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  • Writer's pictureAndy Appleby

A long hard look in the mirror *Trigger Warning for L&D*

We’ve built our reputation and relationships on a foundation of candour, and transparency. So let’s start with that. We’re hardcore believers in the power of learning, and its importance in driving personal, professional, and organisation growth.

We’ve been in ‘L&D’ for almost 20 years. So in this post, there’s some inherent bias but we’ve tried our best to be balanced (and maybe a little controversial too…). We trust you’ll give us the benefit of doubt and see we’re onto something.

Oh, and we’ve made a few generalisations, simply to keep this article at a manageable length - we actually do want you to finish it!


Learning and Development. What’s it about? Really?

The answer depends on who you ask. From someone outside the corporate world, you’ll probably be faced with a blank stare and puzzlement.

If you ask a junior employee, most will give you a one-word answer. That is unless you’ve nailed your learning culture - more on that later.

If you ask a people leader, they might talk about coaching (hopefully!).

If it’s finance people you speak to, they’ll either talk about the hours of learning they need to do to simply stay compliant, or talk about L&D being a black hole for budget!

Operations planners? L&D is a pain in the a**e.

Any senior leader outside of the learning/talent function may make reference to talent, success planning, or maybe performance management.

But ask someone in L&D, Training, or Talent and you’ll hopefully get a concise explanation of how L&D exists to help employees perform better every day, so they can grow their careers, which helps the business improve, and grow. Or something along those lines.

It’s more likely you’ll get a beautifully crafted, yet superficial elevator pitch, or garbled concoction of bullsh*t bingo that feels like white noise and still doesn’t answer the question.

So, to answer the question - “Learning and Development. What’s it about? Really?”, L&D needs to have a long hard look in the mirror and discover its purpose.

So let’s get to it. Join us as we take a walk through the hall of mirrors to see the many faces of L&D.


Mirror 1 - Purpose

As we first look in the mirror, we might see that L&D is a selfless vocation, focused intently on helping individuals improve their knowledge and skills, and ultimately their lives.

In our experience, the vast majority of people working in L&D didn't spend their youth aspiring to be a 'Learning Consultant' or 'Trainer'. They probably didn't even know what L&D was.

In fact, it's probably fair to say that the majority of them stumble into their first role in L&D entirely by accident. Often they're subject matter experts who became a facilitator, or People Specialists who took on responsibility for L&D too.

(FUN FACT: Our founder had his first job in L&D at the age of 18 - as a Facilitator, and he's been there ever since!)

Those who stick around in L&D often talk about the virtuous aspects of working in the field. And we can speak from first-hand experience that the non-financial rewards of seeing a colleague, or client put new knowledge and skills into practice really make our careers worthwhile. This alone proves the perspective of L&D as a selfless vocation is a falsehood. And the risk of being swindled by this fallacy is that it can breed a culture in which L&D professionals patronise anyone who dares question their wisdom.

Anyone who sticks at it long enough to establish a long and successful L&D career is often the face we'll see looking back at us in Mirror 2.


Mirror 2 - Value

It's generally accepted that if you 'stay still' in life, you are, in fact, moving backward as those around you continue to develop, grow and improve.

We're bold enough to say that it's practically a rule of business and career development. And then you need to consider - how is it that the business grows and evolves?

Answer - Because you have great people developing new products and services, finding new clients, or identifying ways to improve the organisation and operation of the business. And how do you empower your people to do this? Through L&D, of course! Or, just maybe, you know of an awesome Learning & Performance Consultancy who can play a critical role in empowering your people... Just sayin'...

Anyway... You might say 'But we can hire those people in'. And you'd be right. It's also right that somewhere before you hired them, they benefited from great support and development from a previous employer - you know, through their L&D function?

So, when you ask someone in the middle, to upper echelons of an L&D function 'What's L&D about'- they will correctly - tell you how L&D is a strategic imperative for the organisation if they're to achieve their growth ambitions.

What some of them might not tell you is that L&D also has a darker side!

As we venture deeper into the hall of mirrors, it gets a bit murkier. Because the L&D face we see looking back at us might be rather superficial.


Mirror 3 - Identity

This might upset some of you - but hear us out. Seriously.

L&D can be very superficial!

What do we mean by superficial? Well, there are a few things really.

From the patronising experience of hearing an L&D expert flawlessly quote a 'Learning Theory' to justify their proposal, or decision - despite not truly understanding it (70:20:10 anyone?), to the fact that L&D doesn't even know what to call itself half of the time, many aspects of L&D, while born from something meaningful, valuable and genuinely important, can't back it up beneath the surface.

A prime example of this is Evaluation. Most people in L&D can cite Kirkpatrick's model for Evaluation without blinking. And just as many people will probably be able to count, on one hand, the number of times they've actually completed all four levels of evaluation. BUT They probably all extolled the importance of defining evaluation methodologies, and metrics at the start of any programme, then never really got past reviewing their 'happy sheets' before ignoring the rest of it.

And we mentioned that L&D doesn't know what to call itself. Here are a few examples:

Trainer, Facilitator, Coach - While technically different in many ways, lots of organisations use these labels interchangeably.

Then you come onto Instructional Designer, Designer, Developer, E-Learning, Digital Learning, Solution Developer, and Content Developer (there's more, but this article is already pretty long...) - Again, from a purist's perspective, these are all very particular roles and skillsets. But these are all used interchangeably and often, someone with the X - Designer title will be expected to be proficient in many fields, not just (e.g. E-Learning, Partnering, etc.) the one in their title.

Next, we move on to 'Partners' or 'Consultants' - Again, used interchangeably and sometimes with leadership responsibility, others without. But a quick check on LinkedIn will show you that the term 'L&D Consultant' means something different to everyone.

We'll avoid the 'Tech' stuff for now - we've another article on that - so we'll move on to the L&D Function itself. You might hear it called any of these things, while, generally, doing the same thing: Learning & Development (L&D), Talent Development (TD), People Development, Performance Improvement, Capability Development, Training & Development, Education, Academy, People Services, and more...

So, if you're someone in L&D (or one of those functions mentioned above), and you're tired of people asking what you're about - really, then maybe it's because the way L&D is behaving is rather superficial.

Don't worry, dear reader, we're almost through the hall of mirrors - one last mirror to look at, and we're afraid you're not going to like what you see...

We know we might lose some of you here, and if we do, so be it. But if you can stick out, just for a few more moments, you'll realise we're onto something.


Mirror 4 - Impact

Would you be shocked if the reflection in Mirror 4 told you that L&D is, too often, self-interested?

Yes? Really?

Have you even been reading this article...? We said all the way back in the first mirror - L&D isn't selfless, that was your easter egg. But hold on, just a minute.

Members of APL Consulting have been in L&D for nearly 20 years, and we wouldn't have made it this far being totally self-interested. However, just like all L&D professionals, there are times that accusation would have been justified.

But why?

Here's a few examples, at different levels of L&D, that the behaviours of an L&D expert is (often inadvertently) self-interested.

Delivering Learning, Coaching, Performance Support, etc: Ever attended a learning event, or coaching session with an 'Expert' and felt the whole thing was an ego-boost for them? Or a bragging session? Yeah - That's the L&D expert putting themselves first.

Creating Learning & Talent Development Experiences: Ever completed an e-Learning module that could have been an infographic? Or attended a workshop that focussed too much on 'fun' and not enough on 'application'? Yeah - this is the designer/developer nerding out because they're a creative soul who got a little bit too carried away

Partnering & Consulting: Ever felt that no matter your needs, suggestions, or reservations, the L&D partner you're working with refuses to accept that they may be wrong, or pedantically walks you through their performance cycle/methodology at every opportunity? Yeah - this was likely a way of self-validation because they were focused on their own agenda, and not yours.

Organisational Learning/Performance/Talent Development Strategy - Ever felt that the L&D function seems to live in its own little bubble? With no genuine clarity on what they're actually meant to do, for you? Or that the shiny toys and 'fun' experiences they offer have little to do with what is actually happening around the business? Yeah - this is probably because they've created a strategy that's more about L&D being 'More L&D' and less about improving performance and capability.

And if you're fortunate enough to have never experienced the above you're probably one of a lucky few!



Okay, the Mirror 4 was the last one, but we thought you may want a bonus mirror, since you're still here...

But this time, it's your own mirror! Why not spend some time reflecting? See what we did there...

Seriously, though. If you've read this far and you aren't considering some time pondering the question 'What is L&D really about?' in your own context, then you've missed the point.

Why not give it a go?


So what?

Well. The simple truth is, despite this post being a little controversial, that L&D is a lot of different things to different people, and different organisations, depending on their own context.

And as an industry there genuinely isn't a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to L&D (and we'd never pretend there is, unlike some of the marketing we all receive from suppliers...).

But what's clear is that whether you're a Learning, Performance, Talent professional, working in a Training, L&OD, or TD team, there's probably a host of things you're doing that are causing more problems than they're solving. And while it's easier to pretend they're not critical right now, they will be.

And in times of economic crisis, one of the first areas to be trimmed down is the People function. And often the L&D function.

So looking in the mirror today will help you prepare better, do better and have a bigger impact tomorrow.

And if you're not sure where to start, get in touch. We've helped local, national and global organisations make dramatic improvements to the way their Learning, Performance, and Talent functions make a genuine difference to their employees. It's kind of out thing...


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