The most important role of L&D professionals is to coach managers in facilitating learning in organizations. This is their future. The days of instructor-centered employee learning are over. The rapid pace of change, technology (automation, robots, AI, AR, etc.), globalization, workforce diversity, hyper-competition, and demands of a new generation of workers make continuous learning the core activity of organizations today. Companies can no longer depend on L&D departments (and serendipity) to meet the evolving learning needs of employees.
The common approach to involving managers in talent development has been to do one or more of the following: ask managers to identify the training needs of their employees; invite executives to welcome trainees at the start of a training program; send emails to managers that summarize the content of training events that their direct reports will be attending; offer short, condensed versions of training programs to managers so that they know what employees will be experiencing. Each of these actions can be helpful in engaging managers in training but they do little to ensure that learning is applied and that learning leads to results.
We argue in our new book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy, that the role of managers needs to change fundamentally. Managers need to change from managing hands (i.e., commanding people to produce products and deliver services in a specified way) to managing minds (i.e., supporting people in their development as effective members of teams and organizations). In the Knowledge Economy, people need to learn continuously and it is the manager’s job to help them learn in whatever way fits them best. We write:
As a manager in the knowledge economy, focused on managing minds, you are responsible for helping employees learn to continuously improve their performance, the performance of their teams, and the entire organization. The ability to learn is a talent, and like any talent, practice leads to improvement. In a business environment where disruption and surprises are the rule, and innovation and rapid decision making the norm, learning becomes an essential competency.
This has been a rare role for managers and will require most to develop new competencies. First and foremost managers should have a “growth mindset”. Carol Dweck defines a growth mindset as a belief “…that talent can be developed…” Not every manager holds this belief but without it, looking smart and avoiding risks become more important than learning.
In addition to having this mindset, managers must be able to implement five key elements of learning. We call these elements the "5As Framework". All of these elements must be present to ensure that people learn and apply that learning to achieve positive results for the organization. The 5As are:
- Alignment. Employees can clearly see how their learning will result in achieving individual, team, and whole organization goals. They have a clear line of sight from the knowledge and skills they are learning to the intended results. For example, the link between the content of a leadership program and the strategic business goals of a company are understandable and appreciated by participants in that program.
- Anticipation. This is managers and their direct reports anticipating learning and success from participation in a particular learning solution. The expectations that managers (and senior leadership) have for an employee are made clear to that individual and progress is monitored over time for the purpose of successful development of that employee.
- Alliance. A learning alliance is formed between employee and manager. This relationship is dedicated to the employee developing his or her knowledge and skills. The relationship consists of frequent conversations about learning, giving the employee immediate and helpful feedback, deciding together the priorities for what is to be learned and how it will be learned.
- Application. Managers need to ensure that employees have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in a timely manner. This will delay forgetting and reinforce the new competencies. Depending on the content, application might need to occur within 24 to 48 hours after a learning intervention.
- Accountability. Demonstrating or providing evidence that learning has taken place and the employee is able to apply new knowledge and skills to achieve business results. This is for the purpose of reinforcing learning and providing additional feedback for continuous improvement. Being accountable is not for the purpose of finding fault with an employee. The focus is always on maximizing learning and growth.
Many organizations have made this shift in management already. Anyone who manages people in these enlightened organizations (i.e., is responsible for the performance of others) is expected to help people learn and grow into successful contributors to the performance of the business. This is the managing-minds approach, essential to success in the Knowledge Economy.
We can’t expect managers, especially those that have been educated in traditional MBA programs, to have the commitment and ability to develop the people around them. These managers will need the on-going assistance of L&D professionals. The emerging role of L&D professionals will be to coach managers, be advocates for learning, and guide executives in creating and sustaining a learning culture in their organizations.