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Nigel Harrison plays devil’s advocate in this illuminating Q&A. Based on a real life scenario, it may make for uncomfortable reading but its message is essential for anyone wanting a future in learning and development.

Chris, the new CEO of a large multinational company: Hi Nigel, thanks for the offer of support. I have inherited a learning and development (L&D) team which my executives are not happy with.

Nigel: Hi Chris, glad to help. Tell me about your L&D department.

Chris: Well I have their report here and it mentions:

  • the number of people trained (20,000)
  • budgets spent (£20 million)
  • feedback sheets from training courses (all very good or excellent)

But I’m really worried that there is no mention of the business priorities, they seem to be living in their own bubble. The whole thing seems very insular and full of HR jargon. £20 million investment, but to what benefit?  My executive board say the training department is mainly involved with running and booking courses, and now we have this learning management system (LMS) we can probably do it ourselves. You’ve been working with top companies, what should ‘good’ look like?

Nigel: Okay Chris let’s start by dividing L&D up into three parts:

    • Compliance
    • Professional development
    • Strategic performance improvement


First see if you have any compliance training which is about attendance and time based (e.g. to have completed 15 hours of training). This is all wrong! It should be about achievement of standards and real assessment in scenarios which are as close to the real thing as possible. I would employ professional instructional designers to re-vamp your compliance training.

Professional Development

Your learners and their managers should be able to use your LMS to plan their own development and source solutions. But be careful – you don’t want them just picking topics from a list. Make sure that your LMS is organised around job roles and includes prescribed learning solutions which include standards of performance relevant to the individual’s stage of progress in the job.

So Chris, I suggest that you commission a quick survey of the quality of the content on your LMS, and/or performance portal and learning community.

Strategic performance improvement

Finally this leads us to the more strategic role of L&D. Opportunities are usually grouped around learning needs, often characterised by a request for a training solution by one of your line mangers, such as: ‘We need sales training’.  As we know, in the past such ‘orders’ were often taken at face value by learning managers but such order-takers didn’t survive very long.

I would see if you have any performance consultants in your team who can analysis the real performance problems behind such requests. As the CEO, the  key thing you want to know is the cost of the performance gap (gap in sales) that would continue if nothing was done, and the associated investment to close the gap. You’ll need this data to prioritise your investment in L&D.

Your L&D plan should be no different from your business priorities for the year.

A simple checklist to see if your team is really performing should:

      • Have a lot of business sponsors
      • Be part of the main business initiatives
      • Present you with quantified performance gaps that they are working on in partnership with the business
      • Be so highly valued by other business units that If you wanted to make any of them redundant tomorrow they would scream ‘no we need them’

Chris: That’s great Nigel; anything else I should watch out for?

Nigel: Well Chris, I’m sorry, but your lovely, helpful learning team was probably not the only issue. Breaking the training bubble also implies that your senior managers need to face up to their real performance problems and not jump to fast, easy solutions such as ‘let’s train them’.

Line managers often jump to quick solutions such as ‘train them’ and ‘recruit more’ because of the easy benefits:

      • It turns the spotlight away from my performance
      • Someone else has to do something (train, recruit)
      • I’m busy and stressed and haven’t got the bandwidth to think through this properly

So you’ll need to do two things:

      • Appoint an L&D Leader with real credibility, with the skills and resilience to challenge their ‘solutioneering’
      • Support the whole L&D team in the proper diagnosis of real business needs and to design performance solutions with their clients

And Chris, I wouldn’t blame your L&D team. They sound as though they were stuck in a self-fulfilling training bubble.  We call it a conspiracy of convenience.  It’s a closed loop system where everyone is trying to do a good job. It has benefits for everyone involved to ask for and deliver learning solutions that are not connected to your business’ key performance indicators. I think you will have some talented people in your team who have the potential to re-skill.

Chris: Good point, I won’t rush to make them redundant.  I will see how many can make the journey with me.  Many Thanks.


Nigel HarrisonNigel Harrison is an outspoken Performance Consultant who challenges ‘solutioneering’. A Chartered Business Psychologist he’s the author of How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting.  Find out more about bursting your ‘training bubble’ at  www.performconsult.co.uk or contact Nigel@performconsult.co.uk