Empowering L&D Teams to Perform

It seems that workplace culture has, of late, been all over LinkedIn and in articles I’ve come across online. Many articles discuss what workplace culture means and the tips to creating a healthy, productive workplace culture. Reading a few of them got me thinking about how organisations might get better value from their learning and development teams, better learning programs, increased capability development and more engaged learners. I started talking with friends who work in L&D roles about their experiences of workplace culture and empowerment to do their roles and it became obvious they too face some challenges. This post explores thoughts around how organisations can empower their L&D teams to perform. It won’t address the notions of attractive work spaces,  fruit bowls in the lunch room, engagement surveys or other such things, rather it will focus on three key areas that have come up in conversation over the last month:

  1. Recognising L&D teams balance organisational and learner needs
  2. Respecting the roles and responsibilities of team members
  3. Taking on board that training isn’t always the answer

A blog post by John Brennan on Leading Culture’s site gives a good summation of what workplace culture is. He states: 

…culture is a factor of the interactions between the people in that workplace…… culture has next to nothing to do with what type of work is performed, but how effectively we consciously and unconsciously resolve internal tension…

Some might suggest similarities between what I’ve listed above and these five key factors listed in John Brennan’s blog post:

  1. Leadership
  2. Workload
  3. Capability
  4. Relationships
  5. Controls

There are some similarities, but hopefully I’ve explored a couple of them with a direct relationship to L&D. I’ve no doubt as a reader, you’ll start to identify where the factors of leadership, capability, relationships and control fit.

Balancing Organisational and Learner Needs

I liken learning and development (L&D) teasense of learning quotes_1ms to the kindling needed to start a fire – without them, an organisation can strike as many matches as they want, but there’ll be no flame. What does this really mean? Organisations may want to introduce new concepts, make improvements to safety, address capability needs or achieve another goal, but without the expertise and support of their L&D teams there’ll be no ignition and spark of change – it’ll all just fizzle out and be unsustainable.

In my experience, L&D professionals are passionate about what they do and how they do it, learning and how people want to choose to engage with their learning (gone are the days of one size fits all). They really understand their organisation’s business and their learner’s needs, and work hard to find the balance between business and learner, whilst at the same time working hard to convince senior management of their value to the business. This often leads to us asking questions about what the desired results look like and trying to rationalise this with what learners want and need; and in the case of behaviour change, how it can be measured to show real value.

It’s common for L&D people to have to compromise their values in this area – pressure of delivering on time and under budget, at the expense of a truly engaging program for learners. Whilst we appreciate organisational demand and financial pressures, there’s can be an unrealistic expectation of cost and project deadlines that can ask L&D professionals to leave personal values at the door. This always results in sacrifices to learning value, organisational learning culture and the culture within an L&D team itself.

Talent Management – Clear Roles and Responsibilities

Executives and senior management within organisations need to have an appreciation and understanding of the L&D talent that exists within. If you look at the capability around you in your own teams, I’m sure you’ll find a diverse mix of people who complement each other as a team. Each member brings different skills and together you and the whole team can achieve. As L&D professionals, we understand the different roles that exist in our teams and it can sometimes be a challenge to explain them to people who don’t have an L&D background or experience. The facial expressions I’m
always met with when I mention the role Instructional Designers play is comical (“A what?”, “Do they write software instructions?”, “Why do you need one of those?”

sense of learning quotes TEAM

I pose the question – do your managers understand exactly what it is your team does and the organisational value they bring? If you’ve answered yes, it may be because you work with senior managers who have themselves worked amongst L&D teams. Let’s ask the question again, but this time it’s about managers who don’t have “grass-roots” understanding of L&D; they may have had a generalist human resources rise – do they understand exactly what it is your team does? If they don’t, what impact is this having on your team’s empowerment and performance if they don’t feel their talent is understood and recognised? Ultimately, is the team then trusted to support the business’ needs?

I’ve spoken with other professionals about their observations and I hear consistently that managers not understanding the skills and talents of their L&D team members, and the responsibilities of the role they’re undertaking, leaves them feeling devalued as a professional. In having a conversation with someone, they likened it to asking a surgeon to take on the role of reception. They may have skills to perform the role, but it’s not what they’ve slogged away at for years to do. Would we dare do that in other professions? Why do we undervalue L&D professionals and think anyone can do it? The team has the skills necessary to get the job done – trust them to work together to do it.

Respect Your Team’s Recommendations

I have no doubt we can all relate to this one, we have more than likely all used these same expressions…

  • “You don’t need a training course to fix your problem”
  • “You don’t have a training problem”
  • “Training isn’t your answer, you need a behaviour change campaign”
  • “Why do you think you need a training program?”

It’s frustrating when you engage your business partners and stakeholders to start understanding the problem they’re trying to fix, or the capability they need to develop. As you listen to and unpack their dilemma, the light bulb goes off and you instinctively know – a training program isn’t the answer. You know the business/organisation, you know the learners and you know they won’t choose to engage in the learning. So why would someone override your recommendation and go forth with gusto to the training solution? Is it because it’s familiar and doing something different, hopefully innovative, is too hard? Or is it because they don’t trust your judgement? Do we always default to the same solution?

sense of learning quotes trust

Many of my peers have had these experiences – they’ve asked the questions, unpacked the problem or need, designed a solution and then “made the pitch” to the stakeholder. Often there’s been acceptance because of the trust and reputation they’ve built within the business/organisation. But occasionally, they’re told to go back to the drawing board and design a training program. In conversations with them, their experiences are about senior management not wanting to deviate from the norm or what’s known. It’s worked for years, so why change it now? However our role is really to question the norm and ask whether it really is working. How learners engage with learning and use their personal networks for learning has changed significantly, and most of us have kept abreast of changes. We keep ourselves informed about digital technologies, behaviour and generational change, learning theory and application, evaluation outcomes and organisational demographics. Our recommendations are based on years of experience and our personal learning, our understanding of the desired outcome or end result and balanced with our knowledge of good change management practices.

Trust us! Support us! Back us up! When we say training isn’t the answer but there’s another way, give us support and encouragement to challenge and engage our learners in the best ways WE know how. This is all good in theory, but obviously managers need to have developed mutual trust with their L&D teams. Supporting L&D teams is at least a start. There’s a wealth of blogs and websites out there on communications, relationships and trust building, so I’m not going to repeat anything here that’s already said elsewhere.

In closing….

The key message that comes to mind here is for anyone in a senior management role where they have responsibility for an L&D team, or even part of, to trust the capability of their team and ensure they engage with them. The innovative, learner focused, engaging and effective solutions for a learning or behaviour change need are there within your L&D team. Listen to their recommendations, advice and wisdom. In many ways, they often understand the intricacies of the business or organisation better that many other people.

This is all of course merely an opinion, comments and feedback are welcomed.

How do you think your L&D team can be empowered?

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