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Training & Learning

The Problem With Off-The-Shelf L&D With Stewart Everson

The market for off-the-shelf content and programs for the L&D profession is vast. 

The idea that we can plug in a pre-made “solution” into our learning management systems is alluring, but does it actually solve the problem? And will our reliance on it lead to our undoing?

In this L&D podcast recap (check out the full episode here), I speak with Stewart Everson, Manager of the National Bank Independent Network learning team, about whether off-the-shelf or canned L&D solutions can deliver impact for organizations.

Read on to hear 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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The mismatch between purpose and expectations

As Stewart explains, there is a fundamental mismatch between L&D’s purpose and what is expected of L&D.

“There's an expectation among stakeholders that learning teams should go through the motions repeatedly,” he says, “but the purpose of L&D should be to make people's lives easier by making their job easier.”

But in Stewart’s experience, the harsh reality of helping people improve their performance is that it’s not achieved by repeatedly going through the same delivery process with the same content. “L&D teams will not be able to move the needle unless we understand the reason for poor performance,” Stewart says.

“So often,” he continues, “these reasons are complicated, and the unfortunate truth is that they require large-scale organizational changes more often than not. These are often changes that are painful to absorb, so we go back to running the same sort of script again.”

The point is crucial and frustrating because so many training courses are built based on large-scale assumptions; therefore, it is not the training course but the application of the course over a poorly defined need.

“Two things are going on,” says Stewart. “One is that we become path-dependent, and it's a case of not putting your head above the parapet in cases when there's big change going on.”

“Secondly, there is a genuine reluctance to dig deep and the fear of what we might find. Organizations don't want to prod too much or ask too many questions because we don't really know what kind of Pandora's box we may open,” says Stewart.

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Canned content is unrelatable

Stewart’s position on generic course content is that it is unrelatable, summing the point up through the example of watching mandatory compliance courses.

“If anyone has worked in financial services, their blood will run cold when they hear this because these compliance courses were very difficult to sit through. They have come a long way, to be fair,” he explains, “but I remember sitting in my entry-level job in my late twenties watching one of these at the end of the day.”

“I remember almost being annoyed because the example was this high-profile banker with this rich client in a fancy restaurant. I was sitting there in my boring job, thinking, ‘This isn't relevant, and now I just feel worse about myself’.”

In Stewart’s experience, off-the-shelf content can be used for conveying regulatory knowledge or something that needs to be signed off on a large scale. “But for 90% of the scenarios, canned content should not be relied upon because it disillusions people with the whole process of L&D.”

“If your only experience of going to the LMS is to do these mind-numbing courses, then you're going to become disillusioned with all of it, and you're not going to look for content that's relevant for you. You're not going to feel good about doing it.”

If your only experience of going to the LMS is to do these mind-numbing courses, then you're going to become disillusioned with all of it, and you're not going to look for content that's relevant for you.

Part of the solution, Stewart explains, is for L&D teams to discover ways that if something becomes regulatory and needs to be consumed by the whole organization, it does not mean it has to be consumed in the exact same way.

Related: 9 Tips to Help You Create Great Training Courses

Why L&D has been playing the role of publisher

As Stewart explains, it’s common for L&D teams to go on a content publishing spree, not least during COVID-19.

“While it came from a good place, I saw many L&D teams assume the responsibility for the sanity of employees worldwide during COVID-19,” he says. “We saw content flying in from everywhere: courses on managing remotely, modules on self-care, and resiliency courses.” 

“I had this experience with young kids during COVID-19. I was sat at home with three kids who couldn’t go to school. I was constantly having wifi issues because all the kids were streaming Netflix. My team meetings were cutting in and out. At the same time, the kids were trying to do their online learning.”

“At one point in Canada, where I live, there was a ban on going outside so I couldn’t take the kids to the park. Then, I get a self-care learning module to help me through it. So, I think there is this propensity to see it as just a purely publishing of content in any situation.”

Stewart finds that it might have been more beneficial to remind people of the company assistance line or some of the benefits in the organization that could help in terms of either financial assistance or emotional support. 

The point is not that L&D shouldn’t use off-the-shelf content. Instead, over-reliance on these canned solutions to make a predictable and reliable impact on performance is unrealistic.

So, how can you use off-the-shelf solutions to better effect?

When to use off-the-shelf solutions

Stewart typically uses canned solutions to fill a timer and meet needs quickly, which is just the reality of the situation sometimes.

“I have a small team, and sometimes, we do rely on what's already available to meet the demands of stakeholders. Again, that comes back to sometimes doing things because it fulfills a need or an organizational demand,” he explains.

But when Stewart has something fundamental, such as a business impact at stake, he always avoids canned solutions. “I think it's more about assessing when they should be used and understanding that you're probably not going to get a meaningful change from them.”

According to Stewart, off-the-shelf interventions should be viewed as a short-term solution to boost learning and development when needed. This can include raising awareness, creating extra engagement, or improving client satisfaction. 

“But this content should never be a replacement for something that has a focus behind it, some actual in-depth analysis, or research into what's required,” Stewart explains.

Off-the-shelf content should never be a replacement for something that has a focus behind it, some actual in-depth analysis, or research into what's required.

“Unless the content relates to the learner's work and the context within which it is performed, it is challenging to develop skills. Yet, the market still pushes versions of ‘complete this course and you will be skilled’, which is absolute nonsense,” says Stewart.

So, I asked Stewart how we in L&D can rise above this noise and do more stuff that actually works.

Related: A Deep Dive into Conducting a Learner Needs Analysis from A to Z

3 expert tips for delivering performance impact

To start delivering on impact, Stewart explains you need to buy time and take a step back to find the problem. That’s the foundation: a little bit of time and some breathing space. 

Next, you have to do the following: identify the business goal, be assertive when engaging senior stakeholders, and do the gap analysis.

1. Identify the business goal

First up, you have to identify the business goal.

“That has to be the start of everything,” Stewart explains. “I don't want to sound like a ruthless capitalist, but you can't get anything done in an organization unless it supports the business goals. So, you have to understand that first.”

2. Be assertive when engaging senior stakeholders

Next, L&D teams need to be more assertive when speaking to senior stakeholders in the organization and advocate themselves as drivers of business, not a niche department that rolls out well-being courses.

3. Do the gap analysis

Finally, you need to identify the indicators that show a gap between desired and actual performance. 

“Ask what senior stakeholders think is happening, and get their opinion on what's happening,” says Stewart. “Then speak to people performing the job function and understand the actual reality and what they need, not what they want to learn.”

Thanks to Stewart for sharing his off-the-shelf content experience with us! Keen to learn more from L&D experts? Check out my conversation with John Helmer about his insights on the L&D discipline and the people and approaches that have informed so much of the L&D profession.

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