Embrace the future of L&D but only if you’re ready!!

In recent months, I’ve seen several posts about the future of L&D, especially as we’ve been in lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak. I tend to agree that the world as we know it will change.  

However, I think that there is a risk of assuming that the future of L&D solely lies in innovating and change. Yes, I can appreciate that the world is changing. For years, we’ve heard about the rise of automation and AI. From around 2015 – to date, every global company that I’ve worked for has been preparing for what we are experiencing working from home in self-isolation.

I always found an organisation-wide strategic priority around digitalisation and technology. Trends such as automating processes, using the cloud for storage and using technology to enhance customer experience and increase the speed to market globally to name a few, were consistently present in those companies.

Based on those trends and the constantly evolving business climates, learning practitioners need to work as strategic business partners. We need to embrace innovations and identify trends especially in online learning and digital learning, the innovation of which I cover in my article series of online and digital learning.

However, if we are truly going to embrace the future of L&D, we need to ensure that our organisations are ready, otherwise, we will just become frustrated and we will not progress very far. In the following article, I discuss 5 areas that can impact an L&D team ability to innovate.  

Organisational readiness for the future of L&D differs

There’s a major disparity between in the learning provision provided in many organisations. The management structures and cultures within many organisations mean that the most well-intended L&D teams will find it difficult to innovate them.  

Frederick Laloux discusses this in his book, “Reinventing organisations,” when he distinguishes between the traditional red organisations that are traditionally command and control, which still exists in many companies to present-day especially those tall hierarchical structures. To the Teal organisations that are innovative, adaptive systems with decentralised, self-managed teams and networks. 

So how do differing organisational types impact innovation and the future of L&D? Well, it’s very difficult to embrace change, make mistakes, learn and innovate in organisations that are very controlled and hierarchical. When working in similar organisations, I find that you have to reflect in action on their culture, processes and practices, and provide solutions that nudge rather than push the boundaries.

Many organisations are aware of how restricted they are to innovate and change, as many of controls and balances in place are out of their control, especially in large banking institutions, which is why we have seen the rise of the challenger banks; a business model that’s challenging the conventional style of banking.

I remember working in management consultancy earlier in my career, where we learnt that there’s no point offering a Ferrari to someone (a client) that enjoys and is comfortable driving a modest car. Some will like the thought of the Ferrari and may think that they would prefer to drive the car but when it comes down to using it every day, it will be difficult to make it stick and applicable.  

We need to appreciate and understand where organisations are in their life cycle, there are still many organisational types and cultures that are not receptive to radical innovation and that’s barrier to change. There’s a difference in the appetite for change across industries.  Interestingly, the CIPD completed some research in their Towards Maturity Benchmark report, where they surveyed 6,000 organisations, in terms of the effectiveness of implementing learning innovation.

Producing learning that meets organisations where they are, where you just nudge the boundaries is not necessarily a negative thing. Any learning and change does take time. And over time, you can be a co-pilot to help these organisations to move the dial of change, making several nudges where they begin to steadily embrace different methods of learning. We need to focus on working with our stakeholders to solve organisational issues that provide tangible and applicable solutions to teams rather than innovating for the sake of it, even if that’s where many of the industry awards lie. 

L&D’s seat at the table of influence

In many organisations, L&D and sometimes HR still do not occupy a seat at the table to impact strategic changes. This is a story that I’ve heard throughout my career, I’ve also witnessed and contributed to teams overcoming this restriction.  

Usually, there are only a limited number of places at the table where decisions are made and oftentimes, L&D are not invited, as we are seen as a support function that’s not crucial to the success of the business, in comparison to other functions.  

So, this can hinder L&D innovation, as any suggested changes are not seen as a strategic priority. I’ve experienced budget cuts to innovative design projects or I’ve been asked to postpone any change programmes to redirect the funding to other business priorities in neighbouring functions. This hinders L&D innovation as you’re at the whim of senior management, where you are constantly stopping and starting.

However, I’ve worked in many teams where we have overcome this restriction and yes, a lot of that has come from gaining senior management buy-in but it’s also usually accompanied by change management similar to a pixel in an image as described by Petruska Clarkson.  

A pixel is a single point in a graphic image. So, a graphic contains thousands (or millions) of pixels, arranged in rows and columns. However, every pixel in the entire image includes all the information about the entire image.  

How this relates to change is that you can impact a small part of an organisation (a pixel) and that pixel will be representative of the entire organisation (the image), so you can make a small change to one team and then experience and witness the positive ramification, as they change slowly impacts the rest of the organisation.  

So, we don’t necessarily always need to produce an all singing and dancing L&D design, we can approach change similar to organisational development practitioners and make small incremental changes over time, as long as we have sponsorship, buy-in, support to our overall vision. Then we can implement change initiatives that really change and improve ways of working over time, especially where we can evidence that at milestone; then over time that may move us closer to the decision-making table.  

Focus on gaining senior buy-in & impact the perception of learning

The perception of learning and it’s usefulness needs to impact not just leaders as well as employees. I mentioned this point earlier in the article but I wanted to expand on the topic here.

With senior leaders, we can impact learning perception and the future of L&D by partnering with them to drive solutions and facilitate organisations to meet their strategic goals. It’s helpful if leaders can see the organisation – current and future business industry challenges addressed and reflected in the learning provided. But as always we need to begin with the end in mind and ensure that the organisational challenges that will be addressed in the learning are documented and then we need to use efficient metrics and measurements to evidence the difference that we make. 

Mature organisations can really evidence how they contribute to the organisational market trends such as customer experience and personalisation by emulating the practices used in other industries such as marketing, or even working in partnership with or hire members of those teams. For instance, considering the customer experience where we analyse their preferences, and how people are absorbing in content. Then use UX (User experience design) and UI (User Interface design) practices to mirror those behaviours, as much as we can. Many organisations such as Sky are attempting to do this with the L&D that they provide.  However, many learning teams are not there yet. Some many teams need to weigh up how much value we’ll gain from taking that leap into innovative design and practice, compared to if we just continue to work with our stakeholders to solve current organisational issues.

Simple is sometimes better

This may seem like a weird analogy but we are all like children at times. Many children would rather play with kitchen equipment or a mobile phone as they can see its practical, relevant and useful rather than the shiny new toy. I have tons of digital learning experience that I could exploit and worked in organisations on the cusp of innovative change but even in those organisations and in my experience, sometimes even the simplest learning initiative can be impactful if it’s relevant, useful, valid and adds value to our work. 

Sometimes learning practitioners can be our own worst enemies at times. There are times when we should focus less on the sexy innovative stuff and ensure that we are implementing, measuring and learning from getting the basics right.

There’s a concern that some of the companies and industries that discuss the future of L&D may have failed to even exploit and capitalise on what the innovations that we currently have in place. Like in business, we need to implement, continuously improve and innovate. Otherwise, we as learning practitioners don’t get taken seriously. 

Learning doesn’t have to have all bells and whistles, need to be meaningful, relevant, add value and can be applied. We all learners to become absorbed and engaged in the learning, where they learn, reflect and most importantly apply what they’ve learnt, review and then adapt if they wish. 

Time and resource restrictions

There are still organisations that don’t have a permanent L&D team in place. I am aware of a few global brands who do not have a dedicated L&D team in place Their HR team’s hire temporary consultants at various points throughout the year. Some teams may have around three dedicated L&D employees managing the needs of 10s of thousands of employees, which usually results in the local teams leading on their own L&D solutions, with the central team just being asked for feedback or to keep score.  

Whereas other many global organisations with larger L&D team and centre of excellence are better resources, ready to innovate and engage. I’ve experienced working in a team of more than 100 L&D practitioners but even in those teams, it was a stretch to deliver personalised learning to tens of thousands of employees, even when they use 3rd party suppliers. You have to be creative and use all the resources (people and material) that you have at your disposal but it can be a helpful by-product, as working in partnership usually strengthens stakeholder buy-in.  

I fear that sometimes these debates on embracing the future of L&D can stem from individuals wanting career advancement and industry authority rather than about what’s happening in their organisation. At times implementing simple useful ideas is not particularly fun but our satisfaction should come from the impact that it has on the learners that we deliver our services.  

So in conclusion, I agree that if our organisations are ready and we have the buy-in from senior stakeholders, then we can truly innovate. But we need to consider where are organisations are in their business lifecycle, reflect on their culture, practices and behaviours to inform whether we are working in an organisation that can embrace the future of L&D at this point.  

We need to consider whether we can innovate and change based on where we sit in the organisation. If can’t embrace the future of L&D with ease, as the culture is not ready and the organisational type is not mature enough. Then we need to ensure that we gain support at senior level by partnering with them and sharing the benefits of having a strong learning culture to name a few. Then we can take incremental steps to move the organisation towards innovation and change over time.

We can impact change by working towards changing the perception of learning by ensuring learning is accessible and mirrors how people engage in content every day, where we can.  We can gain the respect of our peers and stakeholders by getting and evidencing that we are getting the basics right. If one of the issues that we have is that we are restricted by time and resources, then we can work creatively and in partnership with our stakeholders to bring about change and innovation, and even that process can be extremely fun and rewarding.  

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