Training needs to change or risk irrelevance

This article was original written in 2010 for the Charity Learning Consortium, then reprinted on Training Zone.

For a long time – possibly for too long – training was something that took place in the background of daily operations. It was something organisations felt obliged to do. That is, they felt obliged until things got bad and then, like other costs such as marketing and buildings maintenance, training spending was slashed until times got better.

But in the recently finished recession, things changed.

Yes, some training teams have been badly hit, but overall, we missed the slash-and burn response of previous recessions. The reason is that  people now know that skills matter. In many cases, organisations have taken across-the-board pay cuts or gone on short working weeks until times get better. The explicit reason: when the recession ends, the company must have the skills to expand production. What a contrast to the downturns of the seventies and eighties.

In a couple of decades, developed economies have moved from a position where labour was a commodity to one where ability is a vital part of organisational success in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. This should be a great moment for the training profession, but this recognition of the importance of what we do brings with it both opportunity and threat.

The opportunity is clear: at last training should be able to take the initiative and prove its value to the organisation. It should be able to embed learning in the fabric of daily life.

The threat is simple: if we don’t do this, others will. Others less able, with less understanding of learning, people who believe that anyone can facilitate learning, because after all, we all went to school, didn’t we? That’s like saying that anyone can be Shakespeare because we can all write.

It may be only barely perceptible, but we’re in the middle of a learning revolution right now.

Yes, training is changing fundamentally. It’s now about supporting learners in the business, and for the business, not about delivering training. This may sound like something we’ve talked about for years, but now three things are coming together to make it a reality.

First, we have the social learning revolution, which threatens to by-pass much of what the training, or learning and development (L&D), department has been about until now. If nothing else demands a re-think of the way L&D approaches skills development, it is the fact that a great deal of learning takes place without the department’s involvement.

Secondly, there is a greater emphasis from executives on skills, as they realise that learning is essential to the organisation. With that, though, comes an increased emphasis on the business accountability, measurability and impact of learning. Along with skills, the L&D department is now more in the spotlight than ever, and it’s time to show we can play our part.

Finally, these two changes lead to the final, most dramatic change: L&D has to aim higher than ever before. Of course we will always act professionally, but now we have to demonstrate it. We have to show that we have the right frameworks for creating a learning organisation, for demonstrating value, for adding to the business.

Quite simply, we have to drive ourselves on to be the best in our field. That way, we will be the agent of personal and organizational development that we really can be. Without this drive to professionalism, we run the risk of irrelevance.

It’s up to us.

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