On the rise or heading for extinction? Donald H Taylor asks: Which side of the line are you on?
We talk about change a great deal in our profession of Learning and Development (L&D) – and rightly so. 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? It is this question which 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: Rather than a single dimension of change, here 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 recently about change in workplace learning, and have shown this diagram in France, the US, Israel, Turkey, Ireland and the UK to a range of audiences, including L&D professionals, technologists, academics and HR professionals. Whatever the country, and whatever the sector, the reaction is the same – a combination of laughter and grim recognition as people recognise where they sit on the grid.
FOUR SECTORS OF CHANGE
There are four sectors, or quadrants, on the grid. Each has its own characteristics, and each presents a combination of risk and of opportunity.
I call the top right quadrant Risky Leadership. If both the L&D department and the larger organisation are changing fast, this is a great opportunity. The department can invest in new procedures and systems, build out 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. Here you will find innovators who are using new technologies, but you will also find those willing to take on the business and implement new procedures and approaches.
While such L&D professionals 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.
THE CONSPIRACY OF CONVENIENCE
As I say, though, no part of this diagram is free of risk. Diametrically opposed to Risky 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 seems quite risk-free and 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 after Mark 6:4: But Jesus said unto them, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country…” This can be a frustrating place to be. The organisation – usually restricted by procedures and slow decision-making – does not allow the L&D department to change, but requires it to act as a traditional training department. Faced with this there are only two things an ambitious L&D professional can do: quit, or find a niche.
By ‘niche’ I mean some part of the business where a changed approach in L&D might actually be welcome. Most organisations have at least one manager or executive who understands the importance of learning, who has a performance need that can be met with it and who is open to trying new things. Rather than berating the organisation as a whole, there is an opportunity here to find and work with that manager and build a case study of success and a band of positive learners that will support the new approach. If that niche isn’t there, or is too hard to find, there is an alternative: quit and find an employer that will appreciate you.
UNDERRATED AND OVERLOOKED
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 this over the past year: the sales department implements a mobile learning solution using iPads to keep its sales force up-to-date with new products; the marketing department builds a community site to engage in social learning and crowd-sourcing with customers; research and development uses a wiki to spread information faster and speed up innovation. All of these are, arguably, learning activities in which the L&D department has a useful role to play, but the department is not asked to participate. Why? Sometimes L&D didn’t make their case well enough, but usually it’s just because they were just 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 in the Portakabin on the other side of the car park. It’s the cost centre that gets cut when times are hard, and which is reluctantly retained only 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. Fortunately we have plenty of good people in the industry doing things right now that keep them up in the top right corner. They may be there, but the real question is this: where does your L&D team belong? And here’s the kicker: if you don’t know the answer, you’re almost certainly heading for comfortable extinction.
Donald H Taylor, Chairman, Learning and Skills Group
Learning and Development at the crossroads ,ILTM 30 Dec 2010