What Business Are We In? – Part 1

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what business we’re really in. Is it learning or training? About ten years ago the job we did was called training, and we worked in a training department. Some time soon after that the name changed to learning and development, but has the job really changed? More importantly, has our customer’s expectation changed?
What got me thinking about this was the Learning Technologies conference last January, where I took part in a debate with Andy Wooler and Charles Jennings. The subject; should we be attempting to manage learning? It was a good natured debate, and although each of us was presenting a different viewpoint I don’t think it was any surprise that we all agreed on one thing; we can’t manage learning, only learners themselves can do that.
Part of the argument I made was that we were looking at this the wrong way. The three of us had quickly agreed that learning can’t be managed, and yet we had all felt there was something worth debating. So if we weren’t debating about the management of learning, what were we debating? For me, the answer was pretty straightforward. You can’t manage learning but you can, and often should, manage training.
At the end of the session, I asked the audience for a quick show of hands; in their view, what service did their own internal customers expect them to provide, learning or training? Around three quarters of the people in the room indicated that it was training.
Earlier in the debate, Charles Jennings had shown some interesting research results as part of his presentation. The research came from the Corporate Leadership Council’s L&D Team Capabilities Survey in 2011. According to this survey, when asked if they were satisfied with the performance of L&D only 23% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed. A similar figure, just 24% thought that L&D was critical to business outcomes. Overall, a little more than half of the respondents would actively discourage their colleagues from working with L&D. Scary stuff.
We need to be cautious not to jump to any unsubstantiated conclusions, as these high level results don’t give us any insight into the reasoning behind the answer. However, they do clearly indicate that there’s a serious disconnect between what the business wants from L&D and what they believe they’re getting.
Bridging that gap is going to take some work, but it’s critical that we’re successful. Considering just how unsatisfying the experience seems to be, I don’t think it’s over dramatizing it to say that the continued existence of L&D may be at stake. After all, if you were looking to reduce costs, it would be an easy decision to get rid of the department that more than half of managers recommend avoiding, and which three quarters say makes no critical contribution to achieving business results!
There can be no excuses here either. We can’t simply tell ourselves that the business just doesn’t understand what we do and then carry on as before. Even if that’s true, which to some small extent it may be, we’re not delivering to the standard that’s being set for us.
Could the gap in performance be a simple semantic difference? Do we think we’re responsible for learning while the business thinks we’re responsible for training? What does that even mean – are we (and they) clear about what the difference actually is?
If we go back to the point where training started to become L&D, what were the perceived benefits? Well, the suggestion was that the term training implied an outside in approach, with the learner as an empty vessel to be filled with appropriate knowledge. Learning on the other hand, implied an inside out approach, developing the learner’s capabilities and strengths so that they could reach their maximum potential. Training is focussed on the needs of the organisation, learning is focussed on the needs of the individual.
Worthy aims, and ones that we should continue to strive for. However, it’s in this move from training to learning that I see the seeds of the problem, the place at which we and the business started to lose sight of each other.
The problem was that training had become a dirty word. As L&D practitioners we became disdainful of what had previously been the mainstay of our existence.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll take a look at the current situation.