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Q&A: Why should Organizations Invest in Learning and Development?

This article was originally published on 03/11/2014 

Rebecca Page-Tickell, author of Learning and Development, discusses the key challenges associated with, and the critical need to invest in, Learning and Development (L&D) within organizations.

Q: Why should organizations be investing in L&D?

A: It is not so difficult for an organization to be successful in the short-term. An innovative product meeting a market need will enable any organization to become profitable. However, sustainable success is very difficult to build and maintain. L&D is the key route to sustainable success as it builds the quality, capability and breadth of the key organizational resource – people. Used as part of a bundle of practices, including engagement, performance management and employee relations practices, L&D will build sustainable success relative to market conditions and competitor practice i.e. outperforming competitor practices.

Q: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing organizations in developing an L&D strategy?

A: L&D tends to be one of the first things cut in a recession. Certainly, it is not usually immediately essential to meeting short-term business targets and so is a soft target when restructuring and downsizing starts.  However, this incurs the loss of a great deal of expertise and understanding within businesses. L&D is often quite a subtle discipline as specific choices in development must be made and it takes a detailed understanding of the current and future competitive position of the organisation for this to be done well. Once L&D functions are gone, their knowledge and wisdom are gone as well. Witness the increasing number of L&D roles starting to become available as we grow out of recession. It will take the new incumbents some time to appreciate what really needs to be done.

The second key challenge is a perennial challenge around the interventions that can be carried out. L&D is particularly susceptible to fashions in interventions, particularly with the growth of neurocognitive science. We are in a period of rapid growth in our understanding of how the brain works, but these complex findings are often misinterpreted as they are communicated to the professional community. Organizations are therefore susceptible to misunderstandings which lead to ineffective interventions.  For example, the left and right brain do have some variations, but definitely not logic vs creativity which some providers may claim. Interventions built on this misunderstanding of the academic literature are likely to be less effective than may be advertised.

Q: How does your book, Learning and Development, help to address these? 

A: The book takes a practical approach to guide the reader through the main stages of L&D interventions, from identifying issues, through choosing and implementing interventions and finally, through to evaluating what actually happened and improving the interventions. This aims to enable organizations to take a lifecycle perspective to build robust, effective interventions based on current and emerging business requirements. The book contains a lot of case studies to examine what can go right and wrong as well as lists, questionnaires and inventories to help the reader think through their own situation and make an appropriate choice of intervention. 

Q: Are there any organizations that you consider to be demonstrating best practice in L&D strategy?

A: In my experience best practice is a bit of a misnomer – there is no one best way to do things. Effective L&D is very specific to individual organizations and their specific set of circumstances. It involves a clear focused analysis of their current situation, future opportunities and challenges and a matching of current talent and future requirements. This needs to be considered as part of a bundle of HR practices which adapt best practice to the specific organizational situation.  Additionally,  L&D is an iterative and developing process.  Being perfect implies a finite endpoint. However, a number of organizations demonstrate elements of best practice. For example, in the book, I discuss a case study in which Marks & Spencer use best practice in its management training.

In future blogs, I will be discussing effective L&D with practitioners who I believe stand out in delivering highly effective interventions.

Q: What are the new developments in L&D covered in the book and why are these important?

A: Interestingly, the same issues emerge time and again in different clothing. There is a lot of movement in terms of blended L&D, using a range of interventions to achieve effective learning, but again the primary issue is stickability of the learning and the extent to which it will enhance performance.

One area that I think will be very interesting, which I comment on in the book, is the use of big data to identify learning needs and evaluate learning interventions. This is a whole new take on a difficult area.  For example, if you have delivered generic management training to a group of junior managers how do you know if it has made a difference in their capability as managers.  The role of a manager is so varied, complex and context-dependent that any number of factors can impact their capability. However, with big data, there is a chance to compare a sufficiently large number to allow for context and identify changes. You can then mine down to identify what exactly caused those changes. There is a chance that this could change the face of evaluation of L&D.

Q: What motivated you to write Learning and Development

A: I have a passion for enabling individuals to be the best that they can be – for supporting them in understanding where they can develop and make the best of their natural talents and gifts. Providing a resource to support organizations in developing people is part of that passion.  Importantly, here it is balanced with a focus on building organizational capability.