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How Learning & Development Must Change: Three Challenges

by Ara Ohanian

November 17, 2010

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by Ara Ohanian

November 17, 2010

“The three points of change have always been part of the L&D function, but today’s greater speed of technological change, combined with the increased importance of learning to the modern organization, means these three facets of the modern L&D department are crucial to its success.”

In the recent past, training was a process with almost no connection to the daily operations of the rest of the organization. Sometimes this gap was literal – training took place in a separate building.

At the same time, however, managers seldom questioned training’s value. Everyone understood training to have a positive, if usually unmeasured, effect. In those less hectic times, it was possible to set a curriculum in advance – often annually – that accurately reflected workplace requirements; Learning and Development (L&D) was typically not part of the daily thrust of the work. The role of training was “building capability” – giving employees “just-in-case” knowledge and skills for use at some point in the future.

Today, however, the way people learn in the workplace has changed. The amount of information people need to carry out their jobs has altered; there is more of it than ever before and it changes quickly. Part of this change springs from the nature of today’s service-based knowledge work, and part of it springs from today’s rapid communications technology.

The result has been a shift in the role of L&D. In the past, we specialized in building capability, particularly at the beginning of an employee’s career or at the start of a new assignment within the organization. Now we must increasingly provide ongoing performance support to help employees tackle new tasks in their daily work.

The three challenges we face today

The result is that L&D must change the way it operates in today’s world, in three ways. In particular:

  1. We must develop content collaboratively. The L&D department can no longer work at a remove from the rest of the organization. While trainers in the past could develop deep expertise in a given subject matter, today’s urgent need for information makes that impossible. More than ever, L&D needs to establish strong ways to develop learning content in collaboration with workplace subject matter experts (SMEs).

  2. We must support current practice. A great deal of learning takes place in the workplace without L&D’s intervention. However, the department has a role to play in supporting this learning, whether managers deliberately organize it, or whether colleagues informally arrange it among themselves.

  3. We must maintain and build our department. It is no longer possible to support the wider demands of workplace L&D with a generalist skill set. Instead, it is essential for L&D staff to have both a good general grounding in L&D and specialist skills in particular areas.

This table shows some of the ways that the new approach to L&D differs from the old:

Table 1.

Old L&D

New L&D

Centralized

Involved with the organization

Classroom and/or face-to-face delivery mechanism

Multiple media, including the classroom where appropriate; both synchronous and asynchronous; online and offline

Content experts

Experts in how people learn and in working with SMEs to get the best from them

“Push” delivery style

Multiple styles: “Push” delivery where appropriate (e.g., for compliance training), plus “pull” for performance support information

Minimal technical expertise

Technical expertise in e-Learning

Course writing expertise

Expertise in writing for courses, blogs, and wikis

Design and set up courses requested by management

Curriculum design expertise as well as performance consultancy expertise to determine whether courses are actually required

 

These are just some of the practical ways L&D must change to meet the challenge of today. The three points of change have always been part of the L&D function, but today’s greater speed of technological change, combined with the increased importance of learning to the modern organization, means these three facets of the modern L&D department are crucial to its success.

In this respect, the L&D department is a microcosm of the modern working environment in which individuals are becoming increasingly focused specialists in their field. In this L&D microcosm, specialists in certain areas of learning practice staff the department. They add value to the enterprise in collaboration with fellow workers and use technology to ensure that they focus on high-value work as often as possible.

The world of work is changing and the L&D department must change with it. L&D can not only survive, it can flourish if it bears in mind the benefits of working with SMEs and employee managers and if it places a deliberate focus on L&D team members by both developing them in a structured way and by supporting them with the right systems.

(This is an extract from the CERTPOINT Systems white paper How L&D must change: the three challenges we face today, available at http://www.certpointsystems.com/resources/white-paper.html.)


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Great article! Having been a practitioner in all three segments of education training (higher education, corporate, and non-profit/association), I'd add here that most learning leaders in the non-profit/association sector have always operated this way -- relying on SMEs, tuning into the organization's goals and strategies to define the curriculum, etc.

We can look to the e-Learning Guild itself as a stellar example of exactly what this article says L&D should aspire to -- relying on the learners to define what they need, providing contexts for peer-to-peer training, expanding on multi-media delivery modes, etc.

Anyone in L&D who is not involved with a professional or trade association would benefit greatly from membership -- and volunteering. The experience provides more insight into how to make these changes than anything else they could do.
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