With the current economic downturn, it is vital to prove L&D value to the business. We talked with Nick Hindley, an L&D practitioner of over 30 years on how to do it effectively and on the powerful examples from his career on the L&D value.
HCM Deck: When, in your opinion, did business start getting interested in L&D?
Nick Hindley: I think, to some degree, it’s always been there. The organizations I’ve been involved with have tended to be large, global organizations. So I think they’ve always had a good appreciation of the sort of things L&D can do.
Recently, there’s been a broader acceptance that L&D is a good thing and there are some structural changes. Particularly in the UK with apprenticeships to take money away from companies (in the form of tax) so that they could get it back again if they support apprenticeships. That’s pushed the L&D agenda in a structural way, but I think that’s helped organizations see the value of investing in L&D again.
So I think a lot of organizations have always seen a value. They haven’t always seen THE L&D value. They’ve always seen the potential value, but they haven’t always been totally convinced they’re getting everything for the money they put in.
Quite often when there’s an economic downturn, L&D is the thing that gets cut. That’s the challenge for L&D. To show that what it does do is worth having.
HCM Deck: What would be the way to address this challenge?
NH: The budget available has been very little, even though the organizations I’ve been in have been really successful. Yet although the budgets were small, the business units have had budgets to spend, so it’s not a central budget. I think that’s a very healthy position, because you build a business case for a particular L&D intervention. That’s a good way for all L&D practitioners to work is to always understand that really they have to substantiate their claims with a business division.
When doing these activities they see if it’s leading directly or indirectly to these improvements. It’s not so much a financial thing. It’s how much focus and support you get with L&D. That requires people to be convinced that it’s actually a good thing.
One of the reasons L&D gets into trouble sometimes with organizations is overprescription of training as a solution. From my own experience, during the last 15 years, when I’ve spoken to somebody who has a particular problem or issue with performance, probably 60% of the time, I’m coming to the conclusion that training is not going to be the answer. It’s something else. That’s where you get into the debate about where L&D starts and things like OD (organizational development) or OE (organizational excellence, organizational effectiveness) when that will come in.
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The first thing the people in L&D have to be good at is diagnosing the situation. If you do that well, that leads you to a different set of conclusions. That actually you can’t train what needs fixing here. It’s something the senior team have to communicate. They just have to do it. They may need some support to do that. Or may need coaching or a session where they’ll have realization. But that’s not training.
If you strictly define L&D as activities around training, then you can get into some problems. You may be prescribing things that are not really meeting the root cause.
If you do the diagnosis well, the second part of the L&D equation is to show that what you’ve done has been effective. That’s where you get into what is the quality of the initial commissioning process, in diagnosing what needs to happen. What is the quality of the solution process so it’s not just a workshop, but a series of activities. The ownership, the critical thing, of delivering the solution outside of the specific training is the manager’s job. If the ownership is there, it tends to be successful.
HCM Deck: In your career, you must have seen a lot of situations where L&D had a great impact on business. Can you tell us about one of such situations?
NH: There have been many, fortunately. That’s why I’m always going to support the existence and the inclusion of L&D in a strategic position with organizations. With the caveat that it has to be delivered well.
The best example would be from 7 or 8 years ago. It was a pharmaceutical organization. They had a particular issue with a key group of project managers. In the pharmaceutical industry, a typical research organization, the project managers are really critical to the operation. Unlike other industries they are project managing usually a project that could be 3-4 years long – the establishment and testing of a new drug. There’s a lot of usual stuff. Logistics, planning, critical path analysis, resources. Thus, they have to be pretty good at that. In addition, with a clinical trial, the trust for the project manager comes from the sponsoring company. So there’s also relationship management aspect. Project managers in a clinical research organization are critical. If they suddenly decide to move to another organization, your client company may follow them, because they like the way they do their job.
So this organization had an issue with quite high turnover of project managers. And if you have a lot of project managers moving, you have a number of problems. One – you’ve lost the management of the project. Two – you’ve also lost that relationship with your client. Three – that relationship has now moved to another organization.
One of the things I’ve found most successful in addressing high turnover of any group is to offer a significant pathway of personal career development over a period of time. So I set up a development programme for chosen project managers to become directors in the company.
HCM Deck: What were the outcomes?
That did lots of things. First of all, it recognized how good people are. Right when we started having this programme. I was talking to one of the delegates and he said that until this programme had been set up and they’d been accepted they never thought they were really good. That’s what the programme showed to them. They had to be selected and they were told that they are one of the best people in the company. The basic recognition already did a lot.
The other thing is that you’re offering people real personal development. The more people go in seniority, often, they have fewer opportunities for development. They usually have to look outside. This was unusual, because it was an internal programme. We had to build it in such a way that it really offers them a level of challenge and stretch. Which it did.
Learn about L&D value for business from Best Practices Day 2020 – a virtual conference for L&D leaders
The third factor is we developed this programme to go over a 12 month period. So, if you have selected your top 25 project managers and they are really pleased to be on the programme. If they sign up, you potentially got them for 12 months. That, just on its own improves your retention rate, because those people won’t be leaving.
The programme has been for 7 years now and only one project manager left. So there’s a 99.9% retention rate. Having entered the programme it was really good at addressing the skills those people would need to be a director in the organization. So you’re offering them real development, it was really enjoyable, it had to be picked right for senior management. You can’t lecture them. Such programme has to be very participative, very experiential.
At the very beginning of this programme we conducted a training where people were running around a battleship, doing team activities together. It was mind-blowing and totally enjoyable and engaging. Something they never experienced before, but they totally got that concept of leadership in 1,5 day. That would have taken weeks of lecturing to do.
In offering this programme we immediately addressed the retention aspect. All of these people at the end of 12 months stayed. Most of them got promotions. Which is not that unlikely, because they had been selected as the best. However, the important and the pleasantly surprising thing was that the people who were promoted outperformed the existing people in that high level position. That’s unusual. It showed we’ve really done a good job in diagnosing the skills they needed at that high level job.
We provided the L&D value to business in that case, because we stopped the retention from getting worse.
We improved it directly. One of the by-products is that, after the first session, these 25 people were so motivated that they started telling it to other people. Thus, the general turnover rate dropped a lot, because other highly qualified people were now waiting to get into the programme. So you have a ripple effect. We had huge benefits in terms of retention of good people. There were also huge benefits in terms of the performance of those people when they were promoted. Just the sheer level of motivation and engagement. It went through the roof.
In the start of the process, the programme’s objective was turnover, so something completely different. It shows the power if you can construct the right form of L&D intervention. It can do wondrous things.
To anyone out there with turnover issues of key groups – look to an L&D programme and make it a long-term one. It’s locking people in, but it’s doing it in a totally positive way. It’s like you’re opening up a sweet shop and saying: ‘Hey, help yourself!”. And of course everyone loves to help themselves in a sweet shop.
We had fantastic results and all the evaluations we had on that programme kept reinforcing that it was effective, highly motivating and people loved doing the programme and it’s still going on today.
HCM Deck: Can L&D bring no value or even have a negative impact on morale for example?
NH: Absolutely. If you don’t have the capacity to understand the situation, diagnose it fully, you might overprescribe training. And that happens a lot. If I’m a trainer and I have a training team, then I guess it’s logical that I should be looking for training solutions. However if the organization is clever and has insights, and it’s going to say to the L&D team: “Look, one of the roles you have is to make sure we developed the right solutions. If you think that training is not a good solution, please tell us. We’ll find some other thing. If you can do that too, great. We’ll start to look more into OD or OE.”
One of the pressure on training teams and L&D comes from the clients. I’ve lost count in how many times managers or directors approached me and said they are helpless and were asking for 3 or 4 sessions on time management or emotional leadership. My response to that is often “no”. Then I ask whether I can understand what they are trying to do first. And then we’ll discuss whether that’s actually what they need to do.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always go down too well. Even if you have the confidence to say: “No, that’s not how we operate”, it can spiral quickly into “Yeah, okay, let’s do the training.” If you concede like that, you can get into problems. It may give a quick fix. The chances are, however, it won’t have any long-term benefit. The same person might come back and say: “That training was terrible.” You have a spiral effect.
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L&D teams need to be good at designing, delivering L&D. Yet part of the reason that training won’t work is if the L&D practitioners are not good at managing relationships and can’t say no to people in a way that won’t damage the relationship with the stakeholders. They need to educate them into seeing the bigger picture.
Training itself is not negative. But if it’s done at the wrong time or for the wrong people, it’s not going to do anything. It becomes negative, because people start thinking they are wasting their time.
HCM Deck: What are you looking forward to in Best Practices Day 2020?
NH: I love getting involved with conferences and have done it for many years. It’s the main source of CPD for me. I’m really looking forward to listening to other sessions to see what’s happening in the other subject areas. My LinkedIn network is in several thousands now, because those are the folks you learn from.
A lot of people in many organizations are learning from sources we don’t know about. They are learning a lot from LinkedIn, Youtube or Instagram. The conference is virtual, a lot of people will attend, people might register that with their employer and say that they’ve been to a great conference. A lot of people will not. They may get some great ideas, but they will never be discussed.
I can’t wait to hear the other speakers., but I’m also really interested in delegates, the participants and the questions they will be asking. That gives you an idea what’s bubbling up at the moment. What may be the trend for next year. I just love spending time with other people in L&D. Hearing about what they’re doing. You pick up so many great ideas.
It’s great such an initiative has been put together. It’s very important we don’t stop having conferences because of the pandemic. You need to be always developing in this profession.
Nick Hindley has been a practitioner in Learning and Development for 30+ years working at all levels. No two years have been alike with much professional learning and many personal insights. His plan was to cover a wide variety of organisations including permanent and consultancy roles with pharmaceutical, aerospace, technology, financial services, healthcare, beverages, and local government. Nick has a masters’ degree in Human Resource Strategies and has accreditations in NLP, psychometrics and may one day complete his doctorate in applied learning.