L&D Is Long Overdue For a Modern Makeover!

When I say “corporate training,” what comes to mind? For many, it conjures visions of being stuck in a room for hours while someone walks through a boring PowerPoint presentation.

A lot of companies are stuck in the “sage on the stage” model when it comes to learning at work. There are L&D people who relish their role as owners of information, and they’re among the few groups within an organization that can roll out mandatory programs to everyone. This one-way push tends to reinforce the status quo.

It’s vitally important that companies connect employees with the skills and knowledge they need to excel at their jobs and advance in their careers. We need to reinvent L&D to better align with those needs and preferences, so employees aren’t just obligated to learn—they actually want to learn.

Out with the Old
Following an old-school model, it’s assumed employees have “learned” when they’ve completed a training module or attended a workshop. L&D determines what people will learn, and learning is treated as operational, not strategic. In this culture, training is a tool for breeding conformity; it gets people to follow rules. It’s also a passive experience that doesn’t engage learners. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

I believe L&D leaders should be in the talent development business, not implementers of compliance. And I think L&D as a discipline could improve its image and strengthen its impact with a makeover. For example, I acknowledge I can’t possibly be the keeper of all knowledge, including what every individual employee should be learning at any given time, so my goal is to democratize L&D so learning happens organically, informally, and socially.

L&D should redefine its role to be that of curator and facilitator, enabling learning to happen by empowering people to follow their interests and development needs. In this way, L&D can build a culture of continuous learning, where learning is a strategic asset. It’s by supporting these kinds of employee-driven growth and development activities that we can influence the company, the organization, and the business.

Fresh Perspectives Wanted
The L&D function tends to be steeped in traditionalism. Colleagues in the C-suite haven’t encouraged innovation and have kept L&D operating the same way for years. We need to balance the depth of experience of long time L&Ders with fresh ideas, diverse backgrounds, and innovative approaches—and that can only happen by broadening the hiring pool.

It takes an expanded skill set—and mindset—to champion a learning culture and build ongoing relationships across the entire organization. You need to start as a listener and develop empathy for the challenges of individual employees. I’d go as far as to say that relationship-building is the most relevant skill an L&D person can possess. Only when people believe you have their best interests at heart and want to be their ally will they get fully onboard with corporate learning.

Advantages of a Service Approach
I take a customer-focused approach to L&D, and my personal credo is that I have to be in service to the organization, not telling the organization what to do. My mission is to flip the script from demanding, “You need to get better at X,” to “I’m here to help you improve; what do you need to achieve that?” You can only establish that level of communication and trust by getting to know people and understanding their goals.

Employees will respond enthusiastically when you move away from mandatory training and, instead, invite them to explore, discover, experiment, and grow into new things. Indeed, one of my measures of success is how many people return (of their own volition!) for coaching and practice after our initial session.

This comes naturally to me because I spent years as a high school teacher, where I learned that you don’t grow enthusiastic learners by forcing them to follow rules and complete arbitrary assignments. I’d love to see L&D apply more of the creative strategies school teachers use to engage their learners.

Which brings us to the fun.

If learning is going to be the lifeblood of your company culture, it can’t feel like drudgery, especially to independent-minded millennials who chafe against corporate mandates. I strongly urge L&D folks to mix the following into their learning sessions: music, snacks, games, humour—whatever brings positive energy into the room and conditions your audience members’ brains to be open to learning. Science backs this up. And don’t forget interactivity. Remember, you’re a facilitator, not a lecturer. So, get people talking to each other, working through problems together, trading stories and experiences.

A learning culture can be a competitive advantage for any organization, but today’s workers want to be empowered, not held captive to one-size-fits-all training that doesn’t teach what they want to learn. When L&D leaders put employees in the driver’s seat, they aren’t putting themselves out of a job. On the contrary, they’ll find they can deliver even more value to both the business and to employees themselves, who are, after all, L&D’s customers.

This article first appeared on HR.com (free registration required).