The Learning Circuits Big Question this month asks what skills and knowledge are required for learning professionals in a learning 2.0 world. To a great extent, the answer to this depends on what kind of remit a learning professional has, or should have. In an ideal world, a learning professional would be responsible not just for formal learning (with a bit of informal learning thrown in) but would have a much larger remit encompassing performance improvement as a whole. Those learning professionals who want to make a significant impact will want to be responsible for creating an environment where people can learn effectively and then put that learning into practice in a way that creates true value for the organisation. So, some of the areas that I believe that learning professionals need to skill up in will naturally overlap with those currently looked after by the wider HR function, and many will see this as the remit of ‘organisational development’. I happen to think that OD and L&D are part and parcel of the same thing.
This might seem like too obvious a point to make but getting the foundations right is so important that it’s worth starting from scratch. A learning professional should have a profound understanding of how people learn, and I don’t mean an understanding of ‘learning styles’ or Kolb’s simplistic learning model. I wouldn’t like the thought of my doctor prescribing me medicine on the basis of a hugely simplified model of what’s happening in my body; I’d much prefer her to understand what’s actually happening in all it’s glorious complexity. A learning professional should understand the cognitive processes involved in learning, what can help the process and what can hinder it, and be able to use that knowledge to inform the learning and performance interventions they design. If this was true of our profession today, there wouldn’t be nearly as many PowerPoint presentations in the world!
Learning plays a big part in improving performance across an organisation but there are many other, often more important, factors. No learning happens in isolation; it occurs in a complex map of economic, social and moral incentives. A learning professional should have a good understanding of how reward, performance management, communication systems, social networks and cultural influences can also impact on performance in order to adapt any proposed initiatives so that they have the maximum impact possible. Indeed, where there are bigger problems to sort out first, we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
It’s not good enough to understand just learning and performance. Learning professionals increasingly need to understand at a much deeper level how organisations operate. From finance and marketing through to fundamentals of the sector that the organisation operates in, the learning professional needs to have a good grasp of what makes an organisation tick. Why? It’s the first step towards a true understanding of what really matters – improving which areas of performance will have the maximum impact?
Of course, the only way that we get a seat at the table with senior management is if we can influence them. To persuade a senior manager that what their area of responsibility really needs is a new knowledge management system rather than the ‘product knowledge training’ that they asked for requires the ability to persuade them that your proposed approach will work better. It’s no good knowing you’re right, if you can’t get the decision-makers to agree.
It may seem like a fad, but like it or not, technology is part of our working lives and has been for decades. The difference at this point in history is that the influence and reach of technology is increasing rapidly. A good broad understanding of the tools available to your employees is important, as is an understanding of how emerging technologies could be used in future learning interventions. If there are technologies out there that will aid performance, someone will use them – better that it’s your organisation rather then a competitor. This is not to say that every learning intervention needs to involve a technology solution. However, judicious use of technology can dramatically cut down on the amount of face-to-face or classroom time needed.
The rate of change in today’s working world is greater than it has been at any point in our history. In the past, learning professionals (or trainers, or coaches) could get away with refreshing their skills every few years. New theories on how we create memories, or which information transfer methods are the most effective, didn’t come around very often. That isn’t the case now, and if we want to call ourselves professional then we need to join in with the rest of society and keep up-to-date with what the latest thinking is. Once again, I wouldn’t want my doctor treating me on the basis of knowledge that’s 20 years out of date – why then are we still talking about left brain and right brain people, body language accounting for 57% of ‘communication’, and learning styles?