There’s been a revival of discussion lately on popular forums, including LinkedIn, about the relevance of learning and development as a business entity within a company. Many L&D professionals lament they have been reduced to “order-taking” – simply following directives, regardless of whether the learning they produce actually helps anyone learn.

It’s a painful situation. Simply working to fill orders can take the drive and motivation out of anyone. We all need to feel a part of a solution, so when that positive motivator is removed from the equation, the outcome can be sub-par. You may even find yourself in situations where sub-par work is what you’re asked to produce in order to meet a demanding timeline or budget. If this situation feels awful to you, learners aren’t any happier.

Regardless of medium, learning that doesn’t create results is drivel and can actually build resentment among learners. The question is, can this situation be reversed? Is it really the case that you are “order-taking,” or is it a perception brought about by your direct report, because she feels she’s forced to comply with too few resources and a demand to produce “anything”?

What if your organization is simply too immature in its culture for anything other than “order-taking”? According to Paul Kearns’ book “Evaluating the ROI from Learning,” the first step in evaluating your environment involves deciding where the L&D team or teams, business units, and enterprise fall on his six-stage learning maturity model (LMM):

Learning Maturity Model

There can be many L&D teams in a single enterprise, and each can exist in varying stages of maturity. Consider these scenarios:

  • You receive an email stating that a department needs a five-hour course on a specific operation in 30 days. Without much planning, you quickly throw together a proposed solution. In this situation, your reactive mode places you in stage 1.
  • You have worked to make line managers aware that L&D follows normal business processes like theirs and that a good training product results from adequate budgeting and time. In this situation, you are likely at stage 3.
  • You attend meetings with business unit executives and become aware of initiatives that will require segments of employees to learn new skills. You present a strategy with a budget, an achievable deadline and a commitment to prove that you will implement the strategy as planned. The executives approve the strategy. In this situation, you are in stage 5 – a true learning partner.
  • The executive team knows about your learning strategies and directs information to you so you can incorporate corporate strategies into your work. You could also be a learning consultant who is teaching the entire organization how to be a learning corporation. (Studies show that learning organizations are more profitable than companies that don’t invest in and support learning across the organization.) In either situation, you are in stage 6.

Where on the LMM is your L&D team? Where is each business unit? Where is your corporation? These questions are important to consider. If you are in stage 1, for example, it may be almost impossible to be more than an “order-taker,” because your circumstances are not conducive to being a true learning partner. At this point, your time is better invested in moving your L&D team further along the LMM.

As you evaluate your situation, consider how your L&D team works internally, with the other business units and within the enterprise. Is your team more likely to perform strategically, with all key stakeholders actively involved? If so, you already far along on the maturity scale, and you’re less likely to be working in an environment that is “fire-drill” oriented.

If you think your organization is capable of moving beyond stage 1, you can turn things around with these steps.

First, change your view of yourself as an “order-taker.”

You are a professional. In a sense, you are a diagnostician. You are a business analyst, listening for symptoms and working though processes. You are a learning expert. It is unlikely that the organizational layers above you know more about what you do than you do. Offer suggestions or consultative advice about how to proceed on the project.

This advice can be gentle; you can start with comments like these:

  • I see what you’re asking for. Would it be OK with you if…?
  • Would you like…?
  • If I did this, would that interest you?
  • This will probably take X time to do, but I see your vision, and together, we’ll create great results.
  • How often will you be able to participate as a subject matter expert (SME) or reviewer?

With these types of questions and comments, you are “pushing back,” using your expertise in the gentlest possible way. This approach will make you feel better about yourself, and your team will appreciate your efforts. It will also add to your credibility.

Second, look for opportunities.

If, in your professional opinion, L&D can help the company, then propose a solution. Build a business plan around it. Be prepared to estimate cost and time. Highlight where you’d like to collaborate with other departments, including their SMEs. Emphasize how the program furthers company goals. Make sure it makes your boss look good. In fact, take no step that will not make your boss look good. It’s good business, and it’s a healthy way to go about your work life.

Third, start the project as if it were a mission.

Plan it. Set up a kickoff meeting with all stakeholders. If possible, make the project sponsor the meeting’s “guest star.” Create an agenda. Explain the instructional design process. Identify a tentative timeline. Explain to your SMEs their likely involvement. Explain to them precisely what you want from them. If possible, set up appointments for your first SME interviews during the kickoff meeting, so everyone knows you mean business. End on a high note, but this meeting is all about obtaining spectacular results.

Fourth, execute as you said you would.

Provide regular status updates for your project sponsor and your manager. If your timeline lags, send the updated version to all stakeholders with a clear explanation of delays and their effect. This communication catches everyone up and demonstrates that you’re making best effort to keep your mission on track.

Bring the project in on time, and if you can manage it, bring it in under budget. Make sure your results knock them out. Congratulate the stakeholders, SMEs and sponsor to remind them that it was a successful project.

Fifth, rinse and repeat.

It takes a lot of repetition to change habits, viewpoints and perceptions. No one will accept a “one-hit wonder.” Continuing to fight the good fight, insisting on being treated as a trusted partner and consistently behaving like one will eventually move out of that “order-taking” situation.