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Speak the Language of Business

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I have been traveling almost every week since the first of the year and have spoken with hundreds of learning professionals. There seems to be one shared frustration right now: getting stakeholders from respective lines of business to talk about true business outcomes. One learning leader said, “My lines of business seem to have no idea about business and performance measures.”

I have never had a problem getting line of business professionals at any level to talk about how their business is performing or not performing. In fact, the problem has often been getting them to stop talking about it. I’m not saying I have a magic formula for this, but I’m wondering if there is some type of language barrier between learning and business.

During one of my meetings we were talking about the importance of key performance indicators, or KPIs, and that many business units are guided and measured by them. Two days later I received an email from one of the learning participants who wanted to know how to write an appropriate KPI. When I asked why she cared, she informed me that I had told the group that we need to align our training programs to KPIs, so she wanted to being writing them into her learning programs.

It took me a while to convince her that we don’t write KPIs — the lines of business do. These are their KPIs and business measures, not ours. We need to understand them, then map our learning solutions, formal and performance support-based, to enable them.

When I went to instructional design school, I was taught how to conduct a series of analyses that would help me author an effective training program. These involved practices such as task analysis, needs analysis and writing learning objectives. That’s back when training was the center of the universe as far as learning and development experts were concerned. These were the tools of our trade, and they were all about crafting effective knowledge transfer and knowledge gain events. These helped us create today’s amazing training, certification and compliance programs.

The problem is the aforementioned analyses didn’t align us with business outcomes and performance measures as much as they enabled us to say that we helped make employees knowledgeable. Enter informal learning, better known as performance support. The 70-20-10 rule has dominated the learning landscape for years now. The struggle has been that many can’t get past only building — and being perceived as only creating — tools for the 10 percent.

We need to change the discussion and perception. It starts with listening, not talking. My magic secret to get business owners to share business outcomes is to ask a simple question: What keeps you up at night about how successful or unsuccessful your business is right now? Chances are it’s nothing about objectives, return on investment or business measures.

Any successful line of business owners or managers have joys and concerns about how their businesses are performing day in and day out. They can identify those successes and shortfalls. They can share examples and characteristics of employees who are doing well and those who are struggling. They know the systems that help and the ones that don’t. They know the numbers that are being missed and achieved. These discussions all lead to behaviors and skills, which learning can enable.

Stop aligning with business goals and start enabling them. Aligning is taking our square peg and trying to have it complement their round hole. Enabling is getting out in the trenches and doing what it takes to truly affect business outcomes. This is what I love so much about performance support instead of training. It starts with a performance discussion, sometimes about what appears to be the simplest behavior or skill. It’s not about writing instructional objectives or whole training solutions that start with “In this lesson you will learn …” It’s about creating embedded, contextual and just enough performance support content and tools to speak specifically to business outcomes.