L&D career focus: ‘I got involved in workplace learning because it became sexy and more important to business’

The ROI on upskilling is undeniable, but the L&D profession can do much more to promote that fact, says Richard Townsend, CEO at QA Workforce Learning

Did you deliberately choose L&D as a career or fall into it?

My background is in media and advertising. Learning became interesting to me because I noticed that changes in technology meant that a quality learning experience could be done at scale. At the same time, it also became clear that the pace of change meant the best businesses in the future would be those that successfully integrated learning into their operating model. In essence, I got involved because learning became sexy and more important to business. You only have to look at the recent impact of generative AI to see how far upskilling has risen on the corporate agenda. 

What's been the biggest surprise about the profession?

That the learning industry has not yet worked out how to demonstrate its business impact and is still focused simply on learning outcomes. Research has repeatedly shown just how valuable upskilling and reskilling is to businesses and the broader economy. One recent study by PwC revealed a broad-based skills programme would add 3.4 per cent GDP growth to the UK alone. The ROI on upskilling is undeniable and the industry can do much more to promote that fact. A prime example is the UK's productivity puzzle. Very little attention is currently being paid to how learning and development could solve this problem and also help to close the UK's skills gap. 

What is one piece of learning that you have picked up that stays with you?

So many I could mention, but learning about the role of the subconscious in the creative process changed how I think about innovation in the workplace and how best to manage it. Brainstorm meetings can be very productive but it's often in the quieter moments when you have had time to fully digest a challenge that inspiration can come.

What is your regular go-to resource to stay on top of the latest learning news?

I tend to follow individuals that I respect rather than necessarily any specific publications. A couple of examples: Josh Bersin has a strong point of view on learning tech and Saul Khan from Khan Academy is leading on how AI will improve learning experiences. There are many others. My advice to people is to draw knowledge and inspiration from a broad base, you never know what gems you might uncover. 

What's that most interesting thing about you and what do people not know about you?

Talking about yourself is always tricky, especially if you are British! What I love is solving business problems through creativity and I believe that good culture is more important than any other business solution. 

Will you stay in L&D or try a new industry/profession?

Learning will continue to democratise, become more engaging and better demonstrate its effectiveness as a business driver. No other industry can match the innovation, excitement and importance of the learning sector. Why would I go anywhere else?!

What's your favourite film and can you tell us three things on your bucket list?

My favourite film is way too difficult a question to answer. I could maybe do genres at a push. As two examples, Life of Brian is my favourite comedic film and The Life of Pi is a brilliant interpretation of an amazing book. 

My bucket list:

  1. Taking the family to Japan 
  2. Getting my Spanish to conversational level
  3. To go to a major world title boxing match in the US with two of my best friends.

What's been your worst day at work and how did you overcome it?

The realisation that the pandemic would last longer than a month, which I genuinely believed it would at the start of the crisis, was a pretty bad day. We overcame it as we do all tough challenges through working closely and collaboratively with a great group of people. 

What's the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone entering the profession?

Don't listen to convention. It's a fast-paced industry where new ideas and innovative solutions can thrive. Just because one particular approach has worked for a number of years doesn't mean there isn't a better way. That doesn't mean being a contrarian by constantly trying to reinvent the wheel – it means always asking yourself if things can be done differently. From there creativity flows.