Amidst all of the focus on virtual delivery since the emergence of Covid 19, we run the risk of losing sight of the most important question we need to ask as Learning Professionals – Why are we doing what we are doing and what is it in service of?


Those of us who work in learning and development have been conscious of how the issue of delivery has been driving the agenda in our profession for some time. Add in a global pandemic, characterised by the necessity for social distancing and a related boom in digital-based platforms, and it is easy to see why technology is such a focus right now.


There is a huge danger, I believe, that in concentrating on this aspect of learning and development, we are missing the point. We risk distorting the discussion that we need to have as learning professionals and obfuscating the question that we need to ask ourselves and our stakeholders.


This question is not “what do you need?” or even “how should we deliver it?” but “why do you need to do this?”


It is only by answering this critical question that L&D can truly impact the organisation. Ignoring that crucial question and focussing on issues of lesser importance does an enormous disservice to those we serve.


Thinking about this lately brought a childhood memory to mind. While I have been working in Learning and Development for more than 20 years, my first awareness of corporate training was 36 years ago.  My Dad worked for the State Training Agency, AnCO, and was sent off to Bristol for a five-day course on Time Management.


As an impressionable 10-year old, I was curious to understand why adults would be sent back to school and what my Dad would learn.  He returned with a new diary, lots of phrases about eating elephants and excitement about the difference that it would make to his working life.  It transpired that every manager in Anco was being sent on the same programme as the organisation believed that these skills were critical to effective working.


While fashions have changed over the years, this belief that there is a certain body of knowledge that when absorbed, will magically transform individuals and organisations, has endured.


It has consistently played out in conversations about leadership as advocates for transformational leadership take aim at supporters of Authentic Leadership who take a different view to those in favour of Inclusive Leadership.  In the middle of this, our leaders remain perplexed as to how they should lead.


In the past ten years, this narrow focus on content and leadership ideology has been slowly picked apart by scholars such as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Herminia Ibarra.  Even more recently, psychologist and activist John Amaechi has suggested that this perspective of development is based on a belief that there is “one true way or school of thought” and as a result, has contributed to the culture of endemic racism that is engulfing the western world.


Alongside this focus on content, in the last 20 years, we have witnessed an unprecedented focus on how we do what we do.  Delivery methodology, powered by advances in technology, has been front and centre of the agenda. The conversation has shifted from Computer Based Training to eLearning, from Learning Management Systems to Learning Experience Platforms and encompasses micro-learning, VR, AI and content curation.


This focus on content is reflected in Donald H Taylor’s annual global sentiment survey of Learning professionals. From 2014 – 2019, the biggest issue of focus for respondents each year could be categorised as learning “delivery”. In 2020, this shifted to focus on Learning Analytics. We will need to wait until next year’s survey to see if this marks a permanent departure.


This focus on both the what and the how largely misses the point.  The question we should be asking ourselves as learning professionals is, why we are doing this.


In his seminal 2015 book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed examines how we learn by contrasting the aviation sector with medicine.  A must read for anybody serious about learning, at no point in the discussion does he identify either learning content or the delivery methodology as the key differences between the relative performance of both sectors.  What he does discuss is the culture of performance, accountability and continuous learning that has transformed safety across the aviation industry.


In his latest book, Improving Performance Through Learning, Robert Brinkerhoff argues that learning professionals have inverted the natural process of learning.  In focusing on learning outcomes and delivery methodology, we have lost sight of the business rationale that drives the learning in the first place.  Brinkerhoff argues that in order to truly drive performance, we must consider the following, in this order:


  • Business Rationale – why is this learning important to the business and what issue are we trying to address;
  • Performance Outcomes – what metrics do we wish to change as a result of this learning;
  • Moments that Matter – In order to meet our performance outcomes, who must do what and how will that be measured?’
  • Learning Outcomes – In order to behave in a specific way, what must I know/be able to do.


At the heart of this approach is a deceptively simple idea but one that has been lost in all the noise about delivery methodology.  In order for me to behave in a specific way, I must not only know something, but I must be able to perform in a particular way, given a specific set of circumstances.


For clarity, I am confining my comments in this article to instances where we genuinely wish people to do something different.  If the sole purpose of the learning is simply to satisfy a regulator, in-house compliance function or mandatory CPD requirement, then it is entirely appropriate to an efficient delivery methodology.


However, if we are in the business of change, whether that is mindset or behaviour, we need to focus on performance.


Understanding what people need to do and under what conditions is critical to any conversation about learning.  Consider the simple act of changing a tyre.  Do I need to do extensive training to change a tyre under normal urban conditions?  Clearly not. But, what if I am part of a Formula 1 team?


We also need to consider how others experience the behaviour.  Take for example the classic management skill of feedback.  If we focus on the model of feedback alone (the learning outcome), we may miss the critical issue of the manager’s motivation to give effective feedback at appropriate times and their confidence to do so (the moment that matters).


We may also miss something deeper that is at the heart of the issue.  This is the performance outcome that we are seeking to impact e.g. engagement scores


We have written extensively in the past about habits and behavioural change.  Suffice to say that behavioural change takes a significant amount of time and deliberate practice.


At HPC, our approach is to “nudge” managers in the direction that best supports the organisation’s strategy.  This builds both competence and confidence and a commitment to change.  That commitment to change is based on understanding the whyWhy is this learning important and what metric will change as a result of it?


Once we establish the answer to that question, we can then effectively discuss the appropriate content and delivery methodology.


As we emerge from lockdown, we run the risk of getting caught in a dogmatic war about delivery methodology that is driven by technology vendors.  The use of digital tools has been critical for our Irish clients for the past few months.   It has been just as critical for our international clients for the past few years.


Delivery is an important consideration but it is not the key question. At HPC, we focus on delivering a dynamic blend of solutions that is unique to each client, based on their specific circumstances and their needs.  Building on our expertise in driving behavioural change, we combine tools such as virtual classrooms, webinars, curated content, psychometrics, coaching and facilitator-led learning with our learning transfer platform to build a dynamic, client-led solution. To create that dynamic blend that shifts behaviour, we must start with the business rationale.


But as Simon Sinek said in another context, great organisations start with why and in a post-Covid world, perhaps all of us as Learning professionals need to take this approach.  The what and the how can flow from there.



Kevin Hannigan is Head of Talent Consulting at HPC. He is a highly skilled consultant and facilitator with a wealth of experience in designing the systems and processes that support effective learning, measurement and talent development.

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