It is a truism that transformation is the name of the game in modern business. Convinced that they are operating in an era of unprecedented change, leaders are constantly putting themselves and those they lead through the mill in an attempt to keep up with competition that increasingly seems to come out of nowhere.
In such an environment, one might expect learning and development to be center-stage. After all, transformation must involve the acquisition and development of new skills. And yet, the latest State of Leadership Development report, published today by Harvard Business Publishing Corporate Learning, suggests otherwise. Subtitled “Meeting the Transformation Imperative”, it says that many learning and development organizations are “falling short in their ability to exert a measurable impact on business performance and to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to excel in their role”. Moreover, it adds that, “while many organizations have intended to give learning and development a more strategic role, that objective hasn’t necessarily been achieved”.
Add into the mix the dissatisfaction of millennials – they are more likely than their older age cohorts to be critical of development programs – and you have a less than satisfactory situation. With a little understatement, the authors of the report say this is “worrisome, given that millennials are constituting ever-larger proportions of the workforce and moving into the ranks of management in organizations around the globe.” But then they turn optimistic, suggesting that there is “a golden opportunity” for learning and development specialists to tap into this group’s energy and creativity and build programs that satisfy the needs of both individuals and organizations.
The report adds that it sees a future emerging in which learning and development teams will link their efforts to their organization’s strategy and prove highly adaptable in the face of ongoing change. As all functions in organizations grow increasingly specialized to compete successfully in new business categories and markets, so will learning and development. Then again, the previous State of Leadership Development study in 2016 found a link between making learning and development a more strategic part of the business and performance and the authors of the current report see little sign of organizations increasing their commitment.
Nevertheless, there is a dogged belief that learning and development – just as with human resources as a whole – has a strategic role to play. This has got to be right and, with all the data available today, it should be eminently possible to measure the effect of certain interventions. But for some reason – possibly because HR cannot shrug off entirely its “soft” image among the numbers-focused other inhabitants of the C-suite – it has not happened to any great extent. The situation is not made better by the findings that line managers continue to be critical of efforts in this area.
The Harvard Business Publishing report’s authors say that to succeed in becoming “an adaptable, strategic function primed to move the needle for their businesses”, a learning and development team needs to focus on three key areas. Basing their findings on research carried out late last year among more than 700 learning and development specialists and line managers, they add that learning organizations that reshape themselves along these lines will be best-positioned to deliver development and guidance that will help their organizations capitalize on the opportunities of transformation—and break through the barriers along the way, it says.
The three areas of focus are:
Build Organizational Agility – Just as companies are become more agile to adapt to a changing environment, so must learning and development practitioners. The ability to adapt and change in the moment will prove crucial, and in a world of ever-accelerating change, traditional five-year plans will no longer work. Instead, learning and development will need to resist waiting for things to settle down and become a disruptor itself—by identifying interventions and experiences that it can execute immediately, even while change is still going on.
Deliver Learner-Focused Programs – Learning and development specialists need to become better at putting learners “front and centre” in their program design and delivery. For millennials and the incoming Generation Z, especially, making learning experiences relevant, and providing trusted content that learners can access easily from anywhere, on any device, will be important. Learning and development departments will have to move away from cumbersome competency frameworks to offer learning all the time through experiences that employees can gain access to anytime, anywhere.
Expand the Definition of Partnership – Learning and development teams will benefit by partnering more closely with leaders in other departments, businesses, and industries to strengthen their business acumen and gain insight into other approaches that can spark innovation and creativity in their leadership development programs.
It all makes abundant sense. As has already been pointed out, such initiatives would only echo what is happening elsewhere in organizations. But past experience does not suggest we can rely on it happening. Learning and development may yet continue to underperform. With a rather predictable effect on the ability to get those transformations done.