Corporate Learning: Straight Answers to Big Questions

Many organisations are struggling, writes Nick Shackleton-Jones,  with similar L&D challenges. Below are some of the sorts of questions that come up a lot. I’ve tried to answer them as simply and directly as possible, and I am aware that things are always more complicated in practice. I believe that the answers below broadly reflect the ‘high water mark’ in these conversations, rather than the consensus.

What is the proper role of L&D?

Learning and development can directly impact employee performance and employee experience via two mechanisms: performance support/guidance and designed experiences. Our role is no longer simply about building capability, since some of these approaches will improve performance at the expense of capability. L&D is about making it easier for people to do their jobs well.

How can I provide performance support, at the point of need?

As a rule of thumb, people learn by figuring stuff out as they go, with on-the-job challenges driving learning. Providing useful stuff, that is easy to access when you need it, is undoubtedly the biggest impact that you can have on performance and organisational effectiveness. But in order to do this you will have to make the switch from courses to resources, in the process shifting from topic-centred learning design to user-centred learning design.

How can I provide opportunities to learn by doing?

There are really only two services you provide (setting aside risk management/compliance): one is performance support (which improves performance by changing the context) and the other is challenges/experiences (which improve performance by changing the person – building capability through practice). By building challenge-based programmes, where the challenges mirror real-life ones, you can build capability.

Do I need a Learning Management System?

Probably, yes – but not for learning. An LMS is still a decent tool for event management and tracking regulatory compliance (for example using elearning modules) – but you should consider it to be largely independent from your (real) learning systems.

How can I support knowledge-sharing?

People share knowledge informally, so much of it remains trapped in the culture of an organisation. This problem will become more significant as people with many years’ worth of experience start to leave. It is a common mistake to have experts document their knowledge. Instead, ask novices about the problems they face, then present these questions to experts. Don’t expect people to share publicly of their own volition; a ‘honeybee’ approach will work better: actively gather and curate best practice.

How can I evaluate success?

Either you should use existing business performance measures (e.g. sales, retention, completions etc.) or you should ask for the scope to create mechanisms to measure performance. You should avoid so-called ‘level 1, 2 (and mostly 3)’ outcomes. You can use the Brinkerhoff approach as a rough and ready way to estimate the impact on performance if all else fails.

How should we design learning and performance support?

You can only design effective learning & performance support through a user-centred design approach (such as the 5Di Model). Your audience analysis should enable you to list specific tasks and concerns; and your solution should help people with real-life challenges rather than just being a ‘content dump’ of topics. For each resource you create you should be able to answer the question ‘for what specific task would this be the most useful thing to have?’ Each event that you create should be predominantly challenge-based.

What should the operating model look like?

You should consider designing an organisation that will reflect the two classes of service that you provide (resources and experiences) and where the organising principle is not organisational silos (e.g. legal, finance, ethics etc.) but transitioning audience needs (new starters, new leaders etc). Product managers should oversee the ongoing improvement of the offers over time, and the capabilities of your team should reflect these services.

How can I ensure it’s a success?

By helping people to do their jobs, you can support the business strategy (as opposed to translating the business strategy into courses). People will use your content if it is useful, accessible, and they are aware of it. Start small, with a clear ‘destination postcard’, an important audience and capture their positive feedback in order to reflect success and build momentum.

What’s the best way to transition from what we are doing today?

Identify an audience pilot area (e.g. new starters) and an organisational initiative that encompasses it (e.g. 70/20/10 or digitisation). Build capability by partnering with someone who understands user-centred design. Bypass the LMS. Capture success and market the new approach to build momentum.

What should be my priorities?

Since leaders play a central role in performance, engagement and learning, they are typically a high priority. New starters also represent an opportunity to shape organisational culture and maintain performance and engagement levels. Knowledge-sharing represents an opportunity to improve adaptability and your learning culture.

How do I do ‘social learning’?

Social learning is inherently personal, so difficult to re-create online. Assume that only a tiny percentage of people will contribute, and instead use an audience-centred content strategy to drive the creation of two classes of content: highly useful and highly engaging. Social learning will happen as a by-product of an effective content generation and editorial approach.

What new technologies should I be investigating?

New technologies are a distraction more than they are an opportunity. So long as the basic approach (‘content dumping’) remains the same new technologies will not achieve significantly different results. Instead, look to shift to a user-centred learning design approach, and you will find that this reveals the real potential for technology integration – and how you can use your existing technologies to better effect.

How can I prepare for automation?

You will not make much progress towards automation if you cannot accurately describe how jobs in your organisation are successfully done today. In most organisations the way that people actually do their work bears very little relation to documented standard operating procedures. A starting point is therefore the creation of performance support that truthfully captures how people perform competently today. Performance support is, effectively, a first version of the computer program to do a given job.

About the author – Nick Shackleton-Jones

Transfixed by the task of understanding people, technology and the challenges of integrating the two, Nick began his career as a psychology lecturer and author. He has since worked in consultancy, Siemens, the BBC and BP in roles encompassing learning strategy, leadership, culture, innovation and technology. A memorable conference speaker and well-known in the corporate learning world for ground-breaking thinking and work, he divides his time equally between being disruptive and provocative.

Nick was the winner of the prestigious Colin Corder Award at the 2017 Learning Awards

Follow Nick on Twitter @shackletonjones

Connect with Nick via LinkedIn 

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