Building a modern L&D team: Who you need

This is the first in a series focused on how to build a L&D team for the modern age.

I’ve found many corporate learning teams have been slow to evolve their philosophies, understand the value they can bring and how they structure their teams to provide the best service to their people.

In this post, I’m going to focus the spotlight on the structure of an L&D team. Perhaps, the first question should be if we even call it an L&D team anymore? But I’ll leave that debate for another day.

The following is my personal view on how I would setup an L&D team in this era to achieve the following:

  1. Be successful (that’s kinda obvious right)
  2. Provide value to its people
  3. Provide return on investment to the business
  4. Support the talent cycle to build homegrown talent.

I’ve spoken before about the place of L&D in the workplace today at length. The central aim of any learning function (for me) is to enable and support people in being better humans. Basically, we are in service of our audience.

In a corporate world, we also add on the dimension of supporting workplace performance and enabling people to build the skills which will allow a company to achieve its goals.

Corporate L&D is about making an impact on the bottom line. There is no getting away from that, no matter how much it sucks to say.

The power of 4

Ok, let’s take a look at the structure of my recommended team for the modern age and explore what each area brings to the table.

Content curators

Why reinvent the wheel by creating more content when we have a library of information at our fingertips in the digital world. Save yourself time (and your sanity) by adopting a curation model of finding the best stuff out there to share with your people.

Some of the top organisations and leaders in their fields share their knowledge for free. Most of us will consume this content in our spare time through social media. So, why don’t we make better use of it in the workplace and share the right content with people.

Some may think curating content is easy but it’s actually an art form. You need to understand your audience, their problems, the type of content that will connect with them and is appropriate for your workplace culture.

You want to help people by giving them the right stuff, not more stuff. Leave Facebook and Twitter to fry people’s minds with information overload.

Curators are the first pillar of your unit and one that allows you to filter the great stuff from the external world into the right content that will add value for your audience.

Content creators 

Although I’ve given a glowing endorsement for content curation that doesn’t mean you don’t still need people to build bespoke content. 

This could be in the form of repurposing existing content, starting something from fresh, building videos, and blogs.

Having people with a key eye for design and an ability to bring it to life is vital for a modern team. You want to move from idea conception to execution quickly.

We can curate content all day long but sometimes it’s good to put your own spin on things and build an original product that is fit for purpose.

Creators will always be a staple of a learning team in some capacity.

Learning experience designers/consultants

This is not about building stuff in articulate or other tools. But the ability to build the right experiences to fit the problem at hand.

Forget about creating paint by number delivery experiences. This is not what these people do.

This is human centred design. Building solutions that will evoke change and solve a problem.

This section of your unit are part innovators, part experimenters and part experience designers.

These people should also understand tech, specifically learning tech. They should be able to answer questions like what’s the best platform and have the ability to envisage and map out the user experience. A keen eye and know how on what a clean, simple and value add user interface looks like. Essentially, a UI and UX geeks merged into one.

One of their top skills will be understanding the flow of tech and how to build the learning architecture which will benefit your audience.

In addition, these people can not only design experiences but facilitate too. However, they are not ‘facilitators’. Think of them as architects. Those who turn ideas into reality.

A strong set of LX consultants can be the crown jewel of your unit.

Comms + engagement  

In my opinion, everyone in an L&D team should understand and appreciate the need to market, communicate and connect audiences with their solutions. It’s an often overlooked skill and function of nearly all learning teams.

You can’t expect to build something and people will flock to use it. No, you need to learn the art of building a connection with your products.

A dedicated comms and engagement specialist can do wonders to embed and sustain your solutions. Building stuff is one thing, getting it in front of people is another.

I believe a communications/marketing/engagement function in your learning unit is crucial to your team’s success. Learning teams are in service of their audience, but most workplaces aren’t aware of what’s available to them. This is where a focused approach to comms and building a connection with the people you serve can be a game changer.

Things to note

You’ll immediately notice that there is no “facilitator” role in sight, and this is for good reason. I’m not saying this is the right way to do it. This is just the way I would do it.

These are the 4 main pillars I would build in my team. But, you may also notice I’ve not mentioned a dedicated role for a data analyst. Which is probably surprising to some as I’m a massive advocate of using data for L&D and it’s been a hot trend for the last few years. This has not changed, I just believe that anyone in any of these roles should have the capabilities to not only collect but understand how to use data in their work.

I don’t believe you need a dedicated data analyst role. To me, this is just a lazy tactic for the whole team not to add the skill of data analysis to their talent stack. In today’s world, this skill will be vital for any career so it makes sense to me that everyone should at least have some proficiency in it. 

This leads me nicely onto my next point on the shared skills that each member of this unit should have.

Shared skills

Now that I’ve unpacked the 4 key elements of a modern L&D team. I want to focus on the shared skills across the team, aka the skills that all members of your unit should possess.

Data analysis

I delved into this briefly above and the stance is the same. The action of data analysis should be something that is shared by each member of your unit, not just pushed onto one data analyst.

The reasons for this are simple:

  1. The skill of data analysis is a common skill needed by 80-90% of careers in today’s world. It’s a skill gap for many and learning it will for sure help with any future career path.
  1. If you don’t understand how to effectively collect and use data, then you aren’t able to create the best learning experience for any audience. Data is an enabler. One you cannot ignore when building any solution.
  1. Assigning just one person with the skills in data analysis is a point of failure. If only one member of your team has this knowledge, what happens if they leave? Are sick? Or their capacity is overloaded with requests from all areas of your team because they are unable to do the most basic data tasks? Avoid creating a point of failure.

Bottom line, having the whole team possess data analysis skills is a win for them and the team.

Comms and marketing

I have spoken at length on why if you build it, they won’t come.

90% of the time, most products become what I call 6 week wonders because there was never a plan.

Well not unless you actually tell people about your product and they know why it’s amazing. This is something I’ve seen far too many times. Teams spend months working hard on new content, throw it out into the world and then no one looks at it…..ever.

Then the holy question arises – why has no one used our product/resource/swanky new thing?

It’s really simple, you didn’t tell anyone. You can’t expect to build a product and people will naturally flock to use it, you need to become marketing savvy. Many learning teams are severely underestimating the power of a communications and engagement strategy.

Actually, I find many learning teams don’t understand how to connect their people with learning opportunities at all.

You can have the most amazing learning content in human existence, but if no one knows it exists, what it does and why it’s important for them  –  you’re pretty much digging your own grave.

Installing a dedicated communications and engagement specialist as I’ve suggested is one way to support this. However, you need the whole team to buy into this way of thinking. Your team needs to appreciate that the ability to promote, embed and sustain their products is a vital component of their role too.

Building a marketing approach for L&D products is a team effort. A comms and engagement manager will spearhead this work, yet all members of your unit should understand the why and how of engaging an audience with their products.

Learning technology/architecture/ecosystems (or design thinking, UX, UI)

I feel that embracing technology and using it to not only enable an audience but support a team has not quite worked in practice for most L&D functions.

This ultimately comes down to lack of understanding of current tech and the digital world at large.

Just because a supplier says that their platform will revolutionise your learning offer and make the process simpler for your team, doesn’t mean it’s true. Your unit needs to be tech savvy, not an expert but savvy.

Even outside of L&D, having a basic level of understanding how different technologies work, connect and support one another is essential. As the learning industry moves towards more tech products than ever before. The role of a modern L&D professional shifts to one of an architect in some ways.

We become architects that are not only designing solutions but building our learning tech stack or architecture if you will. In the next few years, I believe it will become the standard for L&D professionals to know how to build an evolving learning architecture that enables their ecosystem.

Not every member of your unit needs to be an expert in this field, but they should have an understanding. You will need several members of your unit who are comfortable in whiteboarding a learning architecture and can put the pieces of the puzzle together for you.

Again, some of you reading this might be resistant and suggest that a technology team should do this. However, your team will know the application for any learning tech better than anyone. They will understand how it works in practice, so, having a shared skill in keeping up to date with modern technology will be a value add. 

It is this knowledge which will separate your team from the industry. Your ability to keep up with trends, absorb what is useful, avoid what is not and apply what works for your audience will enable a high performing learning function.

Something’s missing: The leader you deserve

You might have clocked onto this already. But I have missed out a high level strategic role and it’s here, where I want to unpack this one.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the leadership role in this unit. You may know it as the Head of Learning, Director of Learning, Chief Learning Officer or whatever flavour of the month title is in rotation.

Although I’ve setup my team to all take ownership and lead together, they still need a leader to guide them.

The learning leadership role for me is one of a strategist, coach and enabler.

You should be a strategist who has operated in all of the 4 roles I’ve outlined above in some capacity. For some of you like me at times, you might be a solo act so you are playing all of these roles right now.

Like your team, you will be on top of evolving trends, insights and practices which allow you to create and communicate a clear vision for the team to work towards.

You act as a coach to support your team’s development. You work with them to solve problems and find answers together. You don’t tell them to do this or that, instead you take the journey with everyone too.

And finally, you enable your people to do what they need to. No micromanaging is required.

A modern learning leader should provide the freedom to experiment, propose new ideas, test stuff and ultimately innovate the way you work as a unit.

Much like any learning function, the leadership role is one in service to its people. 

The leader of the modern L&D team will serve it’s unit in the good times and bad times. In that service, a team can thrive, evolve and have the environment to provide the best service it can to its audience.

This will evolve

As I said from the get go, this is just how I would build a team right now in 2020.

Of course, you might have different requirements and these roles are interchangeable with your needs. The above will continue to evolve as the world changes and the dynamics of the workplace with it. So, don’t take what I’ve shared as set in stone. I’m sure a year from now my recommendation will look different too.

Something for you: The takeaway

When you look at your L&D team today, are they providing the service your audience needs? If not, why not?

Has your team been setup to deliver the service your workplace requires for continued development? If not, maybe you can take something from the above and apply this in your own world too.

I hope this has been of help. If you have any questions or comments, you can leave them below, message me directly, find me for a chat in the twitterverse and check out my blog for all things human development.

Before you go…

If you like my writing and think “Hey, I’d like to hear more of what this guy has to say” then you’re in luck.

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