Are you in the Training Ghetto?

We talk about change a great deal in our profession of Learning and Development (L&D) – and rightly. There is plenty of change going on at the moment, technological, economic and societal, and we have to adapt to it.

I’m not sure, though, that we think about change in L&D in the right way.

We tend to consider it one-dimensionally, as a straight line – your rate of change is somewhere on a continuum ranging from fast to slow. While this is true, I think it masks the real question: how fast is your L&D team changing in relation to the rate of change of your organisation? This is the question that determines how much impact your work has on your organisation. It may even determine your chances of future professional survival. Here’s what a two-dimensional view of change looks like:


There are two axes. The vertical one shows the rate of change of your L&D department, the horizontal one reflects how fast your organisation is changing. I’ve been talking a fair amount this year about change in L&D and whatever country I’ve been in, in whatever sector, this idea of the importance of relative change has struck a chord with the audience. People seem to recognise instantly where they belong.

The top right quadrant is Learning Leadership. If both the department and the organisation are changing fast, this is a great opportunity. We can invest in new procedures and systems, build our skills and experiment with different ways of working with the business, and the business – because it is also changing fast and open to new ideas – will respond. It’s in this quadrant that we find really progressive L&D teams that are making an impact.

While they are undoubtedly leaders, this quadrant is also risky, because that’s the nature of change. The implementation of new technology may not go as planned, a new approach may not find favour with mid-level managers, an unexpected change in the business may mean we have to re-work our learning content immediately. In this quadrant the L&D team has to be open to change and risk, but also willing to tackle any resulting issues fast, and stay in constant touch with the business.

Of course no part of this diagram is free of risk. Diametrically opposed to Learning Leadership is Comfortable Extinction. Here things are pretty much as they’ve always been. The training department produces the same courses, with minor modifications, year after year, and the business accepts them. The department regularly conducts Training Needs Analyses which are no more than asking learners or managers which course they’d like to attend. Level 1 evaluations are conducted after every course, but there is no further analysis of impact, and there is no demand for it from the business. Training is conducted according to what David Wilson calls the ‘conspiracy of convenience’. Everything is quite comfortable until an external change requires the business to change rapidly, it fails to, and the entire organisation, blindsided, goes bust.

The top right corner is home to Instagram, the 12-person company bought for $1bn by Facebook in June 2012. The bottom left is where you’d find Kodak, the inventor of affordable, personal photography, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2012 because it hadn’t changed fast enough.

Sometimes, though, the L&D department is ahead of the organisation it finds itself in. This is where you find those people who rail against their employers’ backwardness, what I call the Unacknowledged Prophets. These departments are often capable of great things, but while their organisations are usually frustrating, they almost always contain a niche where L&D can flourish. Most organisations have at least one manager or executive who gets it, who has a performance need that can be met by learning. Rather than berating the organisation as a whole, find and work with that manager and build a case study of success and a band of positive learners who will spread the word about your work.

If that niche isn’t there, or is too hard to find, there is an alternative: quit and find and employer that does appreciate you.

Most L&D departments that I’ve talked to, however, rightly fear being in the bottom right quadrant, the Training Ghetto. Here, we are unable to service the needs of a rapidly changing organisation. The result: it’s the business, not L&D, that adopts today’s innovative approaches to learning and information sharing. I’ve seen plenty of examples of the sales, operations or marketing departments doing things with wikis, online communities and mobile devices that are fundamentally about learning, but without the L&D department being involved. Why? Sometimes L&D didn’t make their case well enough, but usually it’s just because they were overlooked. In this quadrant L&D is seen as being about training delivery, in the classroom or online, and nothing else. The Training Ghetto is where good information goes to die. It’s the training department that’s in the basement or the Portakabin across the car park. It’s the cost centre that gets cut when times are hard, and which is reluctantly retained for compliance and induction training. It isn’t seen as contributing to the business and the good people there are usually promoted out. Nobody wants to stay in the ghetto.

The question is this: how do we get all L&D departments above that horizontal line and into the top right corner? There are answers, and they are pretty much what I spend my days thinking about. Expect more from me on this subject over the rest of this year, because I don’t believe there’s a more important subject on the L&D agenda.

For now, though, I’d invite you to consider this question: where does your L&D team belong?

27 responses to “Are you in the Training Ghetto?

  1. I’ve seem number of clients that have subsumed traditional ‘L&D’ into HR shared services organisation that is much more closely aligned to key operating functions across value chain. I expect this trend to continue.

  2. Very interesting way to look at an organization and its training habits! Thanks for a great article!

  3. Don, you’re right that L&D, like every part of the business, has to move fast and be prepared to take risks. In the words of The Animals’ classic: we gotta get out of this place. And fast. For more info on this top tune:

  4. This is a great way of comparing L&D with the rest of the organisation. I agree that the top right corner is the place to be. But even if you are in the top left it can be very rewarding to drive organisational development in a way to move everybody to the right, e.g. through the introduction and use of innovative learning technology and development programmes.

  5. “The department conducts Training Needs Analyses…asking learners or managers which course they’d like to attend.”

    This is where the Little Corporate Schoolhouse meets the counter at McDonald’s.

    My main quibble with the diagram is that the border between Comfortable Extinction and Training Ghetto is like the one between, say, Wales and England: a distinction without much of a difference.

    Perhaps there’s a third dimension related to the organization: how effectively is it achieving (or at least moving) toward its goals, fast change or slow? An organization that’s accomplishing things has not only a compass (its goals) but a kind of GPS to monitor how it’s doing toward those goals, along with the ability to say “this path isn’t working, so we’ve got to shift.”

    I have an admittedly oversimplified view that people in L&D like to help, and they like to explain — so they’re uneasy with approaches that don’t involve directly helping and directly explaining. This is why L&D people love creating elearning but not job aids; it’s why there are so many people trying to control use of smartphones in training, rather than figuring out how people get things done on the job.

    • Dave I’m not sure my Welsh friends would agree with your geographical distinction! But I think your point about L&D people generally liking to help is spot on. In many ways that’s great, but unfortunately the way we really need to help now is to provide the tools and get out of the way.

  6. Great post Don! I think it’s very important that L&D pro’s are aware of the dynamics and pace of the organization (and environment) they are working for. So I think this model is very helpful to become aware of how good L&D is aligned with the organization. Í do not agree directly with ‘comfortable extinction’ the risk of extinction can be in every corner. The left bottom and right top corners might have in common that the pace of change seems in sinc. But that does not mean that orgnazation and L&D work together in a healthy relationship. So as second step we need to know what kind of relationship works best and how to build one. That’s a theme I’m working on for a next blog – and hopefully you to Don. Can wait for more stuff to come.

    • Ger – totally agree that risk lurks everywhere here. The only difference about the bottom left corner is that nobody notices here until it’s too late. Every where else it’s accompanied by change, and challenge, and that’s a good sign. Also agree that success must be based on developing the right relationships with the rest of the organisation – probably L&D’s weakest point.

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