Training & Learning

Lively and Disagreeable: A Debate on L&D Strategies With Nick Shackleton-Jones and Guy Wallace

Have you ever wanted to hear learning experts with different views respectfully explore ways in which they disagree?

The time is nigh!

In this week's L&D Podcast, L&D titans Nick Shackleton-Jones and Guy Wallace share their strategies. They are interviewed by Gabrielle Bayme, Chief Learning Officer at the New York City Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, as they discuss their approaches to performance consulting.

Read on to hear how they recommend balancing performance-focused learning and development with networking-for-fun events, creating your perception and brand of L&D while meeting business needs, and how L&D should be tackling the skills crisis.

So, how did we get Nick and Guy to parley on performance-based learning and development?

Origins of lively and disagreeable

Today’s discussion all started with a lively debate on a LinkedIn thread a few months back.

To start, Guy said that some might feel it to be a misuse of L&D talent to be engaged in creating some fun event for networking purposes in casual information and knowledge exchanges, which could lead to a general perspective that L&D is all fun and games and not about improvement. 

Then Nick replied, “Well, which is better? An exciting networking event that improves retention, engagement, and performance, or a classroom event that ticks the learning objective box but achieves no measurable improvement.”

And so, here we are.


Impactful, demonstrable L&D in 4 simple steps

Balancing performance learning and networking-for-fun

So first off, how do you balance performance-focused learning and development versus the reality that sometimes, people just want those networking-for-fun events?

Nick’s position is that quite often L&D focuses on creating educational events because we know that format well. Still, he thinks that if we cared about our colleagues' experience and performance, we would broaden our scope.

“For example,” he explains, “we would be comfortable designing induction programs where people are excited about joining and feel a sense of belonging because this makes a difference to the organization. And therefore, people stay longer and perform better.”

“It's okay to run events that impact performance in other ways than trying to stuff content into people's heads,” says Nick.

And from Guy’s perspective, creating knowledge, skills, or performance competence depends on where the learner is and their performance and learning curve.

"It's okay to run events that impact performance in other ways than trying to stuff content into people's heads." - Nick Shackleton-Jones

“Part of the question is, what is the intent?” he says. “If the client wants a networking event and to accomplish things other than performance competence—the ability to perform tasks to produce outputs to stakeholder requirements—there's a time and a place for both.”

“If our policies as an L&D organization are to take on those kinds of assignments, that's okay. But if our policy is different and we only do instruction for developing people's performance competence, then perhaps another organization in our enterprise should tackle hosting and coordinating such a networking event,” says Guy.

And this leads to the next question about balancing your perception and brand of L&D while meeting your organization’s needs and achieving measurable results.

Related: The Pivot from ‘Performance to ‘Learning’: An Expert Interview with Guy Wallace

Measuring success beyond happy sheets

Some of the risks of those networking events are that people start to feel that L&D is all just fun and games, an issue when you’re trying to make an impact.

So, how do you create your perception and brand of L&D within an organization while meeting those needs and balancing that with performance and measurable outcomes?

First up, one of the things Guy learned from Dr. Richard E. Clark a couple of decades ago is that people who perceive training or learning as fun put less effort into it, and effortful learning is critical. 

“So, there's a time and a place,” he says. “It’s all about how you communicate and market what it is. If it's fun, games, and networking, we can engineer it in a soft way to encourage engagement across different audiences, but we’ve got to be careful how we label it.”

“If everything is called training or learning and it's mostly fun, then that's going to taint how people think about that, and they may not want to take it seriously,” Guy explains.

"If everything is called training or learning and it's mostly fun, then that's going to taint how people think about that, and they may not want to take it seriously." - Guy Wallace

However, Nick’s position is that it’s the other way around. “I think Kirkpatrick made us make it fun,” he says. “You could rarely get level three and level four outcomes, so you effectively ended up with happy sheets. And what did that mean? It meant we were just doing fun because you wanted the 4.6 on the happy sheet.”

When Nick designs more challenging programs, the learners are put under some pressure, and those aren’t fun. In one leadership program, Nick and the team did away with asking how much people liked the program but rather how challenging it was.

“So, I would argue the counter,” he says, “which is that we did too much fun in the past because Kirkpatrick encouraged us to make sessions fun as that's how we got our scores. But now we have to challenge people, which doesn’t always equal fun.”

Next, Guy and Nick discuss what makes their approaches stand out.

3. Contrasting the approaches of two L&D thought leaders

So, let’s dig into the nuances of these two L&D thought leaders’ performance-based approaches and what sets them apart from the rest, including each other’s. 

Performance consulting based on learning theory

As Nick explains, his approach differs because it is based on a theory of learning. 

In his experience, this is the difference: If you are trying to change performance, you can do that in one of two ways.

1. Change the context to eliminate the need to learn: If you want someone to go to the supermarket and reliably get 50 items, the simplest way is to give them a shopping list. The point is not to encourage them to learn but to reduce their need to learn. Performance consulting lets you change somebody's performance by eliminating learning.

2. Build the learner’s capability: Experience design enables you to make an intelligent decision at the start of a project to invest in practicing and challenging people in ways that build their capability. 

“And so that's my position,” Nick says. “There are those two things that you can do based on that fundamental thinking about learning.”

Performance-based instruction

In contrast, Guy’s view is that performance consulting focuses on performance-based instruction, data, consequence systems, and physical attributes that the performer needs that combine knowledge and skills.

“We can help with our approach of looking at performance,” he says, “by deciding what other organizational systems and processes need to be involved in helping us solve the performance problems or opportunities that exist.”

“So, we need to work with other support and service organizations in the enterprise to help improve the performance of the enterprise, the processes, and the people,” Guy explains.

Related: Beyond Education: An Exploration of Learning Design Maturity With Nick Shackleton-Jones

4. Heated agreement: no more learning pathways

Nick explains that L&D should stop building learning pathways because most of the industry doesn’t know what to do with vast content libraries. 

We tend to fall into the order-taking pattern where we answer training requests by building a pathway: dragging and dropping modules with a keyword and suggesting people follow them. As Nick explains, “The reason I think that's a bad idea is it doesn't help people with the job, and there's too much of it happening.”

“We should take the time to find out what people are struggling with on the job because that is their learning pathway. Their learning pathway is the job.”

And it’s also Guy’s experience that people create a collection of courses by identifying a skill and then assembling generic content and sequencing it in a way that doesn’t match the job needs or address how to apply the knowledge or skill to the job. 

“We need to focus on the high stakes stuff and really help people learn how to master doing the tasks that produce outputs that will meet the stakeholder requirements. Only then will we have good, worthy outcomes versus insufficient outcomes,” he says.

"We need to focus on the high stakes stuff and really help people learn how to master doing the tasks that produce outputs that will meet the stakeholder requirements. Only then will we have good, worthy outcomes versus insufficient outcomes." - Guy Wallace

“So, we need to focus on performance first and then extract the enabling knowledge and skills. Then, we need to understand the learners and modularize the content so people can get what they need as they climb that learning and performance curve to truly master their jobs on the job,” Guy explains.

Addressing L&D’s skills mania 

The future skills crisis reminds Nick of the great horse manure crisis in 1884 London when The Times reported that there were so many horses that the city would eventually be buried in six feet of manure. 

“The future skills crisis is a little bit like that with everyone asking, ‘What are we going to do?’ The answer is that the horse manure crisis never materialized because we invented cars, and we've invented AI, performance support, and other systems, and that will eliminate the need for people to have skills,” says Nick. 

“Scary proposition there, but competitively as an organization, you need to reduce the need to upskill people because otherwise, you're going to be wasting a lot of money and hiring many expensive skilled people.”

For example, Uber only exists because GPS (a learning elimination system) was introduced, but before ridesharing, London taxi drivers had to know every street in the city. 

So, as Nick sees it, L&D plays a crucial role as we look to things like AI, simple checklists, guidance, or performance support to enable a competitive advantage for our organizations by enabling them to hire people with less capability who can follow the guidance and perform to a higher level. 

“Although this sets people's teeth on edge,” Nick says, “one of the best things we can do for our organizations is to eliminate learning so that they don't face a skills crisis in the future.”

“Although this sets people's teeth on edge, one of the best things we can do for our organizations is to eliminate learning so that they don't face a skills crisis in the future.” - Nick Shackleton-Jones

Expanding the point, Guy explains that the skills mania gripping the industry is reminiscent of competencies from 20 to 30 years ago or behaviors of 40 years ago. “And behaviors are a means to the ends,” he says, “just like skills or competencies are the means to the end of worthy performance.”

In his experience, L&D needs to give people skills but let them figure out how to use them or provide them with sufficient practice with feedback in a training context. “We need to do that because only 5% to 15%, according to Richard Clark, can learn out of context and apply it in a new context,” Guy says.

“If we don't teach people how to apply things in their context, the majority will struggle with figuring out how to apply those skills.”

Thanks to Gabrielle for leading the interview and to Nick and Guy for sharing their insights with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out our episode with Michelle Parry-Slater about her book aimed at offering actionable steps and resources for L&D experts or with Navid Nazemian on how learning and development can impact C-suite attrition rates.

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