Next Generation L&D: From ‘Learning’ To ‘Performance’

First published on Looop 

A trend I’m seeing more and more, and which is reflected in the latest Bersin By Deloitte  ‘Market Trends’ Keynote, is L&D’s shift in focus from ‘learning outcomes’ to the complex and individually experienced reality of the work itself.

Senior L&D leaders generally recognise this already. Many conversations they’re exposed to at board-level seek to address actual performance and organisational capability to meet current and future needs. I know this from my years at Disney – and I knew then that training programmes and e-learning were not a reliable means for real performance improvement. They were isolated events that might have helped prompt reflection and some modicum of change. But as a way of actually helping people with their work responsibilities and career progression it was more out of hope than certainty that programmes would deliver the required results. And this is what I’m hearing even more of in the market today.

When we talk about ‘learning’, we talk about how it’s nourishing and that we help people to grow. We contribute to well-being and provide well-regarded experiences – as well as some rarely appreciated e-learning. But we’ve reached a point when this isn’t enough.

The point of L&D is to affect performance, from Day One with induction, to technical and core skills, transitions and change. There is a real need, both for the individual and the organisation, for L&D to help elevate performance, as well as individual and organisational capability. I know this. We all know this. But somewhere along the line, we’ve got stuck running programmes.

Haven’t We Always Focused On Performance?

If we all know what we’re ultimately accountable for, how come we’ve got so lost in learning?

We are learning experts. We know how adults learn. We know how to find learning needs. We design learning programmes with exercises designed to accelerate and embed the learning. We ‘measure’ the transfer of learning. We try to help our clients become better learners. We are Learning & Development, so this makes sense, right? There is logic to it. But the name is misleading. Our remit – and the real need – is Performance & Capability, isn’t it? Or to completely de-jargon: Helping people do their best work today whilst making sure the organisation has people who are ready to do the work required tomorrow.

We’ve become so transfixed with the learning element that we’re not seeing the opportunity to become performance and capability experts. This is a completely different conversation, with different means of analysis, different activities and a completely different set of measures.

Why The Shift?

The conversation about L&D is shifting as leaders and workers now have instant access to near limitless information, know-how and expertise. Work – and the broader contexts of business, technology and society – present new challenges, daily (it seems), and the old paradigm of ‘requesting and attending a course’ seems more and more impractical – and out-dated.

However, ‘training’ is still requested by our clients as if it’s always delivered returns, which adds a level of confusion and inconsistency to this message. But doing something because it’s popular, despite its inefficacy, is the reason there needs to be a team in organisations responsible for the remit of L&D (Performance & Capability), not just to take orders or comply with requests but to make sure the people and the company are really ready to perform.

With a refocus on ‘performance and capability outcomes’ our approaches are likely to become more targeted and collaborative as well as measurable, unlike the dark art of trying to measure learning.


(Apologies, I can’t remember where I got this image from but if you are, or know the creator, please leave a comment. Thank you!)

How The Shift Is Manifesting

This change is represented in the Josh Bersin Keynote, in different ways. In relation to HR technology, he talks about the shift from Talent Management towards Team and Work Management, focusing today on systems of productivity and making the work better.

Screen Shot 2018-02-26 at 14.00.47

The rationale for learning technology has shifted too, from simply a System of Record (the primary purpose of the traditional LMS), towards Engagement (the purpose of the modern LMS), towards Systems of Productivity, and a new breed of technologies aimed at affecting the work itself by being user-centric, not just in design but also in application.

Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 10.30.11

To this point, learning technology has served L&D, often to the detriment of end-users, in pursuit of ‘better learning’. This has alienated our clients who have turned to web-search and their own trusted online sources to find the support and guidance they need.

6 Things To Do Now And Refocus On Performance

1. Retire The Training / Learning Needs Analysis

The LNA (TNA) is designed to look for ‘problems’ that need solving with ‘learning solutions’ (mostly training). But this is not the language of business. Instead, Performance Consulting will help you to recognise what really needs your attention and align efforts to resolving these in the most efficient and effective ways possible – with as well as for the client. The Learning Needs Analysis was a handy way of aggregating common development needs and allocating a standard programme but it largely answered the question of scale, rather than performance. So retire it and focus on performance at the outset of the conversation.

2. Assess What’s Really Working

If you run a schedule of programmes just because you’ve always run a schedule of programmes – and they’re always full – it doesn’t mean it’s working. Find out from those who have registered to attend what they are really hoping to achieve from their attendance. As a continuation of Performance Consulting, try to find out what real problems people are seeking to solve in their work. In addition, investigate and analyse what penetration you have with your solutions: What percentage of your organisation are engaging in your face-to-face and online offerings? Business today needs a high-level of participation otherwise, L&D is a peripheral function and not affecting much performance or capability directly. If you are affecting a minority of your organisation in meaningful development then you need to reassess and re-align to where there is genuine need.

3. Provide Support And Guidance In The Flow Of Work

If there’s one thing we know about learning, it’s that real learning happens whilst doing. By helping people when they are faced with real challenges, we can find out where they are not supported sufficiently and provide digital resources to help plug common gaps. This will help us to get close to the work and influence how it’s done. This should be the Holy Grail for L&D!

4. Be Where Your People Are

This doesn’t just relate to desktop, mobile or classroom, but means situationally. What are the challenges people are facing and questions they’re asking in relation to their work and careers? How can you connect with them? Are you relying on them visiting your LMS or other portal? Smart service providers today alert users to further value, with notifications and campaigns. If you know your people, you can run campaigns to alert them to real value in their contexts.

5. Use Technology To Solve Problems For Your Clients… Not For L&D

The LMS has been developed to track user-engagement in L&D, through attendance, completion, assessment and satisfaction – and e-learning has helped to scale the efforts of L&D. But whilst workers are striving to achieve results at work, this L&D technology provision has largely been a distraction. Digital technologies today should help L&D to achieve its goals by getting closer to users – and their work – and solving real problems for their clients. If you’re following the steps above, it will be clear what you need digital technology to do for you.

6. Measure And Report On Performance

Performance Consulting will highlight the performance problems to be solved, and then measurement – or progress and milestones towards solving these problems – becomes possible and more valuable than ‘learning metrics’. These will be bespoke measures, depending on the current level of performance and the desired level, although some more generic performance measures could include:

  • Readiness to perform with confidence and competence (new starters or those transitioning inside your company)
  • People’s ability to perform in their role (growing in role)
  • Readiness for future roles (promotions and internal change)
  • Applying the right judgements (when complying with regulations and standards)

Producing written or video case studies will highlight the value of your efforts in improving performance and developing capability, whilst encouraging other leaders and departments to engage in performance conversations. Case studies can explore the real problems you tackled, your approach and results that matter to business leaders.

In addition, retrospectives can help you and your team learn from your work on resolving performance problems. The ‘retrospective’ is a meeting used in Agile project management in which the team discusses the ‘just-concluded project’ and determines what could be changed that might make the next one more productive.

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David James

Digital Learning Strategist at Looop
David James is Digital Learning Strategist with Looop and was Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region until 2014. Now an authority in contemporary L&D practices, David works with businesses, globally, to develop and implement social, agile and digital learning strategies that make learning work, with Looop.

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11 Replies to “Next Generation L&D: From ‘Learning’ To ‘Performance’”

  1. Hi David, re your question on the visual about magic / miracles: a similar visual with a slightly different caption is included in the following book:
    Wick, Calhoun W.; Pollock, Roy V. H.; Jefferson, Andrew (2010): The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning. How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results. Second edition. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

  2. Totally agree David. I’ve also been planning as to how I can introduce a true consultancy model with my L&D team. This will be built upon asking the right questions of the client upfront and understanding the business area. It also involves not getting to caught up in the TNA approach. The consultants will have to identify if it really is an L&D intervention that is needed, or is the performance shortfall due to some other issue. Only then can we begin to measure the impact of L&D.

    1. Thanks for your comment James – and I’m pleased this resonates with you. So little of what we, as L&D, should offer is training but the right conversations – about performance and not working – will increase our impact quite considerably and help us determine the most appropriate approach. Good luck with your team’s transition to the consultancy model!

  3. Thanks for your comment James – and I’m pleased this resonates with you. So little of what we, as L&D, should offer is training but the right conversations – about performance and not working – will increase our impact quite considerably and help us determine the most appropriate approach. Good luck with your team’s transition to the consultancy model!

  4. Interesting read and right on track. The success of modern workplace learning is strongly dependant on the focus of L&D departments in the near future. As stated in the article I believe “engaging people” and performance learning should get 80%+ of the attention and only max. 20% should be managing and reporting. The past or in many companies still, it is the other way around. To quote a fellow member of the linkedin group “The Learning JEDI”, Charles Jennings from the 702010 institute “you can not manage the 70% performance learning and 20% learning from each other. You can facilitate it, you can support it and make it happen, but you can not manage it”.
    Personally I believe in the power of learning from each other and I believe especially the knowledge workers % of learning is higher than 20% using the power of ESNs with embedded learning support systems, such as SmarterPath.

  5. Wonderfully on-track, David…thanks for such a great post.

    I’ll go on record here, as offering that most L&D people use learning and training interchangeably. Sigh. Also, YOU are at least getting to performance…but nowhere do I see you saying BEHAVIOR CHANGE. You may imply it, but I think most people need to have it pointed out—repeatedly. BJ Fogg is a phenomenal source of clarity and simplicity in this area. Behavior = Capability + Motivation + Triggers. I’d wager that nearly all L&D folks focus 90% on Capability, while the culture in their organizations literally KILLS motivation. Until we get that right, we’d just as well be sitting on the sidelines.

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