How Translating ‘Business Needs’ Into ‘Learning Needs’ Is Causing Misalignment

L&D people speak about business alignment as a key strategic priority but how are we not aligned already? We work inside the organisation and work closely with its people – so what’s going wrong?

Misalignment occurs as soon as we translate ‘business needs’ into ‘learning needs’, which is usually right at the very outset of our conversations with stakeholders. But why do we do this? In my opinion, it’s because we’ve always done this…

We translate ‘business needs’ into ‘learning needs’ because ‘learning’ is our stock-in-trade. We create learning experiences to transfer learning for learning to be transferred back to the workplace, largely regardless of the situation or challenge.

We isolate business problems to be about capability; we design an isolated intervention (give or take some pre- and post-course work); we have people experience it once; and assume all will be well afterwards. Well, we don’t always assume all will be well. Sometimes we deliver something that we know won’t work but we do it anyway.

How Do We Get Out Of This Trap?

To remove ourselves from this endless loop, we must park ‘learning’ – and the hope that we can ‘deliver learning’ and have that turn into ‘better working’, which is largely fruitless. Even in these times of ‘scaffolded learning experiences’, focusing on the ingestion of content that can be regurgitated at will – days, weeks and months after ingestion – is foolhardy. So let’s, instead, focus on the first interaction and rather than translate ‘business needs’ into ‘learning needs’ how about we focus on the situations and challenges being experienced by workers themselves that are preventing them from doing the work in the required way? It sounds easy – and it is… As well as being faster, cheaper and better at delivering results.

We rely on ‘learning’ because of our misguided belief in the equation:

Learning = Better working

In principle this could be true. But there are variables within this equation that are often ignored:

  • What does ‘learning’ mean to L&D? Too often, L&D measure ‘learning’ in terms of attendance, completion, satisfaction and assessment. So has somebody learned if they have turned up, stayed until the end, was happy with the day, and passed a test? No. None of those are indicators of learning. Even the test at the end is more likely an indicator of short-term memory recall rather than long-term, sustained behavioural change.
  • What is delivered is actually helpful in the context of the work. Very few courses and programmes have been researched close enough to the point of work to understand how it can translate to improved working. So, what is delivered could largely be superfluous.
  • What is ‘learned’ may just be reinforcing held beliefs. We tend to avoid information that contradicts what we already think or believe. This is Confirmation Bias. So as much as we want to ‘change behaviour’, delivering a day’s worth of ‘content’ (often more) can’t possibly all be remembered – and may be having a detrimental effect.

So rather than holding onto this unreliable and largely flawed equation, why don’t we refocus on the thing we are trying to affect instead? The work:

Providing workers with insights into how their colleagues overcome similar challenges and guiding them in unfamiliar situations (as they arise) = Better working

Don’t get me wrong, this might not be perfect but compared to the alternative (Learning = Better working), this has a much higher chance of working. For one, it recognises how people really learn at work – by ‘doing’. By scaffolding the ‘work’ rather than the ‘learning’ we (L&D) focus on points of need; real friction being addressed; and ways of providing the information, know-how, tools, and insights that are known to work in those situations. But how do we know?

Solve Real Problems

It starts with understanding the real problem to be solved. We do this with the client, for the client. Not by request of the manager or HR alone. By all means, they may highlight a performance problem or a lack of results but the real problem is validated with the client themselves in service of their goals. Once it’s understood what they are experiencing that is preventing them from performing, small experiments can be run to move the needle and equip them to work more competently and confidently. These experiments are run to ensure that this is the right information, know-how, tools, and insights – in the form of resources and conversations – to get them from ‘not knowing’ to ‘doing’ in a way that is required and expected.

Finally, when this is working (friction being adequately addressed for our colleagues to perform), it can be scaled with technology.

It seems crazy that we’ve put a blocker up between ourselves and our clients. This blocker being our interpretation of ‘learning’. It’s going to be hard to let go of this seeing as we’ve identified as ‘Learning Experts’ for so long – and many of us love learning… as do our clients. However, they largely recognise ‘learning’ as it is really experienced: In service of their work and careers whilst performing in challenging situations.

L&D is most effective at the point of work, influencing how our colleagues even begin to think about a new role; as they experience challenges for the first time; as complexity increases; as situations and expectations change; and as they wish to progress.

It’s ironic that we’ve put our interpretation of ‘learning’ in the way.

David James is Digital Learning Strategist with Looop and was previously Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.

Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.

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