Managing Learning in Changing Business Conditions – AXIOM Insights Podcast

AXIOM Insights Podcast - Managing Learning in Changing Business Conditions

What can the training profession — and professionals — learn from the past two years of changes, and what’s next for the industry? This article highlights some of the thoughts shared by industry veterans Doug Harward (Executive Chairman, Training Industry) and Herb Blanchard (President, AXIOM Learning Solutions), as they joined as guests of the AXIOM Insights podcast.

"Opportunities galore" for the training profession.

I've never seen a time in our profession, more than today, when executives in corporations expect more of us and want more of us. And that's a wonderful thing.

Doug Harward, Executive Chairman, Training Industry, Inc.

Doug Harward has an optimistic assessment of the state of the training industry, as the industry and the organizations and people we support continue to navigate change driven by a global pandemic, cultural and societal shifts, and international political conflicts and wars.

Harward has decades of experience in the training profession, and is currently the Executive Chairman of Training Industry, Inc., an industry analyst and publisher of trainingindustry.com. He says we’ve reached a moment where executives “believe that training is critical [and that] future success is dependent on how well we train and prepare our talent pool, and how well we take care of them, and how well we support them. 

Harward says executives are looking to learning leaders with a supportive lens: executives “want you to be successful [and] to do the right things.”

But at the same time, they’re not throwing money at the problem, said Harward. “They want us to be efficient and effective, and demonstrate to them that we know what we’re doing, we know how to source, we know how to design, we know how to deliver.”

“The expectation for our success is greater today than it’s ever been,” Harward said. “And I think that’s the best thing we can hear for our profession. It means we have opportunities galore ahead of us, but it also means the pressure’s on. We have to deliver.”

Herb Blanchard, President of AXIOM Learning Solutions, agrees. He says we’ve arrived at a moment where the business needs what learning and development can provide, so it’s up to the learning leader to speak up.

“To me, it’s simple. If you want a seat at the table, you have a seat at the table. You just have to be prepared to have that conversation,” said Blanchard. “There are very few organizations out there where, if a learning leader wants a seat at the table, they can’t get it.

“The spotlight’s there, in a good way. It puts a little more on us, and that’s a good thing. It’s good all the way around for the industry.”

“The more that learning leaders can have the conversation with senior leadership about how we develop talent, not how many people run through courses… we’ve come a long way, but we’re still learning how to have that conversation,” said Harward.

What seems like a major upheaval may not be, in the long run.

Doug Harward takes a long view of changes to the training industry. He says the profession has seen many “evolutionary shifts” over many decades, and then influenced by smaller ebbs and flows that come from societal changes, technological advancements, and similar pressures.

“The biggest thing we’ve learned in the past twelve months is the idea that people can and want to work differently,” says Harward. “Working remote is now a norm… it’s important to hire talent and let them work where they live, or where they want to live, or where they can be more effective and efficient,” rather than forcing staff back to a central office location.

Whether the changes driven by the pandemic are durable over time will take some more time to tell, Harward says.

“Ten years from now, it’s very possible we’re going to look back on this era and say it wasn’t an evolutionary shift,” said Harward. “Right now, we’re caught up in recency bias. It looks like it’s different, it feels different, but the reality is, I’m not sure it’s going to completely disrupt what we do.”

Virtual learning's moment came during the pandemic, but have we learned what we should have?

Virtual learning has been handed an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Herb Blanchard. Virtual learning has been around for years, but the industry was given the opportunity and imperative to evaluate the course catalog, how learning was delivered, and to identify ways to do better. “This will make us go back, re-assess, break what we did before, make better what we did before, do it again… [it’s] a major opportunity for learning,” said Blanchard.

Remote work became a societal change, not just an economic change, said Harward. Before the pandemic, decisions were made based on the understanding that in-person was the most effective way to train; the pandemic caused us to seek a new solution, and both the learners and the training organizations had to adapt and reconsider what training experience was acceptable.

“It’s become [an] economic decision, about how we can do it the best, and I believe that in the long run, economics will win out,” said Harward. “We’re already starting to… return to classroom learning, but we’re also seeing companies say, ‘wait a minute, we can save a lot of money by not putting people on planes and into hotel rooms.'”

“There was a pull-back in [training] expenditures by some companies,” said Harward. “Training is generally one of those areas, when there’s economic pressure on a company, we tend to cut costs in training. I’m not saying that’s the right decision, but we are accustomed to it.”

But that spending reduction triggered by the pandemic was short-lived, Harward said.

“We saw a very short pull-back revert back to really strong expenditures in the profession, companies spending more on leadership development, more money on doing other things, but they weren’t spending it on non-value-added costs like travel.”

“It’s an opportunity for the learning leader to contribute to the company a different way,” said Blanchard. “How do you be a better remote leader, or how do you lead when you don’t have a centralized location?”

“We’re working to build new programs to support leaders, to become more effective as a remote leader.”

Unexpected success stories can result from experimentation and agility.

There are organizations that feel they’ve been able to convert training programs to virtual that they didn’t think they could, said Blanchard. “People are coming back with success stories, about programs they didn’t think they could convert to virtual, but they turn out as success stories, because they were forced into that paradigm shift.”

That’s the story of the Certified Professional in Training Management program, which Harward created at Training Industry, as well. Before the pandemic, Harward was resistant to taking the in-person practicum groups online; these groups transitioned to fully online during the pandemic.

“I was probably the one who was the most resistant,” to the virtual transition, said Harward. “It has been a huge success story for us. It has given us access to more and more global learners, [and] we could have never done that in-person.”

Learning and development's adoption and ownership of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives

“We are having to do things differently,” says Harward. Societal movement around racial justice issues has changed how L&D looks at leadership, at communications in the workplace, and how L&D provides and delivers training. This includes many learning organizations being given a leadership position in providing training and resources on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“The number of new suppliers in the DEI training market has exploded in the past 18 months,” said Harward.

Where are learning programs moving? Look to the science.

Harward says the opportunity for the learning and development profession now, and in the next decade, will be to embrace and act on the existing and emerging science to help understand how people learn best: “How do we design programs for true high performance on the job?”

Navigating and evaluating the relevant research and resources will become a broader challenge, says Blanchard.

“We need that help,” said Harward. “Buyers of training services, or buyers of training content, need someone who’s out there vetting it…. the reality is, you help people who need something special find it and make it a better economic transaction.”

A scientifically-based approach will also help training improve its strategic alignment with business drivers, said Harward. “If we focus more on what the problem is we’re trying to solve, then we design training for that problem, it becomes very easy to measure the improvement…. if there’s a problem, it usually means we’ve got data showing there’s a problem.”

Sourcing learning services and technologies will continue to be a central challenge of the learning leader.

Both Harward and Blanchard have many years’ experience in the sourcing (or outsourcing) of learning, an area which Harward says has shifted from large, complex training outsourcing engagements to a larger number of smaller, transactional engagements. This creates an additional challenge for the learning manager to understand what tools, technologies and services are available from the thousands of training suppliers in the market (Harward estimates there are 7,000-plus).

“We need businesses [like AXIOM] that curate the market, that make sense of the market, that take some of the inefficiencies out of the market,” said Harward. “There’s a lot of costs buried in those inefficiencies, how do you hire the right one, or what happens if I hire the wrong one, and they weren’t the right fit? Your business helps us make those decisions.”

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