Interview with Matt Ash, an independent learning and development strategist
Table of contents
- What is L&D about besides training the workforce, in your opinion?
- What are critical ROI metrics for L&D? Could you please name what metrics are important in your work?
- What should an L&D team of the future be responsible for?
- What about L&D multidisciplinarity?
- How can tools and technologies support and foster the L&D processes in the companies?
- What podcasts, blogs, books about L&D can you recommend?
Meet Matt Ash, an independent learning and performance strategist. We discussed the key challenges, key tasks for L&D teams, and resources to read and listen to — more on that below.
Q: Could you please explain what learning and development is about besides training the workforce? Does it include something more?
I think traditional L&D has always been about compliance, job readiness and then sometimes performance. Performance gets separated in some businesses. But I think L&D also includes supporting people with innovation, change, resilience, wellness, and culture. It’s become a much more holistic employee experience kind of support or the expectation, I think, of L&D has grown a lot, and there’s that kind of upskilling future skills piece as well. So yeah, the remit has probably expanded from recruitment to retirement, and L&D has to have input at every stage.
Q: Speaking about income, what are the critical ROI metrics for learning and development? Which of them has developed better for L&D?
I was thinking about it. And it’s, probably, links to KPIs as well. I don’t know if any real return on investment metrics for L&D that you could say are purely for L&D because all interventions will be so indirect from the point of view of motivation, and the environment can make a huge impact.
But we deal with our clients by making sure that from a strategic perspective, the team’s reason for existence is linked to the business goals. So, we build an understanding that employees are there to help. That’s how we reduce churn or turnover within three or six months, increase diversity around senior team members or promotions, or improve operating costs and efficiencies. And all this isn’t in a vacuum but having them as guiding lights from the team perspective, you’ve got strategic and project-based measures.
Your L&D strategy should be about solving real problems in the business. And if you’re doing that, you should be able to identify multiple measures and metrics that you can benchmark and monitor to show change over time.
You can take more of a system’s view of how these things are performing and see what has a positive or negative impact. So, it’s much more a scientific approach where you have a problem, and then you have a hypothesis, like “OK, if we do this intervention, we are expecting this outcome.” Did that happen? So keeping the idea about ROI and KPIs for the learning and development team, I’d say engagement, turnover, and performance are essential metrics.
It’s also essential to undertake audience research. So, looking at motivation and people, you’re creating the solutions for, you’re actually talking to them and understanding their challenges. And here, I’d add some more metrics, like in product design with a more focused approach solving specific problems. And that’s the biggest challenge for L&D is how to move away from being treated as a supplier of content and into strategic partnerships, where you are part of the conversation.
Q: You’ve mentioned how learning and development team responsibilities have changed. What does the future hold for L&D departments? What skills should an L&D expert of the future possess?
I see the modern space of L&D as this kind of intersection between consulting, psychology, and sociology.
So it’s where you’re problem-solving, and that’s where the Org Design angle comes in. It’s about digging into the problem- ‘what makes you think you need specific training for your team?’ because often performance issues can be linked to something as simple systems access. So you need to shift the perspective and think beyond the traditional remit of a training team.
I guess the most challenging piece I come across regularly is that people know what they’re supposed to do in a role, But they’re not doing it. So it’s a cultural, not a training, problem. They’ve got the capability and the knowledge, but there is something stopping their flow. That’s where L&D gets really interesting in the future, where you need those consultative skills to dig into the perceived problem versus the actual problem.
You need to understand the audience, the environment, and the way they work so that you can come up with a solution to create the behavior change you’re looking for.
And that’s where the design of that then comes into sociology and psychology to get a wider impact of your actions.
If you get too data-focused, you might miss a big part of upskilling in education: it could be faster, clearer, and more direct, but short-term. So how do you have this balance between getting short-term wins: maybe something like behavioral science; looking at nudging and how do we get people to do things differently that will have an immediate impact, vs longer term, intangible goals like upskilling?
It’s all interconnected. And the other resolution for that is that we need cross-skilled L&D people in that consulting space who are credible and communicate across the business to connect those dots.
Q: HR is an extensive department, and of course, it includes skills and competencies from other specialties. What about L&D multidisciplinarity?
Yeah, it’s exciting that L&D needs to have a wider skill set and understanding of how to solve bigger problems, but they also need the empowerment, for want of a better word, to tackle them. The challenge we often get when working with clients is that what they’re looking to solve isn’t the problem. The problems sits higher up the chain, outside of the team’s direct ability to influence change. Their response, candidly, is like, “Yeah, but I’m not able to solve that. I’m trying to fix what I’ve got in my wheelhouse.”
So, from an L&D team’s perspective, getting more into wider psychology around, say, motivation and behavioral type pieces is essential. So behavioral science is a really interesting space for L&D. It’s almost like a professionalized version of a part of L&D, so there’s a lot to learn from it. Generally, they have this approach as well: ‘every problem is unique. Therefore, every solution needs to be unique’. And that doesn’t mean that you’re reinventing the wheel, but it means that you’re considering and devising a solution that’s that’s relevant and salient and specifically for what you’re trying to do, not just for “we need compliance training.”
Performance consulting is also a sort of L&D term, which is about where you are, where you want to be, and how you get there. From a really geeky side, understanding agile principles and lean and systems thinking and stuff like that are really big. It’s all about problem-solving, curiosity, communicating well, not accepting the status quo, stuff like that. I think L&D needs to play the role where the team’s pushing from the side to say, “Are you sure?” L&D will be able to implement some skills and add value from an Org Design perspective, bringing direct revenue to the business. It can interact better with platforms and better data through more intentional planning & discovery.
Q: Speaking about the tech parts, how can tools and technologies support and foster the L&D processes in the companies?
It depends. That’s my consulting answer. I’m a big believer that tech comes last. It’s all about identifying the problem, understanding your audience, then you think about your solution. So, it’s the third step. Technology can augment great practices, and platforms are getting smarter and giving better data. AI has the potential to have so many applications and blockchain and things like that. So, it will be critical for many industries where they struggle to get access and things like that. But technology is no silver bullet; with the right-thinking and approaches and going back to what we need to solve specific problems, technology will fix them.
Q: But do they help you, for example, when you need to investigate some information about the company or its employees? Do you analyze data you get by yourself manually, or do you use some tools that can help you make it faster?
I think there’s some cool stuff there about collating data sets and building visual maps for managers or employees to help them better understand whatever you’re looking to do. But that’s where it gets tricky because you have the same problem with data science. Before building and testing, you need to understand why you’re looking for the data. So, if we just start showing people data on complex dashboards, it won’t solve any problem. It’s probably just going to continue the point of view of needless content delivery. Virtual tools like Zoom have got so much better, and so using Miro or Mural for collaborative virtual sessions that exploded in the last few years since COVID, and we’ve learned how to use them well to get so used to doing all our workshops in person. Still, we can run them successfully remotely using those kinds of tools.
I think AI will bring solutions just by clicking a button. It can create training that will be just as good. However, I’d like to see when it will work correctly because 90% of e-learning is pretty poor. We’ve moved to a much more storytelling and campaign-based approach to look at multiple elements over time to create a more practical approach to how people learn and what people’s attention spans are. And that means that we tend to use more film for storytelling, write more articles, and build it on a campaign site. So, there’s a branded place where people can go to and a lot more performance support tools. Looking at that, especially when people know what to do, they can refer to something at the point of need. And that way, having mobile access to LMS and things has helped because we can then get content to people when needed.
There are two bits of personalization via the very popular curation of AI:
- Recommendations through algorithms, as Netflix has, when you get content according to your interests and preferences.
- The other one is platforms that provide adaptive learning. Depending on things like your score and confidence as you proceed, it gives you a hyper-personalized journey through a curriculum.
Q: Do you mean those skills they already have to improve, the skills they would like, or the company would like them to achieve?
I mean new skills. And I guess a good example is education. So, for example, kids who do maths based on adaptive learning platforms pass their tests a lot more than those who don’t. This is because the platform keeps kids repeating the same stuff until they get it right to move up.
However, in L&D at work, adaptive platforms have a limited application because you don’t have a clear curriculum. There are lots of things you need to understand and know. So when it gets into the world of L&D, which is more about application and performance on the job, the adaptive platform becomes much harder to show that it’s going to work well.
Q: So did you use that knowledge or probably practices in your work when you, as L&D manager, tried to implement something in the workforce, in the company?
One example that I remember well was onboarding for new joiners. It was for a retail client.
So on day one, how do we get them to understand the shop? Okay, we’ll give them a list of products they need to buy to make them run around the shop. And then we got them to go on and scan the things through on the till themselves. So rather than saying to them, here are the aisles, here are the things we sell, you help them to discover the products. Flipping the model from being in a classroom, told what to do, to discovering it for yourself.
Understanding psychology and how people learn is critical to L&D because it has to pervade every piece of our work. That’s why it’s essential to find a way to work with most stakeholders where they know it’s embedded in every aspect of your thinking & approach. So I just tell them we’re going to get here from here to here, and we need to help them unlock these things.
A big change that’s coming in L&D is that it’s going to be more insight-driven through research. It compares the research and its findings to scientific evidence and studies. We can be more transparent with solutions. And the best part is that clients are more open to paying a bit more money and putting more emphasis on the project’s discovery phase because we’re all realizing that that’s where the impact is discovered and planned to get a better business solution.