One of the more interesting aspects of the discussions I've had over the past few weeks as I prepare for the free online conference on the future of learning is the perspective on the focus and scope of responsibility of internal learning organizations and external learning/training companies.
Caveat: This is definitely not a new issue. I'm not really claiming any great new insights. It's a first cut at a developing mental model. This is only partially formed and I need help to flesh out my thinking.
Please let me know what you think.
- Does this ring true?
- Does the model work for you?
- Do you similarly hear these kinds of clues? And what other clues do you use to identify?
- What are the implications?
With all that said, I believe that I'm beginning to get a handle on the differences in focus that people bring to bear around their responsibilities. The following crude diagram captures a bit of it:
I'm finding that learning professionals of all types (IDs, CLOs, VP Learning, C-level at Training Company, etc.) tend to own a different view of their responsibilities in this space.
- Learning – Responsible for ensuring learning objectives are achieved regardless of the delivery mode.
- Talent – Responsible for ensuring that talent is analyzed, selected and developed to meet the needs of the organization.
- Performance – Responsible for ensuring that behavior change occurs in a way that improves performance.
- Business – Responsible for ensuring that business objectives are met.
Know the "Right Answer"
Let's say that we are interviewing a potential new learning professional. We pose the question to them:
What do you see as the responsibility of a learning organization?
Many (probably most) learning professionals are smart enough to be able to answer the question such that they focus on creating solutions that are ultimately about all of these. They would position themselves right in the middle of the diagram. This is, of course, the right answer although a very adept job seeker will be able to adjust the answer quickly based on the focus on the organization that's doing the interviewing.
If you've done much interviewing in your life, you know that asking this kind of question is most often not effective. Instead, it's much better to find out by asking about specific examples of projects they've worked on and listen to the focus. You ask about things like the types of solutions that they've used, what were the objectives, how did they tackle the problems, etc.
Of course, I'm not interviewing people for a job. Normally, I'm talking to people with the goal of getting help on particular needs, e.g., how is social learning being used in insurance companies or other highly regulated industries, how does this technology work out in practice, what other things should I be looking at to solve this issue. In this case, I've had a bunch of conversations around the Business of Learning and this model is somewhat falling out from the discussions. But it's still conversations and I'm coming to fairly quickly recognize some clues that indicate the focus of the individual.
So what are some clues about the focus that you can listen for?
Learning Focus Clues
The person is showing learning focus when you hear:
"… learning objectives … "
"… learners …"
"We have very limited budget and our focus needs to be on building critical, core skills."
"I wish we had the time and money to spend on informal and social learning solutions."
"We want to make sure that our informal learning still ensures that we meet the learning objectives?"
"Our trainers don't have time to get involved with the learners after the training."
Performance Focus Clues
The person is showing performance focus when you hear:
"toolkits and job aids"
"involve the managers"
"back on the job"
Business Focus Clues
The person is showing business focus when you hear:
"customer satisfaction" (or a host of other business metrics)
"metrics" (and they don't mean Level 1 and 2)
"move the needle"
"we probably don't need much training"
Talent Focus Clues
The person is showing performance focus when you hear:
"fill the talent pipeline"
"recruiting and selection"
"performance review process"
Notes, Questions and Thoughts
Unfair Bias around Learning Focus?
As I wrote down the clues that indicate a learning focus, I felt I was being unfair. I've talked to a lot of very smart people who clearly have the learning focus. I respect them, consider them to be valuable contributors, and feel like I'm being unfair when I put down those clues. I feel I should somehow even this out a bit. But I wasn't sure how.
Obviously, this is partly personal bias. All things being equal (which they never are), I'm guessing my focus is more a business and performance focus. I was a professor for 11 years and still do lots of presentations and workshops where clearly the focus is learning. Certainly Work Literacy has a learning and performance focus and is a passion of mine. But day-to-day, my passion and where I probably play best are things like data driven solutions. Working on eHarmony for its first 4 years with a combined purpose of making money, making better marriages and supporting a rather complex performance was fantastic. Working with emerging or established companies is fantastic. Looking at social learning as a performance mechanism is fantastic. So maybe I have a strong bias towards business, performance, and then learning and that's why it doesn't sound quite right the way I've positioned it.
You will notice I didn't say much about talent focus. I'm know about it. I do work in it. I've actually done data driven solutions in that space. But it's not my normal focus and I feel a little bit removed from a talent focus. I definitely struggle the most when talking with people who have a very strong talent focus.
So, I'm really not sure how to level this playing field a bit so that my bias is not coming through. Thoughts?
Also, I'm sure that most people do flow between these things a bit, but have a more natural home. I'm not quite sure how that fits into this whole discussion.
Separation of Performance and Business Focus?
I debated on separating performance and business focus. You may notice that they two overlap more than most of the other sections. That's intentional. I believe that there are quite a few people who take a combined business and performance focus. There are relatively fewer who are dominant on the performance focus – but occasionally I run into people who seem to come at it with that focus.
Talent and Performance Intersection?
When I first did the diagram I intentionally did not have an intersection point right in the middle – and specifically it excluded intersection of Talent and Performance.
Most people who I talk to who have a talent focus seem to come at this whole picture from a completely different angle. They describe goals in terms of looking at the overall mix of talent in the organization. They look at the picture much more holistically. They are quite often trying to align this with top level goals of the organization, but in many cases they really are not talking about moving the needle. They care about learning as part of development and to build important competencies in the organization and to fill the talent pipeline. So, intersection with learning and business – not necessarily focus – is clear.
Intersection between talent and performance seems less common. Normally the folks who look at the big picture talent issues are far removed from day-to-day behavior and performance. They would claim that they look at it in terms of skills and competencies. They need to know about behavior in the form of job profiles, selection, performance reviews, etc. But the reality is that they are typically not thinking about what it takes to directly help to get the sales people to sell more, or change how retail sales managers get the associates to act in a way that improves customer satisfaction, etc. They won't be building a job aid anytime soon. They are likely not talking to the performers or facilitating interactions on the job to get performance to improve. It's a level indirect from that.
As I said, I initially put these as non-intersecting, and then I thought about people who work directly with sales management that really do take a look across all of these issues. I'm not saying that all sales management improvement professionals take this approach, but certainly some do. They look at who the sales people are, how they get selected, the comp packages. But they also look at the sales support materials, sales meetings. They get in and get dirty day-to-day. So, clearly this kind of dual focus exists, especially around specific goals.
When I discussed the "right answer", I pointed out that an adept learning professional seeking a job would quickly adapt to the interviewer and make sure that their answer corresponded to what the person wanted to hear. You would listen for clues and use the language that fits. Same as what I just described.
Of course, that happens in organizations as well. The collection of people in the organization establish what the expectation is around focus. If they expect you to have a learning focus and deliver formal training solutions and not bother them back on the job when they are doing real work, you will quickly find yourself taking a learning focus in order to fit.
Meaning and Use of the Model?
I debated on whether this model is useful and meaningful enough to post. It's pretty much an internal mental model that developed based on many discussions (and really many years). That doesn't mean it will make sense for anyone else. Nor does it necessarily suggest that it's useful.
So, can you tell me whether this makes any sense to you?
- To convince someone who's primarily learning focused to spend time and effort on solutions that come after training, you need to talk about it in terms of additional learning transfer opportunities. The learning won't stick unless we get out there after they are back on the job and reinforce it. We can talk about "office hours" where learners come together to discuss issues they face when they are back on the job. And you know going in that this all will be a tough sell.
- You need to talk to most talent focused people in talent terms. If you have a toolkit / set of job aids, you need to talk about it in terms of reducing the time to competence or how it fits with development planning.
- If you are talking to business or performance focused people, prepare to get in and get dirty. You need to be prepared to be in there working with the people to get the performance to change or the needle to move. I'd suggest not using the words "learning objective" … they may perceive you as "one of those people" … they'll let you know when they will need some of that kind of thing.
But this is more than language. It translates into how they think about tackling problems and the kinds of solutions that they consider.
Again – this is all partially formed and I'm really hoping that you will weigh in with thoughts.