As we’ve seen, given that all l&d professionals operate within a context of limited resources, top-down learning needs to be well targeted. Determining what those targets should be is not a trivial task, particularly as many l&d departments are not that well connected to the managerial decision-making process within their organisations. The effort must be made, however, or else a high proportion of the resources expended in top-down interventions (not least the efforts and talents of committed l&d professionals) will be misdirected, if not completely wasted. As Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, famously remarked: “People ask me, ‘where did I go wrong?’ My answer is always the same: Probably at the beginning.”
It is nothing new to be told that training should be aligned to the needs of the business, but that doesn’t mean that it ‘goes without saying’ or is ‘common sense’. All too often, common sense is anything but common. Ask yourself how many of the training interventions in your organisation are clearly aligned to current business needs, rather than fulfilling requirements articulated sometime in the distant past, but which have no current relevance. And how many interventions have originated from the l&d department on the basis of where they believe the organisation should be heading, regardless of the views of senior management? No organisation ever set up an l&d department so this department could then determine the appropriate direction for the organisation. It is not up to l&d professionals to decide what is good leadership, what is good customer service or what are appropriate values for the organisation. Their job is to help senior management make their vision a reality, regardless of whether that vision is shared by the professionals that staff the l&d department.
A good question to ask is this:
What behaviours are critical to the future success of this organisation?
Let’s unpick this a little. You need to know about ‘behaviours’ because, of all the various factors which influence the success of an organisation, only these can be affected by learning and development. You need to find out which are the ‘critical’ behaviours, because you don’t have the resources to devote to the non-critical. And you need to focus on ‘future success’, because learning and development is an investment in the future and can do little to influence what happens right now. The only people who can answer this question with any authority are senior management.
The question can and should also be addressed at each of the main functional and regional departments and divisions within the organisation, as well as at various levels. For example: “What behaviours are critical to the future success of the IT department or European region”; “What middle management behaviours are critical to the future success of the organisation?”
Once you know what behaviours are required if the organisation is to succeed in the future, you need to assess the extent of the task in front of you:
To what degree are employees already exhibiting the behaviours that are critical for success?
Answering this question is no small task. If you work for a larger organisation, then ideally you’ll have set up a performance management system which enables you to keep track of how individuals are performing. This will include a competency framework covering every job position; one that is up-to-date with the constant and inevitable changes in job responsibilities and which describes the behaviours that senior management are looking to encourage. In order for you to assess the extent to which these competences are evidenced in actual performance, all employees will have been regularly assessed against this framework or will have conducted some form of self-assessment. Smaller organisations may not have gone so far, but they should at very least be conducting regular performance appraisals.
If, having carried out your research, you find no gaps, then your only problem is ensuring the continued supply of employees who exhibit the desired behaviours. You should be so lucky! Chances are you’ll have to ask one more question:
What influence can learning and development have on these behaviours?
Performance is influenced by a lot more than skill and knowledge, as this diagram shows:
Situational influences on the performer include the clarity of roles and objectives, the suitability of the working environment, and the tools and other resources at the performer’s disposal. The performer him or herself has aptitudes (indicating his or her potential to learn) and motivations, as well as their accumulated knowledge and skills. The performer’s responses are also influenced by outcomes (the incentives and disincentives that are likely to result from performing in a certain way) as well as the timely availability of relevant feedback. The whole performance system has to be functioning correctly if performers are to exhibit the desired behaviours. Learning and development is only going to work if (1) unsatisfactory performance can at least partly be attributed to a lack of knowledge or skills, and (2) the employees in question have the aptitude to acquire these.
According to Stolovitch & Keeps , “The leading human performance authorities have all demonstrated that most performance deficiencies in the workplace are not a result of skill and knowledge gaps. Far more frequently they are due to environmental factors, such as a lack of clear expectations; insufficient and untimely feedback; lack of access to required information; inadequate tools, resources and procedures; inappropriate and even counterproductive incentives; task interference and administrative obstacles that prevent them achieving desired results.”
L&d professionals may have to be assertive in conducting and communicating this sort of logical analysis. As Wick, Pollock, Jefferson and Flanagan remind us, “The problem typically begins when someone in upper management decrees that the company needs to have a programme on some particular topic. And when the goal of having a programme is defined as ‘having a programme’, the initiative is in trouble from the start.” Senior managers may be experts in determining the problems that are getting in the way of performance, but they are not experts in finding the solutions – that’s your job, and this is your time to speak up.
Coming next, the fifth part of chapter 5: Implementing top-down learning interventions
Obtain your copy of The New Learning Architect