What is the role of the Learning Professional?

Man Scratching HeadWhat is the primary role of the learning professional in an organisation today?

  • Is it to organise and manage what people learn?
    • by designing, creating and delivering content (training/instruction/courses/resources)
    • then tracking that people use it, and
    • measuring success in terms of learning activity metrics (e.g. page accesses, quiz tests, course completions)
  • Or is it to enable and support how people learn best?
    • by understanding where individuals have the most valuable learning experiences (other than top-down, organised/managed instruction)
    • then enhancing and supporting these other self-organised and self-managed approaches (e.g. as a part of work team collaboration, or independent professional learning and development), and
    • helping them to measure success in terms of performance metrics (ie how it is helping them to do their job or do it better)

Many might say that both of these are important in today’s workplace, in which case the question is how much of the role should be about organising and managing what people learn compared to enabling and supporting how people learn?


51 thoughts on “What is the role of the Learning Professional?

  1. David Hopkins (@hopkinsdavid)

    Hi Jane.

    Thanks for this … more food for thought for me as I try and answer the question of ‘what is a learning technologist’. I know we come at the same question from different ‘angles’ (higher education – workplace) but there are similarities we can’t and shouldn’t ignore.

    As for the ‘primary’ role … a nice ‘split’ is needed between being able to “organise and manage WHAT people learn” and “enable and support HOW people learn”. I think it’s as much one as the other, depending on the requirement at the time and the need for TEL support. If your team has a clear strength in one area then it may need development to balance itself and ‘learn’ some skills in the other?

    All the best, David

    1. Jane Hart

      Thanks David. For me the term “Learning Technologist” is firmly associated with the first activity – creating, delivering and managing what people learn, so I can see your dilemma. Since supporting team learning takes place in the flow of work, that term doesn’t work so well there, as the focus is more on the collaboration than the learning per se – maybe Collaboration Technologist is a new role (or aspect of a role), alongside the Collaboration Advisor. But in your work in HE, that is probably not a concern.

    1. Jane Hart

      Instruction is a defined way of learning the “what:, ie you are telling people what content to learn. Supporting the “how” is building on the other ways people learn in the workplace – which is not just through training. See Learning in the Workplace survey. http://c4lpt.co.uk/litw/

  2. RUTD (@Really_Useful)

    Jane, I think the context is the most important influence on the Learning professional. Many organisations see the value in allocating time and resources to the supporting and enabling of learning. Many still see the learning as being delivered and received.
    My biggest struggle is with the learners who are conditioned to be passive learners. it is changing but slowly.

    I recently went back to HE lecturing and when I asked the students what resources they sued they all chose books as their preferred way to learn. Don’t get me wrong, I love books but I thought they would also use some other collaborative methods.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      I think things are changing in the workplace, if the results of the Learning in the Workplace survey are anything to go by. With over 600 responses, 2/3 say they find corporate training/e-learning of no or little value http://c4lpt.co.uk/litw/

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    1. Jane Hart Post author

      It should always be about performance, of course. But it has to be said too many focus on the learning outcomes. I’ve heard of instructional designers who say that performance improvement isn’t important to them – the design of their course is their priority. Something’s wrong in that view, surely.

  4. Martin Couzins (@martincouzins)

    Great post, Jane. L&D’s number one mission: To understand how adults learn and then use that knowledge and expertise to support them. By having a deep understanding of how adults learn L&D pros will be able to challenge embedded organisational ‘wisdom’ around the best ways of ‘telling’ employees what they need to know!

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Thanks Martin – and not just “adults” in general, helping individuals achieve their potential too, but understanding their specific learning/performance needs and helping them identify the best – ie most appropriate ways – of addressing them. Of course most large orgs will say they dont have time to do this, but no longer does a one-size-fits all approach meet everyone’s needs, as the results of the Learning in the Workplace survey is showing.

  5. Michael McGuire, D.Sc.

    I completely agree with your assessment. I would add one additional piece to the puzzle: the learning professional also has to educate the organization. Based on my experiences, leaders, even at the highest levels in the organization, often don’t understand the role of the learning professional and don’t know how to leverage learning as a strategic advantage.

    Unfortunately, organizational leaders often see learning as (1) a necessary evil (compliance training for example), (2) a nice-to-have (i.e. leadership development), or (3) a reactionary tool to be used only when skill/behavior gaps are identified. It’s up to the learning professional to teach the organization how to best leverage learning, and to show how a truly effective learning function can not only educate people and maximize performance, but can also be a true differentiator.

    Thank you for posing the question.

    1. Michelle Ockers

      Michael – yes, agree completely that learning professionals need to educate their organisation about the business value of seeing their role more broadly – that it’s about creating effective learning environments to support people learning in whatever way is most effective. I think we need to be opportunistic about how we do this and who we can collaborate with to achieve this.

  6. Andrew Jacobs (@AndrewJacobsLD)

    Great question Jane.

    I think the response will depend on who’s answering. For many organisations, if you asked their business management what the primary role of their learning professional is, you’d get a lot of the management and organisation type response. Does this means they don’t know better? Possibly. Is it an expectation that their learning professional should challenge it? Not at all; ultimately he who pays the piper calls the tune and learning professionals would be tempted to maintain a provision offer since it keeps people busy and justifies the L&D existence with data. Enlightened business management realises that L&D isn’t a provision service and seeks out learning professionals to enable and support.

    My approach is wholly enabling and supporting and this is a challenge for some business management. We’re expecting business management to be involved more in their people’s development and, for some managers, that’s scary. It’s easier to farm out an under performer to a learning course than to manage the performance.

  7. mark oehlert

    Hi Jane,

    As always, this got me thinking and in particular thinking about what we call things again. What do you think the difference would be (if any) between a “Learning Professional” and a “Performance Professional”?

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Hi Mark – well for me a Learning Professional focuses on the learning (either organising and managing how they learn or enabling and supporting other self-organised approaches to learning), whilst a Performance Professional focuses on helping individuals and teams do their jobs or do them better – which might or might not involve helping them learn. The role of Performance Consultant is to help identify different solutions to a performance problem – which again may not involve training or self-organised learning. What’s your view?

      1. mark oehlert

        Jane – I think I’m coming down on the side of “Performance Professional” for one reason – it’s feels more concrete. I had a little exchange on Twitter with Ed Monk and he said that they just changed one award they give out from “Trainer of the Year” to “Learning Professional of the Year”…I jokingly said that I hoped the award then went to someone who designed great learning opportunities and not someone who was a great learner…possibly a bad joke but to me it does point to a squishiness in the language. What is your output? Is the output learning? I don’t think so…I think if we could produce “learning” – well the world would be a MUCH different place 🙂 I REALLY like Architect – not because I want to appropriate another profession’s term as some attempt to garner respectability but because I think what a lot of us would really like to think we do is build spaces for learning. So I could go with Learning Architect or Performance Architect. I do think though that the language is important though and thanks for spinning up a great conversation on it.

  8. Andrew Gerkens

    Thanks for this Jane. I believe the ‘primary’ focus should be on the latter. If most learning happens in the workplace (through the experiences we have and the people we engage with) then our primary effort as learning professionals should be on enabling and supporting workplace learning. The fundamental challenge here is that although L&D can manage the training calendar and the LMS, they don’t manage the workplace – people managers do! The idea of enabling and supporting workplace learning is a big step change for the function. Many either don’t want to change, aren’t capable or are stuck thinking that if they can’t manage it directly, then it can’t be supported or measured.

    Although the traditional role is still relevant, learning strategy, capabilities and resourcing effort should very much focus on workplace learning. 70:20:10 tells me that my budget/resourcing effort should be biased towards the informal/workplace. My guess is that most people still budget and resource for the ’10’, leaving the rest to chance.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Thanks Andrew – you’ve hit the nail on the head. I held off mentioning the 70:20:10 framework but of course it is very valid here and as you point out it is only the 10% that is covered in organising/managing what people learn. And you also succinctly identify rightly all the issues that stop a move into supporting the 90%. As Charles Jennings says about the 70:20:10 model – it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the change. And that’s the really hard part for many in L&D.

    2. mark oehlert

      Andrew – great post/comment. As I read it, I started thinking about what I think is a critical point you made – that learning professionals don’t manage the workplace. Maybe we/they should. Maybe part of the career progression of a learning professional needs to be moving out of the learning department. Maybe if we want to really build broad-based support for something like informal learning opportunities, then we need more people “out there” in the org who understand how to do that. I know we can grow some people from functional roles to more strategic ones but if you’re looking for senior leadership positions in the org that are based in the learning dept..those seem pretty scarce. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the CFO was a former member of the learning dept who say really grokked 70:20:10?

      1. Andrew Gerkens

        Thanks for your feedback Mark. I’d not thought so much about job rotations, secondments etc, but there must be opportunities through our talent management strategies to put this into practice. I can see how it would influence the culture, particularly over time as these learning leaders/advocates move into senior levels of the organisation. Another opportunity here might be to use Learning Governance structures as a means of gaining buy in and leadership/sponsorship support from operational managers/stakeholders – a sneaky, but important way to get them leading learning as part of their role.

        I’ve tended to focus on how we can make ‘developing others’ a core part of every people manager’s role (skills, accountability, incentives/pressures) and the role of L&D in building, enabling and supporting this develop others ‘capability’ in practice. I see L&D as a business partner or performance consultant, using their approach to actively engage, partner and support holistic performance based solutions. L&D’s role shifts to doing some of the work for and some of the work with their ‘customers’, but very much setting them up to do and contextualise the front line work (workplace learning) themselves. I think this is the key to impacting a critical mass (rather than a limited few), creating genuine value for the organisation and truly enabling people managers to develop, engage and retain their people.

        I love the idea of a CFO who understandsthe strategic value and leads a 70:20:10 based strategy/learning culture, rather than simply seeing it as a cost/head saving initiative!

  9. Bill James-Wallace

    The focus on performance is important. I’ve always been pretty comfortable writing my objectives as learning outcomes. The usual “At the end of this session, participants will be able to:”
    But now with the focus on performance I am looking to rewrite what we have as performance based, which is an interesting exercise and not just a simple replacement of words. It also might suggets some modules are not training/learning at all. And, perhaps others are completely superfluous!

  10. Rachel Burnham (@BurnhamLandD)

    This is a really interesting discussion about where we need to be as L&D professionals. I think there are big differences for many L&D professionals between what is the role of the Learning Professional and what the role should be or could be. Many organisations are still a long way from recognising the value of any focused L&D, whilst others are leaping ahead.
    The challenge for many L&D professionals is having the confidence to challenge their organisation about what the role is and finding ways that are effective within their own situation to begin demonstrating new ways of working.

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Thanks Rachel. Well put! “The challenge for many L&D professionals is having the confidence to challenge their organisation about what the role is and finding ways that are effective within their own situation to begin demonstrating new ways of working.” Incidentally, 68% of HR/L&D folk who responded to the Learning in the Workplace survey considered that company training/e-learning was of little or no value to them. These are probably the people who are leading the way.

  11. Dennis Callahan (@denniscallahan)

    As you mention, I think it’s both but the primary role is it to enable and support how people learn best (help facilitate learning). The amount of time you spend in either area depends on many factors, here’s a few:

    • What’s your role (Learning – professional, technologist, architect, etc.)?
    • What type of organization do you work for (e.g., Large, small, in a regulated industry, etc.)?
    • Are you part of a larger L&D group or a small group?
    • Where is your organization on the learning maturity scale (it takes time to move from organizing/managing to enabling/supporting – both the L&D team and the organization itself).
    • How does senior leadership view learning and what is the relationship between L&D and leadership?

    There has been a big shift to the enabling role which has helped L&D’s creditability (i.e., helping people where they learn rather than taking people out of their “work” to complete a learning event). The enabling role will only become bigger in the future.

  12. CB Learning

    Employees’ time is stretched to the maximum in today’s workplaces and finding time to devote to ‘classroom-style’ training can be difficult as well as costly. Web-based learning provides a cheaper, more flexible training solution that also enables employees to train at their desktops, working at their own pace wherever and whenever they want. Does this address the issue?

    1. Jane Hart Post author

      Not really – although it reduces costs, if it is just a conversion from class-room training in a page-turning style, it provides little extra value. The value comes in helping people learn continuously as they carry out their daily work. My next post is on the 5 characteristics of the way that knowledge workers like to learn.

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