Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time for a health check-up for L&D?

Rachel Burnham writes: I had the pleasure this Thursday of doing my first Ignite presentation at CIPD’s Annual Conference & Exhibition.  An Ignite presentation is that tricky format, in which you deliver a five minute presentation, with 15 slides each on a timer, so that each slide is only visible for 20 seconds.  It is rather nerve-wracking!! We were asked to present on the theme of the conference ‘Embracing the New World of Work’ in relation to L&D.   I was one of 5 L&Ders presenting in this session and what a lovely mix of presentations, topics and styles we ended up with. Here is a blog version of what I said:

In my work, I help L&D professionals to be even more effective in what they do.  This conference has presented us with lots of challenges for our work as L&D professionals, if we want to enable our organisations to embrace this new world of work.   Through the conference we have been hearing about many changes that are affecting the world of work, from those that are well established such as digitalization and automation, to those that are only just beginning to make an impact, such as artificial intelligence, through the use of algorithms and chatbots.  We experience the use of alogorithms when buying online, when well known retailers make suggestions about what other purchases we might find of interest.  And increasingly we are coming into contact with chatbots who tackle our customer service queries, when interacting with banks and other online service providers.   But this is barely scratching the surface of all the very many different ways that AI can be used in the workplace.  

For example, in L&D itself organisations are beginning to use algorithms to personalize the suggestions for future learning for individual staff.  And chatbots can be used to support learning by answering learners questions and providing individual support to learners.  
But the changes and challenges organisations face are of course not limited to those coming from technology.  Social changes are also making an impact –  for example, Brexit is bringing us lots to get our head around in terms of workforce planning, skills development and recruitment, trading arrangements, implications for social inclusion and so. 

Sometimes, at conferences of this sort, I do confess to getting a bit fed up at continually being exhorted to ‘disrupt HR’ or at the never-ending references to working in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.  It almost makes me want to scream!  I think this language, this ‘conference-jargon’ can be rather off-putting for many people and actually distance us, from the real challenges that these changes are bringing to the workplace.   I think my favourite of all these off-quoted sound-bites, is that the ‘future is un-evenly distributed’.    This feels much more true to me.

I work with lots of people in L&D, from lots of different sectors and sizes of organisations.   Some of whose organisations are in the midst of these kinds of changes and are working with digitalization or automation or using chatbots and social media for customer interactions and many other changes, but I also work with lots of organisations that have continued to operate with comparatively little change.  And of course the question is how long they can continue to do that?  

Some organisations choose strategies that require investment in skills and adoption of new technologies and new ways of working that lead to high productivity to produce high value in the products and services they offer.  And some chose or drift into strategies that produce low productivity and instead require cost cutting and wringing work out of stressed, long hours working, low paid, vulnerable staff or workers or ‘self-employed’ folk.

I work with L&D people and here too these differences can be found, with some working in teams that are embracing change and working out how to make change work for their organisations and others, whose approach to L&D feels very out-dated –  work primarily face to face, often knowledge-dumping, perhaps just beginning to introduce e-learning.  

But whatever our starting point is in L&D, we need to be reviewing our practice and looking at how we can better work with our organisations to enable them to ‘Embrace this New World of Work’.   So, I have come up with an 8-point checklist to help us review how ‘Fit for Purpose’ our L&D practice is.

1.  We need to understand our organisation and its business

If we want to be effective in L&D we need to really understand our organisation, how it works, how it adds value, the sector it works in and what the competition or other organisations in its field are doing.   The reason we need to understand this, is because there isn’t one right way of doing L&D - what we do in L&D needs to fit with our organisation.  This isn’t a new insight by any stretch of the imagination, but it is key to being effective in L&D and so is worth restating.  

2.  We need to be focusing not just on learning, but learning and performance

I think we need to have big eyes in L&D and by that I mean, we need to be more ambitious.  We need to focus on more than just learning, to have learning and performance as our focus.  This means taking performance consultancy seriously and looking at all the things that get in the way of people being able to do their jobs effectively.   I have written about this before most recently in my blog ‘Learning and Performance Together’.

3.  We need to understand how people learn

This is at the heart of what we have to offer our organisations, a deep understanding of how people learn and of how to help people learn more effectively and change behaviours & habits.  But too often we haven’t kept up-to-date with the research into learning, have been side-tracked by learning myths or held on to old models and theories that have long-been discredited.   We need to make sure that the models, theories and approaches we are using are evidence-based and that we really understand their implications and then we need to build that into our working practices.   

For example, much of what passes as insights from neuroscience for learning at the present time is either neuromyth or very limited in value for practical purposes or actually from cognitive psychology. We often give insufficient attention to the time needed for practice to develop skills and fail to use the insights of spaced practice.  We need to be much clearer about what we are using and why.
We also really, really need to stop using learning styles and other models that have been discredited.   Let’s chuck out that chintz!

4.  We need to have strategies for keeping ourselves up-to-date

With all this change around, we need to make sure that we are really good learners ourselves and have strategies in place for keeping ourselves up-to-date. 

This means that we need to make full use of Continuous Professional Development and reflective working practices as a starting point.  I also think we need to be develop our skills in managing information and Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) or personal curation practice – but that is another blog!

A good stepping stone is to make sure you have a really effective network, both in person and online, that can help you learn and stay in touch with new developments – this is often referred to as a Personal Learning Network.  I have blogged about the value of this before ‘Networking: What is aPersonal Learning Network?’
I like the image of a spider in their web - if anything touches that web, it transmits through vibrations in the web directly to the spider and immediately alerts them to what is happening.  And that is what our networks should do for us too!   But we also need to contribute to our networks and share our experiences, so that we add to the collective wisdom available. We need to contribute our small piece and not just take.

5.  We need to sift out what is relevant in developments for our own organisation

In the context of all this change, with the continuous development of new technologies and approaches, it is easy for us in L&D to feel a bit over-whelmed.  And even to feel that if we aren’t making use of all of these developments, then we must be falling down on the job! Sometimes we can hear the message that we ‘ought’ to be trying this or doing that in the output from conferences, exhibitions and social media.

We don’t need to try everything – and there is so much going on that we can’t try out everything!  What we do need to do is be alert and aware and sift out what in new developments might be relevant and useful to our own organisation.  This is where having that deep understanding of our own organisation combines with having a great network, so that we can focus on those developments that can potential might add value to our own organisation and improve performance.

The image I have been using this year, is that we need in L&D to be neither an ostrich with our head in the sand, ignoring developments, nor a magpie, chasing after all that is new and shiny!  Instead we need to find a third way and sift out those few things that may have particular relevance to our own organisation.

6.  We need to make use of pilots to test out developments and learn from them

Once we have identified a development that is worth pursuing for our organisation and done our initial fact finding and research, if it looks relevant, why not run a small pilot?   It is often worth testing out new developments in a small, fast pilot to see how they work in practice and to learn in a relatively low risk way.   A starting point, might be trialing it within the L&D team or with a supportive line manager and their team. 

7.  We need to invest in managers

Effective managers are key to effective organisations.   If we want to raise productivity in our organisations this means tackling the development of managers and particularly first-line managers.    Raising productivity is a key issue in the UK and we need to be paying much more attention to developing confident and effective line managers.   As well as developing skills in people management, we also need to develop effective relationships between L&D and line managers, if we, in L&D want to really make an impact.    For example, line managers are key to the effective transfer of learning or to building learning into work. 

8.  We need to make good use of the Apprenticeship Levy

Finally, when resources are tight in organisations and particularly for L&D, we need to make sure that we make full use of the opportunities provided by the Apprenticeship Levy.  And this is whether we are working in a large organisation contributing to the Levy or in a small organisation, who isn’t required to contribute but who can draw from it. 

So, this is my 8-point checklist to get us thinking about how fit our organisation’s L&D is for purpose.    Why not use it for your own reflections and identify where you can further improve your practice?  I know I will.

Rachel Burnham

12 November 2017

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the use of digital skills for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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