Data conversations and a strategic role for L&D

For Donald H Taylor, the move to online learning may have been made but the work is far from done.

One of workplace learning and development’s big battles is over. The discussion about whether training can or should take place online is done, with the answer spelled out clearly since March. It has happened, and faced with no alternative, people have adapted to it remarkably well.

As L&D functions return to work, they can expect their workload to have shifted dramatically. Colleagues no longer expect – or in many cases want – to return to entirely physical training. The future will be a blend, with classroom events  – often inconvenient and always costly – reserved only for interventions to which they are clearly best suited.

At last we have reached a moment where it is possible to choose a training delivery mechanism by what it does best, rather than via habit and misconception.

This is, however, no moment for celebration.

The battle over delivery mechanisms is tactical. It is about the ‘what’ of training: what should be delivered, and when? The bigger, more strategic battles are over the ‘how’ and the ‘why’: how do we deliver efficiently, reaching the people that need to develop their skills and knowledge? And why should they or the business care? What issue is it solving?

To build a larger role for L&D in your organisation, start putting in place the systems and processes that will enable you to have meaningful data conversations with your organisation’s managers.

That later question – ‘why’ – is one L&D has too long avoided. We claim we want a seat at the table; we say we need proof of the value of learning. We can have both of these things provided we can answer this question.

The route to answering the why question is simple to describe, less easy to do. It involves engaging with managers on the issues they are facing, listening and questioning them intently to get beyond the surface issues to understand what really matters, and to determine whether training or some other intervention might help them. If training can help, then this discussion gives you your ‘why’.

This performance consulting approach depends on many things not central to traditional L&D, including confident, mutually respectful dialogue with managers. I call these discussion ‘data conversations’ to emphasise their dual nature.

They require both an understanding of the data used to run the business, and the ability to have a meaningful, probing discussion about it. You don’t need to be a data scientist or a chartered psychologist to do this, but you do need to understand how two things work: the business, and people.

Guy Wilmshurst-Smith, Head of Professional Development and Training at the UK’s Network Rail, knows managers are focused on a few data points key to the business, most notably train delays. In his conversations with them, he listens carefully and shares how training provided by his team predictably decreases these delays.

The result – his work is very much in demand, and nobody asks him to justify what he’s doing. The value is apparent. But this apparently simple process is only possible after years of work developing his team, its programmes and the data feeds he needs to correlate L&D’s actions with the performance of the business.

If you’re looking to build your L&D function after Covid-19, don’t start with the tactical. We know that from now on, you’re going to be delivering online, face-to-face, synchronously and asynchronously.

To build a larger role for L&D in your organisation, start putting in place the systems and processes that will enable you to have meaningful data conversations with your organisation’s managers. The tactical battle has been won.

Now it’s time to push L&D to a position of strategic importance.


About the author

Donald H Taylor is a veteran of the learning and skills industries and is chairman of the LPI. 


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