Learning and development (L&D) experts are tasked with equipping their organizations with the skills needed to achieve successful outcomes and remain competitive in their industries. Many surveys, vendors and solutions exist to provide training experts access to relevant, skill-building tools; however, these tools are often based on industry averages. While industry averages are certainly useful, they suggest that organizations should always apply broad-based data and solutions to acute and context-specific problems.

What’s missing within most organizations is vital time spent asking frontline staff what they want or need before investing in learning products. Organizations that consider input from frontline staff are beginning to find that generalized, nationwide issues are irrelevant on a local level and that pre-existing solutions are insufficient when organizational needs are truly dire.

The Right Answers to the Wrong Questions

One fundamental problem in the L&D industry is that external guidance is overwhelmingly relied upon to address internal concerns. Organizations repeatedly spend millions on solutions to the same problems they’ve had for the past 10 years. It’s great to invest in developing the staff, but L&D must hold itself accountable for the results to its proposed solutions.

Organizations place value in developing their staff because it gives a competitive advantage. This can be measured through engagement and retention. Higher performing organizations typically have more engaged employees, and organizations with more engaged employees have higher retention rates. Yet, Gallup reported that only 15% of employees across the globe and 35% in the U.S. are engaged. Notably, these statistics have remained consistent over the past 10 years despite substantial efforts from organizations to improve engagement scores.

Many organizations have raised their engagement scores, yet still struggle with performance and turnover. Achievers Workforce Institute found that 52% of employees in North America are looking for a new job. Rachel Happe, founder of Engaged Organizations, noted that organizations are still trying to solve performance and production issues with outdated metrics and external guidance, both of which distance executives and decision makers from the real issues. This forces predetermined solutions by soliciting the right answers to the wrong questions.

Flawed Solutions

Most L&D approaches skip genuine inquiry and focus solely on solutions. This can lead to misdiagnosed problems and wasted spending that drains already exhausted L&D budgets. Moreover, it excludes most of the workforce from participating in the organization’s cultural growth.

Cultures in organizations evolve, along with its workers. This means that an organization’s staff development also needs to evolve and in some ways, are likely to be different from aggregate industry-wide data. That’s why succession models work in some organizations, but not in all. Purchased curricula may work to solve a few broad issues, but not the local ones that determine an organization’s direct impact. eLearning libraries are one solution, but an organization may find that they don’t influence engagement.

A common flaw in these methods is that they’re based on an external perspective and justified by quantitative data. It’s tangible, boardroom material, but this approach has continued to underperform on organizational issues for over a decade. Quantitative measures are important; however, they are not sufficient data. Clearly, it is not moving the needle. Organizations should be asking their own people their own questions.

Who has a clearer picture of the issues impacting performance, a better line of sight to customer needs and a better understanding of why they would leave: the performer or the external consultant?

Start with an Inquiry

If a current solution is failing, a common indicator tends to be either high engagement scores and high turnover, or high engagement scores and poor customer satisfaction scores. Since the problem was misdiagnosed, the chosen solution can’t solve it.

Researchers are now examining a more authentic and budget-friendly approach to improve diagnostics. They are asking themselves, “What if instead of immediately looking externally, we inquired internally first?” And are considering, “What if we invited employees to address their managers and thought leaders in a more direct conversation?”

This kind of inquiry starts with ensuring that your organization has a pathway for providing thoughtful input and making it clear that managers and thought leaders are open to receive it. Limited choice, survey questions carry inherent assumptions about what is needed or wanted. Replacing surveys with intentional, open-ended questions make responses more authentic, precise and specific. Discoveries, that would never have surfaced otherwise, are made in the process. This takes more time up front and a genuine willingness to listen, but often translates into lower development costs overall and better, organizational outcomes.

Most will agree that frontline staff has valuable input, but for many training experts the decision to prioritize internal inquiry is uncomfortable to make, because it is a follower-centric approach rather than leader-centric. The familiar, leadership paradigm typically does not consider the authentic voice of followership, an essential ingredient in any sustainable, organizational culture. Like well-matched dance partners, leaders and followers can optimize one another’s work.

Hesitation is understandable, yet the research is clear: Organizations need a new approach. By truly honoring and incorporating the voices of frontline staff and followers, managers and thought leaders can better understand the real needs of the organization. This is the missing piece.

Next Steps

Here are a few ideas to consider when beginning a process of internal inquiry:

  1. Establish Good Faith – Communicate a sincere desire for two-way dialogue as personally and as transparently as possible. Ideally, this should happen at every level of the organization, between each leader-follower pairing. If trust has been damaged in some areas or in any relationships, seek to repair and rebuild it wherever possible.
  2. Design Inquiry Questions – Design a short set of open-ended questions to ask groups of employees by rank and department, perhaps 5-6 questions at most. You may wish to hire a coach to develop questions that both reflect senior leaders’ organizational visions and also leave room for employees at every level to share real needs from the follower perspective with their respective supervisors. Sample questions might be:
  • What is your biggest routine challenge?
  • What could your leader do to help you with this challenge?
  • What other kind of support or change do you need to address this challenge?
  1. Invite Candid Input – Create time for employees of similar rank to gather in groups and respond to the inquiries at the same time in writing. If hiring a coach, you may wish to have that person facilitate a brief discussion before the writing takes place.