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Selling Up Selling Down, Strategy

What Language Do You Speak?

We need to talk in terms of key performance indicators not completion rates.

key performance indicators, effectivenessI remember walking out of a rather lengthy, frustrating, and occasionally tense meeting with a line of business my learning team was supporting, when the leader of that team stopped me and said, “That meeting sums up my frustration with our L&D department. You just don’t know how to talk in the language of our business.” Wow.

Once I calmed down, licked my wounds and finished muttering a few things under my breath, I took a long walk. “Talk in the language of our business?” What exactly did that mean? I scheduled a follow-up meeting with that manager, who was a dear friend, by the way, and took some time to dig deeper.

He told me that my constant and repeated “learning speak” and refusal to adapt my deliverables to the world he was trying to support only distanced me and my team from the reality he faced every day. If that drift continued, he would be forced to go elsewhere. He finished by saying I had two options. I could dig in, defend my turf and lose the battle, or listen, adapt and become relevant again.

The challenge was reorienting myself and my team to the new marching orders. How could we honor years of training, research and effort to standardize and scale our solutions, and become the trusted business partner this individual was looking for?

We began by adopting a new vocabulary. One not based on learning theory, or even business acumen, but on business results. We held weeks of meetings with the lines of business we supported and listened to them talk about the performance challenges they faced, and the goals they had set for themselves in the coming year. We listened to the strategies and programs the managers were going to implement to meet these challenges and goals. We repeated back what we thought we heard in their words, not ours. We didn’t suggest a thing.

We went back to our team, shared our findings, compared notes and tried to come up with a different way to communicate and support our key stakeholders. Long story short, it worked. But it involved some difficult, and occasionally painful changes on our part.

We live in unfamiliar times for the learners we support. Change is a constant and time is precious. The competitive landscape is shifting in ways we’ve never seen before. Our learners are caught right in the middle. When you look back at these challenges and stack them up against the learning solutions you provide, and the language you use to describe them, does it match?

When we covered a whiteboard with all that we’d heard, many of our words and deliverables clearly missed the mark. To butcher an old sacred cow, the word “training” just didn’t fit. Sure, learners still needed to grasp and understand things, but training them in various ways, be it live, virtual, or e-learning based, wasn’t nearly enough. I often get labeled as the anti-training guy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m frustrated by how training alone is unfairly blamed for poor employee performance.

Performance is the key. It was all over our whiteboard, literally and figuratively. Solving business challenges had little to do with knowing something. That was part of the journey, but the challenges the business faced hinged on the learner’s ability to translate and apply that knowledge into performance under stressful conditions.

Learning deliverables need to focus on that. We need to talk in terms of key performance indicators not training outcomes, certifications or completion rates. We need to retool ourselves as performance consultants not instructional designers. Finally, we need to design performance-based support and learning solutions ahead of training deliverables.

In the past 12 months I’ve sat through strategic planning meetings with training teams from major corporations who are literally trying to justify their existence. Most are in a position of weakness due to the deliverables they are known for and talk about. They are desperately trying to retool to change the perception, and the actual outcomes, for their learning programs.

We can get ahead of this curve. Which position will you put your learning organization in?

Bob Mosher is a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a strategic consulting firm. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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