How enterprise learning for leadership and team development is tripping up human potential, and slowly sending the L&D brand into irrelevance.
This is the story of how to save it, step by radical step.
By Steven Smith and David Marcum
he science of building great teams, developing leaders, and changing habits has never been more empirical, powerful, or precise.
Everything a company achieves hinges on how well we humans click. The way enterprise learning is set up to deliver on that science is designed to fake us out.
Over 18 months of research with 65 one-on-one interviews, 511 managers surveyed, and 900 teams representing 8K people, we witnessed the unintentional damage: marginalized learning and development people (L&D), learners who see leadership and team development as a necessary but random and disappointing transaction, and executives who line-item “soft skills” training (labeled decades ago by, no surprise, a hard-skills proponent) as a tax or necessary benefit, as if it were a dental plan.
If you're curious, it can't help but spark a few questions:
The problems are systemic and the curiosity and ambition to fix them have received as little attention as any problem in enterprise history.
How did L&D pros, who make such a compelling psychological and organizational case for the most pivotal kind of learning, get so minimized and, in the process, drag down human potential and the social intelligence of corporate culture?
If Hollywood made a movie about L&D, it would start with a subtle enemy.
"You know the one, Dr. Everything 'll Be Alright." Prince
ut with a classroom mentality in place, the enemy brought in reinforcements: training vendors and motivational speakers.
They appeared to be allies. And they were, for content and short-term motivation or shifts in morale. Not for change. Not for ROI. Vendor pricing for billable days, speaker fees and kit orders don’t change, and neither does your organization or the people who lose what they learned faster than their workbooks.
And the vendor-ally way of doing business today is nearly identical to the way they did it in 1985: planes, kits, seats, and classrooms. The allies are smart people with good intentions helping a few people with a severely misaligned business model for helping clients change.
So, over time and under insufficient training budgets and increasing cost pressure, the vendor model morphs: consultants and billable days switch to client certifications. The infamous “train-the-trainer,” which, to borrow a vendor analogy, gives away the razor (certifications) to sell the blades (kits).
Under tight budgets, the desire to be valuable, and the apparently helpful but anti-helpful march toward never-ending and rarely used certifications, L&D people chased certifications to deliver less expensively what already doesn’t work for real change. The certification overdose leads to less deep expertise, but more certification merit badges. Even when vendors switch from per-person kits to all-you-can-eat IP fees, it remains the wrong, fundamental strategy for change, and ignores the reality of L&D bandwidth and crazy-busy learners, only for a cheaper price.
We’ve talked face-to-face with the certified. A few are still delusionally satisfied to carry the merit badges. Honestly, it seemed that, during these conversations in our research, they derived their credibility from the number of merit badges and whom those badges came from. We watched them make learning decisions not on relevance, but on what they were certified to deliver to save money.
The savvy ones, however, recognize that they can’t be experts in everything, especially when they’re teaching one course one week, and the next one four months later.
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n intermission for the guilty.
Let’s pause for an intermission. This one’s self-incrimination. We, the research doers and writers and speakers, are guilty. Before we assail the enemy, let’s be clear about one thing. We were the enemy. We made a living from it. Occasionally, we still do. We sold kits, boarded planes, certified trainers, and passed out smile sheets. We are not the jurors. We are the defendants. Or, at least we were.
Okay, back to the plot.
The Enemy Within
The subtle, strategic inside attack on L&D.
s your company’s movie continues, the enemy of learning and change would get you from the inside as well.
Your training budget wouldn’t change: flat forever. Consequently, training budgets become expendable—the useless character in a movie—and the first to go in tough times. Plus, learners keep asking for whatever training you offer to be half as long, no matter how many times you divide it. One training supplier now has two-minute videos for soft-skill development. We won’t be shocked when people consider twenty-second advice and a quick quote as the developmental sweet spot. The end user gets their need for speed, but fast knowledge and IQ power-bites are a placebo for change.
And it’s a vicious loop. Low training budget and work pressure leads to low numbers of people trained and time to coach, leading to very little change, which leads to proof that executives should only fund training because it’s a good PR move and a nice benefit, but let’s be serious…it’s not serious. So: flat budgets, no change, and a weak brand for L&D.
With locked or rising prices from the outside allies (training vendors), and limited, fluctuating funding and time from the inside (the powers that be), a few get their two-day classroom workshop, and then wait another year for the next hit. For most of the 65 companies we interviewed, only a fraction of the people who work there get in the door for real leadership and development. The rest either wait their turn in the pipeline or are thrown into an endless inventory of online learning libraries.
The factors all combine to neutralize learning and development. And it won’t be the last time. This movie appears to have endless sequels that all end the same.
The enemy is dominating. It doesn’t feel like it to those who built the training highway, but the enemy doesn’t care. Everyone keeps driving on the same road at the same speed limit.
Why don’t you see it? Some do. Some don’t because they’re consumed by the busyness and tradition that’s been laid down. They’re engaged in:
But it’s making no long-term difference that justifies the investment (And yet it’s still, by far, the primary method for delivering training).
In comparison to other investments the company makes, it’s not much of a return, and so they give you your stipend and continue viewing you as a cost. Some are discontent and want to disrupt the trajectory, but the gravity and politics of learning-as-usual keeps them politically stuck in the square, grey, flannel cubicle of old L&D habits.
The enemy is dominating. It doesn’t feel like it to those who built the training highway, but the enemy doesn’t care. Everyone keeps driving on the same road at the same speed limit.
Busy. Busy. Busy.
Heavy on potential, low on performance.
ut, there, on the horizon, a potential hero appears.
For the majority who can’t get into the classroom for time or money or workload reasons, online learning is invented. It has potential. It could be an ally. It works for compliance (sexual harassment, safety) and technical skills (Excel, coding). It does obliterate geographical distance. It does lower cost. It is faster to get some training to everyone. It assures consistency. You can measure what’s specifically learned. And it starts to tap into the potential of tech.
But it was invented primarily for compliance and technical skills, and doesn’t translate effectively into the social side of work. When it stretches to the “soft” side of work, it’s out of social context. It’s isolated. The people creating it ignore UX and UI; it’s rushed, so it basically sucks. It’s not insightful. It’s overwhelming (one eLearning vendor boasts of 120,000 pieces of content, including over 7,000 courses, one billion learning modules, 65,000 videos, and 46,000 book options and counting). It’s crazy expensive for what it is. What’s more, it’s ugly. Some platforms are getting prettier, but what’s inside is still so shag carpet.
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on't blame Millennials.
We interviewed and surveyed 350 millennials. They want insight, inspiration, and relevance. In the words of Gallup, “Millennials fundamentally think about jobs as opportunities to learn and grow. Their strong desire for development is, perhaps, the greatest differentiator between them and all other generations in the workplace.” Gallup’s latest report, What Millennials Want from Work and Life, reveals that 87% of millennials say opportunities to learn and grow are important or extremely important to them when applying for a job.
The bummer is that they’re not impressed with the L&D effort. In fact, they’re stunned with what most creations of L&D think are “good.” They want it as beautiful and easy to use as everything else that Apple, Nike, Blue Apron and Amazon give them. You’re competing with TED and Netflix and every other medium that’s interesting and beautiful, not the past.
Those attempts to upgrade learning for leadership and team development using tech ignore the social necessity of learning: learners don’t feel comfortable doing it solo at work, and managers don’t want them to (only 6 percent to be precise.) When learners go home at night, they have zero interest in sacrificing personal time to developmental time. User rates are low, but L&D checks a box that comforts them, telling themselves “everyone has access.” It appears to democratize training.
It doesn’t. It’s an epic fail.
As tech and speed increase in the name of modernizing learning, we amp up our whiteboard theories and create hi-tech alternatives: microlearning, microtraining, or learning at the point of need at the “speed of business.” (BTW, what exactly is the speed of business?) We speed it up, app it up, and bitesize it. We mobilize the learning, brag about the 24/7/365 access (do people really want the same hours for learning as 7-Eleven?), and claim that’s what the “millennials” want.
The L&D Brand
Let's just say L&D isn't quite at the Tesla or Amazon level. Yet.
he enemy is destroying change from the inside and outside.
L&D credibility drops. Funding stays relatively flat. The industry stays tepid and timid. Low barriers to entry confuse the choices by letting anyone with a blog and a business card enter the plot. Only a few major players supply the power. Choices drop. Prices stay high for the ROI. Without a noticeable return-on-investment difference to report, executives keep investment stale. Nothing raised, nothing lowered. Allied vendors who aren’t strong allies keep the habit fed.
So, the ending of the movie comes, and, while it’s predictable to everyone in the audience, it rarely is to the actors and directors of the movie:
The attack is invisible. It’s mind-numbing. It’s the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” implemented to perfection and is brilliantly dysfunctional. It is the perfect plan for keeping things precisely the way they always have been.
The architecture of learning and development is the low ceiling on unrealized human potential. And the longer we keep the architecture in place and comfortably shuffle around inside the enemy’s building, the harder it gets to escape the lukewarm reputation we’ve earned, but don’t deserve. That leads to the L&D reputation problem. It’s a lukewarm brand. Yes, we’re passionate among ourselves, but very few people are passionate about us.
And we, L&D, own it. We are the brand.
Before we dive deeper, we acknowledge we may be missing pieces in the path forward. Point them out. Add your ideas. Disagree. Add fuel to this fire. This is to fix things, not for us to be exclusively and exhaustively right.
This is a call to rip out the rust that’s embedded in the body of the old car on the worn interstate of corporate learning, and help the next generation become an elite generation of leaders and learners, rather than simply the next one up.
As we launch into the heart of our work and hopefully equip you for the revival, you may notice we’re angry here and there. We’re not mad at you personally. Well, most of you. We are passionate, because our research put us face to face with real people, especially the next generation, and we fume when we watch what they’re given at work to learn and develop. It’s one of the laziest, complacent industries we know.
So, for us, this isn’t a side-conversation over a L&D lunch and learn. This is podium-level passion.
Next up? The biggest switch L&D must make to save their brand and help learners.
And the longer we keep the architecture in place and comfortably shuffle around inside the enemy’s building, the harder it gets to escape the lukewarm reputation we’ve earned, but don’t deserve.
igh potential, low ceilings.
Here's the counterintuitive switch most L&D folks won't like.
o, what’s the big switch?
Learning for leadership and team development doesn’t belong with L&D.
It belongs squarely with the team leader, the person who is 70% of the variance in her team’s engagement. Learning belongs fundamentally, not loosely, where it’s always in context and relevant: the leader and her team.
In the movie plotline, this is the unexpected twist that prompts the person who’s next to you in the theatre to lean over and whisper, “I’m confused. What just happened?” Saying the responsibility for learning doesn’t belong to L&D feels like saying medicine doesn’t belong with doctors or hi-tech doesn’t belong in Silicon Valley. So, let’s dig a little deeper with a metaphor.
University of Richmond Professor Terryl Givens tells the story of an ancient house in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s called the John Knox house, and was occupied by James Mossman, a goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots. On the third floor, where Mossman did his work, was a plain door with a simple keyhole that protected his work and inventory. Despite years of attempts by burglars to break in by picking the lock, no one ever did. The room remained secure because the keyhole wasn’t the keyhole. The real keyhole was next to it, hidden by an ornamental bar. If the robbers ever wanted to break in, they needed the right keyhole.
The further our research went, the more we began to understand that for years, L&D has been trying to unlock the door of leadership development not with the wrong key, but in the wrong keyhole.
So, where’s the hidden keyhole? That requires a little curiosity.
Saying the responsibility for learning doesn’t belong to L&D feels like saying medicine doesn’t belong with doctors or hi-tech doesn’t belong in Silicon Valley.
Science of Need
Using strategic empathy and design-thinking to figure things out.
layton Christensen, a brilliant professor of—essentially—disruptive innovation at Harvard Business School, calls what most label “identifying needs” the “job to be done.”
It’s strategic empathy, and here’s what he means.
McDonalds hired Christensen’s firm to help them boost milkshake sales. McDonalds had checked off all the standard marketing research, probably not unlike the research you’ve done on learners: profiled milkshake drinkers, knew the average sale per customer, the demographics…everything. Based on the data, they tried new flavors, sizes, names, and branding. Nothing worked.
So, Christensen and a colleague spent 18 hours one day closely watching and talking to people in the store, who were buying milkshakes. Not in a conference room or a focus group. Not demographic data in a spreadsheet. Not a persona on a whiteboard or 20-question survey. Not that those are all bad; they’re just not nearly empathic enough.
When a milkshake isn't a milkshake.
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As it turned out, fifty-percent of milkshake sales were in the morning, which is a little strange. So Christensen asked people in the store, and in their cars as they were leaving the drive-thru with the straw in their mouth, “Why the morning…what ‘job’ did you hire that milkshake to do? And why not something else, why a milkshake?”
Then they discover the “why” behind the buy.
It’s better than a banana (which is messy, doesn’t hold me over), or a bagel (too plain, or complicated to put stuff on it while I’m driving), better than a donut (messy, fattening), or Snickers (just feel bad eating candy in the morning) or coffee (which doesn’t last long, and I have to go to the bathroom).
The milkshake, on the other hand, takes 23 minutes to finish, which is great for reducing boredom on a commute, holds me over until lunch, and keeps me clean. That’s the job to be done.
Not flavor. Not names. Not packaging, not persona. It didn’t matter if you were 23 or 53, male or female driving a Mercedes or a Mack truck: knowing what the needs were—the job to be done—rather than the simplistic features, led to knowing what was really going on and what people really wanted, even when they couldn’t exactly express it. The solutions McDonalds came up with to increase sales were now based on real, underlying, unexpressed needs that were empathically understood, not strategically guessed.
It's time to stop thinking like L&D to get better at L&D.
he discipline to find Christensen’s “job to be done” is a science, and one that most companies, and even more L&D groups, miss.
L&D people have been trying to solve problems with features that learners and leaders only superficially care about, and who can’t tell you precisely what they want.
It’s not that they’re dumb or don’t care. They’re busy with metrics and management. They don’t think about the problem you’re trying to solve, although they feel it. Tom Peters once said that customers are a rearview mirror: they can tell you if they like what you’ve done, but they can’t see ahead. They have their own futures to think about.
And it’s not that your intentions aren’t good or that you lack passion for helping your market of learners and leaders. Some of the most well-intentioned people we’ve ever met are in L&D. But they think like L&D people. They spend too much time in theory, and not enough time with their market. And we don’t mean in the same room as you’re delivering a course. We mean with them.
Our assessment of hundreds of L&D people is that they don’t think like marketers and act like innovators. It doesn’t mean L&D doesn’t occasionally survey their market, talk to learners, and then build what people say they need. They do. But that’s the problem. That’s ordinary, surface-level research and top-of-mind market response.
What that usually leads to is L&D building or buying what they want their market to need, not what the market really needs.
Truly knowing what your market (your learners) need requires more than employee attitude surveys, industry conferences, whiteboard analysis, or casually asking around. If you want to know what someone needs before they know they need it, or can even express it, you need the deepest kind of empathy.
Truly knowing what your market (your learners) need requires more than employee attitude surveys, industry conferences, whiteboard analysis, or casually asking around. If you want to know what someone needs before they know they need it, or can even express it, you need the deepest kind of empathy. Honestly, you need to lose yourself in their life, their work.
A friend of ours who works for a big, classroom delivery leadership company told us about a meeting they had with the CLO of a Fortune 100 company. The meeting didn’t go well. At one point, listening to the pitch of “blended learning” of classroom, online, yada, yada, yada, the exasperated CLO said bluntly, “We have to do things differently. We have to shake things up. We can’t keep training people the way we’re doing it.”
Why was she exasperated? Because everyone keeps coming up with new ideas and even newer terminology to fix the wrong problems: cost, time, convenience and logistics issues, not underlying learning and habit-changing problems.
So, the question for everyone in L&D, is “What specifically are the needs behind the idea that will cause people to enthusiastically hand you ‘revenue’ or buy into what you’re selling?”
Return to Owner
Learning and development for leadership and culture belongs with the team leader. Period.
he first keyhole paradigm we have to change is the most fundamental, the one we opened this section with: learning doesn’t belong with L&D.
And our guess is that idea will get the most resistance because it challenges the system and major mindsets that dominate the decisions most L&D people are already making, as well as the vendors who supply the goods. So, if learning and development doesn’t belong with L&D, to whom does it belong, and do the rightful owners even want it?
Second verse, same as the first: Learning and development for leadership and culture belongs with the leader and her team, where it’s always in context and relevant.
Our market, the learners and leaders we’re serving and delivering products to, wants learning in context, in the flow of work, closest to the felt need as humanly possible. They want it where it’s current.
“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….’”
In fact, she wants to deliver it for personal reasons too. One very smart, open-minded manager we talked to was giving us all the technically correct answers for why training belongs with her, not HR or OD or L&D. We’ll call her Samantha. As we pushed back on one of Sam’s ideas, she said, “Okay. I’m going to be honest about this. It may sound a little egotistical, but it is what it is. I want to be the smart one. I want to mentor my team. I want to be the one that brings them new ideas and skills and helps them in their careers. That’s my job, and I want to be known for it.”
As Isaac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….’”
Learning at the point of relevance overlays what’s going on right now for her team. It doesn’t flood them with information and hope they remember it for the next six months. It’s constant, contextual, and real. It gives the leader confidence because she’s teaching, guiding, mentoring, and leading the cultural discussion, not the “cultural transformation” or leadership expert. And in most cases, doing it all ahead of schedule.
Eighty-two percent of managers feel responsible for developing the social skills of their team, and that it matters.
hat wasn’t the funny truth for just Sam.
Once she said it, it explained the underlying theme that our informed intuition was telling us, but that we couldn’t quite put our finger on.
Samantha wants to teach. She wants to be a leadership expert. She is whom her team turns to. She models what she teaches because she has to if what she’s teaching is going to work. It’s demonstrated every day, and when she teaches, the learning is always recent. It’s not a workshop memory; it’s our last lesson or last conversation memory. It becomes part of daily discussion, not the “thing we talked about in that class back in July.”
They want to be the mentors who bring what their team needs developmentally to the table. Call it an ego thing if you will, but they want to be the ones who look good to their teams, who have answers, who inspire better work, who make people’s lives better, who are remembered by those on their team who go on to lead themselves.
Samantha wants the immediate satisfaction of knowing she’s helping every person on her team develop, and the long-term ability to be a leader who left a legacy. And, as she’s teaching, she’s developing on an accelerated path. She’s jumping the learning curve.
So, leadership and developmental learning isn’t ours (L&D). We don’t own it. We’re not the ones who should do it. We are the people who should be helping them do it. That’s the product our market wants, but can’t exactly tell us, and patiently (and now indifferently) waits to massively and passionately adopt.
Eighty-two percent of managers feel responsible for developing the leadership and social skills of their team, and that it matters. A lot. This isn’t a side interest for them. They take it seriously and without much support. They’re given massive learning libraries, but not much they like. Almost nothing they love. And if leaders don’t love it, it doesn’t make them look good, and so they ignore it.
Hand it over.
So, leadership and developmental learning isn’t ours (L&D). We don’t own it. We’re not the ones who should do it. We are the people who should be helping them do it. That’s the product our market wants, but can’t exactly tell us, and patiently (and now indifferently) waits to massively and passionately adopt. Our job, because it’s their job to be done, is to help team leaders and managers be the teachers, experts, purveyors of killer ideas, and mentors. They should be the ones in front of the “class” (their own team) delivering and facilitating learning and change, not us.
And now it becomes clear why classrooms and blended learning and online whatever isn’t taking our markets by storm. We’re not the innovators, the revolutionists, until we fundamentally change our way of thinking about how we help people learn and change.
Until then, we’re just another product on the shelf.
It takes more than a few oxytocin hits to make training work.
ake the classroom for instance.
When Samantha’s team enters the traditional classroom, they’re usually learning from and with people with whom they have no history or future. We do dreaded role plays because we’re not in a real role. That makes it fake, forced, by default. It is “play.” They get models no one remembers, even when they like them and those models matter. We know. We’ve asked. We watched. We’ve been there. They didn’t remember ours.
Not long after we released our first book for Simon & Schuster, a big hi-tech company adopted our training based on the book. We keynoted. We certified trainers. The client built an online follow-up and emailed weekly application reminders. They were all in. Execs went through the training and loved it, even the future CEO. It was the highest rated course they offered, and they offered all the big-name courses from the biggest training companies you’ve probably heard of. Big client support, great reputation.
Not bragging, but doesn’t this sound familiar? It’s the story. It’s everyone’s story. Here’s the disenchanting and final chapter in that story.
Get the Revive whitepaper as a PDF.
After one specific speaking engagement, I (Steve) was invited to stay for the rest of the day, and teams were invited in for 30 minutes to “talk with the author.” They scheduled a new team every thirty minutes. I was excited. The L&D people were excited. The teams were excited. The teams arrived. They loved our work. I was grateful. I signed books, people came up to meet me.
Then the 30-minute meetings started.
Only a few questions were asked. Awkward silence. I tried to fill in the silence with a little content here and there. The team managers and L&D people jumped in…really, ask Steven anything! Uh, more silence. So, I jumped in with a direct, candid question: have you reviewed what you learned since the class?
Have you talked about it as a team since?
Read the book?
No time, work overload, no clear plan, etc.
Do you remember what you learned?
I remember I liked it a lot. But, no, not much. (Less than 10%.)
Have you used the online resources L&D created?
Where are they again?
I was depressed. Great revenue for us, great smile sheets after the training, crappy results. The same thing happened when we worked for FranklinCovey. It happens with nearly everyone, everywhere. The only time you hear differently are from the rare exceptions, a handful of selected case-studies, or from the booth vendors at an ATD conference. But there’s a big gap from the booth to the business.
A New Brand
How do we equip learning for the real job to be done? And revive the L&D brand?
o, do L&D pros matter to the markets they serve?
The answer is yes. But not in the way you may think. Leaders and their teams want your advice. They want coaching. They don’t want classroom course delivery. Only 16% to be specific. They don’t want massive libraries of online learning.
Fifty-nine percent want focused, manager-led discussions in weekly meetings they’re already holding in the course of normal business.
So, if leaders are teachers, those who inspire and develop their teams, where does that leave L&D? Where does HR go? What do we do with all those classrooms and online courses that collect dust in your company and revenue for the providers? How do we equip learning for the job to be done, for what our market really wants, and not what we hope they want and think they should need?
That’s your opportunity to be an L&D innovator for leadership development and teamwork training. Big companies are likely to grip the past and slowly lumber toward market demand. Younger, faster, smaller companies can take advantage and win the talent war because a new workforce demands development, and leave in search of it if they don’t get it.
For that to happen, creative, market-responsive people, those who care about human potential and corporate growth and market growth and even world-changing missions, must change. Stay-the-course, everything’s-just-fine people don’t have to change a thing.
Every year, a “State of the Industry” publication hits the L&D newsstands. It’s full of data, stats, and a few moderate recommendations about the future. Largely, it doesn’t change. Everyone knows the state of the talent development industry. Someone has to create the new state.
The learning and development narrative is stuck. New creators, directors, producers, and actors are needed. If you’re up for change, that’s where we’re headed. Sign up for any of the free tools in this article and we'll keep you supplied with new ideas, research, and advice.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to talk or get some advice—free—contact us. No sales pitch, no advice as marketing in disguise. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. You can also text us: 385.498.9959.
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