One of these days, someone will definitively inform us as to the exact percentage of people whose lives are diminished by exposure to statistics, or once and for all model the vectors that trace the relationship between industry surveys and people rushing to promote their service as the solution to their findings. But until that technology becomes available, we can all take the opportunity to polish our debating skills on the raw meat of the latest statistical insight.

A recent survey, Learning to Change, of decision makers at 100 of the UK’s top 500 companies (by turnover) about the state of dedicated L&D functions, professionally undertaken by Coleman Parkes on behalf of Capita has produced results that have certainly given the profession and its practitioner-commentators plenty to commentate about. And a fair bit to put into practice too.

Here are the salient figures:

  • 70% see inadequate staff skills as barrier to growth
  • 40% see employee skills risk being obsolete
  • 55% claim L&D failing to deliver necessary training
  • 46% doubt L&D can deliver
  • Less than 18% agree that L&D aligned with business.

(You can download the summary report from the Capita website in PDF format.)

One commentator – Andrew Jacobs at – drew a line between two of the figures that seemed salient (“If “70% see inadequate staff skills as barrier to growth” yet “46% doubt L&D can deliver” how will the skills be developed?”), although the most obvious comment to my mind seems so far to escaped almost everyone, unless they’re all being too polite. But surely if this is the real state of L&D in so many of our top companies, those decision makers have been making some seriously dreadful decisions – in recruitment, strategy, management and business oversight processes – and letting the effects drag on for too long?

One of the few exceptions I’ve found on the blogosphere is Clive Shepherd. As he points out – actually quite politely –

I’d be inclined to point the finger of blame (not a nice thing to do but hey) at the key decision-makers themselves:

  • What on earth are you doing tolerating such poor performance (at least as you perceive it)?
  • Would you sit back and do nothing if other departments performed so poorly?
  • What direction have you been giving to your l&d team?
  • On what basis did you appoint your l&d manager?”

Elsewhere, a less gallant version of the blame game seems to be in play. The only comment his posting has received is from Donald Clark, another blogger to have covered the original survey. A well-known speaker on e-Learning, Donald’s online profiles suggest a penchant for delivering colour and controversy as well as learning. (A penchant for CIPD-bashing also seems to be rather evident, when it’s degree of impact on learners – after all, an important part of the equation – as opposed to L&D functions, trainers and executives must be debatable.)

There seem to be a number of tendencies at play in the online debate. Firstly, to blame L&D for its perceived failings (which does leave Clive Shepherd’s questions begging for a response). If L&D has become so detached from corporate strategy, it’s probably not done so deliberately and it will also be a situation that others have allowed – consciously or otherwise – to take place: at this juncture, someone should ask if accountability shouldn’t cut more than one way?

A second tendency is to promote technology as a vehicle for delivery. It should, in the interests of fairness, be pointed out that many of these making this argument have vested (often vested business) interests in promoting e-learning – although there should be no surprise that the blogosphere, as an uncensored medium, should be used as a PR vehicle. Nick Shackleton-Jones, commenting at Clark’s blog, does however make a valid point here:

My point is this: unless we make real progress in our understanding of learning, then online will fare no better (and often worse) than traditional methods.”

It’s a point that bears repeating: none of the failings that the Coleman Parkes survey suggest are actually directly to do with delivery methods, and – their merit of newness aside – new techniques don’t come with any in-built guarantee of addressing these issues.

A third tendency debates evaluation and measurement, some wanting to do away with Kirkpatrick’s model, sometimes on grounds of irrelevance to decision makers. I started to wonder here quite what Levels 3 and 4 were if not relevant in this context, although the argument that evaluating irrelevant learning outcomes doesn’t teach you anything is valid. But many surveys suggest most companies fail to evaluate at these levels anyway, even though that’s the evaluation they feel is most valuable. Evaluating beyond the ‘happy sheet’ level is difficult, and often time-consuming and expensive – and meaningless if done too soon after an intervention – but I can’t quite see how ‘scrapping Kirkpatrick’ actually solves that conundrum, beyond giving the factions a new topic to argue about.

This is ground that we’ve visited before (by which I’m referring to ASK and Robert Terry’s The Great Leadership & Management Development Conspiracy article, rather than the profession – which seems to revisit it on a daily basis), so it was refreshing to see some commentators making suggestions to build bridges across some of the divides that debate around the topic sometimes seems more interested in widening than closing.

Blaming L&D functions for executive’s perception of their failure does not, in itself, solve anything, but neither does absolving executives from responsibility for the situation. These parties need to work together and to increase their understanding of each other’s outlooks. Executives keen to emphasise effective learning need to be guided as to how adult learning occurs, how it works best, how organisations can support, encourage and enhance it. (As Clive Shepherd also puts it, L&D “needs to start by educating those above to understand the realities of adult learning in the workplace, not the business of processing employees through courses.”)

And L&D practitioners need to understand the types of learning and development that the business really requires so that it can make strides to reshape its activities, processes, methods and curricula to better deliver it. Both sides will also need to learn each other’s language – and also that they are not the only people that need to take action. None of the blog posts – or the comments on them – made a single mention of line managers, possibly the biggest single influence of the outcomes of learning and development and a critical factor in transfer and application, which was also striking by its absence from the debate.

Well-structured, carefully designed learning that aligns clearly with business requirements and objectives and still doesn’t stick isn’t going to be that much of an improvement, is it? There are many voices calling for their preferred solution, which is only to be expected. While some of these solutions would offer some real benefit, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a post at The Technium, which explored what it called “The Shirky Principle”, named after Clay Shirky’s observation that:

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”.

There is a touch of the ‘If all you have is a hammer …’ scenario in some people’s willingness to spot protruding nails. Where freelance carpentry isn’t the main solution offered, other voices typically call for L&D to reinvent itself, grasp nettles, revolutionise – although the calls for change tend to be somewhat light on the direction the revolution should then head off in. One commentator who did get my attention offered a different proposition: rather than restyling itself, L&D should … well, ‘get out more’. For Peter Casebow, writing on his blog, the answer lies not so much in localised transformation as in organizational-wide rethinking and cooperative collaboration. As he puts it:

As ‘Learning to change‘ says ‘a downturn brings change and transformation and to be successful requires people with the requisite skills, abilities and attitudes’. This can only be achieved with the strong input from learning, but the actual outcomes and accountability lie across the organisation.

We need to stop evaluating learning as a stand alone activity and see it as part of a more sophisticated solution. As such we should measure how well the organisation uses learning to get results. The responsibility for this belongs to the whole organisation. It cannot be delegated to the learning department.”

(He has also written interestingly on the working relationship between L&D and HR – in this context, an important and related point.)

But perhaps the most damning statistic in the report is one that has been little mentioning in the blogosphere, although it is picked up by Mark Berthelemy:

  • Half (50%) believe that their L&D function is stuck in a ‘business as usual’ mindset.

He’s aware of the Shirky Principle too, to judge by his concluding comment:

You could argue that this data is simply designed to point people towards Capita Learning and Development. That might be partially true. Even so, it’s quite clear that L&D in general really isn’t hitting the spot where businesses are concerned. Perhaps that might be because we still have the mind-set that “learning” is a commodity that we deliver. We provide training to meet perceived training needs. Every performance problem is seen as solved by a training intervention.

Perhaps L&D needs to rebrand – towards performance consulting… Often performance problems are more around culture, systems, processes and communication. Solve those, and you won’t need to provide training in a lot of cases.”

The last sentence is provocative – perhaps deliberately so? – but the preceding one seems closer to the heart of the issue: L&D alone can’t address culture, systems, processes and communication. If learning isn’t driving the improvements in performance that your organisation needs, it may not just be the learning department that needs to make amends: a more holistic approach may provide greater dividends. After all, even if your toe nails are too long, trimming them won’t cure a headache.

Just as learners are dependant on their environment if they are to successfully embed their new skills and behaviours, L&D functions are dependent on their environment if they are to provide the ‘performance consulting’ that is really needed.

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