If you’re in L&D, just what do you do?

What do you do?

It’s a simple enough question, but for many L&D people, this is a question we dread. The reason? As soon as the person says it, you know how they will react to your answer:

“Oh, so you’re in training.”

To which the only possible response is a rather inadequate “Yes, sort of.” But by then it’s too late. They have already formed a picture, based on their 15 plus years of schooling, of what you do. You teach people. By standing in front of a classroom. Because that’s what training and skills are all about, isn’t it?

There is nothing wrong with training; it just isn’t what most of us do. We design e-learning courses or learning strategies or facilitate social learning. Even when we are doing something close to training – such as delivering workshops – there will be fundamental differences between our roles in reality and in the minds of our interlocutor.

Yet we ourselves are least partly to blame for this situation.


Because we give the wrong answer.

When asked “what do you do?” we reply in concrete terms. We take the question ‘What do you do?’ literally. We describe what we do do in our daily lives. And from there it is a short step to “Oh, so you’re in training.”

There is a different, better answer. It is a definition of our roles that focuses not on what we do, but on what we make possible. Let me restate that: Learning and Development should be defined not by what it does but by what it makes possible. And what do we make possible? We help organisations deliver on their promises.

In a world where tangible assets, the supply of capital and even specialist information no longer guarantee differentiation, people’s skills and knowledge are how our organisations deliver. And we make it possible for them to have those skills and that knowledge.

Each of us is like the mason in the Rule of St Benedict. Busily carving a block of stone, he is approached by a wise man. “What are you doing?” asks the wise man. Without looking up, the man replies. He does not say “I’m carving a block of stone.” He does not say “I’m earning money for my family.” He replies: “I am building a cathedral.”

And that must be how we express the level of our ambition.

So, the next time someone asks you what you do, you know what answer to give. “I make it possible for my organisation to deliver on its promises.” Whatever response you get, I can guarantee it will not be: “Oh, so you’re in training.”

Originally published in December, 2011, this is my introduction to Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, edition 36 – now available to read online.

15 responses to “If you’re in L&D, just what do you do?

  1. Interesting blog for me, because I just read “Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” and re-worked the way I answer this question.

    People don’t want to hear the features of your work, but want to know WIIFM; What’s In it For Me?

    What do I do? I help people and organisations get better at stuff.

  2. If you’ve never heard of the FAB model, its a good one for any “convincing” or “commercial communication”

    Think about what you are selling in terms of Features (eg; this pen has a clip on it)
    Then translate F into Advantages = why is it better to have F than NOT have F? (eg: you can clip it on a pocket)
    Then be sure your A is a Benefit for the other person (i.e – if he has no pocket, its not a Benefit!)

    The first rule to move from “A” to “B” is of course to understand the situation, needs and values of the other person…

    Thanks for a nice blog Donald! Inspired tonight…

  3. It’s an interesting question and I’ve written along the same lines myself. I find that answering it in a blog and saying it in person end up being two quite different things though. And, to my mind, this is because of the maturity of the term ‘L&D’. I will always answer, I’m the L&D Manager for my company – where my actual title is L&D Business Partner. Anyone outside the HR/L&D fold won’t understand what that means. To be honest, even I don’t know what it means, and it’s my title. So I default to what others will know about the role.

    “I’m the L&D Manager, so I take care of all training and development needs for the company.” What I hope to do is head off the – oh you’re in training response, and instead invite the other person to ask more about what I do if they’re interested. If they are, then we carry on. If they’re not, then we both move on to a different discussion.

  4. Good post Don. The thrust of it holds true for many disciplines I think, and especially ones that are seeing their boundaries blurred by technological developments. I would add also that expertise is important. ‘I help my organisation deliver on its goals’, yes, but also I am an expert in learning and how adults learn in the workplace.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. I agree, Martin, that we should also express some domain expertise and your phrase – “I am an expert in learning and how adults learn in the workplace” – is well expressed. I would use that as a follow-up. My aim here with this initial phrase, focused on organisational performance, is to ask people to reconsider how they express their role to others, so that we can begin to re-position L&D in the minds of ourselves as well as others.

  6. Great post Don. Thank you. It definitely is a problem that we continue to reinforce – convoluted answers or ones that just don’t connect with current understandings can leave people not only perplexed but also looking at you like you’re a pompus ass. When asked “what do you do” I do begin with my official title (nebulous of course- Mngr Learning Solutions just to be honest) but then launch into the Performance function of the role – its not about the input but the output. And I prefer to draw upon what Jane Hart titled as “Performance Specialist” as it speaks to what Dan Steer noted: “I help people and organisations get better at stuff” In so doing I am able to explain learning is not all about the training function. Sometimes I win, sometimes I get the blank stare. Regardless I press on – I think I am doing a service for the skill set we possess

  7. Pingback: Find 15: 16-20 January | Good To Great

  8. Pingback: Ne’er the twain: L&D and HR at #LT12UK? « Don't Compromise!

  9. Why do we tend to apologise for what we do? Once upon a time, in an earlier life, I used to say, when asked what I do, “oh! I’m just a secretary”. I remember some good advice at the time was never apologise for being a secretary. Without my help, the organisation wouldn’t run as efficiently as it did, decisions wouldn’t be made effectively and chaos would reign. I didn’t learn my lessons though. I continued to apologise for my ‘lowly’ status.

    This leaked into my next career as a trainer. It took a while and a lot of help from a lot of people on my development journey, to build my confidence in believing that each one of makes a difference.

    I also believe that one of the reasons people not involved in L&D think all we do is stand at the front of the class and talk (apart from their own poor experiences) is that we make it all look too easy! All our hard work, analysis, preparation and professionalism goes unnoticed and our performance (because of the hard work) looks effortless.

    More often than not when running programmes helping others to do what I do (design and deliver classroom, online and live online learning) the participants are amazed at how much there is to consider. It’s just a shame the organisations that employ us know so very little about what we actually do and how long it actually takes to do such a good job. Perhaps, if they did, we wouldn’t get such unrealistic deadlines!

    Thanks for a great post and for reminding us of our value.

  10. Pingback: Ne’er the twain: L&D and HR at #LT12UK? | Don't Compromise

  11. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.
    I am quite sure I’ll learn lots of new stuff right here!

    Best of luck for the next!

  12. Thanks for a perfect answer.
    Actually i just recently join L&D of a bank and i was wondering a perfect answer to reply those who don’t know our value.
    actually only the HR related peoples known the real about L&D value and their work

  13. 30 years later, we are hearing the same frustrations within the training and development community. Those of us who started many years articulated the same sentiments, and although I am still in the L&D industry, we are encountering the same issues. It doesn’t detract from the value add we provide to our respective organizations and clients, especially the L&D team is aligned with the line of business. Thankfully, we can recognize our own value, and we do this because we love it.

  14. Donald, so whats the difference between training and L&D? Don’t guys in L&D train/facilitate training (…its specific) participants?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s