The past year was challenging and disrupting for the learning and development (L&D) industry. This article outlines how L&D teams can capitalize on disruption to build a culture of innovation and experimentation in L&D, remodeling the way training is developed and delivered.

Why Is Disruption Advantageous?

Nature demonstrates that it’s not the strongest or swiftest that succeed – it’s those who are most adaptable. In business, adaptability is king — it trumps speed and strength.

L&D teams are feeling increasing pressure to do more with less at a faster pace to keep up with the rate of change. Historically, education and L&D theorists and practitioners tend to straggle at the tail end of change. Even during the pandemic, many training departments were slow to modify their approach or recognize a shift in learner needs. For example, many organizations tried to force traditional face-to-face training into a virtual environment without changing anything but the delivery modality, even in the face of negative learner feedback.

While the pace of change is nothing new, L&D teams now have to accommodate more remote and hybrid workforces, the changing needs and desires of modern learners, and evolving technologies. L&D teams can no longer stubbornly insist on doing the same thing over and over.

L&D teams need to seize the moment and drive innovation in L&D for which the disruptions of 2020 were the catalyst.

 

Why Is Innovation in L&D Hard?

Incumbent firms are successful in the short-term by doing what they do and only making minimal, incremental innovations. However, upstart firms can potentially replace them by introducing radical innovations. Therefore, incumbent firms need to strike a balance between listening to customers and making incremental improvements and, at the same time, shifting the market with radical innovations. Those innovations may even upset their own niche. This is what the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen called the “innovator’s dilemma.”

Consider Kodak. As far back as 1975, some of Kodak’s renegade engineers innovated digital photography, but Kodak leadership ignored the new product concept. Once upstart companies began introducing digital cameras to the market, Kodak couldn’t compete. The company eventually declared bankruptcy in 2012, attempting to jump into the digital market way too late.

 

How Can L&D Teams Innovate?

In general, L&D teams should consider the following five guidelines as they adapt to the disruptions emphasized in 2020 and drive innovation in L&D:

  1. Encourage risk-taking and celebrate failure. Traditionally, corporate fears risk. There are whole departments dedicated to predicting and mitigating risks. However, without taking risks, L&D teams cannot experiment, try new things and learn from failures. It is the act of failing and then learning that incites creativity and innovation in L&D. Therefore, L&D teams need to also learn to celebrate failure as learning from failure creates the opportunity to iterate and improve on products and services.

 

  1. Create a space in which creative employees can take risks and fail. L&D teams need to build out centers or operations in which employees can experiment, limiting high exposure situations. This may include product concepts that are tested with small but relevant customer populations, beta user groups, and market research. As experiments are conducted, those that fail must be documented, explained, and then shelved.

 

  1. Build teams that operate with maximum autonomy. Decentralize leadership and reduce tactical decision-making to the lowest level possible. While executives and directors should provide high-level strategic guidance and intent, they should also allow their L&D practitioners the freedom to tactically operate, free of micromanagement. It’s those on the front lines that know what works and doesn’t. They need room to experiment and iterate without fear of reprisal from those above.

 

  1. Nurture creativity and experimentation while maintaining operational continuity. In his book “Creativity, Inc.,” the founder of Pixar explains the importance of two parallel operational realities: ugly babies and the beast. “Feeding the beast” is what keeps the lights on and pays the bills from day to day. While creativity and experimentation are vital to innovation in L&D, it’s also important to remember to maintain operational continuity. So, feeding the beast is important, but it’s just as important to nurture “ugly babies.” Those are the innovative concepts born from risk-taking, experimentation and decentralized leadership. They are what will drive new products, practices and ultimately lead to the longevity of companies.

 

  1. Adopt agile methods of project management. L&D teams must leave waterfall project management to the dusty shelves of history and adopt agile methods of project management. Employing an agile project management methodology helps L&D teams to:
    • Work more closely with project stakeholders to determine what the actual problem is that they’re trying to solve.
    • Stakeholders identify the who, what, when and why of problems, but not the solution.
    • Project teams can then iterate to determine the appropriate solution.
    • Project teams move to develop minimal viable products, test them in the field while gathering feedback and iterate until the solution solves the problem. A tighter loop of implementation/feedback/iteration decreases time to market and increases chances of success.

How Can You Identify Areas for Innovation in L&D?

At its core, innovation in L&D is often the product of creative people learning to solve problems by recombining existing ideas and technologies in new ways. Consider the following when determining opportunities for innovation in L&D.

  1. Training effectiveness – All training programs can become more effective. Ask this question: Which L&D programs, tools and strategies will have the biggest impact on the L&D team’s capabilities, skills and chances for success.
  2. Efficiency of your training programs – Most L&D programs, especially legacy programs, tend to collect a lot of operational overhead. L&D teams are great at building assets, programs and courses that over time go stale and become outdated. So how do we strip out the noise, reduce waste and keep L&D investments focused on the most important areas that lead to the success of our customers? What can we trim and simplify, focusing just on what is most vital?
  3. Alignment toward business goals – Companies move between pet projects, initiatives and efforts. But training is most effective when it aligns with business strategy goals. Ask this question: How do we continuously realign the L&D function and our learning strategy to the most important, urgent and strategic issues the company faces? How can we measure and demonstrate the impact of those training programs?
  4. Sustainable approach – It’s easy to forget that programs need to be viable not just tomorrow, but next month and next year. Technology implementations need strategic life expectancies and plans. Ask this question: Is what we’re planning to do something that we can sustain for the lifespan of this project? How long does it need to last? How will we know when this program or asset has met or exceeded its usefulness?
  5. Futureproofing – Change is the only constant. Therefore, it’s vital to create an environment in which the team thrives during the unexpected, even catastrophic (or “black swan”) events. L&D teams need to embrace the unknown and be willing to constantly evolve, adapt, learn and modify behavior accordingly. This will drive innovation in L&D.

 

How Can You Leverage the Expertise of a Strategic Partner to Drive Innovation in L&D?

L&D teams are increasingly realizing that their view of L&D practices and innovations is often filtered by what they can view from their corporate space.

As a result, an outside perspective, in the form of an external strategic partner, is the most reliable and effective antidote to this and can drive innovation in L&D.

  • External strategic partners have the benefits of wide-ranging expertise and experience. They work with various other companies, identifying areas for innovation in L&D and building solutions. They are exposed to the challenges, ideas and practices of other L&D practitioners on a daily basis.
  • External strategic partners have quick and easy access to a myriad of specialized talent that is expensive to hire and maintain internally. As L&D teams work with external partners, they’re able to identify solutions and then find the talent required to build those solutions.
  • External strategic partners are highly committed to the best solution. They’re not encumbered by internal complications, competing priorities and corporate politics. They’re financially incentivized to solve problems efficiently and effectively.

 

Parting Thoughts

While 2020 was a year of disruption, L&D teams can seize the opportunity to build a culture of innovation in L&D and experimentation to deal with the challenges they face. Leveraging the strengths of external strategic partners can accelerate this quest for innovative problem-solving.

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