Where do we start when it comes to reimagining L&D?

The practice is all about solving the right problems and finding those all-important ‘marginal gains’, says Andrew Bardsley

Credit: SDI Productions/Getty Images

Learning and development currently has a huge burden of responsibility on its shoulders.

As a recent EY report suggests, the L&D function needs to evolve and do so quickly. It rightly recognises that L&D shouldn’t just be thought of as a so-called ‘retention measurement’, but as an enabling function in an organisation's business strategy.

I couldn’t agree more with EY’s assessment, but the question for many L&D professionals is: ‘Where do we start when it comes to reimagining L&D?’ I believe we need to go against the conventional wisdom of ‘think big’, and actually start out by thinking much smaller. It's also fundamental that we start to identify the right problems to solve in organisations, and then look at ways we can assert marginal gains.

Solve the right problems

To assert fundamental change in any line of work, you have to know what your starting point is. However, for the last two-and-a-half years, it’s been really easy for L&D professionals to get stuck in ‘firefighting’ mode.

Now that the dust has somewhat settled, we need to get back to thinking about some fundamental questions:

  • What learning and skills do team members currently want?

  • What skills is the company currently lacking? 

  • How can these two things be dovetailed so that immediate action can be taken?

Not only does answering these questions provide some focus, it also helps you to work on the business instead of necessarily in it.

One way we’ve sought to bring some objectivity to our thinking and planning of L&D has been to deploy some specialist learning partners into the business. These individuals are tasked with understanding the real L&D needs of our teams and departments at a much deeper level. This approach allowed us to ask the right questions, solve the right problems and crucially take immediate action.

Take action and think smaller

So, by asking the right questions, you’ve hopefully given yourself the right focus to start taking action. But where do you start? I’ve always been a fan of British Cycling – particularly when Dave Brailsford was at the helm. Under his stewardship, British Cycling went from zero to hero in a relatively small window of time thanks to Brailsford’s deployment of ‘marginal gains’ theory.

Although not a new technique, Brailsford set about asking the right questions and answering them through action that would result in regular and sustainable one per cent gains. Instead of making one or two major changes, he was absolutely forensic in listening and looking at every aspect of the whole team's performance – from cyclists to support staff. Over time he managed to make small marginal performance gains compound into huge strides forward. I believe to bring about the change we need in today’s L&D sector we need to take a similar approach.

Forensic listening

First, as L&D professionals we need to be more forensic in listening to the demands and interactions of our people. This helps us provide better educational initiatives and outcomes.

One way we’ve done this is by better analysing interactions with our training via our internal comms channels – Slack being a great barometer of how people are engaging with the training initiatives we run.

Posts, comments and reactions in our company’s learning Slack channel all help us to understand our own communication style when it comes to engaging learners, how to reach key groups in the business and the types of educational content people like/don't like.

We’ve also invested in feedback gathering – particularly in a period that’s seen us move to remote and hybrid working. The feedback we get from pulse surveys is invaluable. From survey scores, we can tangibly measure the rate of behaviour change within the business when it comes to L&D and actively seek out marginal gains.   

Empowering a wider community of practice

Building a so-called ‘community of practice’ can be a small, but ultimately powerful, thing when it comes to optimising L&D within an organisation. First, you need to build the right infrastructure. This could be as simple as setting up regular touchpoints with those administering learning and education initiatives in your organisation. We’ve done this with our company’s management strata in the form of a monthly forum where they can discuss what’s working well, what could work better and the small gains they feel they’ve been able to leverage as a result of the previous month's actions.

It’s not rocket science

In a sector that can be distracted by the latest L&D trends and fads, it’s essential that we get back to basics. L&D is about listening to the needs of a business, but it’s also about listening to the needs and feedback of those taking part in learning opportunities. It’s only by actively listening and empowering your people with the tools they need to engage with L&D that you’ll develop programmes that are fit for purpose.

Andrew Bardsley is head of learning and development at xDesign