And we need to be viewed in a light that takes us seriously.
How do we shift others’ perception so that we are taken seriously enough to be invited to these meetings? This is not difficult, it just requires two things: a business success story and the right people knowing about it. I’ve seen this happen several times: a success in one area goes on to buy the L&D department access to more senior conversations. Whether or not L&D stays there, of course, depends on whether it can talk on level terms when at these meetings, and whether it can then deliver afterwards.
MAKING THE CHANGE
There remains one key question: do we have the skills and the will to change the perception of L&D?
We are poor in one particular area: communications. According to a six monthly report of the on-going LPI survey of skills of the L&D population, of 968 respondents, only 202 rated themselves as ‘three’ or ‘four’ on a four-point scale for the skill of ‘Communication, Marketing and Relationship Management’. The vast majority of professionals (over 600 of them) did not choose to score themselves against this skill at all.
This is no longer an ancillary skill for L&D. It’s now an essential part of where we are. If there is one thing, one sole thing we need to do better as a profession, it’s communications: talking to business in the language it understands, and sharing our successes when we have them.
As for the will to change, here I am far more positive. Over the past 12 months I have been travelling and speaking a great deal and I am constantly meeting sharp, intelligent L&D professionals keen to shift us out of the Training Ghetto, to where we need to belong – understood to be part of the solution for the CEO’s talent and skills issues.
Give us enough success stories to shout about, and I’m confident that change will come, and soon.
Donald H Taylor, Chairman, Learningand Skills Group