You’re not strategic


I’ve had a few conversations recently with learning people about their strategies and approaches. What I’ve been reminded of is how learning so wants to be a strategic function. My problem with this thinking is that we can’t do this without working tactically in the business. As a caveat, this is still a work in progress in my head and this post is a bit of a brain dump of these thoughts so feel free to challenge as appropriate.

Below is an image that I put together a couple of years ago:

The strategy doesn’t need to be defined by the learning function – the learning strategy should be the business strategy, the business targets, performance, aims and objectives. What learning is great at doing is taking the activity outside the model, translating the strategy into operational activity – courses, classes, workshops, eLearning, etc – generating transactional data which is used to justify the strategy. The ‘bums on seats’ measures and the ‘conspiracy of convenience’  as identified by David Wilson and amplified by Charles Jennings.

Learning needs to live inside the triangle. The first activity L&D should be doing is thinking about the business strategy and which elements it is able to influence, support and design improvements for. This is where I disagree with my friend Sukh Pabial over the role of L&D. Part of the art of the L&D professional should be knowing when to measure outputs (with the business), understand work processes and identify improvements (with the business). That’s the essence of the approach of being an engineer, not a shopkeeper which I’ve been talking about for a while.

The tactical element of the diagram is the space where L&D should live, thrive, own and is the pivot of all the learning function. This is the space where the business needs are analysed and the L&D function works as a broker to identify what might need to be commissioned to support them. This might be a learning activity, some performance support, a facilitated process review with OD and HR colleagues. When this is complete, THEN a commissioning activity can happen.

This approach to commissioning is a different role for many L&D people. I’ve written before about curation and there is a craft in not crafting more content. Learning people love producing content. The opportunity to prove our art and creative thinking is one reason why many people move into a learning role and with new tools and technologies, it’s even easier to create shiny and polished material which we think has a great UX. But we’re too often perpetuating the myth of education in the workplace as succinctly put by Nick Shackleton-Jones earlier this year.

So we commission a range of activity, some traditional, some curated, some blended. This is the operational phase where the offer is revised and reviewed, made fit for purpose. We should then make tactical decisions with the business, when the offer is scoped, to agree on a timetable for delivery, IF IT IS FIT FOR PURPOSE. How many times have you encountered learning activity which has been delivered because it’s gone so far through the design process that it’s too late to stop it? Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do – this is a skill identified by Donald Taylor in his book, Learning Technologies in the Workplace. The eruption of technology over the last decade has shown L&D up for lacking the skills to broker in the modern workplace because of the lack of understanding the nature of this technology and how it can help people in the workplace. Just look at most training material for Microsoft Excel if you don’t believe me.

So delivery is agreed and we enter the transaction phase. At this point, we should be reflecting on the offer and activity, checking it’s impacting on business performance as it should, making sure we’re within budget, and meeting stakeholder expectations. This is where we’ll start getting meaningful data for evaluation as we’ll be able to compare and contrast the range of intervention, business support activity and performance. This is where the Kirkpatrick model is now outdated as a measurement tool to support learning and the Brinkerhoff approach to evaluation provides quantitative and qualitative data.

So, a need analysed, designed, delivered and evaluated and we’re still completing the learning cycle but we’re doing it by working within the model I’ve suggested. And we’re tactical, having business conversations with the business, about their business. We’re not being strategic – we’re delivering for and with the business tactically.

I was talking to the always sharp Laura Overton about what’s happening in the learning profession at the moment.  We were commenting that there isn’t a burning platform for L&D. What we realised in that the profession is actually in the middle of a forest fire and seems to be moving just far enough from the flames, and creating a firebreak to avoid getting burnt.

Are we working to put the fire out? Would this model help? Let me know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “You’re not strategic

  1. Again, you’ve got me thinking!

    I think the biggest challenge I have in being new-ish to L&D is how I get myself into a strong position to use the strategy to guide my talks with people inside the business.

    How do you manage to ‘push-back’ or realign stakeholders who might be taken aback when you ask questions along these lines, maybe because they hadn’t even considered that I’d ask then how they join up!


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