The L&D Uncertainty Paradox

I was listening to the excellent L&D podcast episode 35 earlier yesterday and the conversation taking place with David James and James Poletyllo on his article around L&D sleepwalking to extinction, both were navigating a conceptually difficult landscape.

What was mentioned in the podcast was that in the act of analysing a customer request in our typical approach of needs analysis with training deliverables as an output, we are in effect locking ourselves into the very thing we’re perhaps should be trying to avoid. ie: training as the only outcome.

Given my science (geeky) background it struck me as a very similiar problem to that of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, which states that the act of observing a system (at a quantum level) affects the very system you’re observing, therefore no true measurement of a state is possible, only a probability of an outcome.

It’s an interesting question. Are we facing our own uncertainty paradox? Biasing the thing we’re observing by placing it within the context of ‘training’? But in this challenge we also have a conundrum ahead of us. As it was mentioned on the podcast, ‘If not training, then what else?’.

It struck me that this is at heart of an almost existential struggle. Whatever your view about the approach to this thing about performance management, I think it is clear that the needs of the job do encompass a much wider remit than ‘just training’. We’re just not clear on how wide-a-remit this may encompass and the types of changes that must take place for us to get there.

What is clear is that there is a definite possibility that doing our business as usual in our current roles simply won’t ensure the future proofing of L&D in the years to come.

Already we are seeing the effects of the ‘middle income’ job sets become squeezed, Kevin Green gives a great talk on this , whilst certainly many of our roles are not going to be replaced by computers yet, we have to be concious to the wider landscape and how we can connect the dots more effectively with business objectives, be it via ‘training’ or other mechanisms.

What could this end landscape look like? Again to draw the physics parallel here, we are likely not talking Newtonian certainty here x=y, but rather a Bohrian probability matrix of outcomes from a complex of inputs that define what our given performance system will probably look like.

I might attempt to paint a picture of the future L&D landscape as I see it evolving in another article, but there are a few things that could help with us with this (some of these are ‘big’uns’!), which I’ll outline here.

  1. Broaden our data sets of both inputs and expected outputs for the business. By examining 50 variables rather than 3 we can then begin to gather intelligence about where there are probably the biggest gaps, and follow it up as necessary.
  2. Allocate more time to interpret, analyse and to try to see things ‘as they are’, rather than as they are perceived to be. This will allow you to challenge both your own and other’s assumptions about the need on the ground, and indeed whether ‘training’ will fill that need.
  3. View things not as a process or technology driven exercise, but as activity within a human people-performance system. This is organic and not typically constrained to the ‘organisational boxes/hierarchies’ we like to put things in.
  4. Invert the ‘requests pyramid’. We have a tendency to take training requests from senior members of staff at the top of our organisational ‘pyramids’, yet these individuals, no matter how skilled and intelligent are a tiny proportion in many cases of the targets of an intervention, how reliable is this request? Are we getting it first, second or third hand? Have we asked the people on the ground? Which would you trust more, 1 request from a manager or 25 requests from ground level staff?
  5. Be hyper-connected and get past silos, particularly with other people and data management/intelligence functions. This seems to me to be an essential first step to address point 4, of course breaking down silos has been a goal for the last 30 years in business so perhaps easier said than done.
  6. Finally – Be proactive to move beyond needs assessment and into needs identification. Sounds simple, but it might be the most effective one of all. People are less likely come to you with ‘order taker’ requests if you’ve already come to them with your analysis of the challenges, and in doing so, you’re going to be much more likely to be brought into those crucial front-end discussions that will guide the approach, rather than brought in further down the chain.

There’s a lot in the above, each one perhaps an article in its own right, and indeed, like the uncertainty principle, these views may only yield a probable outcome, but it’s worth a shot to try them out by experiment. In the 20C quantum physics was regarded as fringe science or even science fiction, but as we now know it’s a well accepted scientific fact. Can we say the same for our activities?

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