We don’t need more!

31 Oct
October 31, 2014

We don’t need more – we just need to get better at the basics.  I’ve blogged on this  this theme a few times but within L&D the basics means understanding the businesses we serve, understanding how the entire smorgasbord of learning interventions can work in a coherent way to solve our problems and then applying the most effective solutions we can in a timely and cost-effective manner.  It’s all about using what we have, not needing more.

I’ll set my stall out right away – this is going to be a controversial post – but hey – that’s hardly stopped me before.

Let’s start with football.  On 9 May 2013, Manchester United announced that David Moyes would take over the club following Alex Ferguson‘s retirement as manager.  His six-year contract started on 1 July 2013.  It was a tough gig – he was following in the footsteps of one of the most successful ever football managers.  Ten months later and it was all over – Moyes was gone.  Football is a harsh world – deliver or be replaced – and it’s the same in any sport or business – or is it?

Well it would seem to be the case in areas of business but not L&D.  Within L&D it would seem we can – collectively – fail to deliver on an industrial scale and yet somehow still think we’re doing well.  How crazy is that?  Let’s look at the facts.

The state we’re in

There are people within L&D doing a great job in tough conditions – there always have, and there always will – but the overwhelming evidence is that we’re failing.  Here are just a few of the facts:

Industry experts and commentators Towards Maturity have reported that:

  • 36% of L&D professionals were not confident that their learning initiatives actually supported the skills that the business needs
  • Only 56% analyse the business problem before recommending a solution
  • 34% of organisations work with business leaders to identify business performance indicators that they want to improve
  • And by implication, 66% of organisations don’t work with business leaders to identify business performance indicators that they want to improve

According to the 2007 report by the Aberdeen Group called “Learning & Development Aligning Workforce with Business”, those businesses that achieve workforce alignment enjoy a 77% increase in employee productivity.  The same report showed that:

  • 43% of all businesses cite the need to align their workforce with business objectives as the number one pressure driving learning and development.
  • The Best-in-Class are nearly twice as likely as their peers to have a learning and development strategy that is integrated with the business’ overall strategic plan.
  • The Best-in-Class are 68% more likely than laggards and 39% more likely than the industry average to get HR and training personnel into the business units in order to understand business needs and priorities.

In his paper “Maximize Training Impact by Aligning Learning with Business Goals”, Jay Bahlis goes for the jugular by stating that:

  • Less than 10% of training expenditures actually result in transfer to the job.
  • Most of the knowledge and skills eventually gained through training (well over 80% by some estimates) are not fully applied on-the-job.  By some accounts, less than 30% of what is learned (in training) actually gets used on the job.
  • In an effort to reduce costs and focus on core business, organisations such as Nortel Networks, Goodyear and others are outsourcing training management, training development, training delivery, and training administration and support.

In a report by Capita, 100 out of the top 500 UK companies were asked about their L&D departments.  Only 18% of the businesses surveyed felt they had L&D departments that were operationally aligned to the business.

  • Over a third of leaders (36%) lack confidence that their employees have the skills required to deliver the firm’s upturn strategy, with close to half (46%) casting doubt on their L&D department’s ability to provide these learning services.
  • Over half (55%) claim their firm is failing to deliver the necessary training for recovery.
  • More than half (52%) describe their L&D function as slow to respond to the changing requirements of their business during economic turbulence.
  • As strategic objectives have evolved, close to half (46%) of senior managers report no significant change in the training delivery to their workforce.  Going forward, almost as many (43%) expect no significant change to L&D delivery over the next two to three years.
  • The vast majority (82%) of leaders lack confidence that their firm’s L&D strategy and delivery are aligned to the company’s operational strategy.  Half (50%) believe that their L&D function is stuck in a ‘business as usual’ mindset.

In pure pound note terms Capita estimates that this equates to a 21% shortfall in productivity estimated at an annual cost of £35.7 billion to the UK’s largest firms!

According to a report by CMI/Penna:

“High performing organisations have significantly higher levels of alignment  …This suggests that the alignment between HR and business strategy is a key differentiator between higher and lower performing organisations.”

So, what’s the problem then?

In my view the problem is simple – we need to get better at the basics.  That means understanding the businesses we serve, understanding how the entire smorgasbord of learning interventions can work in a coherent way to solve our problems and then applying the most effective solutions we can in a timely and cost-effective manner.

It’s a shame then that many of the self-proclaimed ‘gurus’ who ‘lead’ our industry don’t approach the problem in the same way.  It is as though they are deliberately avoiding the elephant in the room.

Rather than dealing with the core issues that would change L&D for ever, we are bombarded with new models of how our world should look, we’re told we need to get out of the training ghetto, we need to be a bit more 70:20:10, we need more informal learning, we need more scaffolding, we need more social learning, we need more . . . .

But we don’t need more.  The last thing we need is more.  We already have plenty – more in fact than most of us can comfortably handle.  What we need are people to help us make effective use of what we have, not to tell us we need more. We need doers, not valueless commentators.

Stand still and think

As L&D professionals we want to do a great job – our very salary cheque – not to mention our reputation depends on it.  We therefore need industry leaders who will help us achieve these simple goals.  If you think we’re really making progress then take a look at the Learning and Performance Institute’s Capability Map.

Since its launch in 2012, thousands of L&D professionals have rated themselves using this tool.  Want to know how far we’ve come in that time – the answer is not far enough – assuming you can get the latest data.  There are still basic gaps, still areas to be improved and still some considerable distance for us all to travel.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to stand still and think – perhaps now – more than ever – it’s time to stop pontificating over what we call ourselves, how we describe what we do, what tools we can and cannot use and how effective – or otherwise classrooms are when compared to e-learning – to name but a few of the tops we seem drawn to in an almost magical way.

Lest we forget

As L&D professionals we serve the businesses that pay us – and by implication the learners within those businesses too.  We exist to deliver results – not to peddle models and conjecture.  Perhaps – as in the story at the start of this post – if we could be readily replaced if we failed to deliver we might just sit up and realise what we’re actually supposed to do – and then actually do it!


The sad story is that none of the above is new.  It’s just that we choose for some inexplicable reason to ignore the most basic of data and the most basic of needs of the businesses we serve.  For reasons best known to ourselves, we either put our heads in the sand or we come up with some reason why the future will be better with some new model or other.  We only have ourselves to blame and for this reason alone we don’t deserve to be in charge of L&D anymore.


This post first appeared as an article in the 50th anniversary issue of Inside Learning Technologies and Skills Magazine – October 2014.  You can read this and a host of other great articles here.


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