Your new best friend

Written by Alan Bellinger of the Institute of IT TrainingTo paraphrase the words of JFK: “Ask not what your Learning & Development (L&D) group can do for you; rather ask what you can do for L&D”! The drive for efficiency has some interesting consequences. Fundamentally, there are three ways in which organisations within the public sector can generate efficiency savings – improve work-flow, work smarter, and work harder. And each of them involves your L&D group; changes to work flow and working smarter involve new skills, whilst working harder involves morale.
Your L&D group should be at the centre of these initiatives, but they can’t make them a reality without the ICT department’s full cooperation. The core issue is this: “What is the best way to use ICT to transfer skills?”
The core issue that the L&D group has to address is that the old norms don’t work anymore. An example is this: it used to be a pavlovian reaction of “We need skills; we need a course”. But that is now seen as the infamous non-sequitur that it really is. “We need skills; we need a learning intervention” however, is a truism. That learning intervention could be classroom-based course but it is much more likely to be an intervention that is supported by ICT.
Conventional L&D has now embraced three critical mega-trends in its approach to skills transfer. The first is enterprise content management (or knowledge management in more conventional terminology), the second is social networking, and the third is performance management. And that highlights my key point – all three of these trends involve the application of ICT to develop skills.  

Enterprise Content Management
The Henley Business School has just held its 10th anniversary KM conference and in the last few of those 10 years, organisations have begun to exploit the synergy between Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and learning. In part this has been driven by the fact that Microsoft blew the market wide open with SharePoint (good functionality at a fraction of the cost previously available). Even open source has got into the act (e.g. Joomla).
The pressure for L&D to get involved in informal learning has been a driver for them to exploit these synergies. An effective ECM strategy requires comparable skills to L&D (needs analysis, competency management, scenario setting, domain management, Communities of Practice, assessment etc.) and therefore the fact that learning interventions can be structured to utilise both formal delivery and informal access makes the learning experience much richer. One of the consequences of this trend is that L&D is having a greater influence in the management of Communities of Practice and also in the implementation of cross-function initiatives.
Social Networking
Now please don’t switch off! Don’t think Twitter, Facebook and time wasting! Certainly they are part of the social networking world, but they’re not the issue here. The point is that, within the last 18 months, L&D Professionals have had substantial exposure to the social networking world and, indeed, most of them are now making active contributions to such sites. A discussion on one of the sites recently revolved around how many social networking sites can manage? The conclusion was that not all networking sites are equal; and it comes down to the definition of the community of practice that the sites address.
Social networking sites raise a number of issues regarding hosting and access; in the first instance, the ICT department needs to be attentive to the expectations of employees to participate in relevant communities. If you don’t allow access, they’ll simply access from home and complain of the inflexibility of the ICT department. In the second instance, there is the issue that, if the community of practice is defined as specific to the organisation, do you really want that IPR circulating in the cloud?

Performance Management
For some time now there has been an “application sweet-spot”; it is the combination of Business Intelligence (in order to provide the core metrics), Performance Management (in order to generate the dashboards and scorecards) and Talent Management (the synthesis of performance and skills). But one of the problems with rolling out this combination has been one of program ownership. In many early cases, finance was tasked with ownership and the consequence was that the approach was based too much on fiscal measures.
A survey published earlier this year by Quocirca for Oracle highlighted the conclusion that the recession had uncovered many failings in early implementations, and that there was a significant need to ensure that the right processes and tools are in place to make it happen. At the end of the day, that comes down to the project owner – and L&D is best placed to take a leadership role on such a program.
Having identified the mega trends, let’s address the issue of just where is this leading. The core issue is that, in conjunction with your L&D group, you need to create an environment in which your staff work smarter. In the new world of learning interventions rather than courses there is a clear “end-game” – to ensure that learning was embedded in work. The sequence goes like this:

  • learning is a process, not an event
  • learning is contextualised
  • learning is integrated in work
  • learning is embedded within work.

There are three clear benefits to this approach that resonate perfectly with current operating conditions; firstly, it’s an environment that can start quickly and grow; secondly, it does not require a significant up-front investment; and thirdly, it shows a very rapid pay-back.

Measurement & assessment
There is a downside, however; in a classroom setting it is very easy to measure and assess a learner’s skills gain but when the skills transfer is performed in a more informal learning intervention, it is very difficult to manage. This raises an interesting point – just what are we measuring? For many years the L&D world has used a measurement framework based on the Kirkpatrick Model. This is a four level model – Reaction (what did the learner think of the course?), Learning (did they learn the skills?), Behaviour (can they apply those skills in practice) and Impact (did the skills gain result in increased performance?).
This is another L&D norm that needs to be questioned. The point is this: in the past that fourth level has been extremely difficult to establish and therefore L&D tended to focus on stages 1 and 2. But now, with Performance Management tools in place, it becomes highly visible. So, if we can get straight to Kirkpatrick level 4, do we really need to worry about the first three levels after all? It’s conundrums like that that make life interesting!

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