Dan Tohill

The future of learning and development with David James

Today’s podcast guest is David James. David has had a long career in the L&D industry, most notably with Walt Disney Company across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Now, he is the Chief Learning Strategist at Looop. Inspire Group CEO, Dan Tohill, chats with David about all things learning and development in the world right now.


Listen to the interview here:


Or read the summarised transcript of the interview below:

Welcome and thanks so much for participating in the podcast. Many people would love to know what's happening in L&D in other parts of the globe, especially during the outbreak of the pandemic.

Very similar to elsewhere in the world, there was an initial push to help with a shift to more remote working, leaning heavily on digital solutions, then moving quickly, once people settled to what the new rules of engagement were. For example "How do you know people are working and how do you continue to get results?" It seemed safe and optimistic that there was going to be this trust that people could work from home.

The new normal also needs to be trying to make up for lost opportunity in harsh economic circumstances, a health crisis, recession and likely, a no deal Brexit with the way things are going. So, we're in for a tough time. The learning and development journey since then, I'd say optimistically, has helped them to recognise the critical path in their organisation towards helping with that lost opportunity.

I’m fearful that we're just going to be sticking stuff on an LMS or in eLlearning and thinking that we have digital solutions. I'm afraid that often, it’s subtle.

What challenges did you have, where you had to influence your sponsors and your stakeholders to not do a certain thing?

I mean, everybody knows that dance. They said that L&D is a dance everybody thinks they can do, but it's not a tango, it's not a waltz, it's a conga line, and our stakeholders look at it and they can jump on board and they think they can do that dance. Stakeholders often say that they would like some communication-skill training, team training, or email training. What you’ve got to realise is a lot of the time when they've come in and asked you, they've already sold it to their team so they're not willing to have a conversation about what they want to see differently as a result. It’s a dance that everybody wants to do and employees will come along as well. They look at the conga line and it seems like it will be fun for a short time. That they can go along, enjoy meeting colleagues, they're not working, there's a bit of a lunch, it's a bit of an easy day, because they’re attending training. Then they go back and nothing's changed.

There is a big difference between doing what's popular and what's expected and then making a difference. There are two sides to that. When the Finance Director (FD) says: “I'd like a MBTI session run.” You might think MBTI has been debunked, but you also realise that these are the FDs from across the region and they want to come together. Really, it's a platform for the FD to show that he's investing in them and wants to have a conversation broadly about how they perform and wants them to leave knowing clearly what he wants them to do.

That said, there are opportunities in every organisation when there must be change. When I was at Disney, there was perpetual change. We were hamstrung, like a lot of organisations, on a clunky LMS no one wanted to use with generic content that wasn't useful. Getting people to use it, if it wasn't mandatory, was close to impossible.

I have a theory that we grow trainers and plant them in classrooms and then we grow training. So the expectation is that a lot of the time in organisations, no learning and development exists when everybody is working and knowledge-sharing. The idea is to get people in to do some talks, then there's some training and that requires some full-time administration.

So, it started as a little bit of a helping hand to do the stuff that was working. But as soon as you think, let's do some of this in-house you go from sourcing experts, to relying on people who can read a book to deliver stuff, which has to be delivered because it doesn't stand up under scrutiny a lot of the time. When people are doing some research to create courses or e-learning, there isn't the depth of know-how. The delivery model is fatally flawed in learning development. We are hamstrung a lot of the time by the language that we use, but the expectation a lot of the time comes from the stakeholders themselves.

They want training and so you've got in-house support. We get bound by the expectation, then you rattle around a little while. I hear this so much, especially from younger L&D folks today, that they had this epiphany. They're delivering this stuff, people in the room looked quite pleased, but when they close the door afterwards, they know they've made such little difference. These are 12 people who are going to take so little away from this, if anything, and then they've got to jump back on the hamster wheel the next day. They had the epiphany, which is, this job that I've been sold, and I've become great at isn't working, what do I do?  Then you have a look and you go; you've got to have a different conversation at the outset. You've got to do some performance consulting. Instead of developing training or e-learning as your first port of call, what about some performance support that helps people where they're working.

Fill all those gaps and then take a step back and have a look. The major things need to be working, it's largely automated. What's the big stuff I need to get on with? L&D jump straight in and they've got programmes and curriculums and they can't even invest in their own digital capability. They'll tell you that it’s because 'I'm too busy delivering these courses that I've built to satisfy demand. I can't invest in it' I think this is a cycle that we've got that needs breaking.

Let's get on to digital learning, not just e-learning. It can either be the most awesome or most awful solution.

I'll give you an example where it’s worked brilliantly: guitar tuition. I love learning songs. If I think back to when I was first learning in the 80s, I had one book, it was called: Play Rock Guitar. I had that book for a good year and could only play two songs from it. But now, after years of playing in bands, and being competent, I can access video tuition and I could learn that song in minutes. I find the learning frustrating a lot of the time. As in, you know your brain is trying to tell your fingers what to do and your fingers can't do it and sometimes it takes a little bit of practice. Sometimes it takes a night’s sleep and sometimes it takes a few days, but when you get it, it makes it worthwhile. You've got sore fingers, you've had a temper tantrum, you probably had to apologise to the wife a couple of times, but the satisfaction you get in playing, is incredible.

Now, that's the power in digital. You have access to true experts who, if they're able to show you what they do, break that down for you to make it accessible. It’s not for everybody. If you don't play guitar and you have no intention of playing guitar, or you don't want to play that song, that's not going to be worth it. Even if I made that mandatory, you'd finish the video, but you'd still not be able to play it. This is what digital learning is. It isn't about the learning, it's about the doing. If you think about the journeys that people will have into any organisation, induction for example.  The best way we think is to bombard them with as much information as possible to tick the box. We need you to notice, they don’t have a hope in hell of retaining it. You know why? Because they can't even remember the name of the person sitting next to them that they were introduced to a couple of minutes ago.

Imagine that you understood what it is that we're really trying to do. Then you surface digital resources that guide and support them in real-life experiences that they're having. Then you save all the heavier stuff like bringing people together to connect, share a few stories, but don't show them the intranet, right. There's some guidance there. For me digital gives you the ability to give access to the people that they should have access to, and in service of what it is that they’re trying to do.

Not just the right stuff, but the right time. We've been rubbish at that. We've either bombarded people with too much information before it makes any real sense to them or we've neglected them long after they've faced the challenge and solved all the problems. Yet, we think what we're going to deliver, is still going to be transformational, but it's not. The power of digital is so much more than delivering our stuff. It's understanding their world and making their world easier to use in an organisational sense.

To me, that's the crucible, where effective leadership and management is formed. There's no better place to learn that, than in a start-up.

In many organisations you have existential problems, whether it be cash flow or customers, there's all sorts. In a larger organisation what contributes to whether you're successful or not, is your ability to play the game and to vie for resources to position yourself as valuable.

I think the crux of it is that every single organisation is very, very different and learning and development, a lot of the time, is by generic solutions and borrowing content from their peers elsewhere. I think that because it's been delivered and it's been deemed “successful”, then that can be 'successful' where they are. The problem is,  that there are expectations, norms and practices. The expected and rewarded behaviours within any given organisation, and within any department within any given organisation is critical to both the individual and the collective success. This is where learning and development can see the potential for their role. Google cannot help you with doing enough of the right stuff at the right time, within your role in your organisation, but that is what deems a lot of people successful or not successful in any organisation. So, what is it that we can do to help that?

This is where data is our friend, I'm a big fan of data and evidence-based practice. You see a critical point of failure in any given organisation, something that's costing money or costing opportunity. The data will lead you to who is involved here. Then you collect evidence on what it is that's happening or not happening as it should be? What can we do together to help you to perform? Which is do enough of the right stuff in a way that is expected and rewarded in your organisation.

You then work together in order to solve that problem. A great deal will be solved with facilitated conversations and bringing the right people together. Some of that will be performance support, which is giving people what they need in order to do enough of the right stuff without having to collect it all in their heads. There might be something structural involved there. There might even be the need for some training. You don't know unless you're acting on data and having the right conversations at the outset.

The opposite to that, for me, is what learning and development do often, which is they collect learning needs. You can have two types of conversation with stakeholders. What training do your people need? So, you can collect your list of stuff. What can I help you with? Which can then be, what I think is seen as a skill in learning and development, but I think is a failure, translating what people need to do in their jobs into learning needs. So then what you do is you're largely using these analyses as a resource allocation exercise, because programmes and content have traditionally been expensive and time consuming to grab hold off. So you can't do everything. 

Yep, that's time management, that's communication skills. When I haven't got stuff, I aggregate all these common needs often up to a level of abstraction. Communication presentation, I might have to take to my global leaders as well and then it gets even further into abstraction. Then it comes down to standardised learning content that bears absolutely no resemblance to the performance context. When people turn up to training courses and they don't know why they're there, we blame the line manager. Should we not look at the very first conversation that we had and realise that translating performance needs into learning needs, is distorting it to an unrecognisable level? They're not going to recognise what they're experiencing.

It comes down to the importance of context.

Ask questions, run experiments. It seems crazy to me, in an industry that can't demonstrate its value. The Great Training Robbery, the report that was published in 2016, suggests that only 10% of expenditure on training is effective. They paid a figure of $162 billion spent in the US that they were working off there. The training industry published last year that just shy of 300 billion pounds was spent on training last year. If only 10% of that is effective, we are talking $270 billion of waste.

We don't experiment. I've tried to do light touch stuff. We invest in heavy sheep dip, clunky systems. These are big bets, where you make big expensive investments on huge contracts, with enormous day rates and then you're unable to show the value. If we were a little bit more experimental, a little bit more light touch, and more data driven, we’d probably find that we're not just throwing money away.

One of my questions: What's the most impactful learning that you've ever experienced?

I would say that the most impactful learning I've seen...there's been a couple. We work with a company called Sanoma. They are a European media house and they had appointed a new Head of Digital Capability. Like a lot of media organisations, in the last decade, they had to digitally transform all their diet. Like a lot of media organisations there was close to zero churn, so you must develop people or sack them all. The way they went about it was that they assessed everybody on their current level of ability to perform the new roles as required. What many people, even in L&D don’t understand is that digital is not about creating digital content. It’s a way of achieving different ends, by doing stuff differently.

Digital marketing is the perfect example. Marketing could’ve been more of an art before digital marketing came along and now it’s a data-driven science. You could do enough of the right stuff, and it could be methodical. If you can set up and automate your digital marketing, you can turn up the dial in terms of spend and get more leads; you can turn up the spend a bit more and get more qualified leads.

So, Sanoma had to digitally transform. They firstly assessed everybody working in this new way. Everybody got their own personalised report and they’ve shared with them links to digital resources that showed them how to do the job that way.

They went on and created thousands of resources. They realised that this was a lazer-focused approach to solving the organisation’s problems. The least risky way you could possibly do this. It’s solving people’s working problems. That was hugely impactful.

It wasn’t necessarily just about the technical task; it was about engaging with partners. In a media house, there are the following aspects: this is the thing we sell; this is what that thing is in the digital world and this is how we sell that. You have everything the organisation does, broken down into digital resources.

They had what they called their local maximums, and these were the people in the organisation who were the pillar of that expertise. These weren’t just SMEs in an L&D sense, these people’s pictures were in a digital frame all around the building, they were like celebrities, everyone knew them. They were running seminar sessions. There was clearly opportunity for them to share what they knew and for people to engage in conversations and workshops. When you sat at your desk, you knew that this is the new frame of reference and set of deliverables. It was quite incredible.

The organisation was smart and thought 'well I don’t know any of this stuff, let me find out who knows all this stuff? You want to build the shortest distance between where we are and where we want to go. They brought in Looop, which was the platform, but they also used Typeform for the questionnaires and an interface provider. They had a clear vision and willingness to experiment and pulled all these resources to achieve that vision. At the end of all of it, everyone will have to be able to do this, otherwise you’ve been unsuccessful. It took hustle. There was a huge screen as you walked into the building, talking about what the priority for the week was and how it was being supported. We used to take clients there and tell them, this is how you should do it? One client asked when we were walking through: “How do you know what the biggest priorities for the organisation are?” They would respond by saying: “You need to get out of the classroom.”

What really helps is to expect a lot more from your technology. I see limited expectation in L&D, when people replace one clunky LMS for another one. It’s low expectation if you think your job is administering an LMS or trying to drive traffic towards it, because people don’t see the inherent value.

I’m afraid that as people are transitioning into and through our organisations, they’re trying to solve the same problems inefficiently that have already been solved thousands of times before.

If you take an optimistic look at the future, what are the big things that you think we’re going to learn within the next 5-10 years?

  1. Eliminate the administration in L & D, there’s just no need. If the current LMS requires an administrator, that person should be doing much more impactful stuff. Eliminating the administration will help to elevate the status of learning and development.
  2. High levels of automation, focus on the employee experience, their working experience, not trying to create some parallel learning experience.
  3. Get closer to the point of work in terms of situation and timing. It means that we are greatly affecting performance and results.
  4. The use of data and the expectation that we will be data literate, we will be making smaller bets on the stuff that matters. The leaders, without even being in the room, will be looking at the dashboard and thinking that is money well spent.

Data is our friend in a formative sense. L&D will take data and look back at whether it worked, when in fact we should be taking it to show us where we need to focus our attention. Knowing which areas are not working and who could help with that. Everything you do, you have to look at whether you’re having a positive uptake on the results.

Too much learning and development is in by-products. You spend half a million dollars, sales didn’t go up, but then you think please let the employee engagement data show that people enjoyed the training. So, it’s all about by-products. There’s this tiny little hope that it’s done some good, because we don’t know what we’re trying to solve.

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