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.

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