The L&D identity crisis

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 December 2013

Are you unsure of your role in life? Do you feel like you don't know the 'real you'?

These are questions where a 'yes' answer might indicate an identity crisis.

I am reminded of this often when I'm speaking with people from learning & development because I get the sense that they think they are there to do one thing, and the organisation that surrounds them thinks they are there to do something different. Does L&D have an identity crisis?

People in L&D focus on learning, and this is not at all surprising given their job title, and their job descriptions. What I do find a little disturbing is that often the focus is on learning without any real connection to why that learning is required. There is talk about aligning it with business needs, but even then, my impression is that the connection is rather tenuous.

Maybe it is the people I end up speaking to, but it is rare for me to find someone who can articulate confidently the specific behavioural changes that their training and learning interventions need to achieve, and the business outcomes that will result from those changes.

You see, the operations people in an organisation want execution. They want people who are confident and capable of doing what needs to be done at the point of work when they are asked to do it. Execution does indeed require learning skills and knowledge, but there are many other factors at play as well.

Unfortunately these other factors are often overlooked in the quest for improved performance. We have been conditioned by our education system, and by the posturing of L&D over many years to think that sitting still in a classroom and absorbing information is the route to success. It is therefore very easy for operations people to ask for training when they have a performance problem without stopping to think whether this indeed is a valid solution to enabling execution at the point of work.

And of course it is also very easy for L&D to comply with a request for training. After all that is what the L&D department is for, isn't it?

This would be fine and dandy except for one thing. In the majority of cases where performance is a problem, it is not because people are lacking in knowledge or skills. It is because something else is missing or getting in the way of them being able to do the job. In these cases applying training as a solution to the performance problem is most unlikely to work.

The organisation really does want L&D to help with solving performance problems, but in order for that to happen, L&D needs to get really clear about its role which is not acting as an order taker for training courses. If it is to be effective in helping solve performance problems, L&D must become a performance consultant and focus on performance as an outcome rather than learning.

With performance consultancy as a role and identity, L&D becomes a much more valuable player in the organisational game, and that much coveted seat at the top table becomes far more attainable.

About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via

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