Training and development in the UK is a profession in crisis. Training expenditure and investment is down in many organisations as the new economic reality continues to hit us. Only last week I heard of a major UK local authority which has stopped all expenditure on training and they are by no means an isolated case. This is the usual reaction to an economic downturn; training is a discretionary spend which is easy to cut.

However, this is obviously a shortsighted strategy.  British industry is often lamenting skills shortages in key areas and the shortfalls of our education system in preparing our young people for work are frequently discussed.  Countless surveys find that our management is generally not as skilled or often as educated as some of our major competitors, supported by the low esteem in which many managers are held by their teams.  Many managers feel under enormous pressure, ill equipped to cope with the ever-increasing demands on them.  Our future prosperity is dependent on our ability to offer high skilled, value added products and services yet there is a disconnect between the macro picture and the micro current state.

So how did we end up here and what do we need to do about it?  We can’t blame shortsighted management and financial constraints, we have only ourselves to blame as a profession.  Businesses spend money on what they perceive adds value to their performance and the fact that they are not investing for the future simply shows that they remain skeptical of the value which our profession offers.   There are at least 3 key ways in which we have not helped ourselves.

1.  We have not been sufficiently results orientated.  For many in the profession, it is self-evident that it is a good thing to develop skills in our workforce.  Few would argue with that but the question we need to address is “why would an employer pay to develop these skills rather than expect the individual to invest in themselves?”  Obviously the employer will only invest if they perceive there to be a clear benefit in terms of organizational performance.  For years, trainers have hidden behind the fact that you cannot conclusively measure the impact of training.  This may be true but it is not an excuse for failing to focus our work on achieving the improvement in individual and organizational performance which justifies the investment.  Without this focus, investing in training becomes little more than an act of faith.

Instead of focusing on organizational performance, our industry has tended to focus on end user experience.  Whilst important, this is far from the whole story.  The danger of letting this dominate our focus is that we end up in the business of “Entertrainment” where our success is judged by our popularity with our participants rather than by the performance impact of our work.  Stupid measures produce stupid behaviour and if the only measure we have is popularity, this will drive the behavior of trainers and Learning and Development managers alike.

2.  The failure of learning and development to demonstrate value to the business creates a vicious circle.  In many organisations, not only has learning and development lost its place at the top table, it doesn’t have a place at any table. Over the years the seniority and experience of Learning and Development managers in many organisations has declined to such a degree that many are either in-house trainers arranging a few external courses on the side or they are administrators and co-ordinators who, whilst they may be very efficient, are not equipped or positioned to add strategic value.  Learning and Development functions should be doing far more than choosing vendors and arranging courses.  They should be working with senior management to answer key questions such as:

  • How do we equip people with the appropriate skills and behaviours to enable the organization to succeed in an ever increasingly complex world?
  • How do we contract with the business to enable them to develop the necessary skills and encourage the appropriate behaviours in their teams which will help us to achieve our organizational objectives?
  • How do we define clear objectives in this respect and how do we track progress?
  • Where should we be prioritising our investment?

3.  Our language and approach creates barriers.  We use language setting ourselves up as experts, reinforcing the perception that developing performance is the responsibility of training and development.  I would even argue that using words like “learning” and “development” sets us above the people we work with.  This parent/child relationship is not a good model for developing performance.  This either breeds suspicion, cynicism and resentment or allows the rest of the organization to collude with us in a relationship where managers “manage” people and we “develop” them.  This ignores the fact that most of us use our experience in everyday situations as our most powerful learning resource.  To me, the fundamental challenge facing any Learning and Development function is to work with the organization to see how that experience can be turned into increased levels of performance.

You can instantly see how even these 3 trends feed off and reinforce each other.  Together they lead to a situation where organisations increasingly look to address performance improvement through the blunt instrument of hiring and firing with all its tangible and intangible costs.  There has to be a better approach.

So what can we do?  We are not going to change the world overnight and our profession has to earn the credibility and influence which we feel that our work requires if we are to succeed. I believe there are 3 things we can focus on to start this change.

  1. Identify and work with an area of the organisation which is truly committed to improving its performance.  In the words of one of my erstwhile colleagues “push where it moves”.  Once you’ve identified that area of the organization, set up an explicit contract with them about what performance improvement they are looking to see, how learning and development can support this and how what we would see people doing differently if we are truly embedding new skills and behaviours.
  2. Use this contract to establish a true end-to-end approach which places management and colleagues at the centre of development.  Support the business by providing them with the tools and structures to contract with their people about what development they are looking for, what this will really look like in practice, how both parties will work together to achieve this and what opportunities and support there will be to embed these new skills and ways of working.  Provide a range of development activities to introduce new skills, ways of working and experience to people and teams.
  3. Focus explicitly on sustaining this performance improvement.  Avoid setting up short-term programmes or activities in isolation.  Always ask the question, “In 6 months’ time, how will we maintain focus on this and continue to reinforce the importance of this performance improvement?”  If there is no answer to this question, our chances of embedding performance improvement are very limited.

In this way, we have the opportunity to demonstrably add value to the organization, providing the impact on organizational performance which is the whole point of our work.  Yes, this approach requires more focus and clarity of thinking but not necessarily funding.  In fact, it should be far less costly because it will allow us to avoid the remedial training trap where we train, fail to create sustainable impact and therefore retrain or replace.   The alternative is that we end up with more local authorities and other organisations cutting training completely, thereby accelerating our cycle of decline.  The good news is that there is a way out – the question is simply does our profession have the appetite, the courage and the skills to do it.