Here Is Something To Talk About

It has been almost 20 years since Running Training Like a Business was published.  Since the book launched, we have worked with corporate learning organizations around the world.  And now almost two decades later its principles are still a frequent topic at conferences and in conversations, drawing new learning and development professionals into the tale of delivering unmistakable value. At its heart, the message of the book is as essential today as it was when it was released. Add to this the multitude of changes to the environment that the businesses they serve are undergoing and the need for their continued evolution is even more acute.  It is these changes in the business environment, both dramatic and subtle, that were the catalyst for revisiting this important industry touchstone.

Transformation is today’s mandate for both businesses and the learning organizations that serve them.  Learning organizations have much to learn from the companies that are transforming the world around us. While the principles of Running Training Like A Business remain highly relevant, it is the definition of what a “business” is, that has changed over the past decade.  Since the publication of the book the world has changed.  The internet, still young and novel in the 90’s, has exploded.  The advent of social media and the resulting disruption of industries from publishing to space travel have put every company on notice.  In today’s business landscape, traits like speed, innovation and agility are paramount.  So if this is the new reality for today’s businesses then what it means to successfully run training like a business has changed as well. Adopting the mindset of a startup is the first step to successfully running training like a 2.0 business.

L&D = Learning & Disruption

Existing businesses are increasingly looking towards the disruptors for lesson, tools and techniques.  These disruptors are familiar names like Netflix, Amazon, Tesla and Uber.  One thing that these disruptors, and many more like them, all have in common is that they were once startups.  Eric Ries, the founder of the Lean Startup movement and author of the book “Lean Startup” defines a startup as any enterprise where the “unknowns” are greater than the “knowns”.  By this definition, today’s learning organizations are most definitely startups.

It Starts With Three

Three critical keys to any startup’s success are working at speed, evidence based execution and accepting failure.  Speed in not about expending more resources to get to the finish line sooner.  Rather it is about starting quickly and iterating fast. The oft quoted advice that “perfect is the enemy of good,” is an important operating principle for successful startups.  Too often L&D is concerned with providing the perfect learning experience. The tradeoff is either a longer time frame or building the experience on a set of potentially faulty assumptions.   Delivering good value quickly and rapidly iterating towards improvement must be the goal.

But what to base the iterations on? The second key to success in a 2.0 world is what Running Training Like a Business called “measuring your success based on your customers’ success.” When the book was released the industry was wrestling and largely failing with macro measures targeting the impact of complete programs and this situation still exists.  In startup mode, L&D must use quantified measures to shorten the feedback cycle and guide the iterations.  This means micro measurements on all aspects of the experience from problem validation to user feedback. These metrics allow L&D to quickly replace assumptions with facts.

The final key is an operational mindset and often a significant cultural shift.  Failure in many organizations is a seen as weakness.  Startups have adopted a different point of view. Failure is nothing more than an evidence based correction to an assumption.  Better to know sooner rather than later. Too often L&D’s limited resources are misspent.  As Peter Drucker has been quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It is from this perspective that failure becomes a virtue.

Startups are constantly seeking to improve the tools and techniques they use to drive success. The startup community is also known for its transparency with founders openly sharing the results of new experiences, both good and bad.  As a community of L&D practitioners we can learn much from startups and from each other as we adapt to business 2.0.

Our Premise

In the upcoming weeks, we will be releasing a series of posts describing some of the ideas we have for translating successful startup techniques to corporate Learning & Development. In the spirit of startups this is not about having things perfect. This is about getting started, iterating quickly and collaborating. We hope that you will join the discussion and add your thoughts and ideas so that our whole community can better deliver unmistakable value in the world of business 2.0

It’s Time For Something New

We’ve been talking about this for years. Why is it that after two decades, Learning and Development is still struggling to deliver unmistakable value? Some things have changed. Technology, just emerging when the original book came out is now at the core of the learning organization. The tools for practitioners have improved. Yet the same problems that stirred the need for the for the book continue to challenge Learning and Development organizations around the globe. Recent research by Bersin by Deloitte indicates that, while employee development has never been as important, faith of the organization in the L&D function to deliver value has also never been so low

Another thing that has changed are the organizations that L&D serves. Companies of all sizes, once comfortable in their place in the market, have been disrupted. Innovation, once a source of competitive advantage, is now a business requirement. With all these changes to the business, how has L&D evolved? Most would say not very much. The use of outsourcing, controversial at the time of the book, is fortunately now a widely accepted solution for many functions of L&D. Thanks to the migration to digital learning, measurement data, formerly difficult to collect beyond “smile sheets”, is now readily available. But in many ways L&D hasn’t changed at all. As stated by Bersin, business leaders and employees often cite little or no value coming from the learning organization.  An organization that is arguably more important today than ever.

With this as our backdrop, we might consider that running training like a business today could mean running training like a startup. We hope you will join us in exploring and discussing the best practices of startups and how they can serve learning organizations to deliver the unmistakable value that we all seek. We thank you in advance or your comments feedback and ideas.

Ed and J.