Align L&D with your Business Change Programme

By Marc Zao-Sanders

7 minute read


Most people don’t care at all about the platforms and content L&D buys for them. If you want to make any impact on these people you’ll need to align what you’re doing with what your company and they really care about. CEOs care about and are responsible for large-scale business change. Individuals care about it too because it catalyses their careers. This is the important, focussed hook L&D needs. And here’s how to grab onto it, with or without Filtered.

You did everything.

  • Big content libraries – check.
  • Multiple cloud platforms – check.
  • Consumer-grade user interface – check.
  • Artificial Intelligence – check.
  • Something-about-the-flow-of-work – check.
  • API integrations – check.
  • Several-million-pound spend – check.

You build it all. And yet they do not come. Not in significant numbers after the launch. Why don’t employees consistently come to corporate learning systems for elective, developmental learning?

It may be more instructive to flip the question: why would they come? What’s the compelling reason* to come to the learning system(s) you’ve bought or built for them?

The reasons people learn have not changed much since 1971 when Allen Tough wrote The Adult’s Learning Projects. He identifies six main reasons to learn: the use of the knowledge or skill imminently**, to teach, to develop understanding for a future situation, out of curiosity, and to enhance social status and self-image.

Tough’s list is excellent and it serves us well today. These are indeed the reasons that an individual will go to Google or YouTube or a book or a colleague. Indeed, according to Ogilvy, 38% of all content that’s shared online is informational or educational – we are a species which loves to learn and share that learning. But Tough’s reasons aren’t compelling reasons to come to your corporate learning system. And that’s why so many of them are sad, expensive ghost towns.

Business Change

So how can corporate L&D have more of an impact? We think the answer lies in connecting learning to the most urgent and important projects in the business: large scale change programmes. 

The Board appoints a new CEO. She gets the job by making a series of promises to make a big, lasting, important difference to the company. Now six months in post, she needs to make that stated change a demonstrable reality. That change might be to imbue a greater leadership mentality through the workforce. Or to be more customer-centric. Or to be more digital. Or to be more innovative and better able to adopt and apply AI, VR, AR, IOT, etc. Or to bring about a more inclusive, positive culture. Or to address acute talent shortages. Sometimes the vision is to take the company from good to great. Sometimes it’s a turnaround programme.

The two salient points are that this change is felt to be important right from the very top and that it’s focussed along a particular trajectory. Important and focussed. We’ll come back to that.

Yet these big dreams usually aren’t realised. According to Harvard Business School professor John Kotter in 1996, just 30% of all change programmes succeed and in the twenty-five years since this research, that success rate has not improved (despite a glut of literature on the topic). These programmes tend to involve the whole business, are enormously expensive and tend to fail.

There are of course many factors that contribute to the success or failure of one of these large programmes but two are especially relevant to those of us working in L&D: skillsets and mindsets. In fact, according to McKinsey research, change programmes that explicitly assess skillsets and mindsets are upwards of six times more likely to succeed.

Rightly or wrongly, L&D initiatives and tools tend to be thought of as general-purpose and low-priority. Budgets are small, difficult to justify and, in bad economic times, the first to go. But in change programmes, L&D has a ticket to the top table, to a discussion that the business really cares about. This is an opportunity we (both the industry and we ourselves, Filtered) have missed far too often.

How L&D can support a change programme

We don’t have all the answers but we have some. Our product, Filtered Smart LXP, is not at its best when deployed as a general-purpose all-things-to-all-people destination, like LMSs, LXPs and large content libraries. Filtered comes into its own when put to work on a specific business problem, to accelerate an important change programme. Here’s some of what we’ve learnt from the past three years doing just that (and sometimes getting it wrong…by not doing just that).

First, you need to understand the intended change. This means investing/taking time between the stakeholders from the client and multiple solutions experts and product people from the provider(s). What does your company really mean by this change? What are the reasons behind it? How will that change be measured? Are there better ways of measuring it? Who needs to be satisfied? It’s worth spending months, not weeks on this. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started. In parallel, run a 3-month pilot to understand frontline aspirations, pressures and practices. Vendors that aren’t pushing this aren’t backing themselves.

You’ll need the right data. You probably have plenty that is broadly relevant to the change you’re trying to effect. But it’s not perfect – it’s incomplete, partly corrupted or, more commonly, doesn’t quite address the issue head-on. You and colleagues may want to know: 

  • What are the current attitudes toward self-development?
  • How does your workforce apply your current learning provision?
  • What libraries do they use and enjoy using?
  • What learning is changing behaviours and having an impact on the change programme?

A flexible product will be able to extract the answers to questions like these in order to personalise the experience and provide you with more powerful reporting capability. Filtered can do this through a configurable chat UI (and surveying). But you can also survey (outside of product) to get to this.

Then you’ll need a skills framework. A major business change programme driving leadership or innovation or digital transformation brings some focus, but these topics are still broad and open to different interpretations. A well-designed skills framework will help define and explain to the workforce what your company really means by the change programme. For example, leadership might become: authenticity, confidence, communication, vision, prioritisation, decision-making, senior recruitment, resilience, adaptability, managing a board, strategic planning, etc. Innovation might become: creativity, culture, design-thinking, mindfulness, deep work, curiosity, communication tools, etc. Digital transformation might become: future technologies, data visualisation, cloud, Office 365, Data, IOT, AI, agile, communication tools, security, etc. The point is that the right framework helps define and communicate the programme as well as making discovery easier. We co-design skills frameworks with 95% of our clients.

You need the right content. But if you have the right skills framework, curation of content is considerably easier. It will be clearer which libraries will deliver better for you (assuming they can map, approximately, to your framework). Similarly, what’s relevant from your own in-house content will become clearer with a well-designed skills framework.

The framework also gives you the taxonomy to classify (tag) your content. And if you work with a provider that has done this kind of work before, you will able to import some high-quality tagged-to-your-framework content from the web straight away. Filtered happens to be one such provider. And for a specific, intentional change programme, you won’t need tens of thousands of assets; you’ll probably just need a few hundred outstanding, pertinent, correctly tagged assets. Less is better. Thus the curation and tagging effort can be and must involve a mix of human and algorithmic effort.

Learners are disengaged by irrelevant content recommendations (in learning and beyond). That’s why we’ve always focussed on making Filtered's as relevant as humanly (and algorithmically) possible. And it works, with 80% of our users finding our rex relevant and a similar number of those going on to apply what they learnt to their work. But we want to do even better and so we practice what we preach and follow the data. And our data says, content curated for an intentional change programme is ~10% more useful than content curated for general purposes. Think about the impact of that for a second. It makes Filtered even more effective, whilst aligning the applied learning it generates to outcomes that the business actually cares about.

What does that mean for your workforce? A 10% boost in usefulness translates to 14% more learners enjoying a positive first learning experience. Where else in your business can you make such a difference through positioning and alignment? We know that learners driven by a focused learning requirement (associated with a pressing task) are more likely (by a factor of x2-3) to become heavily engaged than those with a vague or curiosity-driven motivation. By aligning content with pressing business priorities, you can activate a virtuous circle: alignment drives engagement which drives alignment which drives engagement...

You need to prioritise the content for each user. AI does algorithmic content prioritisation very nicely. Whatever its ultimate capability, right now and for the past decade or so, AI has influenced the lives of billions by ordering and reordering the songs, videos, books, ecommerce items and social media feeds that we encounter digitally every day. And that’s also Filtered's appropriately specific use of AI. When vendors tell you they have an AI-powered system, ask them how they order the content initially and how it gets reordered and how much that makes their system better. Maybe it’s not really AI, or not in a way that really benefits your firm. Here are some other important questions you can ask to bring AI to your firm knowledgeably and meaningfully.

As many people have said, learning needs to be in the flow of work. I said make learning part of every day work on HBR with Josh Bersin at the start of last year. Your employees need to see it to use it. This is a necessary condition too. Our recommendation is to consider MS Teams and email.

You need people to make sense of it all. I’ve tried to distil some of what’s most important for a learning technology solution to support a change programme. But the world is messier than a 2,000-word article. You will need people you trust, respect and ideally like to be in your corner, looking with you for patterns, anomalies and actionable insights. You may want weekly calls in addition to quarterly business reviews. Define success flexibly but right from the start and put that front and centre of your regular meetings. Make sure you meet some of the account management / success team before you sign a deal. To trust, respect and like is a lot! Actually, throughout the choosing, implementing and running of a learning tech solution, you’ll want a strong people component. I think (and am proud that) our people are as much of a differentiator as our technology.

People are so busy. For the work you do to make an important difference to the behaviour of thousands of them you’ll need every advantage you can get. And your advantage is the user’s reason to learn which lies somewhere in the important, focussed change your business cares about.

*Please note that this article is not about mandatory training. There’s clearly a reason for employees to do that which is to avoid some kind of penalty. That’s a well-understood, self-contained, biggish (£5bn) market. This is about elective, developmental educational experiences that make us feel better about and be better at our jobs.

**Please also note that this article is not about highly specific company or industry technical knowledge or skills. A bit like compliance, there are existing systems to deal with these situations. FWIW, our view is that for these to work well you need high-quality, easily-searchable specialised content for those moments of urgent user need. And for that, you need smart curation, smart tagging and sensible tech. Users will come for this for the compelling reason that they need to do their job.

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