I was surprised by two things at the Fall 2015 CLO Symposium in Austin: the learning and development mission statements from many speakers, and by an apparently industrywide, unchallenged swing to a learner-centric approach.
The two surprises may be related.
My first surprise occurred as I listened to three speakers in a row start their talk by stating their learning and development group’s purpose. I applaud them for starting with a mission because a good, clear mission statement is vital. My surprise came as each stated that mission in a way that was not directly tied to their business.
The first and third speakers said their function’s purpose was to increase employee engagement. Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe providing employees with learning opportunities will generally increase their engagement. Furthermore, highly engaged employees are likely to work harder and provide more discretionary effort, both of which should translate into better corporate results.
So engagement is great, but should that really be a learning functions’ primary purpose? In industries with very high turnover, perhaps it will be a top business goal. For most organizations, however, there are a number of business goals the L&D department should support, such as increasing revenue and productivity, decreasing operating costs, improving quality and safety, enhancing customer or patient satisfaction, and sparking innovation. There wasn’t a single mention of any of these.
L&D’s primary purpose should be to help an organization achieve its goals. This should be done by aligning programs to business goals so you can affect those directly, and by finding ways to increase engagement, which will contribute indirectly to the business goals. In other words, your CEO would like to hear about more than engagement.
The second speaker said their mission was to “leverage technology.” Period. This reflects an absolute confusion between the means and the end. Leveraging technology is a means to an end — it will never be an end in itself. Why do you want to leverage technology? To accomplish what? The “what” would provide insight into the mission. Of course, you should use technology, but you need to be clear upfront why. So, three out three speakers did not provide a compelling reason for the L&D function to exist. And we wonder why L&D gets cut first?
My second surprise may be related to the first. For the first day and a half of the Symposium, it seemed every speaker I heard on learning — I did miss some so consider this an imperfect sample — talked about the wonderful move to a learner-centric or self-directed approach. Common elements in support of this approach are trying to find out what learners want and giving them more of it. There was much talk about the need to move away from creating content or teaching classes. L&D’s new role will be that of curator. Some at the conference even told me that company goals and learning needs are changing so rapidly now there is no role for any business-centric or company-directed learning. Worse, I didn’t hear anybody challenge these assertions. If there was a debate over the last couple of years, then I missed it, and it seems this is now the accepted wisdom in the field.
Pardon me, but I object.
We need to have a good discussion around this topic before our profession does some serious damage to itself. There needs to be a middle ground here. It is wonderful that employees want to learn and that there are more ways than ever before for them to do that. The potential to connect with and learn from others has never been greater, especially when you think about social media and all the online learning available. L&D departments should certainly find ways to help employees find the learning they need and do what they can to encourage informal learning. That does not mean L&D departments should stop providing business-centric learning.
Senior leaders and experienced employees have wisdom. Why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of that wisdom and let new employees know what they need to be successful or what employees need to take their performance to the next level? True, a good employee with enough time will probably figure out what they need to know and may secure that knowledge informally, but why not speed up the process? Many employees will appreciate the guidance. So, to me, there will always be a role for business-directed learning, not just for compliance but also to help employees be as productive as possible as quickly as possible in pursuing business goals.
The learner-centric approach does make perfect sense when the learning is not aligned to business goals but in support of efforts to increase employee engagement. Many employees want opportunities to grow and develop outside the requirements to be successful at their current job. Self-directed learning is perfect in this case since each employee will have unique needs, and L&D departments should help facilitate this process by making as many learning opportunities available as possible.
So, if L&D’s mission is simply to increase employee engagement, a learner-centric approach makes perfect sense. However, if L&D’s mission is to help an organization achieve its business goals, there is definitely still an important role for business-centric learning to play. Blind acceptance of the current industry trend away from business-centric learning will put an end to our quest to be valued, strategic business partners. If we continue in this direction, then we will not deserve a seat at the table, and L&D budgets should be dramatically reduced.