Deep Thoughts

How to move from Learning to Performance: Defining what it is that Learning and Development teams do

A look at a hypothetical repositioning of workplace learning to performance engineering.

The question I dread being asked the most is what do you do for work?

Why might you ask? Because I don’t really know how to accurately and succinctly describe what it is I do.

I’ll usually rumble through something like, “I’m in learning and development, but I’m not an educator, I don’t do classroom stuff. I’m more like a consultant that’s a problem solver and coaches people rather than instructs. I basically help people unlock their potential and improve performance, kinda like an engineer but in a non-techy more behavioural change sense, if you get my drift.”

Of course, this prolonged statement leaves me and the asker of the question, both confused and wishing that the question never came up.

So, it’s a problem right? in an industry which I feel has an identity crisis, how does one accurately convey what it is one does?

I’ve written at length (and I mean at length!!) around the structure of a modern workplace learning team and the skills needed for today’s world.

My problem has always been, that I don’t quite feel comfortable with any of the labels for roles in our profession.

This is exactly why I’ve been such a proponent of the mantra that job titles are worthless and it’s the skills that matter. Still, this doesn’t help when you need to bend to societal norms and provide some form of 15 second line when asked that dreaded question of what it is you do.

I’ve cycled through a lot of the weird and wonderful titles associated with learning people across the world. Highlights include, training manager (the obvious one), that L&D guy, capability manager, digital learning and comms manager, learning experience designer, learning architect and in-line with the most recent industry movements I sit amongst a quasi title of L&D, talent development and performance specialist.

Yet, none of them quite sit right with me, nor do they actually reflect what it is I do.

Perhaps, I’m thinking too much about it. Perhaps, it’s a none issue which I’m making something out of nothing. But, I think there’s something here, and it extends to the branding of workplace learning teams too.

You see, I don’t make people “learn” or “develop” – I have no power over that. Instead, I remove barriers to performance, work through organisational problems and blockers to people being at their best to contribute to organisational objectives.

When I say the words learning and development to people, they generally paint a picture of me in a classroom boring the life out of people with a 100 slide powerpoint deck or sending them annoying emails about completing their annual compliance modules.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there and done that in the earlier, more naïve days but it’s not a representation of my work today.

The reason I shy away from saying L&D in most cases, is simply down to the archaic representation it immediately associates me with. Thus, providing the recipient with a misaligned view that I deliver copious amounts of boring content in a classroom setting.

In reality, my work focuses more on these core pillars:

  • Identifying and supporting in solving organisational problems created by performance gaps (you can call this capability if you wish)
  • Removing barriers to allow people to get stuff done in the simplest way possible (aka creating learning ecosystems or you may call it architecture, understanding how to build a digital learning stack etc)
  • Influencing the behaviours, mindset and experiences of a workforce to enable real change
  • Building a better employee experience

Granted, you won’t see that on many job descriptions, but this is my reality.

What’s the solution?

In the pursuit of a better understanding and description of what it is that I do. I’ve started to describe myself as a performance engineer and refer to my practice of work as performance engineering.

Why performance engineering?

Personally, it’s the best way that I can convey what I do and more accurately describes my work. And, I think this is what traditional workplace learning teams are in need of, a sort of re-brand in the organisational structure as to what they do.

I meet so many talented learning professionals who are just misunderstood due to the title of their job and team. Many are actually Product Managers, designers and marketers but they don’t realise it because they’ve been shoved into a box that works for the organisational development team.

Even before the pandemic, the lovely workplace learning function had been going through a rather late but necessary evolution, which of course, has been fast tracked in the last 6 months.

This has meant that the priorities and the way our industry serves it’s end user has greatly shifted. Digital learning is all the rage, the classroom is dead and many organisations think their learning functions are the first thing to cut to save the cash. Yet, they fail to realise their value in reshaping and steering it’s workforce through challenging times.

So, this leads me onto my main point and the title of this article – moving from learning to performance engineering.

How Learning and Development teams work.

Most of us in the industry today (in my opinion) work like mini engineering teams.

We have UX and UI designers, data analysts, marketers, performance consultants and content engineers.

So, instead of building a brand of “we are L&D” which commonly repels most of a workforce and stakeholders, could we not create one of performance engineers instead? Those who can help the organisation remove barriers and be part of that problem-solving process to everyday workplace challenges?

I’m not saying, “This is the way”. It’s more a recommendation on how as an industry we can better position what it is we do and how we can help the people in our organisations. And, sadly for many, the title L&D and learning team doesn’t cut it.

You might think this is all non-relevant and there’s nothing in a title or name. Yet, experience (and my good friends in marketing) has taught me, that much is determined based on a simple set of words.

We all associate brands with what they do. Think of organisations like Apple, Google and Microsoft – you conjure an image of technology immediately.

In a workplace setting, when you say Finance, Legal or Procurement you have a pretty clear picture of what it is they do. But, say L&D or my most hated word of “training” and the understanding gets a bit murkier.

However, you can reposition how your team is viewed.

You can influence what your organisation recognises the team for with clarity of the core understanding and brand establishment of what it is you can actually help them with.

My version of this is performance engineering and I see myself as a performance engineer right now.

Yours will probably be different; like mine, it will evolve with the times. I can imagine writing a piece a few years from now that completely diverts from what I’ve shared here, but that’s life. Times change, new thinking arises and we evolve.

Let me reframe the answer to the question I shared at the beginning – what do you do for work?

I’m a performance engineer, I help remove barriers to essential knowledge, work on solving workforce performance challenges and ultimately make sure people can get the stuff done to help them and the business thrive.

Perhaps, still too long and not quite right for all but for me, it’s what we really do.

If you can reposition your brand through a reframing of words, you might just change the relationship with your people, stakeholders and leadership for the better.

The skills of modern-day learning and development professional.
Want to learn more about skills for performance engineers? Check this out

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