L&D Strategy

Why You Need to Focus on the Bigger Business Picture Before Learning Impact


Marco Hönig, Global Capability Development Director at DSS+, joins Blake Proberts on the Strategic L&D Podcast to discuss how to evolve learning strategies during business change, why defining competencies and technical skills allows you to focus on impactful learning, and how defining capabilities and competencies brings benefits down the line, even if it all seems theoretical at first.

Listen to the full episode above or watch below.

This article is a transcript of a podcast first published in November 2022.

I’d love to start with hearing a little bit about you, Marco, and what’s led you to where you are today.

Yeah, thanks, Blake. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, so I, I am working in the broader L&D, learning and development, field. I’m currently leading the function of capability development in a consulting company.

I personally come from a bit of an unusual field that, kind of a little unusual path that led me there. But initially, I’ve studied information sciences and librarian studies. And then worked as a system administrator for a couple of years that the university library before moving over to a consulting company. So, and having worked as an analyst for many years, I kind of gradually moved in towards training these analysts and training employees and their professional services firm. And then kind of after, you know, seven or eight years made a really a complete transition away from my analyst field towards the L&D function. And I have been working in that field now for over 15 years, mainly, in consulting environments, professional services environments.

How did you make the change from librarian to a systems focus?

Yeah, I think—so when I, when I did my university studies, it was the time when I think, you know, libraries and universities more in general, were making a, you know, a really fundamental change from an analogue world into a digital world. So kind of started with lots of books around me. And then when I finished my studies, they were all computers around me. And I think it was actually quite an interesting time, when you saw that these massive data-driven organisations were suddenly have to figure out how to move into a digital world.

And it used to be then a lot of really, you know, IT systems that were needed in order to make this whole thing work. And that was kind of, while I was doing my studies I transitioned from, I would say, the more academic field of that side, towards really like a tech side of, tech side of this field, and then moved into into the tech industry, and then moved into tech industry consulting. So I think it was, from hindsight, it was a pretty natural evolution, but it is indeed, a bit, a bit odd when you look at it from from the front side of it, I agree, yeah.

What lead you into changing, because one is very logical and one is very people focused?

Yeah, exactly. Well, I mean, so the system side, the system administration, which is really an IT side administration. That was necessary, because the library environment kind of needed suddenly these ecosystems to be in place. And so you suddenly discover yourself being suddenly, you know, in charge of mainframes and, you know, elaborate software programs that need to run the library acquisition or the library lending system and make sure that all those, all those data flows are kind of working out and the synchronisation with datasets works.

And I think that kind of equips you a little bit for that industry of hardware, software, and also services, you know, associated to these IT environments. I think from there, then, it was for me a natural, you know, evolutionary step to say, okay, what what is the bigger picture behind that? And the bigger picture kind of moved me into the consulting and analyst field where I was working as an analyst in consulting companies and looking towards, you know, what are the industry trends more generally in hardware, software and services and also adjacent and related tech fields. I kind of broadened my scope here from tech fields from the classic IT environment into other areas as well.

But the jump, I would say from this tech-driven ecosystems towards L&D came for me really, because I was a participant at a training program. And that was a training program around business consulting skills. And I think I kind of resonated very positively with that, with the whole experience, with the whole idea of how humans learn and how we learn in teams, and how we learn with cases, and what different, you know, skills and, and capabilities are really part of this learning process and how it all works, or sometimes how it doesn’t work. And I think that’s kind of, you know, it triggered my curiosity. And I was then gradually ,over the course of two to three years, kind of being more drawn into this into this environment of learning and development and working with people really on that one.

That’s today, L&D does have a lot of systems, software services hardware as well. I think I don’t have to tell you, you know that very well. And the listeners, the viewers probably know that as well. So I think the, you know, the increasing importance of tech in a lot of, you know, how we think about L&D—sort of, say for me is a bit of a flashback back to the times when you know, the digital world crashed into the analogue world of libraries, so to say.

If you had to distil down one lesson for other HR or L&D practitioners coming into the space, what would that be?

Yeah, I think it’s a good question. I think the, you know—of course, I think from today’s perspective, you can go to certain schools or colleges, universities and kind of go directly into the functional field of HR or talent-related professions. And I think that’s fine, right. I think it is absolutely fine to go, sort of say, directly into this functional field and make your experiences there, do internships, you know, graduate, start working in this field.

And yet at the same time, I also found it personally really beneficial if you sometimes—if there is just a separate sort of, say, stream of, yeah, input that is part of shaping one’s career. And that could be any field. I think there are there, you know, things that a lot of colleagues I’ve seen were working engineering kind of areas, were working in tech backgrounds, but also in you know, in more people-related, like sales, or customer-related fields, like sales or marketing. But I think my, you know, my—so what probably is here that you can go directly into the function, but it can be very enriching and actually very beneficial down the road, if you may have come from a completely different field and what to explore sort of, say, a second career, or a next phase of your career by moving from one side to another function.

The only challenge is when you do this, really, with the first step, the first time—to endure this, this first one year or maybe two years, where of course you are not the expert in L&D. Of course, you haven’t maybe facilitated training programs so much. You got, you got to give yourself time to also learn the experts’ side of that. But I think it helps if you gradually you know, expose yourself more and more to those things by participating in training programs, by you know, reading up on the literature or you know, following maybe influencers around it, or some some things like this, this, this podcasts to kind of just explore a little bit, this world, and then gradually start to expose yourself more and more. I think that can be very beneficial if different disciplines come together.

On that front, and with HR being able to touch everything and having people with different backgrounds and experiences, how have you found aligning your L&D strategy with the overall business strategy?

Yeah, I think so—usually, when you work in the field of say, let’s say, learning and development, you would, in my understanding be a part of the broader HR function. And, of course, I mean, whenever you start working down into your HR, you orientate yourself around what’s happening at let’s say strategic corporate level. You cannot work really in isolation, you will have to say, what’s the business strategy? What’s the bigger business direction that you’re going into?

“It helps to look at [strategy] in writing from the business and how the business is articulating that. [That] gives you an opportunity to pick up on the narrative, to pick up on certain key words that they’re using and relate to that.”

But I think that—what I would, what I would encourage people is to proactively enquire about this and ask for documentation or even evidence, something in writing, that gives you sort of a foundation to react to with your own L&D or HR strategy. So sometimes, you know, you know, when you—when people say, okay, let me let me kind of understand what our business strategy is? They have a few conversations around that. But very rarely do they then have something really in hand, which kind of is the true articulation and a manifestation of what the business strategy is, from which they can then deduct their own HR or L&D strategy pieces. And I think it helps to look at that in writing from the business and how the business is articulating that. Gives you an opportunity to pick up, you know, on the narrative, to pick up on certain key words that they’re using, and kind of relate to that. To pick up on initiatives, or to maybe, you know, even state that, look, this is a wonderful business strategy, but what we have in place on the talent HR side or on L&D side, currently may not match that. So we have a gap. And so let’s talk about how we are addressing this gap?

And so what I’m trying to say is, I think it does help to proactively engage with the business leaders, even if you’re an HR leader, yourself, or if you’re an L&D leader, together with your HR and talent colleagues to kind of do this together. But to really see in writing, and then really think about and reflect about what the business strategy is and respond to that, yeah, in the form of a document. I think that’s a good way to discipline, so to say you’re thinking of reacting to something like that.

What would you say are some of the challenges or some of the difficulties with aligning your L&D strategy with that business strategy?

Well, well, I mean, there can be numerous challenges, right? So I think, let me, you know, mention a few of them as I’ve come across them. So for instance, you know, that having a trust-based relationship, so to say, with your business leaders. Which sometimes it’s just necessary, because these things like business strategies, talent, HR strategies don’t fall from the sky, but are usually the project of intense conversations and maybe reiteration. So it’s not like, you know, the first shot usually nails it, but this it’s an evolving process. And that requires a good relationship, so to say, with the business leaders, and even a certain level of trust.

Now, if you’re new to that role, and may not have that exposure or that permission, so to say, to be closer to your business leaders and to develop that trust based relationship, that can be very hard then, because this journey to move towards your own HR, L&D strategy, well, how should it come into being if you do not have an iterative process that’s based on trust? Where you can even sometimes just bring out an idea and say, well, would this work? No. Okay, let me, let me go and kind of go back and see if I can look at this differently. Come back to you with a revised proposal. What do you think this is now? So it’s, I think you need that permission to engage in a discussion. And that requires a certain proximity and exposure to business leaders. And that’s not always so easy to achieve, right? You need to make sure that you are having the opportunities to meet business leaders and engage with them and then also be trusted and sometimes be able to allow, allowed to make a mistake even, right? And correct this down the road. Yeah, that’s why that’s that’s one that’s one area, one challenge that I could I could think of.

“Things like business strategies, talent, HR strategies don’t fall from the sky, but are usually the [outcome] of intense conversations. You need permission to engage in a discussion, and that requires a certain proximity and exposure to business leaders.”

Another one is that I think HR, talent, L&D strategies—when I’ve come across some of them—is they are sometimes in nature, fluid and even reactive or more immediate, right. So let me give you an example. Suddenly, I don’t know, company acquires another company. And suddenly, you have to deal with a new business situation, and you’ve got hundreds, if not 1000s of new people coming in, they come in with a totally different culture and ecosystem. So you need to make sure you kind of react to that. How much do you see this always coming in advance? Well, I’m not sure like, hey, in two years, we’re making a business acquisition. So already prepared for that. So some of these things are more immediate to be dealt with. And then it’s a, it’s an immediate ask for the entire HR function to kind of make it work. And, you know, that suddenly kind of drops like a UFO sort of, say, on your plate, and you have to deal with that situation.

Or if you don’t know—for instance, another challenge could be a technology. You’re suddenly having a new operating system, CRM system sales system in place, you need to upskill and train your people. But you’ve not necessarily see that coming several years before, down the line, but it’s relatively close to maybe the decision to acquire system A versus system B. Then this comes into the organisation and, okay, well, how to, how to our, how does our interventions, how do our training programs around this look like? How will it affect the business processes?

So what I’m trying to say here is that sometimes the HR, L&D responses are, you know, answering to things that are coming up, that are sometimes short notice and require a fix, and sort of the way how to handle that. And that can be a challenge with limited resources, or when you are just having lots of other projects. And suddenly this is the one extra that maybe you’d haven’t resourced for, sort of.

Do you have any advice on how to bring those two, three or four groups of people together into one cohesive unit?

Well, you know, I think every, if we speak of merger and acquisition, specifically, I think every one of these has sometimes their own, their own challenges. And I think probably, almost likely, it’s not gonna be just, you know, a cakewalk, but it’s going to be quite challenging on all kinds of fronts. Not only HR and talent-wise, also on tech, also on you know, integrating the businesses really there.

What I, what I have for instance, observed is that two things usually stand out from me. So, the first one is culture, right. So, the integration of different company cultures into each other. Or—integration is already a bit of a hard word. And we say the, the mutual exploration of each other’s company culture, let me put it like that—is a process that can take many, many years. So I mean, for those of your viewers, listeners who have maybe been on the receiving end of an acquisition, you will probably relate to this very well there. You continue to say we and mean a certain community, even way beyond the time of where you have been acquired, maybe, by a company and you mean a certain group of people coming from a certain part of the organisation. So I think until, you know, until really a new company culture forms, with a strong company culture joining another strong company culture, that can be quite a challenge. And I think your companies have to endure that and accept that it’s not happening overnight and you can actually be also quite interesting. It can bring innovation, it can bring interesting discourse or, you know, consultation. So it you know, even diverging cultures or cultures that are complementary can sort of say, bring the company forward.

But, yes, it’s also something to be, to be aware of. And, you know, it’s the elephant in the room, kind of. Yes, we know that this doesn’t integrate so wonderfully as we planned before, but it is what it is. A second thing that I’ve, I’ve experienced a couple of times is when a new sort of, say, company joins. Usually, it’s that the functional processes—let’s say, you know, how do we look at a time? How do we invoices, what are the HR processes? I mean, usually, there’s a certain difference, maybe some overlaps, but usually, it’s different processes, sometimes with different systems. And sometimes I would say business leaders will underestimate that the time it takes to move a certain population from one process on how to do business processes into another ecosystem and another business process. Could be anything, really, from, you know, putting in your time, putting in your invoices, how you, you know, book, your vacation dates, how do you record a sales opportunity? How do you develop clients? How do we deliver R&D or a product?

All these things usually have a functional side. And when two companies come together, usually those things are a little bit different from each other. And to integrate those two things to make them, make it a harmonious kind of lockstep process going forward is sometimes a challenge and also takes some time, because you got to unlearn your old systems and processes and make sure you kind of move over to the new way of doing it. And that does take significant amount of upskilling and rescaling times.

I imagine when two organisations come together as well, one might have a really advanced L&D function and one may not. Have you have you got a sort of a process for that?

Yeah, I mean, I, so I think there’s not really a cookie cutter approach, right. But I think there’s a few things to maybe reflect on how you may want to do that. So—it doesn’t really matter so much if it’s really an M&A situation, or maybe if you would say more generally, come into this L&D or talent function, if you will.

So I think that there’s a couple of things that you maybe have to ask for, and a couple of things that you may want to communicate on. So things that you want to ask for is—that’s, that’s intelligence gathering around what’s the current state? So, what is it that I’m finding here? Right, so this includes what we talked earlier about: Do you have an idea about the corporate strategy? Ideally in writing. And what does the business leaders prioritise? What’s the focus on? Where do they want to take the company going forward? I think that’s really essential to understand that those business goals.

Who are your top stakeholders? These are [the] people that you need to make sure you spend time with and understand their views and expectations.”

What’s very important is also to understand let’s say, in your function like, who are your top stakeholders, right? So in the business, who has a particular interest shown in the past, or needs to show in what you’re doing. That could be the CEO, that could be you know, people on the C-level side, it could be maybe even people on the board. Could be other functional leaders. But I would say if you, if you need with your sponsor to answer that question, who are your top stakeholders? That’s super important to kind of figure that out. Because from there, these are people that you need to make sure you spend time with and understand their views and expectations. So what’s your own work in your own function?

I think what helps a lot is if you ask for, if there is an existing framework around how the company talks and thinks about, you know, competencies or skills. Some companies do have that. They do have a competency framework. Some companies don’t have it sort of set in writing but have a, have an understanding. But like even the question for that can trigger I think, very valuable responses and data points for you. How do we think about it? How we talk about it? Do we have, do we have a language to talk about competencies and skills?

I think also interesting to, to, to understand, and therefore a good ask is to say, okay, how has the past looked like? Was there an existing learning and development program? Were there, you know, groups of faculty that were supporting training programs, like either internal or external? Do you have something like a learning management system or an ecosystem that supports the technology side of that? Were theer content providers, again, internal or external ones? So what what was that situation looking like, up until now? So how does it look like? And even if it even if the answer is we don’t have anything—okay, fine, but then at least, you know.

How do we think about it? How [do] we talk about it? Do we have a language to talk about competencies and skills?”

And finally, I think it’s good to ask also like, okay, do we have an idea about, you know, budget and spend? Was there an L&D or talent development or capability development relating, budget or spending plan? And again, even if not, that’s okay. But at least sort of say, you know, and then you can understand, okay, were there costs associated with that. I mean, running a learning management system, that alone, you know, requires a certain budget. Working with third party content that requires a budget. I mean, you don’t have to have literal in-person training programs on the ground to sort of, say, need to have a budget, I mean, even the kind of status quo of just running a certain set of offerings requires, requires that.

So I think these are some of the asks, that I would say, are foundational that you would need to understand. And then in, in, hand in hand, I could imagine that I think you want to start by communicating a little bit to your environment to those stakeholders, those top stakeholders that you’ve identified, but maybe also your peers, or the team that you’re working with, around I think, you know—I usually use the, the horizon, sort of a different horizons on how to communicate.

So I think there is a short-term and a mid-term and a long-term horizon. Short-term horizons, for me are a couple of months, you know, two, three months. What is the, what is the outlook for the immediate, near-term? And that would involve things like, okay, what’s my understanding of the business strategy? So how do I interpret what the business is telling me? So what do I deduct from that for my, for my function? How—who do I know are my key stakeholders and who are my supporters, faculty supporters or communities of practice that may be helping me with my, with my function? And with my plans?

“Use… different horizons [to] communicate. What is the outlook for the immediate, near-term? What’s my understanding of the business strategy? How do I interpret what the business is telling me?”

A mid-horizon, maybe usually three to six months. Okay, I that’s how I understand it. Now, what do I translate this into? So what, what would that mean in terms of our offerings, the content, the programs that we’re offering? What does it mean about the technology? Do we have a need for certain technology to support our offerings? Are there certain skills that we need to focus on? Are there certain competencies that we need to understand better? So it’s, I think, you know, taking the understanding and translating it into the first findings, and then a horizon, which usually is like beyond six months, up to a year, where you can continuously ask around, okay, so how do we want to measure ourselves with our proposed, you know, interventions, with our proposed programs for L&D or talent? What are low hanging fruits that we could start to address right now in the organisation? How do we build those communities of practice? How do we shape the culture? What kind of formats are really available for us? How do we have to balance virtual and in-person? And what’s our strategy towards regarding third-party content or providers? So balancing asking and communicating, I think is probably helpful as you come into a position where you understand this function better and better.

“Three to six months… what do I translate this into? Do we have a need for certain technology? Are there certain skills that we need to focus on? What are low hanging fruits that we could start to address right now in the organisation?”

If your organisation doesn’t have a capability framework, how would you start to look at those different competencies and turn that into something more meaningful for L&D or HR to leverage?

It’s also a very fascinating question. And it’s a, it’s a, it’s a question which I think can be really helpful on a lot of other things down the road associated with L&D. So getting those foundations right at the very beginning may seem a bit theoretical to some of the, to some people involved and or even some stakeholders. They say like, why are you bothering so much to figuring out a competency framework in the first place? But it can be very helpful down the road with for instance, when you organise your your learning offerings, when you organise your LMS, when you are trying to identify, so to say, you know, the content areas where you’re collaborating with third-party providers. So there’s it has many ripple effects down the road.

And how I usually look at that is—so for me, I think the prime distinction is between competencies and technical skills. And I would say, just maybe use a simple example here. A competency is something that is almost role-agnostic. So you’re working in a company, in a particular field. And within that company, the majority of the employees need to have certain core competencies and need to understand them and need to be able, let’s say, to speak to them. They don’t maybe need to give the textbook definition of that, but they need to understand why these competencies are necessary.

And an example of that would be so for instance, if you’re working in a product company, that is maybe producing, let’s say, vacuum cleaners, right? So a competency must be, you know, a certain level of technical understanding about the product that you’re actually manufacturing. But you also probably need to have a foundational understanding of relationship building and sales and marketing in order to bring your product to market. Customer orientation probably is very important. If you’re dealing with customers, you have to be very sound on maybe communication, as you’re explaining that to your customers about the product features about you know, things that you’re getting to market with. So these are competencies that I think would touch most of the employees, where you have to have a certain understanding.

Now technical skills are role-specific and technical skills can really vary significantly. They can be either, you know, a certain area of expertise, it could be a process, a framework, it could be a software that you know how to operate with. So for instance, if you’re a sales representative, your technical skills may be, for instance, on business development process, or on a certain CRM software, or maybe on telemarketing, things like that. But if you’re an engineer, you may not need those kind of qualities, but you may need, you know, for instance, being able to write code on the electronics part of it or being better at understanding the supply chain, or the enterprise resource planning or the manufacturing process. So I think technical skills are more related, really, towards your job. And they are associated with certain jobs within an organisation and competencies are more the umbrella understanding, so to say that bind the entire employees together.

Capabilities, if you will—I think sometimes people are using the term competencies and capabilities interchangeably. And I would say capabilities are allowing us to basically do our job and bring our best selves to sort of, say, to our environment. So in a way, it’s a combination of competencies and technical skills that allow us to fulfil the entirety of our professional requirements within our professional environments. I think that would be maybe an even bigger umbrella in my understanding.

So once you do have that foundation in place, where have you seen a lot of value from it from having that in place?

So if you take the the broader talent value chain and look at the different parts of the value chain. So you could, you could start this talent value chain, for instance, and say, okay, so what is our, what does our employer branding look like? And how are we finding our talent? And how are we recruiting that? What do, is our employee value proposition? And how do we sort of say, you know, do employer branding around that.

And I think having the language of the competency and technical skills framework in place allows you, for instance, very well—or in a better, more consistent way—to articulate what you’re really looking for. So you may look for, let’s say, a sales manager. And in something like a job description, you would be better able, and in a sort of, say, in alignment with others who are doing maybe the same in other regions, to express clearly what you’re expecting in terms of what’s the overall mindset and the kind of field in which the sales manager would operate? What are competencies? Customer orientation, good communication, you know, a sense for understanding the technical product. But then also to be more specific around articulating the technical skills, so being proficient in maybe running a certain CRM software, or being familiar with the business development process.

“Having the language of the competency and skills framework… allows youin a better or more consistent way—to articulate what you’re really looking for. It allows you to articulate… job requirements more clearly.”

And I think it allows you to articulate those, you know, job requirements more clearly. And then in the recruiting process also be a little bit more succinct and specific around well, which part of those competencies, how good do you think you are with them? And some of the technical skills—where do you sort of they hit the mark? And where do you have gaps?

If you move on in the talent value chain—so that is recruiting—but then so the next part where you could find this helpful, a competency and skills framework, is in learning and development, right? So when you’re rescaling upskilling, competency-driven programs, technical skills programs, I think it helps to get sort of say it right, what you are trying to address. And also, you know, using this example of the business strategy, being also specific, okay, I understand the business strategy. What competencies would be affected now from that one? Which technical skills do we need to invest in? And so really be specific and not just be—oh, let’s make sure we upskill the organisation in its entirety, which is a rather fluffy kind of command.

If you move on, if you move on from, let’s say, L&D performance evaluation, or the entire sort of, say, people development or people evaluation cycle itself, it helps sometimes, for instance, employees to, you know, self-assess themselves around competencies and skills and says, you know, where do I think are my strengths? What are the good things I’m doing really well? And where could I spend more time on? Do I also understand maybe where I have development areas, and where maybe I can help to ask for help, or coaching or upskill myself or attend training programs with that. And I think even there, having the language and the nomenclature in place to articulate and talk about this can help to make the conversations much more specific and I think fruitful instead of, oh, we thought we talked around learning and development for your personal career, but we’re not sure if what you understood was the same thing, what we understood. So there are different parts of the value chain that could benefit from let’s say, this understanding of a model.

From an L&D perspective, how do you see the journey of your end learner? Can they self-direct and select content, or are you trying to guide the learner down a specific pathway?

Yeah, I think this is a very dynamic and interesting, you know, part of L&D. I think, on the technical skills side, what I would really, you know, may want to suggest is that you look very hard within your organisation. First of all, right, to see can we, can we upskill or expand our skills around those technical elements from within the corporate, the company, from within the corporation? So is user-generated content or expert-generated content something that we don’t procure from somewhere else, but rather bring to life through people inside the business, who know how to do it and use them as experts and experts that can help to train the next generations around, you know, technical skills? Can we take engineers, and let us, let them help us train other engineers around R&D or product development or the manufacturing or supply chain? Can we take experienced sales professionals who know how to run, internally, the sales process and business development and help them train the next generation? So I’m a big fan of user-generated content or user-generated professional development that comes out the organisation specifically for technical skills.

“Is user-generated content or expert-generated content something [that we can] bring to life through people inside the business, who know how to do it and use them as experts… that can help to train the next generations?”

Doesn’t mean that there might be sometimes good experts from outside the company that you want to consult. But I would always look also in maybe first inside the company. On competencies, I think it does make sense to, you know, look for external help sometimes to get, really, an independent perspective on what we think is good communication really you look like? What do we think our culture, you know—understanding of cultural frames of reference, especially if you’re an international company. Or, you know, do we have a good sense of excellent relationship management and trust-based relationships with stakeholders? And can we use other people who helped us with that?

Again, I’m not saying that it doesn’t help to look into internal experts for that. But I think competencies lend themselves a little bit easier to be informed and sometimes inspired by external experts and external providers as well. And when you bring all this together, I think slowly, from your need—deducting from your needs analysis, that in itself is informed by the business strategy, and maybe how you talk about it in your competency and technical skill framework—I think you will be able then to deduct from a needs analysis, almost a catalogue of next steps or interventions, or whatever you wanna call this. Which explains, okay, for this particular need, we want to suggest that framework with that content from this kind of source. And for this need, we want to do slightly differently. And so I think it will ultimately look like a toolbox, where you put in place what you always think is the most adequate a combination here of content, facilitation, and engagement format, in order to make sure you’re hitting the nail on the head, not just lining the curriculum.

How important would you say the role of technology is in this training and getting it to the right people?

Well, very important, but not easy. So I mean, I’ve been, I’ve been in this place, many, many times, thinking—trying to think about technology in a meaningful—well, how it can support your L&D strategy or talent strategy. And I’ve—now from hindsight, I would say it was never an easy conversation. And some might maybe my top advice would be is, you know, not to kind of, you know, just run through the minefield by yourself. But to seek, proactively, counsel and support from a group, from a peer group, from other experts. Could be inside the company, could be even externally, to validate maybe, you know, the data points and the hypotheses that you have around which technology may help you to do what.

What I can say in general is that technology is important, but maybe shouldn’t be the beginning thought, let’s say, in understanding your L&D strategy. And I think technology is supporting and helping you to translate what you want to do with your L&D strategy, but it shouldn’t be, let’s sort of say, the starting point from which you are then exploring what’s the art of the possible, what allows my technology me really to do.

Having said that, I understand that sometimes you may, you know, reach a point where you say, well, okay, well, either this particular technology doesn’t exist, or I don’t know whether it exists, or it exists, but it’s too expensive. Or it exists or it’s too complicated and I don’t have the resources basically to manage it and run it on a continuous basis. Or I’m not even sure if this particular technology provider is the best solution. And it’s a little bit hard to acquire a very expensive system only to discover that down the road, so to say, it’s not really working for you.

“Technology is supporting and helping you translate what you want to do with your L&D strategy, but it shouldn’t be the starting point.”

So, I think long story short, I think it doesn’t make sense to treat technology as a very important factor for L&D. But try as a professional in that in that ecosystem to, try to early on, assemble a group of stakeholders, or sponsors with whom you can, you know, pressure test hypotheses and also experiment with certain approaches, instead of trying to, you know, by yourself, go to the next industry conference and then just, you know, buy different technology components wildly, and then trying to stitch them together. That usually fails.

And maybe if you allow me, to maybe—I think, I think, what are, what are the important components? I think when you talk about technology. I mean, yes, sooner or later, an LMS, or learning management system is something you may want to think about. But to be honest, I think you could even, you know, work around a classic LMS in certain situations. It depends on so many factors, right? If you are, if you’re in a 50-person company, or 100, or 150, 200 person company, do you need to acquire an LMS, and then over-engineer, so to say, for 200 people what the LMS can do? Maybe not. Maybe you can work around with other business software solutions to kind of create a similar experience for your users.

On the other hand, if you are—if you have maybe 50,000 employees and you’re working in that, an LMS can be a almost life, an LMS change can be a life-changing event for some L&D departments. They sometimes take several years until to, you know, run properly. And it’s usually a quite a long journey that that involves IT, finance, sometimes even legal, in order to make a system change on such a big scale really possible. And that’s only LMS. I mean, user experiences on other things. Cloud-based solutions, even for skills, skill mapping or competency mapping software tools, I think can be very important. But the moment we talk about all those components, like we already sort of say, just making the whole kind of question bigger, and there’s more and more factors in technology that kind of come here together can make it, can make it almost impossible to hold in its entirety, because there’s so many features suddenly popping up that are relevant, theoretically, for L&D.

I think maybe bread-crumbing that approach is probably the way to go. It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you implement everything.

Exactly. Yeah. I think the intellectual exchange with, with peers and with say, friends of the function, inside or outside the company, I think is the best lifeline that you really have, right. So I can coming back from here, what, what do we need our technology basically to do for us? Which steps, process steps around L&D or talent does it need to support? What is, what is already there? What’s the biggest need? Is it really something that’s out there that would meet that need? I mean, all those questions alone, lots of work and lots of conversations to be had.

And there’s not an immediate guarantee that everything’s going to be sunshine, once you kind of understand all those components and have made an acquisition. But can you ignore it? No. No, you have to deal with it proactively and you have to engage with it. I think there’s just no free lunch.

On the technology front, how important would you say that data from those different technical stacks is?

So I think there are—well, I think there are different ways to talk about data in that context, right? I mean, you can—well, think about what metrics or KPIs or data that you’re getting from, let’s say, a certain offering that you have out there. And then it depends a little bit what your system allows you to do, how much you can track completion or feedback, or maybe, you know, sort of the applicability of learnings then to the real life or checking in with learners, you know, after six months and see whether they could actually translate the learnings into a change in behaviour. So all the kinds of Kirkpatrick model steps that are out there. The ones to four moving from, you know, completion—I’ve been there towards, oh, I’ve really changed the business impact.

So I think that this is helpful. But I’ve also seen sometimes that you can spend an enormous amount of resources and time and energy into identifying these, I would say, impact metrics and KPIs around that. And then a little bit sort of say, the bigger picture gets lost in doing so. So you end up with beautiful dashboards that tell you lots of data points of how you learners engage with the questions. That’s like, okay, great. We have this information with, so what? What kind of business decisions are we in place to make with this information? And that’s the harder part sometimes. So even if we do have these metrics in place, so what are the use cases? Or what are the theoretical cases? And then what kind of decisions would we probably expect to be to be doing there?

“You can spend an enormous amount of resources and time and energy into identifying impact metrics. We have this information… so what? What kind of business decisions are we in place to make with this information?”

I think, for me, the importance of data grows with the size and the complexity of the company you’re working with. Again, if you’re an L&D professional leading that function that two to 300-employee kind of company, I would suggest you go a little bit lighter on data, because a lot of the skill needs and a lot of the where do we need to focus on what really works, you’re getting a little bit between the lines and talking to the business leaders there. If you have 50,000 employees or 100,000 employees in your company, you need a certain, you know, foundational data set on what does the talent look like that you come in, comes in the organisation? What are the expectations around the learning needs that they have, or that the business has for them? What are, the what are the proficiencies around competencies and technical skills that they may want to you know, provide in terms of self-assessing or having someone else assess them? What is the impact of learning interventions? And how do they rate that along certain lines?

So I think the bigger and more complex the company becomes, the more important data and the analytics of data comes to inform those different steps of the value chain of talent and R&D. Again, usually a very complex field, but probably ever the more necessary going forward in our time. So I think—but I think the metric for me is really company complexity and size here that matters most.

Marco, my last question for you would be where can people find you and learn more about you and what you do?

Well, I mean, yes, I sit on the usual career that works just as myself. But I mean, I want to say that, I mean, I’m also a learner in this profession. And I would by, by no means, you know, understand that I know it all. I think I only know probably a little bit of the complexity of the L&D function, of the talent function. So I think it’s a never-ending journey. And it probably for is for everyone in that field, because it’s so dynamic, there’s so much change, which is exciting. Which is an—it’s an interesting field to work in, because it brings together the interpersonal side, working with people for the positive, you know, impact and for the positive change, that these these employees, your colleagues can kind of get with your help. And at the same time, it has very interesting fields like tech and analytics and data that are, that are becoming more important to kind of informed business decisions. So kind of bringing those two worlds together can be a very interesting field. And I guess I’m just a learner in this field like, like everyone else, and I need this permanent exchange with, you know, with people who are working in industry just to prove my hypotheses right or wrong.

This is a transcript from the Strategic L&D Podcast, where we venture through what key L&D opinion leaders are doing today to ensure they’re delivering a strategically impactful L&D function. If you want to stay up to date with our latest releases, subscribe to our learning and development podcast. We’re on most common podcast platforms, including Spotify and Apple. You’ll also find us in video form on our YouTube channel.

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