“Business success doesn't happen by accident,” says Scott Blanchard, president of The Ken Blanchard Companies. “It happens when there's a clear strategic direction combined with strong operational leadership that brings that strategy to life.
“No group understands this better than Learning & Development professionals,” says Blanchard.
“More than 1,000 L&D professionals who participated in our just-released 2021 HR / L&D Trends Survey identified teambuilding/collaboration, coaching, leading teams, and communication as top priorities—followed by leading virtually, change management, and employee engagement.
“This is what good leadership looks like within the context of an organisation. It creates value, purpose, and motivation by connecting what’s being done on a daily basis to the things that really matter inside the organisation.”
Blanchard points to research conducted by his firm regarding the impact of good operational leadership.
“One thing we learned from our Leadership-Profit Chain research is that strong leadership makes all the difference. Business units that are crushing it will always have a leader who is crushing it. In just about every measure of engagement, productivity, and happiness, you're going to find correlation with great leadership.”
Training leaders was a challenge in 2020, with COVID-19 disrupting everyone’s plans. The virus is still a source of concern heading into 2021, says Blanchard. “Fully one-third of the 1,000 L&D professionals who participated in our 2021 survey have concerns about delivering against expectations in the coming year. The biggest challenges cited were capacity/human resource constraints (34%) and inadequate proficiency in eLearning/digital tools (32%). Design skills and technical fluency with existing architecture rounded out the top four concerns.”
A big part of the 2021 strategy, says Blanchard, is recognising that the first generation of digital and virtual designs rolled out by L&D in 2020 need to be improved for the coming year.
“A lot of face-to-face training was quickly converted to virtual training, with mixed results,” explains Blanchard. “Around 51% of respondents felt that their new digital/virtual offerings were somewhat or much less effective than the face-to-face designs they were replacing.”
In looking at ways to improve their digital and virtual designs, Blanchard says respondents identified learner engagement, social interaction, and more learning touch points as the three top areas for improvement. To address this, The Ken Blanchard Companies has done a lot of work creating next generation learning journeys.
“Our solution architects are designing next generation learning experiences that unfold over time. This enables us to run the experience parallel to the way people are developing in their role. Instead of converting a two-day face-to-face class into a two-day virtual class, we break the design into smaller chunks delivered over six weeks up to three months, where people are doing a little bit of work every week. Participants learn new concepts and collaborate with peers along the way. The concepts build upon each other and move from the inside to the outside—from mindset to skillset into habits and disciplines.”
Blanchard explains that today’s learning experience platforms have made it much easier to spread learning out over time—and to make training more interactive and collaborative.
“I participated in our six-week Self Leadership Collaborative Online course last April. The experience was social, engaging, interactive—and fun! These new learning experience platforms enable us to curate, create, and contextualise these journeys.”
For L&D professionals looking to improve on their own first generation designs, Blanchard has some advice.
“First, don’t skimp on setting context. If you don't take care of the beginning, you're going to be in trouble later on. One of the biggest challenges L&D respondents reported in our survey was a lack of resources to hold people accountable after training. That starts with setting context up front.
“You have to set the hook by setting the context. When you start out by getting people interested and excited in what they're learning, it creates a pull that makes them want to participate in the entire experience.
“Next, avoid trying to do too much, too fast. With a six- or eight-week design, it's really important to build momentum. Don’t feel like you have to get all the information in there right away.
“Too much content, too soon never works as well as giving people an opportunity to learn a new idea, discuss it and collaborate with others, and then practice it in a safe environment. It also can be valuable to give people a chance to apply the idea to real-life situations before layering on the next idea."
Don’t Be Afraid to Measure Impact
Blanchard also recommends stepping boldly into measurement.
“When budgets are tight, senior leaders want to know that money allocated for leadership development is being well spent. Sometimes L&D professionals overshoot in terms of the information they're trying to get. What executives really want is evidence that participants are learning important skills and mindsets and applying them to the job to create real, tangible value.
“We know from our more exhaustive ROI studies that leadership development always generates at least a 5-to-1 return on investment. But that isn’t always necessary—especially when time and resources are an issue. In these instances, a more simplified Success Case Method can fill the gap. This is a measurement process we first learned from Rob Brinkerhoff—it is detailed in his book Telling Training’s Story.
“We used this process recently for an initiative we've been rolling out inside our own company, and it's very simple. The key is to wait 45 to 60 days after people participate in the program and ask them these three questions:
To what degree did you learn something valuable during the educational or learning experience?
To what degree did you apply the valuable insight you gained against real or critical business issues or relationships?
Overall, how would you rate the impact the training had on your ability to produce positive results while working with people?
“After you get the responses, you conduct 20- to 30-minute interviews with the top four or five people (the ones who got the most value), and with the lowest two or three people (the ones who got the least value). Ask them about their experiences, what they learned, and how they applied it back on the job.
“Use this information to tell a compare-and-contrast story about the impact of the training and the differences between the two groups. It makes a compelling case when money and time are tight.
“You can find tremendous value from these stories that you can share with senior leaders to make your case.”
As we head into 2021, Blanchard offers encouragement across the HR / L&D function.
“The successful integration of proven content delivered on engaging learning technologies is the key to unlocking the potential of people. There has never been a more demanding time to be in L&D—but this is also a time of great opportunity for those who are ready to step into a new future.
“We learned a lot in 2020. It’s time to boldly and optimistically look ahead to 2021!”
About the author:
David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.