2021 Reflections—and Beyond!

I dove (headfirst!) into the training industry during the summer of 1981. So, if nothing else, one sentence into this “walk down memory lane,” it should be abundantly clear that I have been around more than most, but admittedly not quite as long as a few. Most of my time (i.e., the overwhelming majority) has been spent in leadership development. It would be far too cliché to say something like, “I’ve loved every minute of it,” but then, again, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

So, when you have been around almost forever (figuratively speaking), occasionally somebody asks you, “What do you think?” In that regard, I was asked to provide perspective on calendar year 2021 and what to look forward to in 2022. With a backdrop of research supplied by Ken Taylor via an extensive survey recently conducted by all the good folks at Training Industry on the most pressing challenges experienced by learning leaders in 2021, here goes:

Learner Engagement

For a number of years, when the topic of learner engagement came up, we used to turn our attention to Malcolm Knowles and the benefits of incorporating adult learning into our existing design. As we leaned into that years ago, it was the construction equivalent of a home builder, negotiating with a prospective buyer of a tract house, and agreeing to adjust the existing floor plan by removing a non-load-bearing wall to create a much more open and free-flowing space. It really wasn’t that big of a deal—but somehow, it seemed like it!

Today? Entirely different ballgame! Learners are like career-minded debutantes that seek to build the house of their dreams. They have architects that help them discover and define what they want, how they want it and when it would be most convenient to consume it. When you throw a global pandemic into the mix, it only serves to exacerbate the challenge of enhancing learner engagement to a level few could have ever imagined.

Moving forward it would appear training will continue to evolve into much more of a personalized, integrated, ongoing, series of highly relevant learning experiences that appear (you guessed it!) just in time!

Sustaining the Impact of Learning

We have known how to measure the impact of training since Donald Kirkpatrick published his dissertation in 1960. For the record, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the president of the United States at the time, and I was 5 years old.

Sustainment, pull-through and training transfer have been the holy grail for those of us in adult education for decades. The simple truth surrounding the relative paucity of evidence associated with our impact throughout the years is the lack of true interest organizations have had in making the necessary effort to produce viable metrics.

By its very nature, developing leaders is a complicated thing. It is part formal learning to be sure, but it is so very much more a function of the force and intensity of what goes on pre- and post-learning, with an extended spectrum of stakeholders. The fulcrum around which sustainment revolves is the line mangers of those who attend training (also not “new news!”). Those managers can both position and reinforce  the learning—or not!

In that regard, in 2022 (probably more than ever), success in your role will primarily be a function of your ability to connect with those managers, enlist and support their active stewardship and participatively demonstrate the impact of your efforts.

Lack of Top-Level Support

This is a challenge that seems like it has been around forever (only because it has!). Straight talk: If you are a training professional and work in an organization with key executives who believe (and occasionally articulate) that training provides limited value compared to just about everything else, you have two options:

  1. Leave.
  2. Put up with it.

Exaggeration and sarcasm aside, pursuing Option 1 is frequently much easier said than done (although it does make you wonder how many in the training community are rolled up into 2021’s Great Resignation!). Option 2, at a minimum, places your health at risk. This is never a good thing regardless of your pay and benefit package.

In 2022, consider going on offense! Take personal responsibility for generating company-specific facts and data! If nothing else, prove to yourself that what you do matters! Tie your internal efforts to the well-publicized and thoroughly documented efforts of other highly publicized leaders (i.e., Alan Mulally, Frances Hesselbein, Hubert Joly, etc.)! Give your senior executives reasons to support your contributions.

The fundamental premise to consider in this pursuit goes something like this:

  1. Productivity is a byproduct of employee
  2. Engagement is a primary driver of employee
  3. The primary outcome of effective leadership development is enhanced employee engagement!

Set up and conduct as many internal research projects as you can in 2022 that speak to (or directly demonstrate) the correlation between what you are doing to train leaders and your organization’s efforts to measure engagement. If nothing else, this endeavor will greatly enhance your personal sense of workplace dignity.