Serendipity and me: How I happened upon the CIPD L&D conference

Last week I had the pleasure of being asked to Chair a fantastic session at the CIPD Learning & Development show – ‘Enabling Performance through an Effective Learning Strategy and the Right Technology’ – with Tiffany Poeppelman from LinkedIn and Mike Leavy from Virgin Media.

I really enjoyed their joint presentation, specifically how Tiffany and Mike came from two completely opposite sides of the spectrum, with Tiffany in a team of one, and Mike with an established team of 130 learning and development (L&D) professionals. But their talk showed that the strands and requirements are still the same for all L&D teams, no matter the size.

What I also valued seeing was the focus on the need for L&D to be consultants to the wider business, the need to grab a seat at the top table and inform, advise, and contribute – and then engage those senior stakeholders. All great organisations are built on the success and performance of the people that work there, so enabling employee performance should be a primary focus of the C-suite. L&D should be advising and helping the other areas of the business align their departmental goals to the wider people development goals – but oftentimes this can be hard to achieve in practice.

How do you get to the top table in the first place? Hearing two different perspectives on how to make this a reality gave some great takeaways to the audience.

After I chaired the session, I discovered to my surprise that I was also invited to attend the conference as a delegate, and so I happily changed my plans and went back up to London and got stuck in for Day 2.

In each one I attended, I saw reflected the same wonderfully pragmatic and consultative approach. L&D are facing a critical and yet tantalisingly interesting time. All areas of operational business, including the people function, are looking for ways to show business value, and prove agility both in the face of changing business priorities, and, as we all know, ever-increasing learner expectations.

I saw HR representatives that were ready and willing to shift, who saw the business need to play a bigger part in the larger organisational strategy.

And I thought I’d share my own takeaways and themes from the conference – on how great L&D practitioners are making the above a reality.

The best L&D teams are talking to employees, operations and the business before creating, well… anything

This, in my mind, is a massive step forward and significant change from the last several years. Every session and case study I attended started with a refusal to be transactional. And this is awesome. In practice this might mean using data insight on learner needs to drive strategy, like the fabulous Aimee O’Malley and Steph Fastre from Google UK showcased in their session (where I got to make a paper airplane too – what’s not to love?!) – where every time they have a question, they go out to get data to back it up, and then use that data to get through the door for senior backing. It could also be simple conversations – face to face – with departments to understand their struggles. In short, L&D are being more consultative.

Which is exactly what you need to understand the problems that need fixing – and to raise them and take a deserved seat at the big table.

Paul Morgan, Head of Learning and Development at Telefonica, could sense the palpable discomfort as he exhorted us to ‘Stop making stuff! Just stop it! Now!’

But I could feel the shift amongst all the sessions: L&D success is no longer about creating reams of content and proving a certain number of transactions through a course. Does it matter? Does it solve a problem? If not, don’t bother doing it. And move onto the next thing.

This is how you gain the respect of senior players in the business, and the employees themselves – and what gets them excited about what’s next.

Everyone is trying to do more effective work with less.

Less money, fewer resources, less content creation. There was definitely a shift not only towards only creating content that clearly backs a well-informed and data-backed business problem, but also to think about what already exists – moving from creation to curation. Again this is a concept that’s been around the fringes for years, but I felt that this year it made the main stage.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I reviewed the first sessions of the day, the only session that was 100% full was Stella O’Neill and Andrew Jacobs‘ session on ‘Doing More with Less: L&D on a budget’. L&D teams are getting smarter about when to create, and when to use what already exists. Steph Fastre from Google UK has created a great programme called G2G (Googler 2 Googler) that focuses on quick transfer of knowledge with social collaboration.

Back in our session, Tiffany showcased a great approach to using everyone else around you, gathering your champions that believe in your initiatives, or just love learning! Leverage them so you can do more with your time and create better engagement to boot.

The power of experimentation – and making small shifts over time to create bigger change

Firstly this theme emerged as so many of the speakers admitted to not having all the answers (something I always find refreshing). Everyone felt like they were on an iterative journey, one of constant tweaking, adjustments, and review. To have the L&D team at Google UK admit that they still hadn’t cracked the analytics link between usage and performance was incredibly refreshing, and you could see the audience thinking – ‘Phew! Maybe I’m not in such a bad spot after all!’

But what the best orgs are doing is working in a culture that allows for experimentation and allows for failure. A culture of trial and error is key to innovation – and can be very difficult to create if it doesn’t already exist. I asked the group that I chaired how many felt that they were safe to fail – and about 30% of them raised their hands (which was more than I was expecting!). Tiffany talked about the difference between experimentation and pilot, which I thought was a great distinction – and the need to focus on a complete agreement of definitions before embarking. Doing ‘experiments’ with clear definitions might just be the way for organisations to label the times where they’re ‘free’ to fail.

More organisations are using out of the box platform and content solutions to help drive experimentation – things that are quick to roll out and configure, and therefore test and assess. Paul Morgan put it another way (and it was a thought shared by Brid Nunn and Sarah Gregory-Anderson at M&S in their case study session) – and I thought this was a really important point – that in order to create that buy-in with the business, aim for just one degree of change, over and over. Don’t bite off too much – the small successes will create more positive feedback and put you in a stronger position for more backing and will get you taken more seriously.

The power of the brand of L&D – and your own personal brand

Leading off the last point, more people were talking about L&D having an internal brand presence. With a marketing background, this was a main point for Tiffany – especially as with a non-existent team she had to think about how she positioned herself to get others excited and on board with her initiatives.

What is your team going to be known for? And I came away thinking…what is it that makes me passionate, and am I portraying that best to those around me? Because it’s absolutely true, I’m swept up and away when people bring their own enthusiasms and passions to work.

And what was my personal favourite takeaway?

I attended a fantastic session on ‘Using Cognitive Neuroscience to Maximise Learning’ given by Dr. Itiel Dror from University College London. I’ve not taken that many notes for years.

Great and easily digestible ideas on how to create less cognitive load for learners, so that when we have decided what the best thing is to create, and what will solve a business problem, that we might actually create something that they can learn, easily! And something that they’ll more likely retain – and use – in their jobs day to day.

Cause after all, that’s what it’s all about in the end.

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