Our Book is a Startup

Why we need your feedback and a quick 90-seconds assessment.

Please help us improve the value our product by taking 90 seconds to answer these questions about your L&D organization or the one supporting your business. In exchange you can be certain that our product, both this blog and the book, will be designed to add the value that is most important to you. We are not asking for an email or anything other than your input. We value your honest contribution and building the most valuable product possible more than building a mailing list.

Submit your responses here

Why We Are Asking

When we started this blog to explore how we might bring the best practices of leading startups in the areas of customer, product, operating principle and team into a Learning & Development organization we had an assumption.  Our assumption, based on a multitude of discussions with practitioners, industry stakeholders and business executives was that the need to innovate how we were running L&D was existent and of rapidly growing importance.

With this proof point, we began our journey looking at a range of dimensions where we could apply aspects of startups.  From leadership to a new visual business model we researched, discussed and wrote our thoughts down submitting them to the readers of this blog as well as using these “beta” concepts in discussions to further refine them. We continue to apply this product development approach to our book.  What the Lean Startup methodology calls the build, measure, learn cycle.

We believe strongly that the need to innovate across all the dimensions of L&D organizations exists. We also recognize that the priorities for our product have to be our customers’ priorities. Our customers are the L&D practitioners and business executives.  Since startups are all about data so are we.

We thank you in advance for your time and look forward to sharing the results of this build-measure-learn cycle with you in future posts.  If you are interested in a printout of the self assessment you can download the PDF Self Assessment here.



Free Has A Cost

Are free learning creation tools creating scrap learning?

A while ago Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies (C4LPT), released her now annual list of top tools for workplace learning http://c4lpt.co.uk/top100tools/analysis/  This list is defined as “tools used for training, for creating e-learning, for social collaboration and performance support.” Her analysis and insights are useful for anyone interested in industry trends. Running Training Like a Business 2.0 is focused on optimizing the organizations of skilled builders, not reviewing content creation tools.  However, there was a takeaway we thought worthy of a quick note.

What jumped out at us right away was the large percentage of free or consumer tools that were included.  Over 50% of the top 25 tools fall into this category.   Demonetization of learning tools is an important trend to watch.  While this appears as a positive for budgets it offers other challenges for L&D organizations.  When things become inexpensive, it often lowers the bar to utilization.  All one has to do is look at the music industry for insight on how this trend impacts markets. Two decades ago, when a band had to spend weeks in an expensive studio in order to produce an album, the quality of the songs were carefully selected and the promotional plan to drive sales well thought out.  When a band can go into a basement and produce a similar quality product over a weekend, the bar is dramatically lowered. Perhaps there is a correlation to the amount of scrap learning in today’s corporate curricula and the inexpensive availability of the tools for production.  Just because we can does not always mean we should.

When Running Training Like A Business was released, the digitization of learning had just begun.  Companies were shipping CD-ROMS around and the online industry consisted of Lynda and scant others. The ability to digitize learning is now readily available to everyone. Learning professionals’ control over content is no longer reinforced by the barrier to production. And for learning professionals themselves, budget no longer limits the ability to develop new content.  In this new digitized and democratized learning environment what is the role for L&D? The music labels have been trying to figure that question out for over a decade with no clear solution emerging. Hopefully L&D will fare better.

On Enthusiasm

When you do a Google search for “enthusiasm+L&D”, other than a single article by Jane Bozarth discussing the use of Pintrest boards for learning, the results quickly move to case law and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Enthusiasm is defined as “intense and eager enjoyment, interest or approval”.  Our sense, having sat with many CLO’s and comparing that to the enthusiastic energy inherent in fast growing startups is that our industry is sorely lacking enthusiasm. While we may experience excitement, a short duration form of enthusiasm, about new tools, technologies or toys, this is the emotional equivalent of a sugar high. As the last two decades have shown us, what we are running is a marathon, not a sprint, and sugar is not the fuel of success.

We know the importance of employee engagement. We have seen the studies on what drives it (mission, leadership, and development, among others). Yet when you talk to CLO’s the focus is often on the lack of funding, limited executive support or latest tool or tactic being deployed. Even the cup of sugar is half empty.  And when we talk with executives, we find they have a low expectation of training.  We believe that is because they really don’t know what is possible.  So how can we expect them to have any enthusiasm?

Successful startups have enthusiasm in abundance.  Founders actually take enthusiasm to the next level, passion.  Passion is an intense, driving feeling or conviction and while at points this may be divorced from reason it sets the highest possible standard for others to follow.  Sit with a founder for two minutes and they cannot help but tell you what they are building.  They will talk fast, as if they have had too many cups of coffee. Most importantly, they will leave you excited about their mission and looking for ways that you might help.

This is not only when they are talking to investors or customers. This is all the time. This is when they are talking with their teams, standing in line for lunch, sitting around with friends, riding the bus and walking their dog through the park.  If there are ears to listen they feel compelled, like new parents, to share. And this is not just the founders.

Successful founders recruit people that share their passion and contribute their own enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is not solely enjoyment.  It is also “intense interest”. In this way enthusiasm leads to curiosity and curiosity often leads to new, novel, more effective or more efficient solutions. Coders frequently spend long days at work only to go home and play around writing code for fun or to test ideas that they might be able to bring back to work.  When was the last time you invited some friends over for some beer and some brainstorming on how redesign a process or a program?  Not because you had to, but because you wanted to.

Our industry’s path forward is not going to be an easy one and we will need a full tank of enthusiasm to support our organizations. How do you talk about your work when introduced to someone new? How do you talk about your work with your  customers?  Are you jumping out of bed every morning eager and interested to enjoy another day at work? Why? Why not?





Learning To Love Data

At the time of the first book, the availability of data was limited.  Now almost twenty-years later it is everywhere. And yet we continue to see L&D organizations struggle to put it to work for them. This is not say that there have not been great strides made. The work of the ROI Institute to capture a clear and credible approach to identifying the impact and return of learning initiatives. The Center for Talent Reporting has created a proposed approach for describing the learning function that would allow for consistent comparisons and reporting. However, the gap between knowing and doing remains.

Just as having too many choices as a consumer, measurement today can cause decision paralysis and feel overwhelming.  Because of this, L&D organizations must focus on key performance indicators, ensure the measures are actionable and act on them. Startups have far more data than a typical L&D organization.  From pixel by pixel eye tracking to clicks and cookies, there is data everywhere.  So how are fast-growing startups dealing with the data tsunami?

The best startups focus on “evidence-based execution”.  Put simply, this is the use of data to improve what and how things get done. Startups make data a priority, understanding that it is critical for focus, alignment and communication. They use collections of key data points, in dashboards, not single data points, to make the data actionable.   And finally, they know that behavior doesn’t lie.  If people rate your product positively but are not using it, engaged, recommending it or coming back for more, the product is insufficient.

Dashboards are interrelated collections of key data points around key processes that drive an understanding of how to better execute. It also allows for the determination of where in a given value chain is the weakest link.  For startups, a dashboard may track the customer acquisition funnel which follow the progress of a customer from awareness to retention.  For a L&D organization this may mean a series of metrics tracking the performance of the team moving from problem identification to solution.

Focusing only on a select set of key metrics is another way startups use their resources wisely while gaining impactful information.  Honing in on key areas for optimization allows for internal and external stakeholders to understand the priorities of the organization.  These key performance indicators are not necessarily static.  As organizations change, so do their KPI’s.  Once you know you are delivering quality learning you may then turn your measurement attention to the speed of delivering a solution or other areas or focus.

Startups look at things like market share and daily active users to see progress.  As mentioned previously, having a 5-star rating means nothing if your product isn’t being used. Similarly, if the L&D organization is only supporting 50% of the learning that is occurring in the organization, how valuable is the product? What are the barriers to acquiring the other 50%? Is it speed, expertise, organizational barriers or something else? If compliance trainings are the only learning events that are being consumed by a high percentage of its L&D’s target employee base, is non-compliance training seen by the employees as a nice to have or seen as a way to truly improve performance. Behavior doesn’t lie. Trying to shield yourself with activity or satisfaction numbers without taking action on them is only a temporary refuge.

Data will continue to be more and more easily collected. This can result in L&D organizations being overwhelmed or suffering from analysis paralysis.  Focusing on KPI’s, interconnected sets of data and remaining committed to acting on that data will be essential to those organizations that want to truly deliver the next generation of value to their companies.

What are your customers (learners, managers and executives) telling you through their behavior?

The New Role of the CLO

In 1991, when Jack Welch made Steve Kerr GE’s, and possibly the world’s first, Chief Learning Officer the business world and the world of learning looked very different. A quarter of a century later it is time to take a fresh look at the position and the key roles it plays in ensuring that learning is running at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Once again, we will take our cue from the world of fast growing disruptors.  There are three primary roles for a founder/CEO of one of these organizations.  First, they are tasked with keeping the vision and focus on the customer value proposition.  Second, they must attract and retain the best talent for the team. Finally, they have to keep money in the bank (investment). We believe that these same roles must be the focus of the new CLO.

Role 1: Keeper of the Vision and Value Proposition 

For our purpose, we see vision as a longer term, change the world flag.  For example, Uber’s could be “world’s largest logistics company”. By contrast the value proposition has a more near-term focus.  In this case Uber’s could be “making it easy for people to get from point A to point B.  The key is that the value proposition earns you the right to progress towards the vision.  How are we helping today? How is that advancing us towards where we want to be tomorrow?

Both are the vision and the value proposition are critical. Clarity on these two flags makes it clear to all why decisions are made and how priorities get set.  They also provide a roadmap to mark progress against.  Finally focusing on both “making our sales training the best in the industry” and “helping our salespeople close more deals’ shows a commitment to delivering unmistakable value by showing not telling.

Role 2: Talent

There are three parts to the CLO’s role with talent; building the team, deciding who to hire and managing them. The first role requires the CLO to recruit with enthusiasm for the vision, the value proposition and the opportunity to work with other “A” players. But who are you recruiting? In the book, we presented the “Camel Diagram” as a way of focusing resources on high value-added activities in the learning supply chain. For all activities, the CLO must ensure the highest level of professionalism.  This standard and the vetting required is not just for those solutions that are being bought from providers, it must also apply to the CLO’s internal team.

In building this team, CLO’s need to ensure they are hiring two types of people. The first are “Swiss army knives”. These are multiple position players but not “do a little of everything” people.  These are people that have the ability to add deep value in a variety of situations.  These are connectors, coordinators and team players that have the awareness to know what is needed, how to do it or where to get it. The second role is the specialist.  These members should be expert in key high value adding activities that provides competitive advantage to the organization. Undifferentiated expertise can be almost always bought; as needed, at higher quality, for lower cost.

Management of this A-team is not about telling them what to do but rather the CLO must identify the goal and allowing the team to experiment and discover solutions. A mix of empowerment, support and development is crucial.  The CLO must focus on resource management, ensuring that the team is deployed to best deliver the value proposition and achieve its longer-term vision.

A CLO that recruits, builds and manages their team in this way benefits is multiple ways. Enthusiasm creates engaged “co-owners” of the vision and value proposition. Multi-faceted talent allows for highly flexible teams making resourcing easier. And building a culture of problem solvers not solution builders drives innovation from all directions.

Role 3: Keep Money in the Bank

For CLO’s money in the bank means looking at your budget as an investment in your organization’s ability to deliver a return not a savings account to be drawn upon. And your investors are the business executives that control directly or indirectly where the company’s investment dollars should be placed. There are many places that investment can be made and a CLO must be able to show that the investment is best placed with them based on returns not goodwill. CLO’s must be able to clearly pitch for both funding and support.  And beyond the periodic pitch CLO’s must keep their investors informed throughout the year.  These communications should, among other things, demonstrate progress, highlight challenges, and showcase new learnings that will help improve the path forward.

A CLO who can enthusiastically pitch rapidly develops a new relationship with their investors. Communications such as those described above enroll and engages executives differently.  Changing the executive’s perspective and moving the discussion from one of cost to investment. Done properly and consistently it also focuses the discussion not on activity but on value and return.

How do you see your role as CLO?

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.