Keep your eye on the prize

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Written by Paul Matthews on 22 October 2015

There is much talk of aligning our learning interventions with business priorities, but much of it, in my experience, is just that – talk.

In fact, recently when I suggested to one head of L&D that he needed to do this, he was incensed. He said he had been doing it for 20 years, and didn’t need me to tell him something so basic about doing his job. Luckily for both of us, he was not so incensed that he stopped speaking to me :-)

We had already been talking for an hour about his organisation and his learning and development strategy. We also talked about his approach to some of the detail on how he was on-boarding new starters, and how they were working with their managers to get them to do ‘people stuff’ rather than keep focussing on their technical domain. I felt I had a reasonably good handle on both the business, and how he was supporting the business. I saw what I felt was a gap, so I made my comment about making his learning interventions more business focussed.

After a little calming down period, I asked him what process he was going through to ensure all his learning programmes were fully aligned with the business. I genuinely wanted to know and hoped to learn something from his 20 years of experience.

He said the business managers were very good at setting their vision and targets, and they had a good idea of where they were going and what skills and resources they needed to get there. When they were implementing change, or simply needed better knowledge and skills within their teams, they would come to him and they would have a discussion. Together they would figure out what sort of training was required and he would then organise it and his L&D team would deliver it.

As far as he was concerned, because he was reacting to requests for training from the business (who knew what they were doing), and having a good discussion with the requesting sponsor, his trainings were fully aligned with the needs of the business. The business stated its needs, and he fulfilled them.

So we had a discussion about the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. When a business manager asks for training, it is what they want, and may or may not be what they actually need. Unless they have done a comprehensive performance diagnostics process, what they are asking for is very seldom what they really need. Very few managers in my experience know how to do the kind of in depth diagnostics process that is required.

To do this requires an understanding of performance as a system, and it is not a simple system. Having said that, it is possible to model the system and figure out the likely leverage points that will improve performance. One of those leverage points is nearly always the management itself, and so a manager who is an integral part of the system usually fails to see their own impact on the system, and how what they do may be the major barrier to performance. Their assumption is that what is outside of them needs ‘fixing’. They do not see the system as a whole because they are inside it.

Therefore, when a manager tells me their people need training and development in this or that area of skills or knowledge, I listen, but I know they are not often right, and can often be very wrong. Relying on the requests of managers to fully align your L&D initiatives with the TRUE needs of the business is not a recipe for success.

In order for L&D to deliver initiatives to the business which are truly and fully aligned to the needs of the business, they must do their own performance diagnostics process of the performance system to uncover those needs.

Satisfying those needs is the true prize, hence the title of this blog. Keep your eye on the prize and don't get distracted by what others say they want. Remember that what people say they want is very often different to what they actually need.


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning.