Workplace Learning Is Not Rocket Science

How Learning professionals must take control of workplace learning.

Recently, a Learning professional colleague asked us, “Why is workplace learning so complicated? Isn’t it simply about improving people’s performance?”

She had a point. Upon reflection, we wondered, “Did the complexity result from business leaders’ demands for accountability? Is it self-inflicted by those in the workplace learning space? Or is there something else at play?”

Since we both have more than 20 years of learning experience, we wanted to discover why and how this “complexity” arose.

Early in our careers, employee training was simply about equipping people with the required skills and knowledge to effectively do their jobs. Soon after, training—or “learning” as it began to be referred to—focused more on improving employee job performance.

Further raising the bar, improved employee performance then had to lead to improved organizational performance. Ultimately, scarce resources and competitive environments led leaders to seek financial accountability for every dollar allocated to a business activity. Put this all together and what you have is a significantly more demanding role for Learning professionals.

But it doesn’t have to be complicated. From a leader’s perspective, it is pretty straightforward. All they expect is for “learning” to simply get and keep employees’ skills current so they can meet business expectations and objectives. The problem is not with your business leaders. They didn’t complicate anything. This is the way they’ve been formally educated to act and ask the same questions. The problem lies with us in the Learning profession giving the wrong answers to their questions.

Whether it is because of what leaders demand from you or simply human nature, Learning professionals are seeking a quick fix to answer the accountability question. Equip yourself to answer these questions by doing the following:

Develop your business literacy. The one glaring skill gap is not with employees, it is with the people in the Learning department. While Learning professionals are hired for their training expertise, it is insufficient for current business demands.

Having a fundamental comprehension of business and financial concepts is essential for today’s Learning professional. Why?

First, leaders don’t differentiate between activities; they only see each as investments toward achieving organizational objectives. They expect every business activity to provide a financial or non-financial “return” for the money allocated. Workplace learning’s return must focus on non-financial performance improvements.

Second, clearly communicating the results to your leaders is essential. Speak in their language. Keep in mind you are in their “country,” and when in another country, you must adapt to their customs and communicate in terms they understand. Leaders don’t need to understand our “learning” jargon…all they want to know is that your initiative delivers results.

Demonstrate performance. Here’s a well-known secret: Your leaders expect workplace learning to improve employee performance, not to provide positive financial results. This is not to say financial results are irrelevant; however, your leaders consider workplace learning as a cost center affecting how learning activities contribute to business objectives.

So begin by addressing the primary business activities; determine the specific business objectives; then discover the objectives’ performance expectations.

Use this information to conduct a needs assessment that aligns with these performance needs. Finally, develop targeted learning solutions that meet the learning needs and business unit expectations.

Keep it simple. Leaders don’t expect complex or convoluted solutions. They simply want one thing from workplace learning: a partner that drives continuous improvement. Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of confusion. Stay focused on your leadership’s business objectives. Doing so allows you to work through the organization, addressing each level of operational needs.

Begin with these steps and your efforts will become more focused and deliver tangible results. First, build up your business skills, identify and focus your learning efforts, and then communicate performance results. Finally, continually adapt and evolve with employee needs and business requirements.

Ajay M. Pangarkar, CTDP, CPA, CMA, and Teresa Kirkwood, CTDP, are founders of CentralKnowledge. com and LearningSourceonline. com. They are employee performance management experts and threetime authors, most recently publishing “The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy” (Wiley 2009). Help them start a “Workplace Revolution” at blog. centralknowledge. com or contact