Friday, December 17, 2010

An operational attitude towards learning

You've probably heard me say this before, but I am increasingly of the view that the workplace training/learning/L&D (whatever they're called in your organisation) team should be moved out of HR and into Operations.


Well, HR is responsible for looking after people: their payroll, their working conditions, their treatment under employment law, etc. and has no direct accountability in terms of the organisation's business objectives.

L&D's job is all about performance, and performance is an operational thing. Our job is to help the organisation meet its business objectives by helping people do their jobs.

While L&D remains under the umbrella of HR, it remains okay to take people out of their workspace and put them into a learning space, and then to put them back into their working space again at the end of it.

An operational view of learning means that learning needs to be situated in the workspace, because it's part of the job.

Let's take the research and development bods at a sweet factory. I pick this example (a) because I'm a bit of a chocoholic and (b) because my mother worked at a sweet factory for over 30 years, so I have some vicarious insight. They don't know before they start working on it whether their new idea for a confection will work. They don't know whether the new flavour of toffee will enjoy favour with their customer base. So they experiment a bit. They find a recipe that works, and they send out a bunch of the new flavours to the children of all the staff members. They ask the kids to identify what each flavour is and to mark it out of 10. They also ask the kids to suggest some flavours that they would like to see added to the range. My reponse said that flavour A was 'mint 8/10'; flavour B was 'chocolate 9/10' and flavour C was 'soap? 0/10' (it turns out flavour C was actually grape). I suggested licorice as being a flavour they should look into.

The R&D team gathered back all the results and decided to go with the mint. They also developed a licorice version (obviously other people had suggested it, too), and they eventually took those two flavours to market.

In fact, the whole process was a learning process. They learned how to make the new toffees. They learned what the consumer reaction was to the different flavours. They learned what other flavours consumers would like to see. They learned how to make those.

Once they knew how to make the new flavours, and the products had been given the okay, the R&D team passed on the information to the factory. The manufacturing staff then learned what changes needed to be made (and when) in order to produce the new flavours.

Work is learning. We can seldom say we know how to do a thing before we need to do it for the first time. And when we come to do it for the first time, we might

  • experiment, based on past experience/existing knowledge
  • watch someone who already knows how to do it
  • look it up
  • get some advice from someone else who may have some ideas
All of this is learning, and it simply forms part of the workscape.

Too many of our learning solutions require people to separate themselves from the very context in which the learning applies. Now I don't doubt that there are some tasks for which this will remain a necessity, but, applied as a blanket approach, this ensures that learning is an interruption of the workflow, instead of facilitating it.

I know it's a gross generalisation, but the COOs I've met have always been driven, results focused individuals. This is where I believe L&D needs to position itself. Learning should be viewed as a strategic function, one that contributes directly to ensuring that the organisation meets its targets and achieves its vision. It's not something you do in order to ensure that union requirements are met.


V Yonkers said...

I agree with you whole heartedly, and especially in the knowledge economy. Your example was for a process which could be taken out of context and used for other companies.

However, when I left graduate school, I was an international auditor. Our training came out of the department because it was highly specialized and the only in house people with expertise were in the department. As our "product" was a result of what we knew, we had to be able to understand what the parameters of our jobs and skills were, which was constantly changing. As a result, we needed the constant interaction with the trainers, a sort of just in time learning and access to resources for learning. During my work, our training was always individualized to the audit we would be going on (especially since we were international auditors, so the external rules and regulations changed, but needed to conform with internal controls). In this case, the L&D were more like coaches or learning facilitators, helping auditors to identify areas they needed to know more about and coming up with training plans and resources for them to do so.

Looking back on it, my guess was for a very large multinational corporation, this was very innovative of them.

irmawalter said...

Too bad they don't have stars on blogger. I'd give this all five. I'll do some serious thinking what to do about it.

Unknown said...

Hi Karyn,
I agree that learning and development should be positioned within the operational side of the business and that individual learning should occur within the person's work context. One model I know well to support this approach is competency-based training. Here’s how it works: self-directed learning modules are developed for the tasks that employees are required to perform. The learning facilitator is either the employee’s supervisor or a coach mentor within the workplace. The learner selects from a variety of learning activities under the guidance of the facilitator. The facilitator advises, observes and evaluates employee performance within the work context.

Mike Petersell said...


Thanks for your thought provoking post. While I agree it is important that Learning & Development departments must be connected to business and operational goals, I don't think it is necessary for them to be part of operations to do so. At different times in my career, I have worked in learning departments that were imbedded in the business and others that reported up through HR. As long as I was tuned into the business it didn't matter where our department was pluged in to the larger organization. You mention HR being concerned with things such as the work environment, but in this day and age the most critical HR functions are talent strategy and workforce development. With the amount of change going on in organizations today, I believe it creates a great advantage to have L&D closely aligned with these critical business functions. If you have good business leaders, L&D can still partner with operations from here.

Simon Bostock said...

Absolutely and totally 100% agree.

When I started in Organisational Development and 'change' work, I'd often find myself at that first meeting with the commissioners of the project asking the question, "When will I get to meet (my supposed counterparts in) HR and Training?" (All the projects I've ever been involved in have had a 'learning' component.)

The answer has been startlingly consistent. Nobody wants those people in the room when it comes to 'development' because they're from a different mindset.

There's definitely a place for that risk-averse, codifying mindset. But it's in the background, for the most part.

I swear this is true - I was once in a meeting with about 70 managers (all of the managers of the organisation were there, it was a three-line whip) and the HR bods announced the fact that they'd been observing the market and found that, as a group, managers didn't have enough 'commercial acumen' (it was a public sector business).

"We're introducing a new section to the competency framework called 'commercial acumen' and this meeting is to consult you on what we should include to make this work."

The thing about HR is that we don't actually want them to be any different. We need risk-averse people to look at firing (not hiring, though) and navigating the legislative environment. You don't want somebody in R & D in charge of processing the payroll.

But really, for the rest of it, they should get back in their box.

Unknown said...

Your line of thinking is spot on. "Work is learning, learning is work" via Harold Jarche. Training has its place for new hires and new skills, but deep learning is on going and exists within the work context. The fact that L&D exists at all as its own unique department under any broad group is problematic. It, by the nature of its separation, separates learning from the work. My concern is that if under HR or Operations the mindset of the directors and leaders of each is what needs to change. The adage of "we teach as we were taught" is very prevalent still. Regardless of department oversight, many still see the route to performance improvement through formal initiatives & command and control that is what they know from their own experiences.

The upsycho said...

Thanks all for your comments.

@Mark I should probably have acknowledged Harold - thanks for the reminder. He and I have had this conversation in one guise or another at various points over the years.

Mike Petersell said...


After reviewing the comments in this post, I was surprised to see that I was the only person who advocated L&D reporting to HR. This prompted me to write a bit of a rebuttal at my own blog. I thought you and your readers might be intresested: L&D Strategy



The upsycho said...

Thanks, Mike. I've sent out a link via Twitter as well. Let's see what that garners for you.

Craig Taylor said...

Hi Karyn,

An interesting concept and one that on the face of it (depending on your point of view) seems to be common sense as it promotes the work=learning, learning=work approach.

But I have a slight adaptation to your suggestion that I would like to offer.

For organisations (such as mine) operating in EXTREMELY regulated sectors (such as the Nuclear industry) and as such delivering a *LOTS* of H&S and compliance-driven training, I would suggest that the L&D function could sit within the Compliance Department. This would then place both those responsible for interpreting the various rules, regulations and guidance and then offering the business their advice as to how best comply with that legislation and the function that is responsible for delivering the 'formal' performance-related activities to meet that legislation in the same department.

Admittedly this is not the same as L&D sitting within Operations, but if the majority of the training that Operations undertake is driven by Compliance, then this seems a good fit to me..

Your thoughts?

The upsycho said...

@Craig I would be reluctant to see such a move, because then the L&D department is viewed as being part of the bunch that make sure we jump through the right hoops, tick the right boxes and so on. Whereas I think the remit is much wider than that - it includes the whole day job.

I am sure there are all manner of health and safety issues around the nuclear industry, but the softer skills: performance appraisal, conflict resolution, negotiation skills, presentation skills, etc. are no doubt just as much in evidence in your industry as any other, and have nothing to do with compliance.

In my view, placing them under the remit of compliance would change the mindset associated with these skills...and not for the better.