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  • Writer's pictureAndy Appleby

The first rule of Learning is...


I spend every day helping my clients solve these three common business challenges:

  1. Equipping leaders and employees with the skills the organisation needs to achieve it's strategic goals

  2. Creating a culture focused on high-engagement, high-performance, and employee empowerment

  3. Evolving the Learning and Talent strategy to support the organisational strategy

Interestingly, these aren't the 'challenges' they ask me to help them with. Usually it's something like:

  • "We need to increase the takeup of our learning offer because we're not achieving our cost-per-learner target"

  • "Our recent employee engagement survey score for Learning/Talent was low", or;

  • "We want to be a 'best-in-class' learning function"

This means that if I want to deliver real impact for my employers and clients I spend most of my time discovering the actual problem, instead of taking the easy option and churning out cut-and-paste responses to perceived issues.


To keep me on the right track in every project I've learned to follow a list of 7 'rules' that have served me well for almost 20 years.


Rule 1: Don't talk about Learning!


This can be the hardest rule to follow. Especially if you're part of the Learning function. The thing you need to know, whether you're the Learning Director, Talent Development Partner, or a Trainer is this - Regardless of your perspective, the operational and financial parts of your business view you as a financial black-hole!


This means that every time you're looking for investment, or simply want to capture the corporate airwaves, the first thing that comes into people's mind when you talk about Learning, or Talent Programmes, or Training is "Not you again!"


And when your operational teams are busy doing their thing, like selling, or building, or serving customers, the last thing they need is for you to come along and add even more to their to-do-list. Because a lot of people think that's what you're about - creating more work.


So instead of shoving Learning or Training down people's throat, be clear about the problem you're solving for people. I can guarantee that 'Learning' doesn't come anywhere near those sentences!


Here's a real example of the way I've explained the reason behind 'Leadership Development' programme I built for client within the last couple of years - leaders were incredibly time-poor and they weren't too happy about having to do 'Leadership Development':


"As a leader, investing your time to have growth mindset will change your perspective when your team is up against it. You'll be able to take a new approach to challenges that usually create a lot of tension and take a lot of time. Even more, your team will see a leader who is willing to listen, collaborate, and empower them to try their best, even if it doesn't work."


The end result? Leaders who saw the result of attendees quickly realised they couldn't afford not to be part of it.


Rule 2: Really. Don't talk about Learning!


I did tell you this was the hardest to follow. I am an unapologetic advocate for Learning, Talent Development, and Training. So I sometimes find it difficult to not talk about it. So this is also my second rule. REALLY. DON'T TALK ABOUT LEARNING!


Most people in your organisation have many things they care about far more than Learning. Usually their priority is doing the things they must do to ensure they receive their salary this month, so they can feed their family, pay their mortgage, and keep their family safe. Learning won't even make the top 10.


So stop talking about something that people don't care about. Even though we know they should.


Rule 3: Know the strategy


Be honest with yourself right now. Do you, your colleagues, or maybe even your senior team within your Learning, Talent, or Training function know what your Strategy is? Or how your Strategy connects to the organisation's strategy?


If you're not sure, ask someone. Right now. I'll wait...


If they do, great work! Having this clear line of sight across your function means you're more likely to be delivering work the organisation actually needs.


It's more than likely that they don't. So this begs the question: If you/they don't know how they're supporting the functional/organisational strategy, then how on earth do they know that what they're doing is actually worth doing?


It's very easy to get caught up on the 'solution' in this field, or the latest trend, without taking a step back to understand whether it's actually supporting the things you're supposed to be reporting. Avoid this by knowing and helping others know what your strategy is.


Rule 4: Know your product


So many times in the last decade I've had a conversation with a 'Head of', 'Partner' or 'Specialist' who has said something like, "We shouldn't really being doing this kind of thing but..."


What about you? How many things on your current workstack are things you 'shouldn't really be doing'?


If you shouldn't be doing it, why are you? I'm going to take a guess that the reason you're doing it is because an influential stakeholder thought it was part of your remit. And you didn't really have the right way of saying 'No'.


Think for a moment, would you go to McDonalds for fine-dining? No. Because that's not the product McDonalds offer and they're very clear about it. They know. We know. So we don't find ourselves in a fancy outfit, sitting at McDonalds expecting five-star table service.


FYI: I'm not bashing McDonalds - I'm a big fan! But I know what they're about, and it's definitely not fine dining.


So if you know what your learning/talent/training product is, then you must make sure your sponsors, partners, customers and team members are 100% clear. This will eradicate those situations where you're pressured to 'just do this thing...' and end up being held accountable for something you shouldn't have been doing in the first place.


You'll also be free to pro-actively engage with people and talk about then demonstrate your real value. Because you're delivering the product you set out to deliver. And your customers know what to expect from you.


Get to know what your product is, and start telling everyone else what it is too!


Rule 5: Know your people


How long have you been in Learning/Talent/Training? (19 years) How many qualifications do you have? (Quite a few!) Are you an expert in improving skills and driving a high-performance culture? (Yes) Or nurturing talent to become the next generation of leaders (Yes, I am. Thanks for asking).


But seriously. If you're anything like me, you'll back yourself. Every time. Because you know what works, how it works, and what 'excellence' looks like.


And if you are like me, you'll know excellence is only possible when it meets people where they're at!


Not just 'employees', but senior leaders, sponsors and the CEO too!


Whitelabel, cookie-cutter approaches are great at generating cashflow for vendors. They're not great at driving meaningful change. Why? Because they're a broad-brush approach to complex challenges, and your people all want and need something different.


A key rule of delivering meaningful results from any Learning, Talent, or Training intervention is knowing your people.

  • What are their challenges?

  • What are their needs?

  • What are their preferences?

Only then will you have all of the information you need to deliver the things you're promising.


Rule 6: Know your environment


Politics. Some people love it, some hate it. But an unfortunate truth about the corporate world is, we all play the game. Even if you think you don't. So understanding the policitcal environment in which your Learning Product exists is critical to getting the decisions you want and delivering the impact your people and your organisation needs.


Technology. For some it's effortless, others it's hell on earth. Either way, it's here to stay and the vast array of Tech that delivers Learning, Talent and Training to your people is a key part of any people function in 2023.


You can't afford to be a technophobe in today's world. So get to know your tech environment, even if it's just the basics.


Operations. Production. Whatever you call it, the biggest part of any business are those areas delivering for your customers. Even if they're not your key stakeholder it's essential to know about the operational environment most of your learning 'customers' exist within. This will help you deliver learning, talent and training in a way in which people are more likely to benefit.


Building up your environmental understanding is going to help you navigate, influence and deliver results in the right way.


Rule 7: Consumption and Engagement ≠ Impact


If you've been in the People space for a while, especially the Learning, Talent, or Training side of things, I know you've faced this before.


Reporting on how many people have attended, completed, or simply opened a 'thing'.


I've spoken about this before, here, so you may already know my thoughts on the matter. Even so, let me re-iterate:


Tracking consumption, or engagement with a solution is not a useful measure of the value, or impact of it. So what if 500 people watched a video, or attended a webinar. What difference did it make?


And before you say 'but we track NPS scores too...'. Well, sorry-not-sorry, this is also pointless, especially in isolation. What's the point of lots of people attending an event they would recommend to a colleague, if it doesn't actually improve anything?


So if you really want to achieve something, focus on value metrics. It's not easy, but it's more useful.

Imagine being able to tell your CEO that your programme, or intervention means your high-potential talent has the skills to step-up, and they're already coaching their replacements? That means your succession plan is working.


Imagine actually being able to prove it with data?


Once you've done that, your CEO is probably going to ask about consumption and engagement metrics. Because this is when it's useful. How do we calculate costs and plan scale up a programme we know has an impact.


In summary


Stop talking about learning. Get to know your product, your people and your environment so you can talk to them about the difference you're going to make.


Start getting clear on your strategy and your product, then talk about the real business problems you're going to solve.


About the Author - And Apples Performance and Learning


This is where you usually get the obligatory profile, and pitch - feel free to skip it, but I'd rather you didn't. If you've read one of my posts before, this next bit will be familiar :).


Hi. I'm Andy. I'd rather not bore you with a profile, when you can find out what you need here. So take a look, or don't - it's quite literally up to you.


Also - I could give you a really slick 'sales pitch' about how Apples Performance and Learning can help you navigate through the minefield that is Performance Improvement. But I won't. To be frank, this post is already too long, and I'm bored of my own 'voice'. If you want to know how we can help you - check this out, or this.


Beyond that, if you've made it this far, thank you for sticking with me. Hopefully you agree with my points, and find some value in them. If not, please feel free to correct my perspectives - I won't learn anything new otherwise! andy@aplconsulting.co.uk

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