Human-Centered Learning

By Nathan Pienkowski

Imagine you’re planning to design a new product that will help its users solve a specific problem. Before beginning the design process, doesn’t it make sense to first analyze the problem, understand how it affects people (your potential customers), and then design the product with end users’ perspectives and needs in mind?  Of course it makes sense!  There are even names for that approach, and the most common ones are “user-centered design” and “human-centered design.”

The same concept applies when designing learning solutions.  Here, we’ll call it “human-centered learning.”  So, what does human-centered learning look like?  Let’s find out.

Keys to Human-Centered Learning

For trainers and instructional designers, the first key to human-centered learning is to clearly understand the problem that needs to be solved.  It’s critical to articulate the goal the business is trying to meet.  For the most part, instructional designers do this anyway, and it’s a part of pretty much every instructional design model.  But human centered learning goes a bit further.

Another key is to go beyond studying the “problem” and to spend time focused on the learner, closely examining how he does his work as it relates to the problem and goals.  This requires an in-depth look at what the learner thinks about when he does his work, what his goals and intentions are, what his motivators and barriers are, the tools he uses, the people he works with, and so on.  It basically involves fully understanding why the learner works in the way he does, and how that relates to the “problem” or business goal at hand.

Empathy for the learner’s situation is another key to human-centered learning.  The instructional designer must accept the primacy of the learner and how she works, then orient the training around the learner’s work and working world.  In other words, solutions should be “wrapped around the learner” and not the other way around (which is often the case).

Examples of Human-Centered Learning

Let’s move from concepts to more concrete examples.  In pharmaceutical sales, the District Manager (DM) role is an important one, requiring sound management skills as well as the ability to coach and develop sales reps.  Field visits are an important part of the coaching process, as the DM accompanies a sales rep on a number of calls, offering support and coaching along the way.

Let’s assume that a company wants to improve the coaching skills of its DMs.  The easy way out might be to develop—or to acquire—a generalized training program on coaching skills, with little consideration given to how those skills are expected to fit into the DM’s day-to-day job responsibilities.

Unfortunately, the easy way isn’t always the best way.  A better approach would be to understand the dynamics of field visits:  How they work, what behaviors are expected of the reps, the opportunities DMs have for coaching, and so on.  Then, the L&D team can design a training solution that’s specific to the situation at hand.  Which training solution sounds more effective:  Improving Coaching Skills or How to Have Successful Field Visits? If I were a DM, I know which one I’d rather go through.

Next comes decisions about how to deliver the training.  Remember the point about empathizing with the learners?  If the company’s DMs are very busy, with little time available for training, then it probably makes sense to use delivery methods that are less time-consuming.  For example, the training might consist of short “mini-modules” delivered using mobile learning solutions that a DM might be able to do while sitting in a car or at lunch.

Training design should also acknowledge and operate within the constraints of the field environment.  For example, it’s probably not a good idea to train a pharmaceutical sales rep to have a conversation that involves five complex steps when they only have an average of just a couple of minutes per call in front of the doctor.  Instead, it’s best to design training that helps the rep make the most of the short time available.  Training should help them apply the desired skills and behaviors within the constraints they face.

Human-Centered Learning in Action

Let’s look at another example, this one from the Bull City Blue archives.  One of our clients, a leading pharmaceutical company, had developed a number of online tools that its sales reps were expected to use.  These tools were supposed to help make reps’ jobs easier, but they were also designed to help the company do a better job of collecting data on—and managing—rep activities.

The problem was, the reps didn’t actually use the tools very much.  Applying “human-centered learning” principles, we studied the reps’ day-to-day jobs, as well as the tools, and discovered that most of the reps’ resistance was due to two things:

  1. They didn’t really understand how the tools could benefit them
  2. They felt like the tools were more of a burden than a help

Keeping these realities in mind, we then developed a learning program that kept the learner’s perspectives and motivations firmly in focus.  To start, we identified the specific tools and features of the system that were most important to the company and most consequential to the reps’ jobs. Rather than developing a training program on every nuance of the system, we focused attention on the most high-impact components.

Then, we developed a series of micro-units of 5 to 10 minutes each.  These units were short enough for a rep to do while sitting in a parking lot or while eating a sandwich at lunch.  To make it more interesting and fun, the units were designed as short games, during which the learners could score points.  The entire set-up allowed reps to compete against their peers, with unit high-scorers and leaderboards.

The whole approach generated an interesting dynamic, as reps would often take individual modules several times, attempting to beat their previous scores or to knock off the current leaders!  Even people outside the sales force were asking for access to the learning so they could participate, too.  Clearly, an approach that places the learner at the center is superior to one that simply focuses on jamming information out to the field force.

To sum up, employ human-centered learning by keeping the following points in mind:

  1. Understand the business objective.
  2. Understand the learner’s world, including their job, the tasks they’re expected to do, their challenges, and their incentives.
  3. Have empathy for the learners and design training solutions around them, rather than forcing them to conform to the training solutions.

Remembering these points will help any L&D team develop more engaging—and more successful—programs.

When Business Objectives Trump Learning Objectives

By Nathan Pienkowski

Should a Learning and Development (L&D) organization deliver above and beyond the call of duty, going “all in” to apply the latest in instructional design to every single project?  That’s an interesting question and, like most interesting questions, it defies a simple yes or no answer.

Sometimes, the answer is yes.  However, in a world of limited resources for L&D, department leaders would be wise to “dial it back” sometimes.  In this article, we’ll consider the circumstances in which it might make sense to do a little less and conserve precious resources for other initiatives.  It all comes down to the business objectives at play.

Keeping Business Objectives in Mind

In L&D, much thought is given to the learning objectives behind a training initiative.  Those objectives drive curriculum and instructional design decisions, and L&D teams take great care to clearly articulate them at the outset of a project.

In most cases, L&D teams are rightfully proud of their expertise in curriculum and instructional design, and in their knowledge of learning science.  They’ll work to apply that expertise and knowledge in full measure to deliver on learning initiatives for their internal clients.

However, there are times when L&D leaders should remember that their departments are powerful tools.  In most cases, they can be wielded to teach learners new knowledge and skills.  But, they can also serve other valid purposes.

For example, L&D teams can be used to demonstrate regulatory compliance or to provide management leverage.  In these cases, the L&D team might want to remember the business objectives at play, and act accordingly by keeping the initiative simple.  Let’s explore this idea a bit more with a hypothetical example.

A Hypothetical Example

Assume for a moment that a company has developed a new policy or procedure.  The policy or procedure itself is not complex and complying with it doesn’t require development of any new skills.  However, it’s very important to management that everyone comply.  So, L&D is asked to develop a training initiative related to it.

Before spending a lot of time articulating the learning objectives for the training initiative, L&D needs to consider the business objectives behind it.  What does management really want to achieve?  Remember that the policy is simple and easy to understand, so the key business objectives are most likely to:

  1. Demonstrate that management is serious about compliance
  2. Provide a mechanism for managing compliance later (for example, non-compliant employees will have no excuse, because training will have been provided, making corrective action much easier)

In this hypothetical example, the L&D team should most likely conserve its dollars and personnel resources, and just develop a simple training program that achieves the business objectives without going overboard from a curriculum or instructional design standpoint.  In short, L&D should “check the box,” achieve the business objectives, and move on.

A Real-World Example

Here’s a real-world example that’s a bit more nuanced, but that illustrates the same principle.  Our team was tasked with training a range of healthcare professionals in third world countries to vaccinate large portions of their local populations.  Administering the various vaccinations involved a range of different syringes and techniques.

The learners included not only the health workers who would administer vaccinations, but also district public health officials who would oversee and evaluate the health workers.  Obviously, the health workers needed to receive complex hands-on training, administering simulated injections with all the various types of syringe.

The public health officials also needed to understand the injection techniques and when they needed to be used, even though they wouldn’t administer any injections.  We could have trained them in the same manner as the health workers, as that would have satisfied the learning objectives for the initiative.

However, we adopted a different and lower-cost approach.  Rather than giving the public health officials hands-on training, we had them watch the different injection techniques and educated them on when certain techniques were required vs. others.  This saved the client’s resources, and still fully equipped the public health officials to do their jobs effectively.

Keeping Learners in Mind

The point of this article has been this:  In a world of limited L&D resources, remember the business objectives behind a training initiative, and deploy the resources needed to achieve those objectives.  Don’t go overboard.  There’s only so much time, budget dollars, and personnel resources to go around.

However, there’s another way to look at resources, too.  Your learners’ time and attention are also resources, and the L&D team needs to make the most of them.  It’s best to avoid overloading learners with a high-powered learning program if something a lot simpler will achieve the underlying business objectives.

Get What You Need: How to Build a Business Case

By Sue Iannone

We all…well, maybe some of us…remember the chorus lyrics from a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need

It’s tough to argue with that.  It holds true in everyday life, and it holds true for leaders of Learning & Development (L&D) organizations in pharmaceutical and biotech companies.  The fact is, L&D organizations aren’t always given the resources they need to deliver the results expected of them.  However, your chances of getting the resources you need are much greater if you know how to make a compelling case for them.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to build a business case that can help an L&D team secure the resources it needs for a project or initiative.  Specifically, we’ll answer the following questions:

  • What is a business case?
  • When is a business case needed?
  • How do you build a business case?
  • What are some best practices for building a business case?

Let’s get started.

What is a Business Case?

Simply put, a business case is a document that makes the argument—or outlines the rationale—for investing in an initiative or a related group of initiatives.  Business cases can range from simple to highly complex.

A simple business case can be as basic as a conversational e-mail with some supporting data that gets sent to the relevant stakeholders.  A complex business case might be a lengthy, sophisticated, and formal document that’s chock full of charts, graphs, and data from primary and secondary research that must be presented to a committee of decision makers.

Whether a situation calls for a simple or complex business case really depends on two things:

  1. Who’s making the investment decision
  2. What resources—and how much resources—are being requested

If, for example, you’re making the case to your boss, with whom you have a great working relationship—and you’re only asking for a relatively small amount of money for a project—then the business case should be simple.  On the other hand, a more complex business case is typically justified if:

  • Multiple departments or functions can be affected by the decision to move forward
  • Multiple high-level decision makers must be involved
  • Large sums of money will be required
  • Additional headcount will be required

Any time larger amounts of money and headcount are required, a robust business case is going to be essential to getting approval.  To move forward absent a well-documented rationale and plan would be irresponsible.

When Is a Business Case Needed?

Typically, any time the L&D team needs to secure additional resources, a business case will be needed on some level.  Consider a new product launch.  A pharmaceutical company is going to make a range of resources available for something as important as a launch.  However, budgeting decision makers don’t always understand the nuances of every component of a launch and may under-resource the learning needs.

The L&D organization should be proactive in identifying the things it needs to help facilitate a successful launch.  It must then make the case for them.

Here’s a real-world example.  We have worked with two different clients in the past few years that had robust development pipelines with significant numbers of global launches coming up over a multi-year period.  The companies were budgeting for the launches and providing some resources for L&D to support them.

However, there were some unmet needs that decision-makers didn’t seem to notice.  In both cases, the companies lacked clear processes, tools, and guidelines for curriculum and content development related to global launch.  Absent these things, efficiency would suffer, costs would rise, and the L&D teams would have to “reinvent the wheel” for each launch.

We worked with the L&D organizations to build business cases for developing global launch processes and tools.  Ultimately, those business cases were successful, and we moved forward with the initiatives.

Business cases are often required before adopting new technologies.  For example, an L&D team might need to make a business case for adopting a new virtual classroom tool, particularly if the company already uses a virtual meeting tool.  Such decisions often have impacts beyond the L&D team, affecting the Information Technology department, Human Resources, etc.

How Do You Build a Business Case?

As we’ve established, business cases can range from simple to complex.  Here, we outline the key components in a more complex business case, but the principles apply to simple ones, as well.

Executive Summary

Be sure to include an executive summary up front that summarizes the need, why it’s important, the expected benefits, and what’s requested.  It should be a “micro” version of the larger business case.  Often, key decision makers are busy, and they won’t read further than the executive summary.

Background and Current Situation

In this section, review the current state of affairs, focusing special attention on the needs that must be addressed, the gaps that must be filled, or the risks that must be avoided.  Explain why the status quo is unsustainable or sub-optimal, and why it must be changed.  Use data and research to make the case as appropriate.


Clearly outline the objectives of the initiative you want to pursue.  Presumably, the initiative would solve the problems or close the gaps highlighted in the Background and Current Situation.  Articulate specific goals and objectives related to doing that.

Initiative Overview

In this section, define the initiative.  Describe what it is and how it would work.  This is where you will provide a high-level overview of what is needed in terms of dollars, headcount, and so on.

Benefit / Risk Assessment

It’s important to spell out the initiative’s expected benefits.  If you’re asking the company to invest time and dollars in software, tools, personnel, and more, then it’s critical to explain what the company will get in return for those investments.  Benefits can be qualitative or quantitative, but it’s usually better to thoughtfully outline benefits in a quantitative manner when possible.

It’s also important to outline the risks associated with not pursuing the initiative.  In addition, moving forward with an initiative can bring risks of its own in some cases.  Outline those, as well, but include suggestions for mitigating those risks.

Detailed Plan of Action

This section should clearly spell out how the initiative would be implemented.  In particular, it should include:

  • Key deliverables and who’s responsible for them
  • Delivery timelines
  • Budget and headcount needs
  • Key stakeholders and required champions or sponsors


The conclusion should reinforce the overall business case.  It’s a concise restatement of the need, the initiative, the investment required, and the expected benefits.

What Are Some Best Practices for Building a Business Case?

There are a lot of best practices for building a business case.  However, we’ll relate just a few here.  These are the best practices that have served our team well over the years.

  1. Align the initiative with the company’s strategic imperatives or business objectives – This is paramount. If the initiative is not related to the company’s overall strategy or business goals, then it’s probably not worth doing.
  2. Tell a story – Be engaging and compelling when you make your case. This is particularly important when outlining the status quo and why it needs to change, as well as when describing the expected benefits. Use real-world examples or case studies to illustrate why the status quo is bad.  Use similar techniques when outlining benefits.  Creatively connect the initiative to better business results.
  3. Make it pristine – Do not turn in a document (even if it’s just an e-mail) with spelling, grammatical, or math errors in it. Formatting is also important.  If you’re using PowerPoint, make sure its layout is attractive, neat, and consistent.  Use good charts and attractive graphics.  Poorly constructed documents reflect negatively on the L&D team in general, and will hinder your case.
  4. Get feedback – Share your business case with some “friendlies” before delivering it. Ask them to provide feedback and let you know whether the:
    1. Case makes sense and is easy to follow
    2. Arguments are compelling and rational
    3. Graphics are easy to understand and help the document do its job

So, there you have it:  A quick overview of how to make a business case.  Let us know about your success stories in making the case for resources!



How to Do Less with Less

By Sue Iannone

Let’s start this article by establishing one fact up front:  That old cliché about how we all should “do more with less” is bogus.  Perhaps not it all cases, but it’s definitely bogus when it comes to leading a Learning and Development (L&D) organization in a biopharma company.

Training organization leaders often complain about having to do more with less.  Their teams face greater demands, but are given fewer resources with which to meet them.  Often, “doing more with less” is considered evidence of a “can-do spirit” and is a source of pride.  However, there’s a considerable downside to trying to maintain—or even enhance—service levels in the face of dwindling resources.

In this article, we’ll explore the downside of doing more with less.  In addition, we’ll see how it’s usually better to get more strategic, prioritize your efforts, and focus only on the most important needs when resources get tight.  Sometimes, this means telling internal clients “No,” so we’ll also address how to do that professionally and effectively.

The Downside of Doing More with Less

While it’s tempting to always say “Yes” and try to meet the demands of your stakeholders no matter what, there are drawbacks.  As a result, doing more with less is typically not sustainable except in short bursts.

The L&D team’s customers may see heroic effort as “above and beyond the call of duty” the first time, but they can quickly come to expect such efforts as the norm.  If they do, and if L&D leaders don’t keep the situation in check, it can result in:

  • Morale problems
  • Team burnout
  • Sub-par work
  • Unhappy stakeholders

When faced with high demands and tightening resources, there are two keys to success.  The first is to make sure that the L&D team is operating as efficiently as possible.  The second is to do less with less.

Doing Less with Less:  What Does That Mean?

Doing less with less doesn’t mean “slacking off.”  Instead, it means focusing resources on those things that are the highest priorities.  Doing that requires L&D leaders to have a strong understanding of business objectives and desired outcomes, an ability to prioritize requests based on their relevance to those objectives, and the skill to back up their decisions.

Figure 1 illustrates a simple approach to prioritizing programs and requests from stakeholders.  Any request should be evaluated based on its expected impact versus its ease of implementation.  In this case, “ease of implementation” is a catch-all term referring to the total resources needed, such as people, time, and dollars.

Prioritization Matrix for Learning and Development Organizations

Figure 1: The Prioritization Matrix

Obviously, if something is easy to do and will generate a high impact, then it should be a top priority (Quadrant 1).  Quadrant 2 initiatives should be your second priority.  They may be harder to implement, but at least they’ll be worth the effort.

In a resource-constrained environment, an L&D team should avoid Quadrant 4 like the plague.  Any time spent there would be wasted.  Quadrant 3 initiatives—those that may generate a low impact but are easy to do—might sound tempting, but it’s usually best to leave them alone.  Doing a Quadrant 3 initiative just to “check the box” is probably not the best use of resources.  Instead, focus resources on things that will help your company achieve its business objectives in a meaningful way.

One last note is important to make.  Sometimes, when conducting prioritization exercises, L&D teams will attempt to make everything a high priority.  In a truly resource-constrained situation, you can’t make everything a high priority.  Force-rank requests or initiatives if needed, focusing on those things that will generate the most impact per “unit” of resource expended.  Trade-offs must be made.

Saying No to Stakeholders

When making trade-offs, invariably, some requests get pushed down to the bottom of the list.  This means that the L&D team must sometimes tell internal customers and stakeholders “No.”  It’s important to do this professionally and politely, but with sound logic backing the decision.

An L&D leader doesn’t need to build a full-blown business case to back their decision, but they should be prepared to do the following:

  • Outline the core business objectives and desired outcomes
  • Explain why the request is not critical to those outcomes at the current time
  • Articulate the resources that would be required to fulfill the request (People, time, and dollars)
  • Shed light on the bigger picture (The L&D team serves multiple brand teams, each of which mainly sees their own challenges and needs. Sometimes, a brand team needs to see what’s going on elsewhere in the organization and why—at that time—they might not be the priority for L&D.)
  • Potentially offer an alternative course of action that is more reasonable, i.e. “I can’t do X, but I can do Y. Will that work?”

Sometimes, internal stakeholders don’t truly understand what it takes to get things done.  What seems like an easy thing to them might actually take a significant expenditure of resources to deliver.  Simply explaining that fact to them—and relating it to the business’s objectives—is often enough to open their eyes to the truth.

For example, a brand team might ask for a lot of things for an upcoming POA meeting, such as a workshop on selling skills, a workshop on objection handling, a user’s guide for a new sales aid, and a range of other things.  In such a case, an L&D leader might need to sit down with brand leaders and explain that incorporating so many things might overwhelm the learners while stretching resources too far.

Ideally, they would then jointly review each request, evaluating them based on their expected impact and their ease of implementation.  Involving the stakeholder in this type of prioritization exercise can be very helpful.

In another example, brand teams responsible for older products might want a range of updates for their training content catalogs.  Given those brands’ likely relevance to the company’s core business objectives, it may not make sense for the L&D team to expend resources on such activities.  In such a case, L&D leaders should work with the brand stakeholders to determine whether the updates should be made at all.  If so, then they may need to determine whether the brand team will provide additional resources to help make it happen or to hire an outsourced vendor.

For L&D leaders, the key is to stay focused on business objectives and the desired outcomes.  By focusing precious resources on the things that will truly make a difference—and by working jointly with the team’s stakeholders to prioritize efforts—the L&D team can ultimately be more effective, efficient, and strategic.

Global Product LaunchSpaceX on Unsplash

Training for Global Product Launch: Five Tips

By Garry O’Grady

Launching a new product is a complex undertaking involving a range of stakeholders, all of whom must work together in a coordinated manner.  If you really want to dial the complexity “up to eleven,” try launching a new product globally.  Over the years, we’ve had the privilege of working with clients before, during, and after global launches.  During that time, we’ve identified some potential pitfalls for a key player in any launch:  The Global Learning & Development organization.  Here, we explore some tips to avoid those pitfalls.

The Global Learning & Development (GL&D) organization is critically important to the success of any launch.  In a global launch process, training activities begin as early as 36 months prior to the planned launch date.  At this time, the GL&D organization develops its launch-training plan, acquires resources and initiates content development.  Soon thereafter, key roles, such as country managers, brand management team members, and key account managers, should begin receiving training on core topics including disease state, clinical trials, the product’s mechanism of action (MOA), and so on.

From that point on, one stakeholder group or another will be receiving training of some type, driven by the GL&D group.  The process typically culminates about 3-6 months before launch, as local sales teams receive training on the disease, the product and its MOA, key selling messages, and more.

For all this to go smoothly—and give the product the greatest chance of success—the GL&D organization must be operating effectively and using a highly structured approach.  Being structured and systematic will help GL&D avoid the more common pitfalls we’ve seen companies experience.

Tip #1:  Build a Framework for Global Launch Training

Too often, we’ve seen companies that had not taken the time to develop a framework for managing the global launch training process.  Without a proper framework, the GL&D organization will typically be forced into a reactive mode and may feel “perpetually behind schedule.”

At a high level, building a framework entails proactively determining

  • Which roles within the company will need training and educational support
  • The type of support required for each role
  • The proper timing

A good framework serves as a road map for launch training.  It helps the GL&D organization be proactive rather than reactive. It also elevates GL&D’s status to that of a strategic resource.

Tip #2:  Don’t Wait on the Brand Team

This tip is closely related to #1 above.  It’s important to note that global brand teams are often not fully formed 18-24 months before launch.  If the GL&D organization is dependent on the brand team for budget, that can be a problem.

GL&D organizations must proactively lobby for the budget and resources needed well before 18-24 months out.  Otherwise, they may still be waiting for budget dollars, getting further “behind the 8-ball” every day.

Tip #3:  Communicate Early and Often

When a solid framework is in place for the global launch training process, nothing should be a surprise for the GL&D organization or for its downstream customers.  Built into that framework should be structured communications so that various internal stakeholders, including all the country affiliates, know exactly what’s coming and when.

We’ve performed audits for customers that have laid bare the drawbacks of poor communications.  For example, in one case the country affiliates took the initiative to create their own disease state training modules because they didn’t know what GL&D was doing, or when to expect support.  Situations like that result in inconsistent training, and a high degree of variability in launch preparedness.

Tip #4:  Use a Formal Curriculum Design Process

Any training process needs to begin with the end in mind.  Early on, the GL&D organization must work with its internal stakeholders to determine the desired business results, identify the behaviors required to get those results, and design the right curriculum for achieving the required behavior changes.  Too often, GL&D organizations have no formalized process for doing this.

Tip #5:  Develop Design Standards So Content Can Have Greater Impact at the Country level

When developing global training content, it’s important that the GL&D organization ensure a certain level of consistency:  Consistency in design, “look and feel,” quality, and learning impact.  However, each local market is different, and content must be modified to account for those differences.  The GL&D organization must create—and abide by—a set of design standards that will allow for local customizations while also helping to keep materials as consistent as possible.  This keeps costs down, and it makes for more efficient training process.

Two simple—and completely avoidable—examples of “mishaps” we’ve seen companies make in this area include:

  • Designing materials (i.e. professionally laid out PDF documents) with English content, while neglecting to build in enough “white space” to accommodate translation into other languages that typically use more words (and thus, more space) to say the same things
  • Developing documents whose body copy can be edited electronically for translation, but incorporating graphic images whose embedded text cannot be edited electronically

Clearly defined design standards will go a long way toward ensuring a consistent training product while also allowing for local variation.

The key theme running through all five of these tips can be summed up on one word:  Structure.  That’s why this article’s first tip addresses a structured framework for global product launch training.  Within a systematic framework, the GL&D organization can address all the things needed for effective and efficient global launch training: Stakeholders, training needs, timing, communications, a curriculum design process, and materials design standards.

Are You a Strategic Leader…Or Overwhelmed?

By Sue Iannone

Part Two in a Series

In Part One, we outlined seven characteristics of the “Future Learning and Development Organization.”  Those characteristics are shared by teams that evolve beyond firefighting mode, look forward in a strategic way, and focus on achieving the company’s business objectives rather than struggling to keep up with daily demands.

What’s the first characteristic of such an organization?  It has a strategic learning leader.  Today, we outline some tips to help L&D leaders be more strategic, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by day-to-day demands.  These tips are geared toward the new department head, but can be applied at any time, regardless of how long a leader has been on the job.

1:  Get Your Bearings

If you’re new to a leadership role, it’s important to get the “lay of the land” before making any major decisions.  This will require a few rounds of meetings and a lot of listening.

Take the time to hold staff meetings and one-on-one meetings with your team members.  This gives you an opportunity to show them you’re listening and that you’re focused on trying to do the right things.  It also gives you a chance to more deeply understand their individual strengths and limitations.

One-on-one meetings with your bosses will help make their expectations clearer to you.  Meetings with your peers in other functions, such as the heads of Marketing, Sales, Medical Affairs, and Market Access are also critical.  They’ll be your internal customers, so it’s important to know what they’re thinking, as well as their business objectives.  Ask about their perspective on how training can support and accelerate the business objectives.

2:  Focus on the Wildly Important

Being strategic can be hard, as it requires a leader to dissect the business, understand and articulate business objectives, and formulate strategies for achieving them.  It can be easier for a new leader to “slip backward” and focus on things that are more in their comfort zone.

One illustrative example is New Hire Training (NHT).  It typically takes a large piece of the annual training budget and it is important.  However, even in a company with 10% attrition, only 10% of the company will participate in NHT during any given year.  That leaves 90% of the company that could probably benefit from other forms of L&D that are more closely related to strategic business goals.

Yet, learning leaders can easily get sucked into focusing on things like NHT while failing to address more important issues.  Instead, keep your focus on the strategic business objectives, and the things your team must do to achieve them.

3:  Trust Your Team, Delegate

Tip #2 above deals with where you focus your thoughts and attention.  Tip #3 deals with how you spend your time on a daily basis.  Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into spending an inordinate amount of time doing tactical things.

Now, reality sometimes dictates that learning leaders get “in the weeds” on tactical issues, and that’s OK.  However, it becomes a problem when it happens on a regular basis.  Every minute an L&D department head spends setting up a webinar is a minute taken away from more strategic issues.

It’s critical for strategic learning leaders to delegate tactical work to the team.  Give them the opportunity to succeed or fail.  For less tenured team members, however, just make sure that the cost of failure is relatively low for them and the department.  As they grow in skill and confidence, so can their level of responsibility.

For new strategic leaders, delegating is often very hard to do.  It’s very important, however.  Leaders who don’t invest enough time in developing their team members—and who don’t delegate—will continually waste time doing tactical work themselves while complaining that their team members just aren’t as competent as they should be.

4:  Clean House

This one can be uncomfortable, but it’s often necessary.  Sometimes, it becomes clear that a team member is not suited to his or her role.  Maybe their skills aren’t what they should be.  Perhaps their attitude isn’t good.  If you’ve properly assessed your team, you’ll be able to identify these types of issues quickly and take the appropriate action.  This may involve working with Human Resources to counsel the person, find another role that’s a better match, or remove them from the organization.

It’s important to note that “cleaning house” sometimes means affecting team members who are quite skilled and who have great attitudes.  The biopharmaceutical industry is dynamic and volatile.  Business circumstances, goals, and strategies change.  That means L&D organizations also must change. Sometimes, these changes require organizational shifts that impact good team members.  A strategic learning leader is very proactive in managing and guiding those shifts.

5:  Pick Your Battles with Stakeholders

“Pick your battles” is a good tip to remember for life in general.  It also applies to strategic learning leaders.  For example, your internal customers (the Head of Sales, for example) might have all kinds of ideas about what should and should not be done.  This may come as a shock, but the Head of Sales is not always right.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should resist every time a stakeholder says—or requests—something with which you disagree.  Decide what’s strategically important, and don’t be afraid to let the little things go.  This helps you avoid getting the reputation as a “Dr. No.”  But, when there is a strategically significant disagreement, be prepared to make your case professionally and articulate why your recommendation is more in line with the business’s objectives.

Hopefully, these tips will be helpful to you.  What other tips have worked for you?

In future articles, we’ll outline more ways to build the “Future Learning and Development Organization.”

Getting Out of Today and Into the Future

By Sue Iannone and Garry O’Grady

Part One in a Series

The biopharmaceutical industry is not known for dull stability.  Think about it… Companies must remain on a “treadmill” of innovation, always working to replace products as they go off patent.  Regulatory and legislative changes are always being discussed, passed, or implemented.  Market dynamics are constantly fluid, as healthcare costs rise, payers become increasingly stringent, and healthcare delivery models evolve.

All this change—both market and portfolio-driven—places great burdens on Learning and Development (L&D) organizations.  Unfortunately, those burdens keep far too many L&D organizations focused on the demands of today without thinking about the needs of tomorrow.  While it’s important to respond to current demands, no organization can be a true strategic partner unless it takes the time to look down the road and prepare for the future.

In our work, we’ve had the privilege of working with a wide range of L&D organizations.  We’ve seen plenty that exist primarily in “fire-fighting” mode.  However, we’ve seen others that are much more strategically oriented.  What makes one more strategic, while others react to fire drills?  This article focuses on the seven characteristics of a strategic, future-oriented L&D organization.

The Perils of Being Stuck in Today

As mentioned, constant change places great burdens on L&D organizations.  In our experience, this often keeps those teams in a persistent state of feeling overworked and under-resourced.  L&D team members have described this situation to us in different ways over the years, but the general sentiment is usually the same.  Do any of the following statements describe the situation in your organization?

  • We always seem to be running at full throttle, just to keep up with the things we’re being asked to do.
  • Senior leadership views the L&D organization as a “service” rather than a strategic partner.
  • We have to please a lot of different internal clients.
  • I spend more time “putting out fires” than I do anything else.
  • Where’s the “reset” button? We can’t seem to get on top of things!

The problem is, for L&D teams in this situation, there is no easy reset button.  Staying “stuck in today” can ultimately reduce the L&D organization’s effectiveness, diminish its status within the company, reduce morale, increase turnover, and ultimately shrink budgets.  However, by making some important changes, they can very definitely get out of that rut and experience significant improvements across the board.

Seven Characteristics of the Future L&D Organization

What’s the ‘secret sauce’ of successful L&D organizations?  Below, we outline seven characteristics that we’ve seen consistently in L&D organizations that have escaped the cycle describe above, and have positioned themselves as strategic assets in their companies.

1:  Strategic Learning Leaders

Strategic learning leaders tend to act as performance consultants to corporate leaders.  They deeply understand the business objectives, proactively identify performance drivers related to those objectives, identify issues or roadblocks, and recommend solutions.  In short, they are able to keep their teams focused on doing the right things, rather than allowing the team to get bogged down trying to fulfill whatever requests happen to be thrown its way.  Part of being a strategic learning leader involves knowing how to say “no” to internal clients, and backing it up with valid reasons.

In addition, strategic learning leaders spend time looking ahead.  They consider and anticipate changes that are coming and how demands will evolve, and then determine what technologies will be needed, what organizational changes are required, and so on.  They help their L&D organizations stay ahead of the curve.

2:  Trainers Who Consult

While strategic learning leaders need to be performance consultants at the macro level, trainers must be consultants at the micro level.  They bring learning and development expertise to the table, and should use that to help their internal clients determine the best way to achieve a desired result.  For some trainers, this will require additional confidence and a mindset change.  They must view themselves as training experts and consultants, rather than just order takers.

3:  High-Impact Resource Allocation

Strategic L&D organizations consider business objectives first, and then determine how to allocate training resources.  This involves reviewing demands based on their potential impact on business goals, and then prioritizing and allocating budget, time, and people resources accordingly.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some L&D organizations that don’t prioritize expenditures at all—leading to misaligned budget, team burnout, and sub-par deliverables.

4:  Defined Content Strategy and Standards

Strategic L&D organizations have clear processes and standards in place for content development.  They begin by considering the business objectives for any given initiative.  Then they do the following:

  • Using appropriate competency or behavioral models, apply instructional design principles to produce learning that directly impacts business objectives.
  • Choose the best formats (i.e. print, digital, live) for each category of learning.
  • Use the right systems and tools to deploy learning effectively.
  • Develop content that works for the “Modern Learner,” who wants content that is easily accessed, easily digested, and available on an array of devices and systems.

5:  Meaningful Measurement

Measuring the impact of learning initiatives is critically important.  We’re not specifically referring to measuring return on investment (ROI), as that’s notoriously difficult to do with most learning initiatives.  However, we are referring to something akin to Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Training Evaluation Model.  Pretty much every learning organization assesses Reaction, but very few assess Behavior change.  Strategic learning organizations work to get at least to Level 3:

  1. Reaction – “They liked the training”
  2. Learning – “Their knowledge increased”
  3. Behavior – “They apply their learning”
  4. Results – “We can measure the results of that new behavior”

6:  More Performance Support

Performance support gets talked about a lot these days.  It’s important to provide the means for learners to reinforce their learnings and to continuously apply them on the job.  Too often, though, performance support is applied in an ad hoc fashion, or only for higher-priority initiatives.  Strategic L&D organizations purposefully deploy performance support in both basic and sophisticated ways to improve sustained performance in the field after the learner leaves training.

7:  Increased Distribution Rates

Strategic L&D organizations get new learning initiatives and content out the door quickly, without allowing the Medical / Regulatory / Legal (MRL) process to derail their plans.  How is this possible, given that training organizations often view the MRL review as a burden at best, and an adversarial process at worst?  Strategic L&D organizations work closely and proactively with MRL personnel to stay within compliance, get impactful learning resources out, and transform the MRL review into a value-added process.

Coming Up in this Series

In this article, we simply outlined the seven characteristics of L&D organizations who’ve “escaped” today and can also look to tomorrow. Want to learn more? In subsequent articles, we’ll go into more detail for each characteristic.  We’ll outline a range of hints and tips that L&D organizations can use to become more strategic and improve results.