By Joy Church Millard, Sr. Editor, Expertus
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the seventh interview in our “Learning Luminaries” series — where we showcase conversations with the brightest and most innovative minds in the world of enterprise training and development.
This month, we feature workforce revolutionary, Ajay M. Pangarkar CTDP, CPA, CMA. Ajay is an employee performance management expert and award-winning learning assessment development specialist who co-founded CentralKnowledge and LearningSource AMS.
He is also a three-time author who most recently published The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy.
Q1: Your background in learning and performance is unique. What led you here?
AP: I’m a business guy in the learning realm. Before specializing in workforce performance strategies, I was a divisional manager for a Fortune 50 company. So I understand both sides of the coin – driving business results through learning, and managing learning as a business.
Unfortunately, many L&D departments don’t see themselves as business units. But unless they align learning with business performance objectives, they’re just banging their heads against a training brick wall. I’m here to help learning organizations operate as a business within a business.
Q2: Is that why some senior managers are losing faith in the value of training departments?
AP: A lot of e-learning specialists are playing a shell game. They’re eager to please — and sometimes they agree to things they can’t deliver. This hurts the credibility of learning as an organizational function. In other words, some L&D professionals are so desperate for executive approval that they over-reach — promising things like blended learning or mobile learning as catch-all solutions. And of course, when they fail to meet expectations, there are negative consequences.
Q3: Where is e-learning going wrong?
AP: It’s rooted in the dilemma of downtime. Naturally, businesses don’t want to lose employee productivity to training. And employees don’t have time for lengthy learning interventions. Cloud-based e-learning is attractive because it has potential to eliminate downtime. It’s a great concept — but too often, it’s badly executed.
Recently, when speaking at a learning industry conference, I asked attendees, “Who thinks e-learning is a dressed-up PowerPoint presentation?” Nearly everyone raised their hand — and these are content developers!
By offering e-learning as a universal business solution, learning departments think they are pleasing their customers. But too often, they’re only repackaging the same problems. Employees still spend hours in training — it’s just that they’re sitting in front of a computer screen, rather than a classroom instructor.
Q4: What do you recommend?
AP: For many reasons, mobile learning has tremendous promise to build credibility with leaders. Regretfully, the promise is lost when people simply repackage e-learning courses as m-learning, without considering why. This defeats the intent of m-learning delivery.
We need to ask more questions. For example, “What are your performance objectives?” and “What kind of business impact do you want to see?”
Organizational leaders don’t care which learning methodology or tools are used. But they do care how well those solutions advance employee performance. If learning organizations figure out a viable path to progress, leaders will approve. But we need to step up and be the experts in accomplishing this. We need to demonstrate how developing and leveraging employee knowledge and skills can lead to improved performance.
Q5: You’re a big advocate of the “balanced scorecard.” What is this, and how does it benefit corporate learning?
AP: Most business leaders use some type of framework to measure and manage performance progress. Balanced scorecards are one approach (and the basis of all frameworks to follow). Frameworks like this are designed to keep individuals focused on specific performance objectives. They also help any organization that applies it properly to leverage their knowledge base, and transition to knowledge-driven strategies.
Of course, with the rise of information technology, many organizations no longer think of assets in a traditional sense. Companies like Google and Apple view employees and their knowledge as primary assets. However, some classic manufacturing and services companies are still struggling to become knowledge-driven. For example, think of American auto companies. Without government intervention during the recent economic downturn, they would have gone under. On the other hand, companies like GE and Walmart know that people are their strength, and their business strategies leverage employee knowledge.
Think of a company’s business model as a tree — and its people are the roots. You can have a great looking tree, but unless you nurture the roots, the tree will die.
Q6: How can L&D help shift an organization’s strategic focus from traditional assets to knowledge?
AP: Training organizations exist primarily to help people perform well in their jobs. Corporate leaders want L&D to empower the workforce. However, they can’t be expected to fund learning initiatives unless there is evidence that these programs are relevant and viable.
It’s L&D’s responsibility to clarify what matters to the business, and establish alignment with those priorities. So don’t sit back in your office. Be a proactive partner. Get together with organizational leaders early and often. Offer to review progress to-date, and map-out next-steps together. Verify business objectives for upcoming quarters, and inquire about potential business challenges.
Good training departments are not static and reactive — they’re dynamic and proactive. Old-school learning departments use a shotgun approach — while progressive departments focus like lasers on specific issues and precise solutions.
Q7: So the key to a successful learning organization is communication?
AP: Precisely. It should be an ongoing conversation with stakeholders, and everyone should be willing to speak in terms those stakeholders understand. Unfortunately too often, L&D operates in a silo. In fact, some learning professionals tend to dismiss “business” issues. But if they want training programs to work, they need to commit to continuous learning, themselves.
I like to say a company is like a country — and learning is like a state or province in that country, with a unique culture and language. Just as when you travel abroad, you learn some of the language and read about the culture, so you won’t offend the locals. While on foreign “turf” in your organization, you should try to adapt to that environment. However, many L&D people don’t think about fitting into their stakeholders’ domain. They insist upon speaking the language of learning. Not surprisingly, this limited vocabulary causes misunderstandings. It’s a big problem, and it’s more common than you may think.
I recommend investing time in learning basic financial and business performance concepts. That way, when you’re in corporate leader “territory,” you’ll be well received as a learning advocate. Why not take an introductory course in accounting, financial management or strategic planning at a local college? You don’t need to become an expert. However, basic comprehension of performance-related business factors will give you the context you need to build stronger relationships with senior managers, and better learning solutions, overall.
Q8: Great advice! Do you have other tips to help learning professionals partner with business counterparts?
AP: Stop being reactive. Don’t be a training “order-taker.” Be proactive and partner with your clients, the business leaders. Waiting for them to come to you will not build credibility.
I’ve discovered that when you ask a business leader about issues they’re facing, “learning” is never the answer. It takes some exploration to get to a root cause. But once you frame the learning need, be sure to clarify the results they expect. (What kind of metrics matter to them?)
Also, determine if others should be involved in the solution. Training departments often want to be the sole player, and take full credit. This is a classic mistake! Business challenges can be complex. Often, learning programs are only part of a multi-faceted solution, so to succeed, L&D must work across functions, geographies or organizational boundaries.
If you think a solution should involve others, be sure to explore this up-front with your stakeholders. This improves your odds of achieving business goals. It also spreads the risk to all who should be accountable.
Q9: Any final thoughts on how to get leadership approval for learning initiatives?
AP: Ultimately, it’s about positioning that illustrates the value of learning. When developing a new program, here are several questions to address:
- How does this learning initiative align with business priorities?
- What tangible outcomes should this intervention deliver?
- What level of leadership support and involvement will this require?
- How will you engage and influence target participants/departments?
- How will you estimate and justify the cost/investment?
- What business metrics will best demonstrate learning impact?
The answers may not be easy or obvious. But if you’re guided by these questions, you’ll create a context for success, and you’re likely to earn trust from your leaders.
Editor’s Note: For more insights about why and how to link learning with organizational strategy, see Ajay’s latest book The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard. Also, follow his “Workforce Revolution” blog, and watch for his guest posts here at “Learning In the Cloud.” To contact Ajay directly, connect with him on Twitter, on LinkedIn, or send him an email.
Photo credit: Pixabay