How L&D Is Holding Itself Back From Digital Transformation

digital transformation

Technology has been commonplace in L&D for decades but in an age in which digital is transforming organisations – and even industries – L&D is falling behind in both its approach to – and adoption – of modern tools.

One reason for this is that L&D has scaled its ‘stock-in-trade solutions’ with e-learning and virtual classrooms – whilst failing to recognise the changing needs of its clients. The long-held belief that classes and courses are the most valuable ways we can help workers has been a prominent factor in L&D’s failure to adopt technology that can more successfully develop people. Instead, technology solutions valued by L&D are little more than support to face-to-face courses, which is (and has been for a while now) an outdated model. But this not the primary factor holding L&D back from digital transformation.

The primary reason that learning technology plays only a peripheral role in organisational capability development is because of L&D’s own limited expectation of what it can do.

When work and careers were more predictable, classroom training was (probably) the most useful tool we had to prepare people, en masse, for their roles – and in order to enhance their performance. Even with advancements in consumer technology and constant connectivity it was deemed its most appropriate application was in the scaling and refashioning of the classroom experience. And why not?

To this day, e-learning and virtual classrooms have become convenient ways to deliver stuff to hundreds and thousands of employees, when it would take months, if not years, to deliver it in person.

On the horizon, we can see that AR and VR will help L&D to deliver course content that is immersive – which could have real benefits… Or these could be a new wrapper in which to deliver the same of old stuff.

Research Shows That L&D Prefer To Stick With What They Know

Consecutive Towards Maturity benchmarking reports illustrate that L&D practitioners are just doing what they’re skilled in: The development and delivery of course content and its administration (reflected in the image below). But at what cost? It seems the cost is almost every other opportunity that digital is offering us in order to positively – and continuously – affect workplace performance, productivity and organisational capability.

Re-emphasising the main point of this blog post, L&D’s inability to imagine ideal employee experiences in relation to their situations, challenges and goals is limiting our expectations of digital technology and, as a by-product, the development of new L&D skill-sets to achieve more.

I have a theory that L&D is reliving its own Groundhog Day because the majority of L&D professionals learn their craft in the classroom. Firstly, delivering other people’s content; then developing their own content; whilst focusing their own development on better facilitation; and becoming hooked on the immediate gratitude of delegates. It can then be addictive to seek more opportunities to ‘see people develop in front of their eyes’.

So L&D expect technology to support the course because they value it so highly, and misinterpret immediate delegate responses as lasting change.

But What If We Didn’t And We Chose To Re-Imagine The Possible Instead?

What if we threw off the shackles of what we know – and know how to do – and imagine what people really need in pursuit of their goals?

What does a new starter really need? And what are they trying to do, anyway?

Are your new starters just trying to figure out how to get the right stuff done; to not mess up; and create a good positive impression, so they can pass their probation? Who knows? You’ll need to find out from them.

Whatever they’re trying to do, they are butting up against people, situations and challenges, that are part of the cultural fabric of your organisation.

People who have been in your organisation for a while, who have a track record of getting the right things done and exhibiting the expected and rewarded behaviours know, so how can you use the appropriate tools and interactions to unpack this for others, when and how it’s needed? Wow, that’s a hell of a lot different from packing somebody off into a room with HR for half a day to whizz them through 50+ slides of ‘things they should know’ before they get plonked in front of compliance modules for the rest of the day.

We, as L&D, have got to stop looking at what we can do – with our skills, with our chosen (and expected) means of delivery, and the limited time we have – and explore what we should be doing to truly help our people with what they are trying to do. Amazon haven’t looked at what stock they have in their warehouses and attempted to sell it cheaper than everybody else. Their USP is making it easier than any other company to find what you’re missing now and get it to you tomorrow – wherever you are. And that’s not a reframe, it’s fundamentally different (and industry-disrupting) proposition.

What Could This Look Like For L&D?

Firstly, put yourself in the shoes of your new starters. Let’s begin with new starters because most organisations are yet to crack induction successfully.

What do your new starters need and when, ideally, do they need it? This is a very different question to: What do they need to know? When we consider this from the person who is joining the company then we best place ourselves to intervene in a more useful way.

“But there’s loads of stuff they need to know!”

I know there is but if I told you a load of things on your first day in a new job, when you’re apprehensive – perhaps even anxious – you’re unfamiliar with your surrounding, you’re struggling to remember people’s names and the way back to your desk, you’re not in the best frame of mind to remember 1, 2, 3 or even 8 hours of stuff… No matter how pretty the slides and flip charts are.

“But we give them a folder with all the information!”

Get real! Those things land in a filing cabinet when people get back to their desk and are never touched again. Why? Because it’s 2019 and we’ve all been Googling our way through life for the last 10-15 years.

Use your imagination. Again, put yourself in the shoes of somebody who starts a new job next week…

You’re getting excited. You’re also getting questions from your friends and family about the new job you’re starting next week. Imagine a non-intrusive explanation of what the following week will be like, along with some headline information you could share with those who care about you. Perhaps it’s appropriate to give you an update on where the team and organisation is at so you’re not completely green on Day One. But we’re not training you! We’re not paying you yet and so slinging over a compliance module would be crossing the line. The idea is we’re being helpful but not a burden. You will receive a quick call from your line manager, just checking in to let you know we’re looking forward to seeing you on Monday.

You’ll spend the morning of Day One meeting other new starters and we have some recent new starters coming in to tell their stories about what worked for them when they started. No ‘content’. No slides. No presenting. And no overviews of any internal systems. But there will be a welcome email waiting for you in your inbox with details on how to get yourself set up and some top tips for navigating the organisation. You will then be guided and supported with information, know-how and insights that recent new starters needed and found useful – and you’ll be encouraged to message and chat as much as you want to with new starters from across the company. Oh, and there’s a new starter lunch on Wednesday and Friday!

When you get back to your desk, you see the email, click on it and see a guided path of useful topics that lay out what others found useful when they first joined the organisation. Some videos; some checklists; some maps; and some articles, all focused on getting you used to working at the organisation – laser-focused on highlighting and addressing real situations and challenges you’re likely to face.

You will have a buddy to show you around, to take you to lunch on Day One, to be an on-hand support and to help answer all your questions.

Over the course of the next 3 months, you will receive personalised guidance and support that anticipate your challenges and support your assimilation to the organisation. There are no courses but there will be regular meet-ups where you can speak together with your peers, meet senior leaders, and other prominent figures. A great mix of digital and face-to-face experiences that are all aimed at enhancing your working experience at the organisation.

Now you can imagine it, but it’s not just up to you what you provide. You need to work with your clients who are experiencing transitions, challenges and friction in their working lives to find out what they need in pursuit of their goals and aspirations – and explore the best ways of getting that to them, where and when they need it.

How Could This Work For New Managers?

Hopefully you can visualise what this might be like for new starters but now imagine a comparable experience for new managers.

New managers are largely neglected by organisations who rely on them attending a training course at some point to help them but this might not be for months or years after they begin the role.

The opportunity with digital is to imagine what the ideal situation could be and work with them to create a guided and supported path – from before they even begin in the role. Don’t think in terms of courses, classes, e-learning or resources. Think in terms of the working experience and how you can support and scaffold that to ensure that new managers are anticipating challenges, situations and questions. What’s the role of a manager at your organisation? How’s this different (or similar to) what they’re doing? What does their transition mean and what can they expect? What are the interactions they can expect? What are the cultural nuances? What are the potential pitfalls? If they had a mentor on their shoulder to guide and support them throughout their transition, how could that play out? How do you set up an infrastructure of support and guidance on-demand, surfaced to anticipate moments of need, alongside conversations with peers and ‘experts’, and good quality one-to-one time?

But rewind, I don’t mean to leap to activities so they can all be strung together to create a continuous experience. My hope with that last part is to demonstrate that imagining the New Manager Development Experience will include high value face-to-face elements but that the priorities of the manager take prominence over the means of the L&D professional.

You don’t need a finished products to do any of this. You need a minimum valuable product that can help move the needle in the right direction. You need to have access to user data that will inform your build and progress towards a defined goal (a business performance goal) – and you need to experiment until you’ve addressed any problem significantly. You then need the means to scale what’s worked for others facing similar problems or situations. Finally, you should automate what works so you can step away, iterate using data, and go solve other problems.

It’s Time To Develop… Ourselves

Yes, this will take new skills but – more importantly – it will require a new way of thinking. One that is not hamstrung by what L&D normally does. One that is more focused on outcomes rather than activities. And one that is ready to learn and grow.

By expanding your expectations of what could be done with, for example, your ideal new starter experience, and for new managers, you will begin to make digital really work, rather than just have it do your dirty work. When we put crappy content together in the name of compliance and other infantile types of e-learning, we lower everybody’s expectations of learning tech. When we use the right technology tools to lead, guide and support an experience that addresses the primary challenges faced by workers, in pursuit of their goals, then we increase everybody’s expectations and do stuff that actually makes a difference.

David James is Chief Learning Officer 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.

See also:

“We Want Training!”: When Client Expectations Stop L&D From Modernising

The #1 Mistake We’re All Making In L&D

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

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