Four Big Questions for the Future of L&D

In the President’s State of the Union address last week, President Obama posed four big questions for the United States to address in order to meet the challenges of the future. While I can‘t promise his level of eloquence, I think it’s worth considering what four big questions we need to consider regarding the future of the learning and development field.

Addressing the future of L&D

Question 1: What is the role of the L&D department for preparing employees for future opportunities, both internal and external in the organisation?

The traditional role of the L&D department has been to develop the skills and competencies of workers in support of their organisation’s goals. This typically equates to helping people do their current jobs better. However, the rapid pace of change in technology, constant organisational churn, and a trend line of decreasing employee tenure raises the question of what the L&D role needs to be in order to prepare workers for their next roles.

This may be a lateral or vertical move within the same organisation or a transition to a new company altogether. The concept of lifelong learning is no longer an altruistic nice-to-have for employees but rather an imperative for career continuity. And for the organisation’s own health, teams need to be focused on creating talent management strategies that anticipate changes and prepare current employees to move on to those new roles.  Below is an example of a career ladder that one organisation uses to help employees understand both vertical and lateral opportunities, along with the position responsibilities and associated development resources. How is your organisation responding? 

Question 2: Is content curation the new instructional design?

It wasn’t so long ago that if an employee wanted to learn something new their choices boiled down to a) check with the corporate L&D group, b) go to the library, or c) go take a class at a college, university or private training company. Then in 1998 a little thing called Google came along and changed everything. If we don’t know something today, we simply Google it. Of course, YouTube, LinkedIn, online magazines, corporate blogs and innumerable other resources—both free and fee-based—are now available. One site that aggregates learning resources boasts access to 225,000 learning resources.

Problem solved! Why not make the argument that employees are bright, motivated and know their needs better than anyone else? Let’s turn them loose on all the great resources out there so they get what they need when they need it – they’re doing it anyway!

To most, I imagine, that last sentence is heresy. So what is the L&D role in terms of curating content? Should we have a role in floating the best content to the top in order to save our people time and help them focus on the right things? What tools do we need? How do we engage our employees to create a win-win situation?  

Question 3: How do we leverage data to improve our value proposition?

We now live in the age of big data. No function better exemplifies the role data can have in transforming a value proposition than marketing. Not long ago, the famous quote by John Wanamaker best summed up how marketing explained their value: 'Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.' Today, marketing is judged by hard metrics like cost of client acquisition, net promoter score, conversion rates and more. Much closer to home, talent management teams are driving a similar transformation with engagement figures, cost to hire, attrition rates and more.

But what about learning and development? What process and practices do we need to adopt to make sure we target the right performance gaps and behaviors? How do we gather more data—and the right data—on training and work performance? What tools and partnerships are needed to correlate training data to performance data?  

Question 4: Can we shift the conversation from content to outcomes?

We love our content. Content is KING, right? This is especially true of subject matter experts. After all, they’ve spent a good portion of their lives dedicated to learning that content. Unfortunately, what we know as learning and development experts is that content does not equate to results. Sure it’s part of the equation, but to make the impact we know we can, outcomes need to be our primary driver.

If we start with outcomes:

  • We focus on the most important content
  • We go beyond principles, facts and information to application and use cases
  • We focus the training experience not just on learning but on learning and doing.

So how do we engage the business to convince project sponsors that less can be more? How do we get the business to define their training needs in terms of the results they desire? How do we consistently build solutions that go beyond information delivery to include practice and application?

Where do we find the answers?

Okay. I’ve done a good job of raising my four big questions. Now comes the hard work of finding answers and charting a way forward. This is a very exciting time for learning and development teams. We have more tools and technology than ever before, we have senior leadership teams wanting to see hard results, and the opportunities to learn continue to grow. So how does our profession respond? And how are you going to respond? Do my four questions align to your questions or did you come up with something else completely? Share your thoughts in the blog comments, and let’s start our own conversation!

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