Goofus Data

Goofus image

When I was a kid, one of the only exciting things about going to the dentist was the chance to catch up on my Highlights magazine reading.  The childrens’ magazine is famous for a monthly feature titled “Goofus and Gallant” which showed the behaviors of good children versus those of not-so-good kids.

I was reminded of these cartoons as I sat, frustrated once again, listening to the media and politicians discuss Covid data. If you wanted to put together some real life Goofus examples for dealing with data you don’t have to look any further than the local or network news. From “garbage in, garbage out” to mistaking the data as the end and not an input to a deeper insight Goofus seems to be hard at work daily.

Don’t have unclear/inconsistent reporting standards.

What is the definition of a Covid death? When do numbers get reported (even on Sunday?)

Don’t focus on the wrong data.  

Infection count is only useful or important in the context of audience size or tests conducted.

Don’t look at daily data if the system operates on a different time scale.

We know there is a lag between action and impact with Covid.  Would a rolling 14 day average be more useful for planning and trend analysis?

Don’t lose the message in averages.

Pull out a few early states, or remove the elephant that is New York and watch how the chart of the country’s battle changes.

Don’t use the wrong units.

Percentages can be a marketers friend (100% growth of a small number sounds better than the actual number) but sometimes it is also the best way to understand the data. Percentage (%) of beds in use versus number (#) of hospitalizations is more readily understandable when ICU beds are a key capacity constraint.

Those are just some of my daily irritants.  And don’t get me started on false positive % or how an exponential function works (just watch this old shampoo commercial.)

Do you work with data?  What would you add?

Project Dragonfly

Last fall a client asked me to write a quick brief on the book Range. With permission from the client, I am sharing it here.  You can read it below and download it here Dragonfly Concept Design

Enjoy. – j.


named for an insect whose eye contains thousands of “eyes”, giving it a wide range of perspectives from which its brain constructs its reality and actions.

Project Genesis

Sparked by the release of David Epstein’s book Range, the question that launched the quest was crafted as follows:

“Is there a way to predict employee high performance, and therefore company high performance, by examining the degree to which their path to performance (P2P) is in alignment with the principles outlined in Range?”

Contributing questions include:

  • What performance does business need from its employees?
  • What is the traditional/current/accepted P2P for employees?
  • What are the principles that define the Range P2P?
  • How can we objectively measure the alignment of a company’s current P2P?
  • What are the barriers to organizations adopting a “Range-driven” approach to talent management?

What performance does business need from its employees?

Today’s business environment has been termed and widely accepted as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.)  This environment has placed a premium on organizations that are:

  • Agile – able to quickly deploy and redeploy human capital to emerging needs and opportunities.
  • Experimental – have a culture and resources able to conceive, test and iterate of new hypotheses.
  • Innovative – ability to generate and execute new ideas in order to capture business opportunities.
  • Data powered – human capital is augmented by data for management (ie. performance tracking, succession planning) and the delivery of the above capabilities.

Today’s business environment is as being what Robin Hogarth calls a “wicked domain.”  Wicked domains are defined as having problems that are not readily computable and have feedback loops that are long and may not provide accurate feedback. The answers to wicked problems are unknown at the outset and need to be created. Examples of wicked domains include improvisational jazz, and cancer research.

Net: Today’s business environment requires a P2P that makes human capital “wicked smart” (Boston joke)


What is the traditional/current/accepted P2P for employees?

Today’s development paths generally follow two paths depending n the employee.  Designated high potential employees are often provided a wide ranging development path early on in their careers. Business units rotations, projects and even mentorship expose this employee to all aspects of the company as a means of preparing them for future leadership positions. This cohort is typically extremely small relative to the employee base.  

The second path serves the typical employee.  On this path employes, who have been hired for a specific domain experience are funneled into deeper knowledge of that domain.  Sales people receive sales and product training, an operations employee may receive task management and process training wile operators might attend equipment and safety courses.  These trainings, limited to a single domain are associated with the assumption of a kind domain and problems.  

Kind problems are domain-constrained with tight and accurate feedback loops. Unlike the wicked variety, answers to kind problems are known and simply need to be found. Kind doesn’t mean easy, a sport can be kind because you quickly know if you executed the correct stroke. Examples of kind domains include classical music, hernia surgery and chess. Kind domains are are often the best targets for automation. 

Range principles, where existing, are often found in the initial hiring process. In 1991 David Guest introduced the concept of t-shaped skills. The vertical bar of the T refers to expert knowledge and experience in a particular area, while the top of the T refers to an ability to collaborate with experts in other disciplines and a willingness to use the knowledge gained from this collaboration. This concept was further popularised by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO. While the concept was seen to have value  and gained momentum with HR the concept of developing t-shaped employees never took hold. The priority for most recruiting and promotions involves an emphasis on the vertical domain of the individual.

T-shaped employees provide companies with increased talent agility and mobility. Having an agile workforce can spell the difference between being an industry leader or falling behind. PwC reports that when businesses have development programs that increase agility, 86 percent respond rapidly to changes in the business environment. Without these kinds of programs, only about half do. A Forbes article from earlier this year stated  that talent mobility enables organizations to rapidly adapt to changing environments, with the ability to deploy and move key skills across projects, across the business and across borders when needed. Mobility provides avenues for staff to progress and evolve within an organization, and can lead to 30% better processes and 23% more productivity.

Epstein captures it this way. “Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable.  Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skills to wicked problems.  The results can be disastrous.”

Net: Today’s P2P does not fit business to a “T” (I am on a roll)


What are the principles that define the Range P2P?

First it is important to acknowledge, as Epstein does multiple times in the book, that while Range-enabled generalists are critical to business success the value of specialists is not diminished.  A multitude of examples are provided showing how generalists draw on the deep expertise of specialists in order to achieve the results delivered. Distilling the book’s insights and translating them to corporate talent management creates three levels of guidance.  The first contains the characteristics of a Rangey(?) path-to-performance (rP2P). The second, is guidance on keys to rangey teams. The final level is focused on the organizations itself.



The goal of the rP2P is to build polymaths.  Polymaths differ from T-shaped employees in that the emphasis is on the horizontal dimension. A polymath’s breadth is greater than T-shaped human capital while their vertical depth may be less than traditional T-shapes. The polymath’s superpower comes from a range of transferable thinking skills (conceptual, computational, lateral, and ambidextrous for example) that allow for innovative problem solving across multiple domains.  It also includes more tangible skills such as communication, collaboration and anticipatory competencies that drive higher value solutions. The final element of a range-y employee is attitudinal with value-adding polymaths displaying active open mindedness and scientific curiosity. 

The first two principles associated with a Range-aligned P2P focus on the structure and focus of the developmental path. The rP2P contains:

  • A sampling period – This is characterized by what experts often call “unstructured play.”  This feature of the developmental path allows for individuals to experiment in domains other than their own.  In the corporate environment this may be a rotational program or project-based. The unstructured element forces participants to improvise first before learning existing rules.  This is analogous to the way in which humans learn language. We learn the sounds first before we learn the rules of grammar. This element should be designed to provide the participant with experiences that allow them to better understand alternative domains giving them knowledge of resources that may be valuable when facing later challenges as well as exposure and personal knowledge of their interest and proclivity for other areas. 
  • Mechanisms for improving “match quality” – The rP2P should include opportunities for individuals and organizations to re-deploy individuals to domains better suited to their skills, interests, and proclivities. Short-term assignments, internal internships and project participation can be used to serve this purpose.  Up or out development paths serve neither the individual or organization.

The final two principles associated with a Range-aligned P2P focus on the content and presentation of that content on the developmental path. The rP2P contains:

  • Flexible content – Flexible content is content that is both sticky (retained over the long-term) and broadly applicable. Retention of rP2P content is driven by two key factors.  The first is the use of testing. rP2P test questions are connection making in nature versus procedural. Testing should focus on cross domain application, pattern recognition, categorization and decision making. Procedural questions such as “what are the four steps in handling a customer objection?” are minimized in far of questions such as, “what other uses for the customer objection handling process are there?” Stickiness is also enhanced by the use of spacing. Delaying the testing process forces the knowledge to be placed into long-term memory.  End of class assessments are less indicative of future performance than follow up assessments given at a later date.
  • Difficult learning experiences – Learning should include what Nate Kornell calls “desirable difficulties.”  These productive difficulties include creating a generational effect, where participants produce their own answers exclusive of guidance.  Learners benefit greatly from this self-reliant process even if the answer generated is incorrect. Instructors should also be creating environments in which learners struggle. This may include problems beyond learners’ capabilities, mixing multiple areas of new knowledge together to prohibit “block” learning (aka memorization) and assessments in which few learners achieve a passing score.  While this often results in lower instructor/session ratings from participants it has been shown to have significant long-term benefits in retention and performance.

Rangey Groups

While the book focuses primarily on the individual, Epstein highlights two characteristics of high performing groups.

  • Diverse –  High performing groups included a wide variety of participants.  This includes range in:
    • Geography/World view
    • Demographic
    • Experience in domain from novice to expert
    • Domain, but still polymaths not a collection of specialists  
  • Porous boundaries – Groups that performed well were also not walled off from the rest of the organization.  Groups frequently showed improved value when they were able to reach out to specialists across the organization and even outside the organization. 

Rangey Organizations

Example such as 3M are cited in the book as examples of an organization that supports its range-y individuals and teams.  From creating an internal award for innovation to the ways it allows individuals to follow their passions (increased match quality) 3M regularly produces significant innovations across a wide range of domains.  Epstein touches on a few organizational keys.

  • Culture –  3M’s internal award and its talent management approach are operational examples of a culture that sees the value of supporting its rangey employees. By celebrating, facilitating and empowering range, 3M has created a culture that makes it values more than just an annual statement cliche.  
  • Long-term focus – Because range often does not show immediate results the organizations that embrace it must have a longer view.  Think of the innovations that emerged from Amazon and the newly approved LTSE (long-term stock exchange) that clearly states that “Companies that operate with a long-term mindset tend to outperform their peers over time. But going public can pressure even the most visionary founder into a short-term mindset.” 
  • Risk tolerant – Creating new solutions that work often means finding many more that don’t.  Acceptance, even encouragement of failure, and the adoption of an experimental scientific mindset are cornerstones of organizations that deliver higher performance over the long-term.


Net: The principles of Range have implications for a number of areas in talent management including; candidate selection, onboarding, development, succession planning and leadership. In order to drive success in today’s wicked environment organizations, and talent management functions that support them, must become an integrated farm (egg-to-soup) for free-range talent. (the roll continues)


How can we objectively measure the alignment of a company’s current P2P?

Standard measures for HR practices are in limited supply and often not publicly available. The table below captures some initial thoughts regarding potential metrics/proxies for the various elements of range. Primary research in collaboration with one or more of the partner listed at the end of this section and/or analyst-like interviews focused on HR leaders may also prove useful in the development and testing of a quantitative range “score”. 


Dimension Metric/Area of Inquiry
rP2P Sampling
  • Onboarding process
  • Use of project assignments
  • Cross domain rotations 
Match Quality
  • Internal lateral transfers versus upward promotions
  • Use of project assignments
  • Cross domain rotations
  • Former employees now working in another domain
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Employee retention
  • Employee engagement
  • Employee development plans
Flexible Content
  • Learning experience (LXP) design
  • LXP satisfaction scores
  • Cross functional applicability of LXP (multi-audience)
  • Layoffs
Difficult Learning XP
  • Learning experience (LXP) design
  • LXP assessment timing
  • LXP pre/post assessments
  • Instructor ratings
  • Post-LXP performance reviews  
rGroup Diversity
  • Employee census
  • Recruitment procedures
  • Job requirements (narrow/broad)
Porous Boundaries
  • Resource sharing policies
  • Use of outside experts/consultants
rOrg Culture
  • Employee survey
  • Leadership characteristics
Long-term Focus
  • Strategic plan
  • R&D spend

What are the barriers to organizations adopting a “Range-driven” approach to talent management?

While the value of rangey practices are widely documented, adoption of the proven practices face a number of challenges.  Some of these challenges are documented below.  This list is not meant to be all-inclusive as it excludes any number of organizational structure, compensation and process barriers.

  • Slow thinking requires a longer payback period – As is the case in spacing of testing where immediate results may be poor while results produced further out exceed the current P2P so it is with much of the range principles.  Organizations and other stakeholders (HR, Management) may find it difficult to “stay the course” without near-term ROI.
  • Spacing assessments is less rewarding to learners – Individuals often do not receive the immediate gratification of progress and success when participating in a rP2P. Without buy-in from individuals to the range approach and the safety of knowing that their immediate performance will not be seen as a negative by the broader organization individuals may not actively engage in the path.
  • The result of increased match quality (job switching) can make individuals feel like they are falling behind – Job switching, often the result of seeking improved match quality may leave individuals feeling behind their peers.  The concept of sunk cost, time and energy committed to a pre-switch domain, may make individuals and organizations reluctant to follow through with match optimization. 
  • Misaligned metrics (learner satisfaction, post-assessment scoring) reward non-rangey principles – Current P2P metrics are short-term oriented and in many cases run contrary to effective implementation of range principles. Changes to how rP2P facilitators (recruitment, development, management) are necessary in order to properly measure range-y progress.
  • Lack of obvious linkage to near-term business results – Rangey performance often delivers value in unexpected areas/was.  Measurement and management of impact on wicked problems must be different than on kind ones.  New product development (connected/wicked) should have a set of metrics distinct from new store openings (procedural/kind).  
  • Short-term perception of poor performance – Public company cadence (quarterly) may inhibit the longer term investment in a rP2P.

Net: Lots of fences between the herd of sheep and the range. “Just let me know if you wanna go to that home out on the range. They got a lot of nice girls.” – ZZ Top


Final Thoughts

After reviewing the publicly available research used for the compilation of this document I believe the following to be true:

  • “Wicked” is an accurate description for an ever increasing portion of the business environments and the “kind” portion will increasing face the pressures of automation and commoditization.
  • The companies that win in a wicked world win exhibit a significantly higher degree of “range”.
  • Adoption of range positive dimensions require significant change for both the individual seeking to increase their personal range and companies seeking to provide a range-enabling organization.
  • The current structure for talent development and management is designed for the creation of specialists and ill-prepared for a shift to polymath focused human capital.
  • With additional work there exists an opportunity to capture or create qualitative and quantitative metrics for assessing range on both the individual and organization levels.


DOWNLOAD BRIEF: Dragonfly Concept Design

The Tail Will Wag the Dog

David Vance recently did a webinar regarding the pending legislation requiring the reporting of human capital metrics for public companies. I cannot state strongly enough the potential implications of this move. A move which I feel equally strongly is being largely ignored by my L&D colleagues. I do not have a crystal ball but simply applying the dynamics of other publicly reported numbers may help to clarify.

Publicly Reported Numbers Get C-Suite Attention

L&D has long asked for it but is it ready for it’s close up? While L&D’s current data reporting may make the industry feel good but will it stand up to the scrutiny given to financial data reporting. As a CLO can you sit with your CFO and defend the numbers, the methodology of collection and the actions taken as a result of them. Financial numbers (margins, expense, key ratios) are never good enough and always include the plan for improvement.


Having the numbers out there without context is going to create some interesting dynamics. The L&D for a company are highly contextual. This is something that I have long argues as a mitigating force to the use of benchmarks. Most companies are a cohort of one. The growth goals, competitive environment, geographic challenges and legacy paradigms are just a few a few of the things that can make a company’s metrics right for them and them alone. Without this context L&D may face pressure from new external and ill-informed senior internal sources.

Teaching the Test

If the metrics are what becomes the face of L&D the natural response is to game them. This is no different than sales organizations that pull sales forward to make a quarter look better or an operations department that delays a purchase to manage costs. When what gets delivered is in pursuit of two masters (performance and metrics) and one is highly visible, which one do you think wins.

Short-term Thinking

There are many who decry the behavior of public companies driven by a quarter-by-quarter mentality. We know that performance development occurs over time. How will our approaches to leadership, diversity, and upskilling change when they are held to the 90 day window of reporting. This is not to mention the fact that if the metrics are wrong. We all know that vanity metrics are a constant, although comforting, threat to true performance development.

What do you think will happen when L&D goes from opt-in self-reported numbers to a friendly industry organization to a federal requirement? Is your organization ready?

Time for L&D to Bear Down?

“Some confluence of events at some point in the future will cause a recession. I don’t know what those are, nobody knows what those are, and nobody will ever know what they are.” – Jamie Dimon, CEO JPMorgan

So I am as uncertain about a coming recession as a guy on track to make $30 million in salary this year and whose business it is to see them coming. But it is an honest answer and it is important to watch and see if, “at some point,” is this point in time.

  • American central bankers have grown more fearful, models gauging recession probabilities had “increased notably in recent months.” Meanwhile, indicators tracking manufacturing and services industries, as well as business and consumer confidence — so-called “soft” indicators often seen as a harbinger for weakness in hiring and spending — continued to worsen. – Livemint · October 10, 2019
  • In a recent Forbes article Sergei KlebnikovthatHarvard University professor and former treasury secretary Larry Summers placed the odds of a recession before 2021 at nearly 50%. This supports Summers’ interview with the Wall Street Journal, In which Summers delivered a grim outlook for U.S. economic conditions—“I haven’t been this alarmed since the financial crisis,” he admitted.
  • Even our prescient friends at SHRM, in a 2017 article entitled, “How HR can prepare for the next recession,” plainly stated, “Economic downturns are inevitable, so HR should act now to prepare for the next one.”

L&D Under the Macroscope

While the L&D industry (IMHO) can get caught upin the micro (is. learning solutions, platforms, evaluation) I prefer to focus my attention on the macro because these become the undercurrents that drive the broader industry. Judging by my LinkedIn connections there are a number of L&D leaders that were not in place in 2009. So let’s begin with a quick L&D recession primer.

  • The effects last longer than you think. a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Roaring out of the Recession,” (published in 2010!) stated, “CEOs continue to combat the myriad challenges thrown up by the Great Recession of 2007.”
  • L&D gets the axe. JB at Bersin & Associates reported that average training expenditures per employee fell 11 percent in the past year, from $1,202 per learner in 2007 to $1,075 per learner in 2008.
  • It is global. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills released a report on the impact of the 2008-2009 recession on training at workIn it authors Alan Felstead, Francis Green and Nick Jewson made it clear that discretionary training got the brunt of it with, “Private sector employers continued to train their workforces because they were faced with a number of ‘training floors’; that is, types of training that are essential, and therefore cannot be abandoned, by functioning businesses or organisations.”
  • It doesn’t go back to the way to was. Bersin’s group also noted that at the time almost all business leaders reluctantly admit that the current crisis also marks an inflection point: The world after it is unlikely to resemble the one before it.


Why I am Excited About a Recession

“He said what?!?!” I recently met a out-of-town friend at the New Orleans Air BnB he was staying at. I took an Uber to his place. Why does this matter. Because macros trends like recessions have played in role in both Air BnB’s and Uber’s success. In his “startup land famous” TED talk Bill Gross identified the number one factor in determining startup success. Bill should know. His firm, IdeaLab has been there since the beginning and has seen hundreds If not thousands of startup over that time.

In his talk Gross identified “timing” as the most highly correlated factor. Not quality of idea. Not founder, industry or technology. If the recession had not occurred would the founders of Air BnB needed to rent out thier extra air mattress to make ends meet? If you ever wondered where the “Air” came from, it isn’t from aspirations to sell plane tickets. Would people be willing to offer perfect strangers rides in their personal vehicles if it weren’t for the need for extra income in an economy where it can feel like job skills have the shelf life of an avocado.

In addition to the economy, another macro that caught my attention this was this one showing that at H1B visas are being issued at record LOW levels! Combined with the fear of recession does this accelerate the trend towards remote workers? With budget reductions in the back of executives’ minds is L&D empowered to more effectively implement new ways of doing things (given we can make the cost-saving case) that were resisted prior?

Discomfort enables behavior change and constraints drive innovation. I agreed with JB when he said last time. I agree with it for the recession to come.

“The world after it is unlikely to resemble the one before it.”

And I, for one, think that that is something to get excited about.


The Math of Upskilling

The case for learning versus hiring has long been a topic of discussion. With the recent job market as tight as ever the conversation continues.  Just this week Josh Bersin (or as I call him, “JB”, not because I know him that well, just because it sounds cool) released the highlights of a study done with three firms that concluded,

“It can cost as much as 6-times more to hire from the outside than to build from within.” – JB

While I can take issue with the phrase, “as much as”, since I have a dog who can be obedient “as much as” half the time.  Or perhaps the sample size, only three companies in different industries. Or maybe that the study used highly paid jobs +$150k salary to joust at.  But none of that will stop the industry from using this stat widely.  This may be fine at L&D conferences but try it with a CFO and you better be prepared with the math.

So that you know that I am not picking on JB (who I think is the Seth Godin of Human Capital) the issue that I have is with reports that don’t stay loyal to the kind of math that has credibility with finance folks.  While for some, being able to simply cite a case study with a recognizable company may be enough.  For me it is not. And for my own learning this blog is my attempt to take Jane Bozarth’s work out loud approach and show my work.

“And showing what we’re doing—narrating our work in a public way—helps make learning more explicit.” – the other JB

The Case for Upskilling

We start with the simple comparison of costs to determine value.  If the result is positive then reskilling wins.  If not, hire away.

The value of reskilling (V) = Cost of New Hire (CN) – Cost of Reskilling (CR)

Seems simple enough but the devil is in the details.  So lets break it down further.

V= [Cjn+Chn+Cpn+Co+Cs] – [Cjx+Chx+Cpx+Cu]

The cost  of new hire (CN) equals:

  • Cost of job opening (Cjn) plus
  • Cost of new hire (Chn) plus
  • Cost of lost productivity (Cpn) plus
  • Cost of onboarding (Co)
  • Cost of redundancy/severance (Cs)

The cost of reskilling (CR) equals:

  • Cost of job opening (Cjx) plus
  • Cost of transfer hire (Chx) plus
  • Cost of lost productivity (Cpx) plus
  • Cost of upskilling (Cu)

This approach leaves some very real variables out:

  • Calculation does not include fully loaded employee costs (benefits, occupancy, equipment, etc.  This is assumed to be a wash between CR and CN.
  • Does not include quantifiable costs associated with loss of investor confidence due to layoffs  which would likely show up in stock price.
  • Does not not quantifiable costs associated with loss of employee/candidate confidence due to layoffs such as; unplanned attrition, longer time to hire, reduction in candidate quality.
  • Does not include the 2X-3X higher turnover rate for new hires used by JB for his calculation.

Please let me know what I have missed and how this calculation can be more valid and useful.  In my next post I will further breakdown each of these costs, insert some assumptions (cost of onboarding/upskilling, recruiter fees, time to productivity, etc.) and share the excel spreadsheet plus the results it spits out.


Learning is the Silver Bullet

Originally posted on LinkedIn 10.16.19

Nelson Mandela said,”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Malcolm X called education, “the passport to the future.” And with the World Economic Forum currently estimating that 54% of today’s global workforce will need reskilling in the upcoming years…never were these sentiments more relevant.

Fortune 500 companies alone employs over 65 million people, many of which will need to be reskilled in order for them and the companies they support to thrive in today’s business environment.  Whether you call the times we live in  VUCA, transformative or just batshit crazy, the reality is, we live in a time where learning is needed as much as air to survive.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the US currently has over 6 million unemployed. This comes at the same time that there are over 7 million open positions to be filled at our companies. This mismatch of skills to opportunity affects approximately 1 out of every 30 families.  Add to this the almost 2 million jobs impacted by corporate layoffs in the month of July and the need for learning is crystal clear.

Education, at all levels, has the ability to deliver unmistakable value on a multitude of fronts. From  socio economic issues like poverty and classism to global challenges like terrorisim. Malala Yousafzai,  Pakistani Taliban target turned activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate said, “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”  I couldn’t agree more.

As Learning and Development professionals we have an obligation to continuously seek and employ new ways to deliver the ever higher levels of value required by today’s world.  This is why I wrote Running Training Like a Startup. To provide a new way of looking at the work we do and they way we do it.

Over 20 years ago I was lucky enough to be part of the team tasked with taking the concepts and practices described in the seminal book Running Training Like a Business to clients around the world.  The book focused not on the solutions being provided but rather on the L&D engine that provided those solutions. For the last two decades I have worked with companies of all sizes across the globe to explore ways to improve the value their learning delivers.

During this time I also worked as part of the rapidly emerging startup economy.  First as strategist for a VC fund during the first dot com run then as manager of a 50 million dollar fund and advisor to startups, angel investors and startup ecosystems in both Delaware and New Orleans. Then 5 years ago, I saw an opportunity to bring these two domains and the passion I had for each, together.

W. B. Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This is the same fire sought after by startups as well, in the form of virality and exponential growth. With the support of Ed Trolley and David van Adelsberg, the authors of Running Training Like a Business, I set out to turn the practices of high performing startups into principles for use by L&D organizations. The book includes approaches to speed, team, product, communication, data and even failure. The lessons from early stage companies like Uber, Air BnB, Slack and a multitude of others are captured in my updated look at what it means to run training like a business today.

Taking a page out of the startup toolkit I open sourced the book in January.  The principles were too important and the mission too critical to limit the spread of these ideas. It also allows the book to be a living thing and not a snapshot.  Like an app on your phone I have released 2 updates to the book this year with more to come as we gain more experience with its approach. Running Training Like a Startup is my contribution to addressing the challenges we, as L&D pros, face.

Abraham Lincoln viewed learning, “as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in”. As an L&D community we must engage with new ideas and new approaches. Call today’s business environment what you will. But hanging out in the desert with its vibrant and beautiful ecosystem reminds me that even in the harshest environments we can adapt and thrive.

Note: In case you think I am just a sappy romantic about L&D, read this tough love post from a couple weeks back.

L&D is a Master of VR

When Ed and David released Running Training Like a Business (RTLAB) it was clear to many that the industry needed a new way of looking at not just how and what we were training employees but why.  The book aspired to take the industry discussion up a level.  Away from the micro of courses, design methodologies and technology to the macro and meta.  The book encouraged a turn inward away from the course and curricula towards the creator, the L&D organizations itself.  What the factory was designed for, pre-determined what the output was.  Transforming the organization would transform the output and the value it produced.

In 2010 when I started writing the Learning Hacks blog as a way to capture my musings on L&D I began with a blog entitled “The Spark That Started It All”, the working title for this post can still be seen in the URL for the post.  It expressed my disappointment that many of the challenges described in RTLAB, over a decade prior, remained unaddressed.  In my book Running Training Like a Startup I cite one of my favorite Ed Trolley quotes.  A quote that was validated in many of the assessments we did for clients around the world.

“Business leaders have low expectations of training. And they are being met.”

-Ed Trolley

Yesterday, Harvard Business Review released an article entitled. “Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development” that put things in clear perspective. In it Steve Glaveski highlights recent studies that show:

  • 75% of 1,500 managers surveyed from across 50 organizations were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning & Development (L&D) function;
  • 70% of employees report that they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs;
  • Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and
  • Only 25% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.

Glaveski nets it out this way, “Not only is the majority of training in today’s companies ineffective, but the purpose, timing, and content of training is flawed.”  I don’t disagree.

While the L&D community hold conferences dominated by sessions on how to create compelling Powerpoint title slides, the use of chatbots, and incorporating podcasting into a curriculum, the businesses they support keep moving and changing desperate for employees that can perform.  In the late 90’s I was tasked to lead a project for Microsoft.  At the time they were under intense scrutiny for monopolistic practices.  It was also a time when Fred Reicheld (who would later create the Net Promoter Score) released the “Loyalty Effect” debunking the marketer “top-box” approach to assessing satisfaction.  I won’t go into it here but when retention does not show a drop off as satisfaction goes down there are other market forces at play. High switching costs, tie-ups and lack of alternatives can be some of those drivers. The retention results don’t reflect the satisfaction of customers (it may make it worse because they feel trapped) but it does give the provider an extremely distorted view of how it is performing.

Over 20 years post the release of RTLAB the data on L&D’s customer satisfaction continue to come in.  While the L&D industry focuses on budget amounts, spend per employee and other “vanity metrics”, the HBR article clearly shows it is long overdue for the learning organizations that are delivering leadership training to take a leadership role.  For the L&D groups supporting innovation initiatives to innovate.  For the industry, as a whole, to take off the goggles and stop living in its virtual reality world.

Revisiting the Learning Stack

A framework to help identify amplifiers and limiters of learning

I find frameworks extremely helpful.  I also find blogging useful for memorializing ideas and belief at a given time.  So going back and revisiting  a blog post about a conceptual framework is really enjoyable for me.  Before I started the Running Training Like a Startup project and blog I had been capturing my L&D musing on a blog I titled Learning Hacks.

In 2013 I authored a post  on the Learning Stack.  A framework for thinking about the amplifiers and limiters of learning. My focus has always been the macro and meta of corporate L&D.  I found the framework a useful way for me to organize the huge volumes of new research and experience being released.  It also provided useful context for more discrete elements of learning. In today’s environment, as L&D pros look widely for levers to enhance impact I felt it was time to take another look.  You can see the original post here.

Six years later, with so much more known and accepted in areas like neuroscience, learner personas and game dynamics, I am curious how the framework holds up.  Take a look.  Tell me what you think.   I look forward to your feedback.

Gatorade® or Broccoli: L&D Marketing

Why L&D needs to build its marketing capability.

Last week a few tweets caught my eye. ATD released an bit of research on “Top 10 Skills to Get You Ahead in L&D” .  Number 8 on the list was marketing.  I was glad to see this.  While the Learning & Performance Institute identified Marketing and Communications in its L&D capability map, there is no mention of it in SHRM’s L&D Body of Competency and Knowledge. Sardek Love, I feel, correctly identified this skill as one of the gaps that can offer significant competitive advantage. Drawing this response form ATD.

ATD Marketing

Sardek Marketing

I touched on the need for this capability in 2018 in this blog post. I expanded my thoughts on this dimension in Running Training Like a Startup as an important driver of speed, Speed to Learner.

“In order to impact this dimension, we believe the mind-set of L&D needs to change from manufacturer to marketer. One look at attendance data will show you that the most attended trainings are frequently mandated, not sold, to their audience. Assuming that learning is solving a real problem, getting users to recognize and “buy” the solution quickly is critical. Running Training Like a Business means L&D must become marketers and packagers of a truly performance-inducing product. Like Gatorade® for employee performance.”

From course descriptions that ” sell benefits not features” to launches that capture and engage target audiences (think something than than cafeteria tables), L&D is fighting for mindshare.  Marketing can help us connect learners to learning and produce business impact in a world where learner attention is a rare commodity.


Rotting Boards

L&D Advisory boards need a fresh look.

The current geo-political landscape aside, the topic of governance, with its advice, consent and oversight functions, remains at the forefront of discussions for L&D.  In the book Running Training Like a Startup I cite a report done by NIIT and CorpU to find out how learning organizations have adopted the core principles of van Adelsberg’s and Trolley’s book. Two findings from the report which jumped out at me were in the area of governance.  The study found that:

  • The use of governing boards with C-level executives to ensure strategic alignment is fine in theory but has little effectiveness in practice. Sixty percent (60%) of the companies have them to some degree, but only 10% deemed them highly effective.
  • The use of more tactical advisory boards, while slightly less prevalent (59%), are more useful in that 17% of the respondents deem them highly effective. 

While this study is now aged, my recent discussions with clients have confirmed  that this remains a sub-optimized tool for learning organizations.  While many have a documented governance structure much fewer are gaining the benefit.  Most of L&D seems to acknowledge the generally accepted three-tier model for governance. Executives form the strategic executive level with business heads and line managers operating in increasingly tactical functions in the lower levels.

Earlier this year, Training Industry Magazine published  a “Learning Governance Framework Cheat Sheet” that had been developed by Kaplan.  While fairly common sense, lots of “uh-huh and not a lot of “ohhh”, one pithy item on the checklist stuck with me as much for the pithiness as the “how?” questions that remained unaddressed.

“Construct a governance structure that is inclusive, agile, and commercially pragmatic with senior leader advocacy.”

I am currently working to expand the governance section of the book based on recent experience and research.  But, for those that are currently operating advisory boards at any level here are a few questions worth considering.  These are taken and adapted from a set that Jerry Colonna, executive coach to founders and author of Reboot, uses to assess the boards of startups.

  1. When the shit hits the fan, which of your advisory board members would you turn to and why?
  2. If your advisory board was your executive team, what experiences or temperaments are missing?
  3. What skills would you like to see on your advisory board?
  4. How do non-advisory board executives and managers view your current advisory board?

In today’s fast moving business environment L&D cannot fail to get the most out of this critical element of driving unmistakable value for the companies they serve. How are you using advisory boards and what challenges are you facing in getting the most out of them?