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Training & Learning

Doing More With Less: David James’s 4-Step Approach to Visible and Impactful L&D

With global economic uncertainty and hardship, organizations will likely be making tough decisions in 2023.

If learning and development departments are to survive and succeed, they will be challenged to achieve more with fewer resources. 

In this L&D Podcast recap (check out the full episode here), David James swaps his regular role as podcast host for a seat in the interview chair, as he talks to fellow L&D expert, Adam Harwood, about his experience of leading L&D at Disney during the post-2008 banking crisis, and shares lessons on how he rose to the challenge of achieving more with less.

Read on to hear about David’s four-step approach for creating visible L&D, how investing in vast suits of generic content isn’t the answer to doing more with less, and the importance of changing the perspective that learning and development is a perk.

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Doing more with less

As David explains, when there is a recession or an economic downturn, L&D is usually required to do what they were doing before, even a little bit more, but with fewer resources.

“In my time at Disney,” he explains, “by 2008/09, when the banking crisis hit, I remember somebody from marketing saying to me it’s usually marketing and L&D that gets cut first. And I remember thinking, this is my first role as an L&D manager, and this will be my trial by fire.”

David's experience since has proven that L&D is cut, but the expectations don’t change. Now, we’re in a similar situation— the cost of living is increasing and opportunities for organizations are reduced, but people still need to earn and live.

“L&D or an organization can't pause. That's why I think it's essential that the L&D function doesn't think about pausing or running a lighter service. We need to rethink everything we do to do more with less,” he says.

Tip #1: Retention: Look at specific areas of your organization struggling to keep good people and understand why they're leaving. Work with stakeholders to address this but don't make assumptions and develop general solutions.

Looking for more tips on how to do more with less? Download our cheat sheet: How to Defend Your L&D Budget to Your CFO for handy talking points and an email script you can use to set the stage for a great conversation.

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David’s 4-step approach for visible L&D that does more with less

After his conversation with a marketer at Disney, David felt that the crucial thing to do was to survive if there were going to be cuts during the recession. 

“I had to think that if L&D was going to be cut, and there were only two of us in the UK team, I needed us to survive so that we had jobs. And the only way we would do that was to become more impactful,” he says.

David’s strategy began with making L&D more visible to the organization.

1. Make your L&D practice visible

First, David explains that L&D can get away with spending a lot of time in conversations in the design phase and then get locked away in classrooms. 

“Even though we are busy,” he says, “and we know that we are creating or delivering something of high value, if we are in classrooms or in incubation for any amount of time, we are hidden from our organization. So, I made a conscious effort that we were going to become more visible.”

2. Engage with high-profile stakeholders

Next, David increased the number of conversations he had with influential and high-profile stakeholders about what they felt was most important. 

“Then I offered largely 90-minute workshops because we couldn't just offer the same curriculum as before,” he explains. “The existing model was based on external facilitators delivering the programs, and the cost was returned to the departments of the attendees. I felt that it would've seemed insensitive if we carried on with that model.”

Tip #2: Organizational performance. Help stakeholders to address critical points of failure in their operation. Have conversations about what people in the organization are there to do. Identify what’s not working, what’s costing the organization opportunities, and what’s costing them good people.

3. Focus on performance

Being visible and impactful aligns with David’s whole approach to learning and development: it’s about performance.

“It was about what the team was there to do and making sure that people still felt valued and developed in a time where perhaps budgets weren't as free-flowing as before,” he says.

Next up, David marketed L&D to learners and engaged external providers.

It was about what the team was there to do and making sure that people still felt valued and developed in a time where perhaps budgets weren't as free-flowing as before.

4. Lean on external providers

Finally, David and the team marketed learning and development to learners with the message; there may be less budget, but we still value you.

“I launched the Disney Learning Expo in 2009, leaning on vendors to come in and do what they're best at to bring ideas from the outside,” he says. “When it was delivered, I was told that it was a great antidote for how Disney usually does things because it could be inward-looking and think that it has all the answers within it.”

“But we had a high level of advanced technology sessions which very much brought the outside in and had the whole organization reconsider its frame of reference when it comes to product design or promotions and marketing.”

Investing in vast suites of eLearning is a big mistake, especially in tough times

In David’s experience, one big perennial mistake in L&D today will more seriously affect us in the tough times.

That is, the overinvestment in vast suites of online content that don't relate to people's jobs.

Here’s the evidence.

Generic content doesn’t meet learners’ needs

At 360Learning, as David explains, we surveyed the mismatch between what learning and development invests in and what employees actually want.

“For a long time, learning and development have said that people don't have time or don't know how to learn—all of this nonsense.”

“Our survey results revealed that two-thirds of respondents said that the most effective way they learn at work is while doing the job. And I don't mean stopping work and doing some eLearning.”

Our survey results revealed that two-thirds of respondents said that the most effective way they learn at work is while doing the job. And I don't mean stopping work and doing some eLearning.

Learning through peers is more effective

In response to our survey, another two-thirds said that the most effective way of learning is via colleagues and peers.

“If your vast suites of online learning weren't being touched before, they're not going to be touched now. It serves an educational purpose, but I think it falls a long way short of improving people's prospects,” David explains.

“If you want to convince people that they can improve their prospects in their organization in a year or two and grow during these tough times, they need to understand how they can navigate and be successful within the context of their role, their team, their department, and their organization.”

Tip #3: Link development and culture. Help employees to understand the expected rewarded behavior so more people are a good fit for internal progression. Your internal candidate should have an advantage over external candidates if they've already worked within the culture.

If you want to convince people that they can improve their prospects in their organization in a year or two and grow during these tough times, they need to understand how they can navigate and be successful within the context of their role, their team, their department, and their organization.

Change your perspective: L&D is not a perk

David has found that learning and development is positioned as a perk far too often. 

“What I mean by this is that we say we spend about a thousand dollars a year on each individual, equating to 10,000 hours of learning a year across our organization. When we talk about learning as how much money or time, we miss the actual reason that we are here, which is to help improve performance and prospects,” he says.

Employees need a partnership with their employer. They engage with learning and development to be better and faster at their job so that they can get the rewards and improve their prospects.

“A recent survey on LinkedIn said that now more than ever, people are more worried about their pay at work and their prospects than anything else,” David explains. “The cost of living crisis is really hitting people. So, if learning seems superfluous to the employee, they'll notice it, they won’t engage, and L&D can't demonstrate its impact.”

Can technology help L&D teams make a more significant impact?

In David’s experience, all technology systems are bought with the hope that they will transform the organization. 

“But after an initial spike, inevitably, L&D teams will be trying to drive traffic from employees towards a platform to justify the expenditure because they've stuffed it full of generic stuff, which employees, on the whole, don't need,” he says.

As David continues, “If L&D leaders want to make an impact with technology, we need to stop thinking that implementation as the goal is good enough. Simply branding or personalizing content and serving up the most appropriate stuff from a generic suite of content doesn’t meet learners’ needs.”

“We need to think like product managers or product owners. We need to understand the problems that we need to solve. We need to work with the people responsible for the work and then find ways of making our efforts easier as we scale them,” explains David.  

As David explains, technology should be about helping people do what they're trying to do better. They're not trying to find learning content but valuable solutions to the things they're trying to do that they need help to do easily or effectively.

“There's so much that technology could do,” he says, “but we have to think about the performance and the results, not the provision of learning–that's not a problem that needs solving. It's a perceived problem by L&D, and it becomes a bigger problem when people don't use the expensive tech,” says David.

There's so much that technology could do. But we have to think about the performance and the results, not the provision of learning–that's not a problem that needs solving. It's a perceived problem by L&D, and it becomes a bigger problem when people don't use the expensive tech.

David’s 4 tips for driving impactful L&D

Looking to the future of your L&D practice in the economic downturn, David has four tips you can start incorporating today to make an impact.

1. Plan to be highly visible: If you are not visible, you're likely invisible. Increase the number of conversations you have with influential and high-profile stakeholders about what they feel is most important.

2. Solve real problems: Solving real problems with data and evidence-based practice fundamentally differs from a learning needs analysis. It's about sitting with a stakeholder who's asked for training or seeking assistance and pushing them to the outcome of what they want to achieve.

3. Move fast to address real problems: Don't hide away trying to create and deliver long and complex programs. If you are laser-focused on solving real problems, your solutions are smaller, thinner, lighter, and more agile. You can achieve more through digital resources or workshops rather than eLearning and programs.

4. Don’t continue to do the same old thing if it’s not working: You don't have the time to hide in long designer delivery cycles. If you've got an LMS and you’ve tried to market it, and it's still not getting high levels of engagement, you need to take a look. It's nothing to do with people not having the time to learn.

“If there's one mantra through 2023, it’s: get out there and solve real problems,” says David.

Thanks to Adam for hosting this episode for us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out my conversation with Stewart Everson about the mismatch between L&D’s purpose and the expectations of L&D, how off-the-shelf content is unreliable in making a real impact, and three tips you can use if your interventions are not making a difference.

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