David James : It’s Not About Learning and development

David James : It’s not about learning and development at all – it is about business performance and influencing people

Seasoned Talent Management, Learning and OD leader discusses why it makes better sense to take a ‘resources-first’ approach to supporting people

I got in touch with David James after reading one of his recent LinkedIn Pulse’s posts, Learning and Development on Demand,  which discussed Degreed’s How the Workforce Really Learns in 2016 Report. This US-centric Report presents the results from a survey of 512 people to understand how today’s workforce builds their skills and fuels their careers. It’s worth highlighting at least three myths dispelled by the Report.

Myth 1 Workers don’t have time for learning.
Truth 1 They will make time to learn if it fuels career growth.

Myth 2 Traditional training methods are obsolete.
Truth 2 They’re not obsolete, they’re just incomplete.

Myth 3 The L&D function knows learning best.
Truth 3 Responsibility for learning is shared between L&D, managers and employees.


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Conclusion? The report concludes that L&D teams have two roles now : direct and indirect. They need to embrace these new roles by rethinking and adapting what they are currently doing. You can read more about it on Degreed’s post, 3 Big Myths about Workplace Learning.

In this article, I talk to David James, Chief Learning Strategist at Looop, who is a seasoned Talent Management, Learning and Organisational Development (OD) leader.  David sees an opportunity for L&D to support this self-directed learning where it may have far more impact because as he puts it, “this is where you continuously influence performance in the direction that the organisation benefits and how you incrementally develop capability towards achieving the strategic goals, supplemented by the less frequent courses and programmes. ”

What I like about this argument is the push to support learning in the workflow so that we help employees when they face their everyday challenges, rather than just through courses or programmes that are designed and delivered at set times and may not always be fully in response to specific problems faced at the time. This is not to say there is no place for formal learning but that more focus should be spent on how people are actually learning and seeing what we can do to complement that for maximum effectiveness.

Today, L&D has the opportunity to support performance in the workflow and incrementally build capability when and where workers face their challenges, at their moment of need.

In your experience, based on the demands of our environment today, what do you believe is the best way for L&D to support learning initiatives?

David James

David James

David : I think it’s time to stop supporting ‘learning initiatives’ and focus on supporting business ‘performance’ and ‘capability’ initiatives instead. When we rely on courses (in the classroom or online), the gaps between the real-world business challenges that workers face, a learning ‘event’, and then the application of that ‘learning’ could be so vast that the mechanism for remembering long enough to influence performance was always a ‘learning initiative’.

You had to ‘learn’ to face any chance of remembering long enough. Today, L&D has the opportunity to support performance in the workflow and incrementally build capability when and where workers face their challenges, at their moment of need.

We can close these gaps completely and remove the need to ‘learn’. To achieve this, we should create and curate digital ‘resources’ (rather than ‘courses’) that help workers to perform and also to influence that performance in the direction the organisation requires.

What are the ways organisations can support learning in the workflow or provide suitable resources to employees as and when they are required? Can you share specific examples or case studies?

David : A ‘resources-first’ approach can be applied to address top-down strategic priorities and to plug operational performance gaps.

Sanoma, one of the biggest media companies in Europe, are using the ‘resources-first’ approach to tackle one of the organisation’s biggest strategic priorities, which is to build digital capability across its many divisions. The L&D team used Design Thinking in conjunction with Agile methodology to first identify what digital capability was actually required across many different business areas and functional disciplines, including Communication, Leadership, Sales, Marketing, etc.

By understanding, department-by-department, they were able to :-

  • address actual concerns;
  • provide personalised learning journeys (based on individual assessment results); and
  • create resources that both guided employees on their own path and supported them when they just needed to get from ‘not-knowing’ to ‘doing’ for their jobs.

On the other hand, ASOS (the online fashion retailer) are plugging performance gaps by identifying what support different employee groups need in order to perform better and deliver results. These different groups include new starters and people managers.

ASOS are using a similar approach to Sanoma by understanding what each group needs support with and creating resources that can be pulled on-demand when those groups need them. The benefit of this is that they can catch people when they need guidance and support – when first joining the company and when becoming a new manager – and influencing them from day one, rather when they are booked onto a course.

To the L&D traditionalist, this may seem like a devalued experience, but in reality, it is not about learning and development at all, it is about business performance and influencing people in the direction that the organisation requires and expects.

In your article, Learning and Development on Demand, you mentioned that when the employee facing a challenge is able to get access to relevant information and apply it immediately, the learning need not occur before application – just “read, see, interpret and do”. Can you elaborate?

David : If we take technology out of the equation, this is about people and business performance.

In an ideal situation, when workers are faced with a work challenge or wish to improve and grow in a particular area, there would be an ‘expert’ on-hand to support them along the way. Of course, this is not always feasible but there are ways that we can give on-demand access to the knowledge and know-how that resides within an organisation – and even outside the organisation with curated resources.

With the right technology, resources can be created as fast as somebody can type. Video assets can be created on smartphones and screen-recording software is a quick and simple way of creating technology system ‘how-to’ guides in just a few minutes.

In business, the CEO, MD and all its stakeholders do not expect their people to ‘learn’, they expect them to deliver results and increase the capability of the workforce.

By answering the questions that different employee groups are asking and unpacking what successful people are already doing, then everybody else can access this at a time – and in a way – that makes sense to them. Not when they want to ‘learn’ but when they need to knowand know how to do – something for their job.

A comparison could be made to cooking. I like to find new recipes online and experiment to create meals I’ve never eaten before. This does not make me a chef and my intention is not to learn to become one. I just want to grab the information and know-how I need in order to eat that meal.

In business, the CEO, MD and all its stakeholders do not expect their people to ‘learn’, they expect them to deliver results and increase the capability of the workforce. It is more effective and efficient to provide knowledge and know-how on demand, rather than courses that rely on memorising concepts, models, frameworks and experiences in the hope that they will be remembered and retrieved at the right moment, often weeks or months after a course.

You mentioned that some organisations are beginning to embrace a “resource-first” approach with employees, recognising that it’s more effective to support people when they require help than push help across in a format and timeline that suits the employer. What, do you believe, are some critical issues, to take note of if embarking on this approach?

David : That’s a very good question because building resources with the aim of influencing behaviour is foolhardy if it is not considered first from the target employee’s perspective. If it is decided that ‘we want our employees to do (x)’, if the employee cannot see the immediate benefit for themselves then it is likely to be a waste of time.

With Design Thinking, it is required you ‘empathise’ with the target employee and understand their experience, actions and motivations. Resources should help them to do what they want to do, better. So, if they do not recognise the benefit and do not want to behave in a way expressed within a resource, then it is not yet a capability issue – and this is where traditional approaches to L&D fall down too.

With resources, the opportunity to influence performance from day one in a direction that the business requires and expects is a value that courses could not do efficiently or effectively before.

Too often, one-size-fits-all programmes address skills without recognising whether people want to engage – and without the ‘will’, it is a waste of time. But because resources can be built so quickly and easily, then the opportunity to create them with and for different employee groups means that they can deliver value in minutes and continue to do so as they are improved over time.

Another issue is ensuring that support is timely. The ASOS example above focused on supporting employees when they are in periods of transition when they are most in need and open to the support. With resources, the opportunity to influence performance from day one in a direction that the business requires and expects is a value that courses could not do efficiently or effectively before.

Providing ‘resources’ rather than ‘courses’ – what are some of the advantages to this and what sort of justification can be put in support of it?

David : A ‘resources-first’ approach requires L&D to be close to and talking with employees, leaders, department heads, anybody and everybody in their organisation rather than being squirrelled away either designing programmes or delivering courses. Then, when actual business performance gaps are recognised, efforts can be aligned to what people need (and want) in order to provide resources that address them.

Resources are all about usefulness and users can help improve them over time by contributing and collaborating on the content. So, unlike courses, they can be returned to, again and again, and continue to deliver value to the same employees.

But what I’m not saying is that there is no value in bringing people together for development opportunities. What I am saying is that ‘resources-first’ means supporting people when and where they most need the support in order to do their jobs. Then, get people together to do what people are best at: discussing, questioning, learning from each other’s experiences, debating and practising – and not trying to ‘learn’ an overwhelming amount of ‘stuff’.

The opportunity L&D have by not relying on ‘learning’ is to focus on business ‘performance’ outcomes and increasing an organisation’s capability by sharing and spreading insight, know-how and expertise because resources house what your experts know.

Perhaps we will need to rename Learning & Development? I think Organisational Performance & Capability has a nice ring to it.

With a ‘resources-first’ approach, there is no reason why L&D cannot be the most effective and best-connected department in the entire organisation.

Do you agree – what do you think? Love to hear what you think in the comments section below.

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David James
is a seasoned Talent Management, Learning & OD leader with more than 15 years of experience in the field. Until recently, David was Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region and has since joined Looop.co as Learning Strategist. Renowned for extraordinary levels of learner engagement,
Looop is a powerful online learning platform for business that capitalises on how people really want to learn today. He is also a contributor at Vertical Distinct – read his articles.

#L&D #learning #development
Headline image courtesy Leeroy of stocksnap.io

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