Is it time to kill the ‘L’ in L&D?
It’s no secret that the field of L&D is rapidly evolving.
In recent years there has been a noticeable shift away from basic skills training delivered via classroom sessions, towards a more holistic professional development approach in many businesses.
This shift in focus has the potential to drastically change the face of L&D, and is arguably making the ‘learning’ part of the profession redundant. This is not to say that employees are no longer learning, but rather that they are doing so in a different way. While ‘learning’ is still important it’s no longer an independent concept for many organisations – professional development is now about creating well-rounded employees, and encapsulates skills learning in conjunction with behavioural development.
Fewer and fewer employees now come to a training session, learn something from a trainer and then walk away (hopefully applying their new skills); they now take part in development programmes where there is no prescribed end to the learning, and knowledge and skills are being enhanced through activity and practice rather than being imparted by someone else.
Businesses are recognising that learning specific content isn’t the key to success, behaviour is
But the evolution of L&D hasn’t just involved the prevalence of development programmes over one-off learning interventions; it has also seen a growing interest in areas such as employee wellbeing, engagement and culture change. For many organisations the L&D function is no longer just the mandatory training provider, but a key ally in the fight for better working lives and improved business outcomes. Organisations are coming to recognise the need for well-rounded, resilient, happy and engaged employees if they are to achieve growth and success as a business, and this has helped drive a change away from L&D as just being about job-specific skills learning.
This new paradigm is especially prevalent in the management arena as individuals and businesses are recognising that learning specific content isn’t the key to success, behaviour is. In the past subject matter expertise was considered the necessary foundation for a manager to be successful, but modern approaches highlight that more important than expertise are the behavioural elements of managing people. Skills such as building trust, communication and the ability to influence and inspire those around them are now being heralded as the keys to successful management, and as such L&D teams are no longer being asked to make sure managers have the technical know-how, but instead to ensure they possess the behaviours needed to support others.
In many organisations the catalogue of technical or role-specific courses is shrinking, while the number of development programmes, spanning everything from leadership and management, wellbeing, mental health and change management, are growing; learning is being replaced with development.
Why the shift?
The primary aim of any business is to make money and be successful (whatever form that may take), so the true driving force behind this shift is that organisations are seeking ways to improve their outcomes, and thanks to multitudinous research, they are starting to see that employees are the key.
As a result issues such as productivity and engagement are high on the agenda for a lot of companies and focussing on improving employee wellbeing, happiness and personal development is helpful in addressing these issues. It has long been known that happy, engaged and productive employees will help generate long lasting success in a business much more than unhappy, deflated and unmotivated employees will. But translating this knowledge into action has taken some time, and it is only relatively recently that many organisations have started to put strategies in place to enable a more effective workplace to emerge.
The delay in bridging this gap has come in part from L&D providers not having the skills and resources needed to support this change, and many organisations have first had to restructure their L&D department before being able to make the shift towards a ‘development’ focus. In this process the ‘learning’ element is seemingly being slowly phased out or minimised to allow for L&D functions to focus more acutely on the organisational change elements they are being asked to support.
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For many learners this has been a welcome change; people often balk at the idea of having to ‘learn’ something or do a training course, while development is a much more person-centred approach where learning happens more subtly, but can be much more impactful. Personal and professional development is a key driver for many individuals, and being presented with the opportunity to expand their skills in a deeper way is often very motivating for employees. This may be especially true for millennials who, as a group, are known to desire the opportunity to progress and develop their skills, placing it high on their priority list.
It therefore appears that this move away from traditional skills learning towards a more overarching development approach is having benefits for all involved, allowing both employees and organisations to progress and achieve genuine growth.
So is ‘learning’ dead?
As much as things have changed in the L&D profession, the ‘learning’ element of L&D will never die, and it is still a key part of what the function has to offer. There will always be a need for one-off job-specific learning interventions, because there will always be skills gaps, and learning in its current form will always be part and parcel of what organisations need to succeed.
However, it can’t be denied that there are changes occurring that are making it a less prominent aspect of the field. This is evidenced by the growing number of products and services focussing on overall development, wellbeing, engagement and culture change, and the growing interest from businesses in improving in these areas. This ‘development’ over ‘learning’ approach is proven to be effective; companies that are focussing on improving employee wellbeing and positive culture change are seeing fewer absences, high productivity and better engagement scores.
Those looking at behavioural approaches to leadership development are experiencing better outcomes in terms of employee retention and business outcomes. But it remains important that companies continue to recognise and appreciate the value of the established learning interventions, as they do still have a vital role to play, and while overall employee development is important, learning relevant skills is too.
There is a risk in some situations that this switch to people-centred workforces is just a response to these concepts being ‘in vogue’; because they are being talked about so much and big businesses are making the switch, there may be some that will follow suit as a knee-jerk reaction rather than as a result of genuine need. If we are not careful, we may see the scales tipping too far the other way, where companies neglect skills learning in favour of behavioural development, creating unnecessary skills gaps.
The answer, of course, is to find a balance, and make development decisions based on individual needs, but this is often easier said than done, and the growing focus on overall development does raise some concerns; are companies going too far the other way? Will it switch back again in the future when companies realise they haven’t dedicated enough time to practical skills training?
Only time will tell, but whatever happens in the future, for now we definitely still need the L.
This article was featured in Issue 11 of Enhance Magazine