The manager's role in learning transfer

Posted by Robin Petterd on 18 February 2017

An interview with Shaun Sheldrake from Growability about the manager's role in learning transfer.

Subscribe using your favourite podcast player

Listen to Stitcher

Links from the podcast

Transcript

Robin:
Today I'm talking with Shaun from Growability, who's based Wellington in New Zealand.

I wasn't planning it, but we're ending up with a bit of theme in these early podcasts around learning transfer, and Shaun's specific interest is around learning transfer and line managers' and people managers' involvement in that. Shaun, to get us started, I'm going to actually ask a really big-picture question. What do you think are the biggest challenges that learning and development is facing at the moment?

Shaun:
Thanks, Robin. I guess 'relevance' is the word that springs to mind. There's so much coming at the workforce and at businesses and organisations from an information and a change perspective. Obviously people have access to information in a way that they have never had before, and the pace of disruptive technology, and the change that we're seeing in everything from core government agencies across to the very entrepreneurial kind of private sector. Everybody is facing that real change. I guess for an L&D function to stay relevant in the middle of that and to really deliver value into any interactions they have with people from the top table, where they're looking for sign-off or a mandate to do things down to the integrating back into the way people work, I think that word 'relevance' is the thing that springs to mind for me.

Robin:
It's a fairly constant theme. Why do you think we, L&D, struggles with this relevance thing? Is it because we're not listening to the business or not listening to our learners?

Shaun:
There are some L&D professionals that we work with who have this nailed, and then we see others do struggle. The ones who've really got it I think are the ones who are able to think ahead, not specifically from a learner perspective or from a learning technology or what might make a great learning experience perspective, but really from a fairly strategic business point of view, and to be able to look at where their organisation is going and the challenges that their organisation is going to face. They're able to then translate that into, "Okay, what's that going to mean from a learning perspective?"

When they go to that leadership team, that strategic board, or whomever they're reporting into or seeking that mandate from, they're leading that conversation with very much a business context and not in a reactionary way at all, but they're able to show those types of insight into where the organisation is heading, and what's that going to mean from a people perspective. Therefore the challenges that would be created or how they're going to support the people within the business to be right skilled at the right time and sometimes even I guess working with those tools providers in terms of the tools that would be needed to get people there at that time. It's that forward and strategic thinking, being able to translate that back into what would we do about that today to get people moving, are those that I'm seeing successful.

Robin:
It's a really interesting area. In Australia at the moment there's a real move to talking about capability development rather than learning and development. I think one of the things you're also talking about is the fact that to get that sort of future, the traditional tools, things like needs analysis just don't work. They actually need a really different type of thinking about where things are going rather than asking, "What's the problem?" It's a really different sort of shift of things.

Shaun:
I think by the time problems are identified now, the horse has already bolted. The pace at which things are moving has shifted the landscape from an L&D perspective where if you think back 15 years to a training department where the business would come and say, "Hey, we're about to do this, and can you help us build some training to meet this need?" The training department turns around and creates something and then deploys it. There was time to do that, but in the current market we're in now, L&D needs to maintain its place, needs to flip and become very much a proactive kind of puller within the business as opposed to a reactive pusher of content.

Robin:
When it's actually coming to the actual thinking through it program, what do you think some of the things that can really happen to really change that relevance and make learning stick more and help to make that future vision happen?

Shaun:
I guess obviously having a clear picture in mind is I think the start point. I'm a big fan of Zenger Folkman. They published a paper some years back now, a formula to make learning and development stick. I really like the way they looked at this and said, "Well, for successful implementation there needs to be—it's motivation times follow-up times accountability times visibility." I'm not sure if I got the order quite right, but there are all multiplication signs in between, so it doesn't matter.

What that says to me is that it's engineering in the entire learning, and the transfer, and the how it's going to be used on the job, and the impact that it's going to have on the job and for those around the individuals who are being trained, or who are being upskilled and whatever. All of that is designed, and not just designed but kind of actually engineered into business as usual process so that those four elements that Zenger Folkman talk about are all nailed. Then we can get something that delivers on the end goal.

Robin:
That's a really nice, elegant formula for summarising a whole lot of things.

Shaun:
The thing that really resonates for me there is that obviously they speak out. I had the white paper sitting on my kitchen bench at home. My youngest who was back then, I think he was just turned five and had just started at school, he picked it up and looked at it, and it obviously reminded him of his math lesson earlier that day, and said, "Hey, Dad, did you know that zero times anything is zero?" and I thought, "Yeah, I'm familiar with that, but I'm thrilled that you know it too." That's one of the things I said I love about that particular formula is obviously if any one of those elements is missed, you erode or you dissipate the value of everything else that you've done.

That's why I think if you think about that from engineer everything in and tie it into business as usual, then all of those elements exist and you get the end outcome you're looking for. It's more than just create the learning experience.

Robin:
That's actually really interesting, Shaun, because I was just about to ask you the question of, what element do you think is the most important to try to stress one? Then you actually answered with this really nice—you talked about the fact that it's actually not one element. I think that's one of the things where we're in a spot where learning and development I think quite often is a wicked problem, and it does involve a multi-front approach to things.

Previously we talked a little bit about the fact that you're really interested in the manager's role, in a line manager's role in that sort of approach. How does some of that formula work with the manager's role in terms of learning programs?

Shaun:
I guess maybe if we just unpack that formula a little, so it starts with "I" for implementation, motivation times visibility times accountability, and the last is follow-up. If you look and say there's four elements there, and three of those four—and I'm picking on visibility, accountability, and follow-up—it would be fair to suggest that a manager of an individual has a role to play in three of those, in those three.

The accountability piece—obviously there's that old saying, "What gets measured gets done." If there's some agreement there between the learner and their manager as to what's going to come out of this learning experience or what they're going to be able to do differently on the job as a result of this learning experience, we've got an accountability piece there. The learner is working toward a target, and they understand what that target is and the impact that's going to have for them.

The follow-up piece, I think there's this critical time, and it's at that first interaction between one-up manager and their team member, immediately after that learning experience. If we go back to that age-old example of: you go off on a training course and you come back, if we take that, it might be that somebody was off on a project for half a day, or they're on a secondment somewhere. It could be any form of development, but that moment when they first come back, if the first thing that is talked about between them is whatever this learning or development experience was, there's this magical moment where, "Hey, my manager really does—they are really invested in this, and they're asking me about it, and so they care about it," which has a nice, positive flow on into motivation as well.

But if at that point in time the manager's first thought is, "Ah, great. Robin, you're back. While you were away A, B, and C happened, so could you really just focus in on those right now? By the way, we'll catch up about that training stuff later." If the focus is on BAU, then the individual goes back to BAU. Then the visibility piece is obviously that sharing. What are we going to see as an individual and as a team with you making the shift? Who else is going to notice? How is it actually going to play out in what you do? My view: in three quarters of those elements that drive successful implementation, the manager has a role to play.

Robin:
It's sort of interesting because you hinted at it a little bit. I also think there's a role to play around the motivation piece as well for the manager to understand and make sure the training experience aligns to the team member’s motivations to start with as well. That's interesting.

Shaun:
Without a doubt. I guess we come back to the setup. If we were talking about it from an L&D perspective, engineering everything into BAU and into the overall experience of shifting the skill base or the behavioural set—whatever it is we're looking to change—that we've got all of these elements embedded in that. If you go back and look at what's the sign up or commitment process for that particular learner engaging in that particular piece of learning? How is their manager embedded in that process?

There's an opportunity there where both the manager and the learner are looking for something and wanting to commit to something, that there's an opportunity to expect a bit more of a manager and get them to be committing to something that's a little more than simply, "I'll sign off on you going on that," sort of, "My job on this is done," but there's an education piece there to be done with managers.

Robin:
The reality in our modern organisations, the line manager role no matter what level that they're at, it's a difficult role. It has got so many conflicting priorities. It's one of those things that essentially they always quite often get criticised as well for not being good enough and not actually having the skills or knowledge to be able to do this sort of learning piece and be able to help their team members with learning.

What's your take on what actually is that problem there? Why doesn't the sort of clicking happen?

Shaun:
The list here is quite long. There are many, many reasons I think why we don't have that line manager role fully embedded. If we started looking at this by looking at where did these line managers come from, and particularly in New Zealand, but we understand this is the case across large parts of the Western world, line managers are often promoted up from technical roles. If you think back to when they were last in a technical role, did they ever have any of this coaching and supporting a learner through the journey of applying learning. Did they have any of that modeled from their managers as they came through the ranks? The answer was typically no, they didn't.

Then when we looked at the development pathway, 20 years ago people would have been sent on a Management 101 and done some fundamentals there, but these days there's obviously much more. There's been a stronger flavour in the last 10 years on leadership. Where the management training was very processed, the leadership training is often quite self-reflective: "Who am I going to be as a leader? How do I engender followship?" and the likes.

The gap that we identify between both the management side—the management focus and the leadership focus is how do I grow capability in others? We recognise that there is a specific knowledge gap there. Then when you compound that by looking at their role, and as you said, they've got plenty to do. They've got lots of conflict that they're juggling all the time from a time point of view. We've adopted this philosophy of it's a competition. We are competing for their attention, a little bit of mind share to get them engaged in this process and understanding the role that they have to play and the impact of them doing even just a few small things really well, that has a massive flow on effect in terms of how successful learning intervention can be.

When I say ‘successful’—talking about the impact that that has and the value driven out of that—and we look at that in three layers, for the individual, the team they're a part of and the wider organisation.

Robin:
That's a really interesting frame to put it into, that sort of competition that acknowledges all those constraints as well, also the fact that there might just be a few small things that people can do and change that actually get huge results. You don't have to be a super human at doing the capability development thing, but if you can just do a few small things, that's valuable. What do you think are some of those small things that managers can start to try to do to help their team members learn more?

Shaun:
At its heart it's choosing to be a part of the journey, choosing to get on board and play a role. The reality is I think most, well actually every line manager I've ever come across and interviewed or worked with about this agrees that there is more that comes into their day every single day than they have the time or headspace to be able to deal with. Every day they're making choices about what things are going to get left until tomorrow, get pushed aside, get delegated, and which things they are going to do.

As L&D, capability, OD, or HR professionals, we've got to make it easy for them to engage, but the first thing is getting them to I guess make that choice to engage. Once they're engaged, then really what we need them to do is to simply ask questions. If they're asking questions, and principally of their team member, about the learning and the connection between the learning and the job, we’re away. Once that dialogue is opened up and if the dialogue can be question-based, it puts the onus back onto the learner to do that, "How is it going to have an impact for me?" It sounds small, but obviously it's quite a shift. There's a bit of, I guess a relationship dynamic that we often see at play that we need to break down to help make that happen.

Robin:
To track back a little bit, you made the comment that quite often people that are in a management role haven't had these own experiences from their own line managers when they were team members as well, and that might be one of the barriers as well. It's possibly also the shifting set of dynamics because essentially, especially in technical environments, quite often a manager is meant to be the technical expert, and when someone comes to question them and to know, it's almost a sense of actually flipping this back onto questions and processes, quite often a very challenging power dynamic as well.

Shaun:
It is, and exactly as you said. What we're dealing with is where people—particularly in technical roles, but this has infiltrated across organisations—as people get promoted through, you have this fundamental underpinning of the relationship, which is expert and subordinate. Where we're seeing the biggest challenges that we're overcoming and we're thrilled to be overcoming them, but the biggest challenges are in these technical areas where you've got to get the manager to accept that if the development experience isn't something that they've had, that they can still engage here. Actually their team member is the one who's growing their knowledge or becoming the expert, and whatever it is they're developing about, and it's okay to ask them questions. As you point out, that is a flipping of the way that the foundation of the relationship is developed.

Robin:
Quite a different thing. What do you think L&D can do to help to try to change some of those approaches? Is it simply about giving people questions that they can ask the team members?

Shaun:
That's one of the things that we do, that we've found does work really well. At its core, it's having L&D go and stand in managers' shoes. For years as a profession, we've talked about when you go put yourself in the learner's shoes to understand and to help craft the best learning experience. I guess we could take that practice and that set of skills in terms of "Hey, this is one of the things that happens from a design point of view."

If we can then add to that, so not just designing a learning experience here. Now what we're designing is that all-encompassing, engineered solution. We've now gotten an additional audience that we need to bring into this overall experience if we want to see the learning transfer and really get the impact out of it that we'd hoped for. The opportunity there is to take that, putting yourself in the shoes of others, but in this case put yourself in the shoes of one-up managers or line managers and go and interview them. Go and test some ideas, some tools, and some, "Hey, if I was going to give you this to help with your learner who's going through course X, would this make a difference? What do you like about it? What don't you like about it?" Recognising that they are an audience and not just trusting or saying, "Oh, if I just send some comms, I've engaged that audience."

Actually no. You haven't engaged that audience at all—all you've done is sent them some more stuff. If you really think about their role, they get sent lots of stuff every day, so just sending them some comms isn't going to win you the race.

I talked about the competition. We're competing for that manager's time, that manager's headspace. We've got to makes sure that whatever we produce is better, slicker, faster, easier, makes more of a difference to them than all of the other stuff that's coming across their desk. That way we get them engaged. Once we've got them engaged, we'll get them to ask some questions. Once that's happening we've gone over that biggest hurdle.

Robin:
This is possibly my last question, which when we talked before, you talked about a really interesting way you work with training organisations and client organisations. You're not content experts. You're helping with the learning process, and we actually do have quite a growing number of training organisations that come to us, doing a whole, "Our clients are wanting a 70/20/10 learning model. Where do we start?" It's a different problem working directly with our client around content issues.

Shaun:
Our business model, if you like, wouldn't exist if there wasn't some training at the core of it. Our customer base is split between working directly with corporates who maybe have their own L&D function internally, and they're designing and creating something. Or they might have brought in another training provider or a content creator to build something. We're hearing all sorts of different names given to this, but one organisation we do a lot of work with, a key part of their L&D strategy is making sure everything is sticky.

We talk learning transfer. They talk stickiness. We're brought in to sit alongside the content creator and to essentially engineer the sticky component of it and create the experience for the one-up managers. We tend to work quite often in a triangular sense there with ourselves, the customer end, and the content creator. We find that's been working really well. The other space we do quite a bit of work in is with training providers who look into differentiate themselves in their market, whether that's some fundamental kind of management skills, some resilience skills, or some coaching skills.

I'm just thinking about some of the partners we've worked with where they are out in the market selling their programs, but over the last few years they've looked and worked out that they're getting asked questions by their end customers about, "What do you do that's innovative?" or, "What do you do that makes your program stand out?" or, "How are you going to ensure that your program delivers value for us?"

So they've come to us, and we've helped to essentially create a set of one-up manager engagement process resources and tools that wrap around their existing program. If they then go to their customers, they're able to say, "Here's how what we do," that differentiates from what their competitors do. What we do sits around a learning experience, but at the core there needs to be a learning or a change experience that's going to happen in order to say, "How can we change the way that's rolled out or embedded into the organisation so it really delivers that value that the business case promised it would deliver at the outset?"

Robin:
I feel it's a nice way to finish up, Shaun. That was a really interesting conversation. If people are looking for more information about learning transfer and what you guys do, where's a good place to start?

Shaun:
I guess our website would be the first place, growability.co.nz. We're a chatty bunch and very happy to talk to anybody about ideas and the like. We're freely available on phone, Skype, or whatever. The website has got all our contact details on it.

Robin:
Thank you very much for joining me today.

Shaun:
Absolute pleasure. Thanks for your time, Robin.


comments powered by Disqus