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Top down, bottom up or middle out?

My blog post on the Learning and Skills Group conference seems to have caused something of a furore, with a lot of debate both online and particularly offline – so much so that I feel it is worth devoting a little more time and space to my reasons for saying what I did, and to share some of the reflections I have had on the subject since.

Whilst I could reflect on some of the feedback I’ve received and wonder whether my expectations were too specific to be covered by the sessions I attended, I actually feel that those expectations were realistic and that they should have been met.

Having worked in the L&D field for some 20 years or so, I know the importance of results for all of the organisations that I’ve worked with. In the current climate it’s never been more important to be able to show that, as an industry, our work generates tangible business results for the clients we engage with. And this year in particular I get the sense that organisations are more willing to look towards new ways of learning than perhaps they have been in the recent past.

I say this with first hand experience of how hard it has been for L&D teams in both the public and private sectors to introduce change within their own organisations. This year, and for a number of reasons, change seems to be something that is being actively sought. And one of the key drivers for this is an acknowledgment that learning interventions undertaken in the past are now not working in some way and change is needed to bring about a desired result.

It’s also interesting to see where the push for change within organisational L&D is being instigated. In my experience this isn’t being driven from the bottom up… ever.

On occasion it’s coming from the top. I attended a presentation by Cisco in Switzerland earlier this year delivered by their Director of Centre For Collaborative Leadership. Here, the demand for change came from the most senior level in the business and has resulted in a transformation in the way that leadership L&D is handled across the organisation in Europe.

Many of the elements that Jay Cross touched on in his opening session at the LSG event were actually covered during the Cisco presentation. And a number of key business results were cited as being directly attributable to the changes introduced. The audience for the presentation comprised senior L&D, Talent Management and HR Directors from a broad range of global organisations and it was interesting to listen to many of them being less than enthusiastic about what they had heard.

The main reason for the lukewarm reception seemed to be because Cisco is a technology business. In some way it was felt that the kind of informal learning strategies and the tools and technologies deployed to make these work could be introduced more easily at Cisco, because technology is at the heart of what Cisco does.

I don’t share this view and I know that Cisco had issues internally with the scale and ambition of the changes being driven from the top. I know that at LINE, wikis, blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc are all in regular use as key elements of the informal learning that takes place within our organisation. And hand on heart I could stand up and say “It works well for us so you should give it a try.” But I don’t because I know that the views expressed amongst that senior audience in Switzerland are very widely shared.

I honestly cannot think of a single example I’ve encountered where the drive for change within L&D has come from the bottom up. If anyone out there has any that they can point me to, please send me a link where I can learn more!

By far the most common driver for change comes from within the L&D function itself and usually it’s a single individual with a vision of how they want to make things better for their organisation. I don’t believe that the L&D profession is full of bean counters reporting on course attendees and pass rates. I believe that there are individuals out there who are passionate about getting the best for their organisations and that they encounter significant barriers from above and below in driving change forward.

This is why I feel so aggrieved when key events such as the LSG conference don’t provide the examples and/or case studies that delegates can relate to and take back to their own organisations. Because the spark that lights the fire for change needs fuel to sustain it and perhaps best way for our industry to do that is by showing how results can be and have been achieved using technology enabled learning – formal or informal.

Three years ago LINE undertook a consultancy project for a major global client. We were asked to look at the issues that the organisation faced in providing training to a key section of its workforce and come up with a strategy to change the way this was undertaken. The resulting report contained a detailed analysis of the current situation and a masterplan of how training transformation could be implemented. This included a wide range of interventions including podcasts, wikis, e-learning, gaming, blog sites, user generated content, e-learning, mobile learning nuggets and more.

The strategy was to ensure that a core of knowledge was trained formally across the target audience and that the remainder was made available in a wide range of formats (as best suited to the learning material to be covered) which could be pulled down as and when required – just in time, as it were. The solution wasn’t quite the 70:20:10 mix outlined by Charles Jennings at the LSG event and referenced in my previous blog, but the impact would have been along those lines. I say ‘would have been’ because the project never went any further than the report feedback. At the time the drivers for change – all from within the L&D team were unable to move the blockers higher up in the organisation. And lack of evidence of how effective this approach could be was a key problem for them.

But that was 2007. Fast forward to 2010 and earlier in the year we had a call from the same organisation. A new senior member of the L&D team had joined the company, observed that there were serious flaws in the way the training function responded to the needs of the business, was pointed to our report from 2007 and is now driving an updated version of this through the company with help from ourselves and other key members of the L&D team. We should have a full case study on what this has achieved by the end of the year.

The BBC recently covered a military project that LINE has undertaken for the Royal Artillery:

This project uses the Apple iPad as part of a blended learning programme to provide training on Fire Control Orders and was conceived by a member of the L&D team. He realised that the old methods of training were not being effective and that the introduction of learning material on a mobile device with multi-user interactive exercises would revolutionise the effectiveness of the training provision. Again, not top down or bottom up… but a vision from within L&D coupled with the passion and ability to realise that vision.

I could go on with dozens of other examples but enough said.

It simply isn’t good enough to say that any particular type of learning intervention is revolutionising the way we learn without backing this up with evidence. This isn’t a question of dumbing down – just the necessity of completing the picture and presenting a coherent, cohesive and highly convincing case for change. By doing this we can help to support and drive the passion we encounter within L&D functions and across organisations. If we fail to effectively inspire and support the central L&D function within organisations we fail ourselves, we fail our industry and more importantly, we fail the organisations we work with.

This blog post first appeared on the LINE website on August 5th 2010.