The L&D field is more exciting than ever, particularly with the advent of smart systems, mobile learning, big data, and greater access to content than ever before. Even predictive analytics is beginning to move beyond workforce planning, retention and recruiting to some applications in the learning arena. What is missing, however, is an improvement in how we manage our programs and departments. Our management practices have not kept pace and often have not improved at all over the last twenty years. Sadly, most masters and Ph.D. programs in organizational or human capital development do not include even a single course in management, and there is often little opportunity to learn good management practices on the job.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You would tell me that you do manage. You hire people into the department, set goals for them, and have performance reviews. You create an annual budget. You implement new systems, you roll out new courses and update existing content, and you might even track where staff spend their time. You address issues when they arise and you may have a long-term strategy. All of these activities are important and, yes, are a part of the overall management of the department. But there is a component of management that is missing in most organizations, and it is a critical component – one that has the potential to drive significant value creation. In fact, in most organizations it would drive much greater improvement than adopting a new LMS, implementing a mobile strategy, or doubling the amount of e-learning available.
What is this magical, powerful management component? It is the disciplined process of creating a plan and then executing it. Sounds simple and obvious, right? It is not, which is why very few L&D departments manage this way today. Let’s put this concept in concrete terms. It means the department head and senior department leaders need to decide what they want to do for the coming year and then create SMART goals for each item. Do you want to improve participant satisfaction or the application rate? Great, set a specific, measurable goal like a 5 percentage point increase in the application rate. Do you want to shift your mix of learning from instructor-led to online? You need to set a specific, measurable goal like increasing the percentage of online learning from 25% to 45%. Of course, you won’t accomplish these goals simply because you wrote them down on paper. You need to create action plans for each one, detailing all that will be necessary to achieve the desired improvement, including any additional staff or budget. You will need to assign someone responsibility for it and everyone will need a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities.
And that is just the start. Once the plan is complete containing all these SMART goals and the year is underway, you will need to actively manage these initiatives to ensure their success. You will need to use reports every month to see if you are on plan or not. If you are not on plan, or if the forecast shows you falling short of plan by year-end, then you need to take management action to get back on plan. So, the department head should have a dedicated (meaning the only agenda item is management of the department) one or two-hour meeting each month with her direct reports to review progress against goals and decide on actions to get back on plan. (At Caterpillar, this meeting was the second Tuesday of every month, and we always used the full two hours.)
This, then, is the essence of good management. You must spend the time upfront to craft a good plan with specific, measurable goals, and then you must execute that plan with discipline. Very few L&D departments do this today. Nearly all can tell you how many courses were delivered last year to how many participants, and they can tell what the participant satisfaction was with those courses. But very few created a business plan before the year started with SMART goals, and fewer yet produced the reports necessary to manage throughout the year. Almost none have a monthly meeting dedicated to using these reports to manage the key programs and initiatives of the department. So, conceptually, this all sounds pretty straightforward, and colleagues in other departments would assume L&D already operates this way. After all, many of them do and have done so for a long time. (Can you imagine a sales department with no SMART goals and no monthly meetings to compare progress to those goals?) We need to adopt the same disciplined approach to management. It will result in our achieving significantly more than the alternative management approach which is basically that everyone will work hard and we will achieve whatever we achieve. Given the current state of management in L&D, I am convinced that the discipline of creating a good plan and then executing it will deliver far greater value in most organizations than any other single change, program or initiative.