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FEATURE1 January 2008

Facilitating learning and development

Designing a comprehensive and coherent learning programme is key to an organisation's success. Daniel Wain takes a look at the best way to implement a winning programme that will satisfy staff and, as importantly, serve the business

The link between investment in learning and development ( L&D ) and improved business performance has now been proved beyond even the most unreasonable doubt.

Recently, John Purcell's team at Bath University unlocked 'the People and Performance black box' to show what forges that link: organisational success is dependent upon employees actively exercising their 'discretionary behaviour' – performing beyond the call of duty. This is particularly true in knowledge-intensive professions such as research. As Tom Moon of learning consultancy True Top Dog says, "Employees are increasingly aware that they're the owners of their human capital, that it has great value, and that they decide when, how and where to contribute it." Purcell has shown that it's not enough for organisations to simply give employees the ability to go the extra mile; they must also provide the motivation and opportunity to use that ability.

Whilst not an entirely new thought – after all, Napoleon declared ability to be "of little account without opportunity" – it's one that benefits from constant reiteration. More recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development ( CIPD ) emphasises the need not only to provide top-down training but to encourage employees to take ownership of their own development. "It's about empowering, not imposing," feels Moon, "not spoon-feeding training, but facilitating learning."

Andrew Wood, Head of Leadership & Graduate Development at Synovate, agrees. "The organisation should enable, not just supply, development, and all need to share responsibility for it: organisation, manager and individual." According to Moon, "Learning is too critical to the core activities of the business to be left to HR alone." Yet the CIPD's 2007 L&D Survey shows that, in most UK companies, the HR function still initiates the majority of day-to-day L&D activities. In only 17% of cases had employees initiated their most recent learning event themselves, compared to 60% driven by HR. Worryingly the employees of 39% of UK firms had little or no involvement in their own development.

The CIPD believes that what people choose to learn is more important to the business than what they are trained to do, as it increases the organisation's ability to remain agile in the face of change. As the CIPD's Martyn Sloman says, "Training has a tendency to react to present needs, rather than build capabilities for the future, to transfer information rather than build knowledge, and to lack the supporting processes to put new ideas into practice."

That's not to say the organisation absolves itself of all responsibility for its people's learning, simply that it shares that responsibility. It requires a delicate balance: treating learners as 'intelligent consumers', able to pick and mix the development appropriate to their specific needs, whilst maintaining an overarching framework providing structure, support and 'core' L&D driven by the organisational strategy and business needs.

"'Facilitating' sounds hands-off and arms-length," says Cort, "but it's actually about providing people with processes and parameters."

For Andrew Wood, this shared responsibility for an individual's development, "where they are, where they're going, and how they get from A to B, has to be driven by a structured performance management process. At Synovate, individuals' personal development plans and the solutions to their L&D needs aren't created in isolation, but have to fit with the company's goals and culture, whilst ensuring that culture supports their L&D." Because it is their responsibility to ensure individual learning benefits the organisation, Moon believes that line managers have to take an active interest in both the design and evaluation of their people's development: "Just sticking a pin in a training brochure and signing off the invoice as a sop to staff morale is a gross, but still far too common, dereliction of duty. As well as a frequent waste of opportunity cost."

Set a good example
John Purcell's 'black box' research shows how much the difference between high- and low-performing organisations is influenced by line managers' proactive and continuous supervision of their employees' development. For Dr Peter Critten, of Middlesex University Business School, both line and senior management have to act as role-models, "patently showing real interest in their own L&D as well as those of their employees".

Next year, the MRS is facilitating just such an opportunity, the 'Leadership Academy', part of the recently launched Research BusinessTrack initiative, aimed at fostering both the personal development and business effectiveness of research industry leaders. "The Academy," says Robin Nash, Manager of Training Courses & Seminars at MRS, "is deliberately targeted at a new and senior audience for MRS Training: those leaders who wouldn't necessarily see themselves benefiting from traditional training, but who recognise the need to continually upgrade their skills and update their knowledge. The Academy will provide a self-contained toolkit, useful both for immediate application and longer-term transferability." It should also provide networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities for agencies and clients alike. An illustration of how facilitating L&D is often simply a case of breaking down barriers and enabling dialogue and discussion.

Facilitating such dialogue however requires a clearly-defined rationale, placed within a business context, to avoid it becoming a cosy talking shop and little more. Thus whilst 'communities of practice' ( people with a common interest collaborating over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions and build innovations ) can play a key role in social learning, they need to also be 'communities with purpose'.

Fresh perspectives
For Sally Webb of Customer Insight Solutions, when facilitating agency-client learning, "Context is everything. It shouldn't just be about research and techniques. True learning, benefiting both parties, comes from open discussions of strategy, culture, politics and brands, finding time to listen to each other, and appreciating each other's aims and pressures. This informal learning too often gets squeezed out, so limiting the mutual understanding and empathy that leads to better relationships." Andrew Wood calls this "learning the shorthand", and says Synovate welcomes clients' involvement in internal learning events as well as actively supporting staff secondments to client organisations. Although they do currently tend one-way, Webb feels secondments can be "hugely valuable" but questions whether the agency employee's experience and learning is always shared effectively with colleagues back at the office.

St Margaret's Hospice, responsible for special palliative care throughout Somerset, has taken inter-company learning a stage further. Its leadership programme comprises sessions run by external tutors on subjects from self-awareness and decision-making to marketing, strategic planning and change management, alongside external work experience: each delegate spends one week in each of three different organisations, including banks, construction firms, even the Navy. "We wanted to expose our leaders to as many different perspectives as possible," explains Carole Hewitt, Associate Director of Organisational Learning. "Leadership issues are similar across industry. However, we wanted to learn how organisations in other sectors handle such issues. Therefore our people identify specific areas to investigate, drawn from the tutorials, and are then tasked with bringing their learning back, through formal and assessed recommendations to the Board."

Learning to learn
Dr Critten believes that such "work-based learning can lead to real organisational change. But first people need to learn not just how to work but how to learn from that work, and they need to be enabled to do that. Organisations need to encourage their people to make sense of their work experiences, translating them into personal learning". Indeed if experience doesn't result in change, then one could argue that nothing has really been learnt. "If you go on doing what you've always done," Einstein famously observed, "you'll go on getting what you've always got." It's a particular type of insanity that thinks you can get different results from the same skills and behaviours.

Despite the National Employers' Skills Survey showing the average UK employee received £1,550 worth of training last year, facilitating L&D is more about giving employees "time, space and opportunities to develop", says Melanie Cort, rather than simply money. At FreshMinds, "employees are given tangible ownership of their development," says Senior Consultant Nick Coates, "with a learning budget – in both time and money – for each to spend as they deem most appropriate".

Only connect
For Dr Critten, "all learning has to be a continuous and developing flow, rather than a time-limited, pre-set, management-imposed solution". The facilitator of learning and development is a matchmaker, bringing the learner and the means of learning together. However, just as the marriage is more than the wedding, learning is more than a one-off event. Thus facilitating L&D within a business context should involve continually making, or helping to make, connections, between people within an organisation, with others outside, between the individual and the organisation itself, between reflection and action, problem and solution, learning and performance.

Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell, in their seminal 1991 text 'The Learning Company', wrote that learning and working are one and the same. But perhaps learning is also synonymous with living. Learning is as unavoidable, natural and necessary as breathing: it is part of the inevitable lifecycle of change. An organisation can neither start nor stop it, only facilitate it, making available the resources and opportunities for individual learning, and ensuring that it powers organisational growth.

Key Notes
• Learning isn't a course or an event, but an ongoing process, requiring commitment from all parties – a marriage, not a one-night stand
• Employees must own drive their own learning and development ( L&D ), but the line manager and the organisation share responsibility by enabling it
• As in all good whodunits, your people should have the means, motive and opportunity to commit learning
• L&D must be firmly embedded in day-to-day working activity – encourage it, recognise it, capture it, share it
• All work-based learning has to have a business context and purpose, helping meet the needs and goals of the organisation as well as those of the learner
• Balance the bread and butter L&D mandated by the business with a menu of optional, self-selected Danish pastries
• Ensure managers act as role models by not being afraid to acknowledge their own L&D
• Build L&D into your performance management process. Ensure business-led objectives drive personal development goals. 
• Remember: if you don't measure it, you can't manage it
• The capacity to adapt is the greatest gift of learning, allowing learner and organisation to remain agile in the face of change

Daniel Wain can be contacted at

January | 2008