TJ interviews: L&D strategist, author and speaker Paul Matthews

Paul Matthews, white male in a suit

Today is the 25th anniversary of People Alchemy: Jo interviews founder and CEO Paul Matthews

Training Journal: What was different in L&D 25 years ago?

Paul Matthews: 25 years ago, the range of things that L&D got involved with was much smaller. And that range was mostly delivering training on demand with little thought beyond the classroom. In hindsight, except for rare pockets of excellence, what we were doing back then was not good in terms of impact and business alignment.

The range of L&D services has greatly increased over the years, and the pockets of excellence have increased a bit. Sadly, the ‘dysfunctional’ training approach that was common 25 years ago is still far too common today, even though there are many more pioneers showing the way for better business impact.

Oh, and we used overhead projectors and acetate sheets. I remember training courses with hundreds of sheets, all wrapped up in a binder with trainer notes on how to talk about the material on the sheet.

TJ: Why set up your own company, and what advice do you have for others are or want to do so?

Paul: I sometimes say, somewhat tongue in cheek, that I set up my own company because I couldn’t get a proper job. I am not sure how true that is. I was never one to fly in formation and 25 years ago, most companies wanted clones who would fit in with minimal disturbance. Things are changing now with the recognition that diversity has advantages.

Advice? Perhaps the most insightful advice I got, and pass on often, is that every company is a marketing company which happens to also have a product or service. That is, market first, and build and deliver second. No marketing means no sales, which means no business.

Despite this, I am better at building and delivering good stuff and still a bit rubbish at marketing!

TJ: What’s your favourite piece of work over the last 25 years?

Paul: That question resulted in some head scratching, and a rather pleasant trip down memory lane. I realised there are two types of work that stand out for me.

One is where I work with a group of L&D people, usually in the same organisation, and run an ‘unplugged’ session. That is, a minimal agenda to explore the challenges they have and how to shift their mindset to a more proactive and performance driven approach. I love the ebb and flow of the discussion and watching a group coalesce around a new idea that they can’t wait to get out there and try out.

The other is where a customer of our software platform really sees what it can do for them and comes up with new and inventive ways of using it. I am continually surprised by the range of programmes that people are using it for.

TJ: You’ve published some books – is there another one in you? And if so, what’s the topic?

Paul: I think three books are enough for any trilogy – but if I were to write another book on L&D, I think it would be on the brand of L&D. What the people in an organisation think about L&D has a huge impact on how well it can operate in that organisation. If the brand of L&D is such that people see it as disruptive compliance training, or a cost centre that provides little value, or a dysfunctional LMS, or anything else unhelpful, then the ability of L&D to do good work is seriously undermined.

There are several simple ways to tackle a poor L&D brand, so a rich topic for a book. But I am not going to write another book!

TJ: What still surprises you?

Paul: In 2011, I wrote a list of 15 tips for a friend of mine who was going from an HR role into an L&D role. She passed the list around and the feedback was so good that a little booklet was born. Since then, it has been reprinted many times, downloaded thousands or times, and two more tips were added.

What I find surprising is that the fourth edition is almost word for word the same as the first edition. In all those years, little has changed in the basic things that L&D should be doing or doing more of. By now, I would have expected that many of these basics would be ‘baked in’ to the L&D role and an automatic way of doing things.

I guess the surprise is the relative inertia in the L&D mindset, despite the fact it is about development and growth.

TJ: What does L&D need to focus on for the next 25 years?

Paul: 25 years is a long time, and if someone had asked me that question in June 1999, I would certainly not have talked about what we see now. I would have talked about what was happening back then and how to make it better, faster, cheaper, more efficient. And I would have been wrong.

Perhaps the lesson from that is that the focus needs to be on flexibility and agility within the L&D function.

Paul Matthews is Founder and CEO of People Alchemy