man with head in sand hero.jpg

Present and Absent: The State of the Learning Field

I recently chaired a learning and talent management conference. For nearly three days, I introduced a parade of accomplished practitioners and thoughtful consultants, who shared their stories of new initiatives and programs. It’s a great way to sense the pulse of the field, and I felt encouraged by many of the stories, but also a bit concerned by what was missing.

The march of progress was evident in the 20+ stories:

  • The shrinking of learning from courses, to bite-size, to now nibbles.
  • The expanding concern of inadequate talent pipelines to feed the future with a redoubling of efforts to accelerate development.
  • The constant creativity of talent and learning leaders to bring fresh thinking and new approaches in responding to these challenges, and many more.

Yet something was consistently absent from this parade of PowerPoints; no one told a story of numbers. Yes, there was always a business case and nod to strategy in these presentations. There were committed senior leaders, courageous program champions, and empowered participants. There were plenty of technology and DIY approaches for the newest workforce generation.

But no, no one really told a story of quantifiable results. Sure, there were a few snappy quotes from happy participants and an odd chart here or there of engagement survey scores, but nothing that would indicate our profession has collectively joined the ranks of other functional areas where hard results are required and credible numbers tell the story. In other words, there was little evidence that a CEO would take notice of our work.

In the past, we could provide excuses for the absence of managing by the numbers. First, the work of learning and talent management is chiefly one of support. Much akin to the old BASF commercials, we don’t make the results directly; we put in things that help others get results.

Second, requests for our services are typically framed in terms that speak of activities rather than bottom-line business outcomes. Organizations reward our work if there is enjoyment, satisfaction, and a bit of “wow.” We are rewarded for service, vs. being held strictly accountable for results.

Third, most of our professional career experiences are staff and support roles, and rarely ones for which outcome measures are clear and business results are primary. We just aren’t good at it because we haven’t experienced much bottom-line, outcome-based accountability. Unfortunately, our formative years were spent learning that what matters most is when there is interest and happiness with our work, where we are seen as helpful.

This is backed up by a look at how HR leaders are scored in 360 evaluations vs. other functions. The consulting firm Zenger-Folkman produced such a study recently from their massive database of leadership assessments. Versus all other functional leaders, such as sales, engineering, operations, and marketing, HR leaders were viewed as better at developing others and building relationships. We excel at being helpful.

What isn’t helpful is where HR talent scores below the other functions: driving for results, providing a strategic perspective, and inspiring stretch performance. Unfortunately, this study reported that regardless of functional area, the most effective, highly regarded leaders excel at results, strategy, and stretch.

Those excuses are getting old and tired. I’m cheering for a new wave of learning and talent leaders to show the way with a leadership brand of masterfully driving results first, operating with a strategic lens of business first and inspiring stretch performance first. And then followed with the traditional excellent in learning and talent programs and initiatives.

You can count on me to be present if those new leaders are at a future conference telling their stories.

Kevin Wilde
Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business advisor to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and currently serves as an executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota. His prior 34-year corporate career includes serving as the head of learning and talent management at General Mills. Chief Learning Officer magazine named him CLO of the Year in 2007. His most recent award-winning book is, “Coachability: The Leadership Superpower.”