Why I work more like a business partner

Every day, I choose to approach my work in a way that demonstrates to my stakeholders how I contribute to the organisation’s mission and engage people in their learning. I do this by being focused on our end users (learners) and in recent times I’ve wondered whether my approach is truly understood and appreciated by others, but mostly if they recognise that I’ve adopted a business partnership style in my practice.

The term business partner isn’t uncommon and I won’t bore you with definitions. In a learning and development context it’s often used to describe roles that align learning and development strategy to broader business goals. I’ve spent time adapting this view to defining stakeholder expectations, and subsequently aligning learning needs to these and organisational mission, whilst always considering learner needs and behaviour change (many might see this as a more tactical application of business partner). To me, this approach has a clear strength – you have someone who understands what the organisation does and can work with stakeholders who perceive learning, or most often in my case training, as a default answer to any problem.

With my background in education and training, I believe this is where my strengths lie: working with stakeholders to clearly understand their behaviour change need and capability requirements, thus the learning need. Through conversation, I’m able to understand the result they’re expecting to achieve and start delving further to define the critical behaviours they want learners to develop. This is also where we can start to really answer the question – is a learning intervention or program really necessary?  If it is, l can then ensure linkages are made to the organisation’s mission so we can (together) show the value any learning program will bring.

Now my brain starts ticking over with ideas about how learning could take place and ways learners will want to engage. I put forward higher level recommendations to stakeholders on whether it’s best to pursue digital, face-to-face, workplace based, just in time, bite sized, campaigns or something else entirely. I provide the “skeleton”, the bones of the project that will enable learning experiences to be designed, supported and made meaningful, and show the business their expectations have been realised.

Now it’s time to engage a learning designer who can put together the flesh and muscle of the project that will mould and flex according to each learner. They’ll also take care of the aesthetics, how it works, how learners will engage and interact.  I find working with a good learning designer a rewarding experience and love seeing the detail emerge and initial vision become a reality. I’m energised by the enthusiasm and passion they exhibit and ideas we share.

Projects kick off and my role transitions to shielding the project team, navigating them through the politics, organisational and external pressures, stakeholder demands and adjustments to help the project come to fruition. I really enjoy this aspect as it provides freedom for creativity and innovation of designers, and I become a sounding board for challenges, rudder when things go of course, mediator when teams struggle and a representative voice for learners. But don’t confuse this with project manager; there’s still a requirement for someone to oversee the project at a micro level.

It’s only over the last couple of years that I’ve had the clarity of what I see my role being and how I can shape how learning is designed and delivered in organisations. This was quite an awakening for me and has made me determined to take on projects that allow me to have strategic influence (including organisational learning culture), stakeholder engagement and facilitation, prioritise learner needs and behaviour change, and convene project teams with innovative learning designers (I have definitely had the privilege of working with a couple over the last twelve months who have been inspiring).

My key learnings:

  • the importance of solid partnerships, particularly a business partnership approach to help thoroughly scoping any learning need
  • the strategic influence working this way can have, particularly working directly with stakeholders and changing organisational learning culture (slowly but surely)

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