Tough Conversations

I am immensely grateful to the early reviewers of my book.  They generously donated their time to give both the rough draft and various nascent concepts a look.  One piece of feedback that I thought was particularly interesting was that while they felt that the book would was both needed and valuable, learning organizations will face challenges putting it into action. Challenges not faced by startups.  Startups have the advantage of starting with a clean slate. An organization of two founders working closely has no defined roles. They are just gunning to get things done. Startups, at this stage, are flexible and fluid and rapidly adaptable. Everybody on the team knows that survival is all about meeting a deadline for shipping the product or reaching the next investor milestone. The goals are clear.  It’s all hands on deck there’s no time for the politics that get in the way at large organizations.

Scott Kirshner wrote an article for HBR recently in which he talked about the biggest barriers to innovation or disruption inside organizations and it should come as no surprise number one was politics.  What was a bit surprising was the percentage of executives citing this as barrier number one was twice the number of executives who said that budget got in the way. So while we may sing that constant refrain of,  “I don’t have enough money,” or, “it’s not in the budget.” The fact is that for those of us who are actively seeking to put new approaches into learning and to adopt principles, tools and techniques that are different from how things have been done, we will need to become better politicians.

The second most cited barrier innovation and understanding in the article was risk aversion.  A thought on this is that this objection may mean something else. It may mean that the population of the company is weary from “flavor of the day”. Many companies follow business fashion.  A business concept, widely accepted and supported this year, may fall out of favor next year.  Due to this, a company culture can be taught that they actually don’t need to do anything other than simply ignoring a new approach, knowing that this too shall pass. Defining this as risk aversion may simply be an easy way out. 

In Running Training Like a Startup I introduce a number of new and novel approaches adopted from the best practices of early-stage startups.  These tools are gonna feel unfamiliar to many business leaders . For implementation to succeed tomorrow’s learning leaders will need to have conversations, that while potentially uncomfortable, will lead to a stronger relationship between these learning pros and their business sponsors.

Some L&D Math and Some Questions

Disclaimer: I am a lover of data.

I had some time play with some of the data in ATD’s State of the Industry Report and it raised some questions for me. In order to better understand the ATD data, I looked at the “implied” results that are not included in the report. Because ATD includes data such as percentage of revenue and percentage of profit I can simply reverse the calculation to see what the trends are for both revenue and profit per employee. Since these are the ultimate measures of the success of learning, the trends in these should be trending positive or at least correlated to the investment in learning being made by organizations.


The first thing that stood out was the delta between the implied revenue per employee (RPE), a common public market metric, and the profit per employee in the ATD report and the S&P 500 average. According to Yardeni, an economic advisory, the 2016 Average RPE for S&P 500 ranged from $321,000 and $1.7 million depending on industry with a profit margin of approximately 10%. The revenue discrepancy for Consolidated cohort is understandable given the smaller size for many of the reporting companies for the ATD data. The comparison to the BEST cohort is closer but still under the S&P averages.

The comparison to profit per employee was similarly off.


I then looked for a correlation between learning and an impact on revenue and/or profit in two ways. First, I looked to see how the numbers compared year over year. I then looked for a correlation between learning and an impact on revenue and/or profit in two ways.

First, I looked to see how the numbers compared year over year. This view showed that the increased percentage of investment in learning, touted as a positive reflection on businesses opinion of learning in the ATD report might be misplaced. The ATD report states “Confirming organizations’ commitment to learning, this indicator [% of profit] grew from 8.3 percent in 2015 to 8.4 percent in 2016; the ratio has climbed steadily for four years in a row.”


While ATD seems to draw a positive connection, in fact this may simply be a case of reported profit and revenue dropping, things that businesses care about. There appears to be no correlation. The resulting chart shows years where learning hours rose and the implied profit or revenue dropped. If there is a return to be captured from learning, the ATD numbers don’t seem to reflect it. I did a similar look lagging the revenue and profit a year, to let the impact of the learning spend sink in. Still nothing that showed a correlation much less a causation.

As I stated in the post on benchmarks, be careful.

Benchmarks and the Danger of Data


We are always excited to read the annual installment of ATD’s State of the Industry.  Cited year round by our clients, and the industry as a whole, this compendium of data is seen as an important touchstone for many L&D professionals. But, while these numbers are used by so many to justify a sought after initiatives or validate current activities, benchmarks can be misleading.

The other note about benchmarks and data is that cherry picking a single data point or even source can be misleading.  While it can be comforting, it comes with a caution.  While some will point to the positivity of increased spend, others will cite the data from Bersin by Deloitte, Corporate Executive Board and others, that shows the lack of confidence in L&D, the amount of waste caused by scrap learning or the negative net promoter score for L&D.

Achieving benchmarks is not the goal for today’s learning organizations.  While directional, every company is its own group of one. Your company’s business strategy, market conditions and human capital are unlikely to be identical to any other. If you are spending lower or higher than benchmarks, and delivering no value, you are overspending. The reverse also holds true.  The true metric for learning professionals to watch is their contribution to the success of the businesses that L&D serves not spending levels.

Some additional thoughts for math lovers here.

Pull Versus Push

In order to deliver more value, Learning & Development organizations should adapt from supporting learning in a “push” environment to supporting learning in a “pull” environment.  For the book I explored what we can learn from successful startups.  This includes some of the new competencies required of a L&D team in order to deliver unmistakable value.  One of these new competencies is marketing.  In a world where learners are often pulling support from sources like YouTube or other resources on the web, L&D needs to ensure that its solutions have the attention of its learners too.

Historically, organizational learning was pushed to learners via compliance requirements, development plans and corporate-wide initiatives. Today’s environment requires L&D to make its solutions desirable for learners to pull.  This means more than having another table in the cafeteria or sending out another email.  For learners to want to pull L&D’s solutions they, like any consumer, must see that the value outweighs the cost. Time is money to employees, managers and executives alike.  They will decide where to spend it.

This shift requires L&D to look at all aspects of its solutions and the tools they use to ensure that they are both relevant to the business and appealing to learners. Everything from the descriptions in the LMS to the structure of the solutions themselves will need to be reconsidered. The low utilization rates for elearning catalogs, frequently available to all employees on demand, are a solid proof point that more than access is needed for learning solutions to to be “pulled” by the learners that need it.

We do not see marketing as a necessary evil.  Rather we see it as a required value creator. L&D is doing a disservice to its customers if the higher quality learning solution does not win the battle for the learner’s investment. Salespeople are known to say that you do not sell something.  Rather, you help the customer buy the right solution.  L&D has to get better at helping its learners buy smarter. Today L&D is trying to come up to speed on new technologies, data and more.  As learning professionals, we are being asked to learn a lot of new tricks.  But learning is what we do best, right?

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  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?

A Model Proposal

In Running Training Like a Business, we introduced a framework called the Dynamic Business Scorecard (DBS). The DBS was developed by Bill Fonvielle (@wfonviel). Bill saw that while the whole world was enamored with the work of Norton and Kaplan on the balanced business scorecard that metrics were best when the drivers and interconnectedness of the various elements could be made more visible. The DBS also measure the drivers of results, not simply the results themselves made diagnosis and communication a more straightforward affair. People knew how they impacted the overall results and when something went wrong, root cause was easier to determine.

We believe that the new leaders in learning need to be characterized as the experimenters. Those organizations that try, fail and try some more. Those that acknowledge, that in this period of rapid change, the best way to serve their company is to embrace a process of rapid releases and a quick iterative feedback cycle. Not just for the learning but for the learning organization itself. For this reason, we believe the framework by which we view learning organizations must support this as well.

Many of today’s fastest growing startups have addressed this by abandoning multi-year business plans in favor of the Business Model Canvas (BMC). The BMC was developed by Alexander Osterwalder, a Swiss business theorist, consultant and author of Business Model Generation.

The canvas is a powerful tool for focusing, creating a common language, making the system visible and driving stakeholder alignment. The BMC is also flexible, serving as; an assessment tool, an action checklist, a communication tool, and an ongoing scorecard. The BMC is a living document continuously evolving in this fast-moving world of business. Taking the learnings from the BMC we believe a new framework for thinking about a company’s learning organization is in order.

The Learning Model Canvas

Similar to the BMC our Learning Model Canvas is anchored by the value proposition we described in our post on the new role of the CLO. The model contains five core areas and is best developed and described from center (Products & Service) out. For each area, we have provided a brief description and offered a few quick questions that may help you to better understand the current state of your organization’s model.

RTLABv2 Model

Products & Services

This area brings the value proposition to life. What you are offering drives the delivery of the value proposition to your customers and defines what your service delivery model looks like. This area also is not just the product and services delivered but also the management of them including requirements for specifications, quality and impact.

  • What unique value do we offer our customers?
  • Are our products filling a need of our customer?
  • Do our products deliver that value?
  • How are we managing our products for maximum value?


A learnings organization’s customers fall across multiple segments, learners, managers and executives. Each of these segments with its own set of requirements. By focusing on the expectations of each of these customer segments, and the experience they are having, a learning organizations can inform its value proposition, and optimize its channels to learners and improve its products to drive better business results for the whole company.

  • Who are we serving?
  • What do they want?
  • What is their experience?
  • How valuable are we to our customer?

Service Delivery Model

This area describes the learning organization that meets the requirements defined by the value proposition and the customer expectations. This area includes what needs to be done, how it will be done and who will do it. This area also challenges us to ask what new activities, like curation or social media facilitation, not currently encompassed by the learning organization, need to be included based on what our customers expect.

This area requires us to re-evaluate what we do in-house versus outsourcing. When the way in which you accomplish key activities is rapidly changing, companies often push the burden of that change on partners rather than taking it on. A global technology company we worked with had a goal of turning over a percentage of its engineers every year. This allowed them to bring in knowledge of current programming technologies instead of utilizing outside partners to scale up and down and gain access to expertise and experience. Use of partners rather than driving turnover is a much better long-term approach.

  • Do I have the right team to deliver our value proposition?
  • Are we operating at our highest level?
  • Do we have the tools to achieve our mission?
  • Are we using our partnerships to highest value?

Strategy & Governance

Alignment and management of the learning organization is described in this area of the Learning Model Canvas. Through steering committees, KPI dashboards and communication strategies, this area ensures what the company needs are being met in the most efficient and effective ways possible.

  • How is the vision moving the company towards its goals?
  • Have I engaged the right executives?

Investment & Return

This final area captures the value being delivered and the total investment that the larger enterprise is investing in order to deliver on the value proposition. Frequently organizations look only at the direct line items related to learning (payroll, travel, third-party spend) and fail to capture the investment made in the form of SME time, lost productivity by being away from job, and others. In one organization we found that while their training staff to employee ratio reflected an efficient organization, the company was investing more than the entire training department’s payroll in Subject Matter Experts’ time alone.

  • What are we spending?
  • What are we getting for it?

Still Dynamic

Similar to the BMC, a learning organization’s Learning Model Canvas is meant to evolve as the needs of its customer change. Ongoing conversations with customers as well as feedback from steering committees and KPI’s must continuously be used to ensure the value proposition is continuing to deliver unmistakable value.

Speed Kills (in a good way)

Learning organizations must get faster on three key dimensions.

Today’s business world is moving faster than ever. Speed has long been a challenge for Learning & Development organizations. With companies changing strategies, modifying business models and releasing new products designed to improve customer value at a rapid pace, the speed with which L&D must operate is increasingly challenged. In Running Training Like a Business, opportunities to increase the speed of the organization’s response was addressed in two ways: the implementation of the Relationship Manager was designed to place L&D closer to the business thereby shortening the communication cycle. The book also highlighted the need or process improvement to deliver increase efficiencies and reduction of cycle time.

I Feel The Need.  The Need For…

Both of these make a L&D organization faster but this is no longer enough. Because execution, not ideas, are the competitive advantage for early-stage companies, startups look at three dimensions of speed. First, there is speed to product. This is the amount of time it takes from the identification of need to the release of a solution. Second, there is speed to user. How quickly can your product reach the audience that needs it. Third, there is speed to value. This represents how quickly a user receives value from the product. In order to keep pace with today’s businesses, Learning & Development must focus on and continually improve on all three. In future blog posts we will discuss in more detail the techniques that L&D organizations can use to increase speed across all dimensions. For the purposes of this post, we will attempt to define what is slowing us down and keeping us from “running training at the speed of business.”

The two main components of “speed to product” are needs identification and product development. Needs identification is too frequently the result of an inbound request. In best cases this is discovered through weekly, but more likely monthly, meetings between a relationship manager and their business counterpart. In most cases this is still an “order taking” process with little discussion. The announcement of a new product or the reaction to certain business metrics can be drivers of this new need. This information, often known much earlier by the business leader, makes the window for product development even narrower.

Much of product development in L&D still thinks in terms of “course” and follows the traditional linear instructional design process methodology This places a huge requirement on upfront needs assessment, translation of business objectives to learning objectives and learner definition, things startups call “knowns”. Getting to the known takes time and it is time that most businesses no longer have.

Startups drive to increase “speed to user”. How can they get more people to experience the product? The mind-set of training 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 the learning is solving for 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 corporate athletes.

The last dimension of speed is “speed to value”. While this dimension is greatly impacted by the other two, by keeping it front of mind, it can also help to inform both product and user positioning. Startups, specifically apps, frequently focus on what they call onboarding. In the startup world this means getting a user up and running. Similarly, learning can think of this as getting a user up and running with the new skills. Why is this critical? The average app loses 77% of its active users within the first 3 days post install. This attrition can be mitigated by delivering value quickly to users. The same is true for L&D.

In part due to L&D’s “course” mentality, value is often determined at a macro level rather than a micro level. This delays user perceived value and often causes attrition of the new learnings use. A sales program that promises a higher close-ratio in an industry with a longer sales cycle may push the value out too far to drive stickiness of the new skill. Combined with the ever-shrinking half-life of skills speed to value is an important dimension.

Speed touches every part of business and L&D is no exception. What are you doing to drive speed in your organization?