Sharon Olivier reveals new research that shows the L&D practitioner moving away from being the expert, to the orchestrator of learning
Learning and development practitioners are stepping away from the traditional ‘controlling’ aspect of their role and are increasingly seeing themselves as ‘orchestrators’ and ‘connectors’, who work across the business to enable shared experiences and collaborative learning.
This is one of the key themes to emerge from the Learning Health Index, a joint research study conducted by Hult International Business School and EdCast. The annual study collects and analyses data across eight dimensions of ‘learning health’, and for the latest edition, surveyed 50 leading organisations from 17 industries, across Europe, the UK and the USA.
The overall results suggest that despite leadership support and investment and efforts to align learning with business needs, most organisations had yet to unlock the full potential of a healthy learning culture.
L&D practitioners were, however, starting to shift their roles in response to the huge disruptions organisations were facing. Digitalisation, environmental pressures, an uncertain economic situation and younger generations with different mindsets entering the workforce were all forcing organisations to make structural and cultural changes. In particular, businesses were recognising the need to become more agile and collaborative, and to embrace what the report’s authors call an ‘ecosystem mindset’ and way of operating.
“The hybrid world is filled with content creators, and our job as L&D to provide the ‘scaffolding’ to hold it and to shape it.”
This involves a shift from seeing the organisation as a hierarchy with boundary functions, job descriptions and hierarchical power towards seeing it as interdependent networks of relationships, with emergent ways of working, temporary project-based teams and informal influences. One survey participant described this shift as “cooperation is our new confrontation” Frame and trust is our new control” and “Teams are our new heroes”.
The researchers noticed these two paradigms or mental models playing out in two distinctive mindsets in the L&D leaders they interviewed:
1. Those who believe their role to be that of the ‘expert’ who ensures the acquisition of knowledge and skills in their organisation and encourages or even coerces people to learn through attending programmes. In other words, fixing the organisation from the outside-in.
2. Those who see their role as an ‘orchestrator’ in a complex, self-organising eco-system which is constantly learning and evolving. For them, the role of L&D is that of an orchestrator or connector. In other words, enabling learning from the inside-out.
The researchers believe that this shift in approach from ‘expert’ to ‘orchestrator’ is essential to enabling the organisation to operate as an agile ecosystem, and has significant implications for redefining the role and skills of L&D practitioners.
What does it take?
Firstly, L&D practitioners need to embrace a new mindset. The report refers to this as a ‘complexity’ mindset, as it enables a shift from control from the outside-in towards stimulating a culture where learning happens from in the inside-out, in a self-organising and emergent way, as so aptly explained by this L&D leader from the banking industry:
“A learning culture is not something we need to create or instil, but rather it’s something that exists already and that our employees can tap into. It’s about how to uncover and facilitate it. The hybrid world is filled with content creators, and our job as L&D to provide the ‘scaffolding’ to hold it and to shape it. This implies a certain mindset. For example, if we have a mindset of ‘content is king’ we will be less open to emergent modalities, and we will struggle to imagine other ways of learning. There should be no real tension between structured learning and more emergent learning, they co-exist naturally. For example, I can learn from a structured programme and equally I can learn from a community of practice like with medicine, where doctors are formally trained and are also constantly learning from the dissemination and sharing of information informally.”
This new mindset requires not only a shift in perspective but also new skills for L&D practitioners, equipping them for the future. Essentially, they need to grasp the dynamics of complexity thinking, and how ecosystems work. Ecosystems describe how interdependent organisms arrange themselves (self-organise) symbiotically to enable the health of the entire system without specific direction from an overarching manager or controller.
In the world of L&D this ecosystem mindset translates into a new skill set of the 21st century L&D practitioner, which should include:
- Thinking in a non-linear way
- Seeing the bigger picture by zooming out to take a helicopter view
- Demonstrating integrative thinking to bring together diverse stakeholders and ideas
- Facilitating and inspiring collaborative forums and communities
- Using natural, informal leaders and ‘supporters’ to create the needed groundswell or movement
- Influencing and facilitating without line authority
- Building trust and relationships
- Staying up to date with emerging technologies and platforms.
Elements of the L&D ecosystem
The framework outlines four key stakeholders (educators, learners, management, and technology provider) that the L&D practitioner needs to orchestrate and connect to enable the L&D ecosystem to thrive. These four stakeholders often operate as independent functions, and each one is continuously developing in their own right. The challenge for L&D practitioners is to leverage the interdependencies among them and to stop them from working in silos.
Technology platforms providers are a crucial enabler of eco-systems as they help to provide the technology and AI to connect people and their learning journeys, and to providing real time feedback and analytics through data. In addition, it is important for senior leaders to become actively involved in the learning groups, to share their own ‘user’ content , and generally to promote learning in the organisation by setting examples of self-learning.
The most distinctive aspect of eco-systems is that they cannot be controlled or managed. However, they benefit from being nurtured and connected, giving wings to an emerging new role for L&D as orchestrator or connector. L&D no longer needs to be the ‘experts’ of content and programmes; instead, they need to work across the organisation to orchestrate and enable shared expertise and collaborative learning, opening the door to truly bringing learning into the flow of work.
Sharon Olivier is senior faculty in leadership development and HR at Hult International Business School