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Rethinking the 'L&D mindset' 

A turbulent year has shown the current L&D mindset isn’t connecting in the ways we want it to. Here’s how to rethink your L&D team’s mindset to embrace courage, confidence, and collaboration. 
Dom Murray
2020-11-11

A turbulent year has shown the current L&D mindset isn’t connecting in the ways we want it to. Here’s how to rethink your L&D team’s mindset to embrace courage, confidence, and collaboration. 

Have you ever woken up on the wrong side of the bed? Grumpy, tired, or just not in the right headspace? If so, then look no further for proof that mindset is everything. There’s a huge difference between waking up in a cheery, positive mood and waking up feeling like something is slightly amiss. It all comes down to mindset. You can have all the best intentions, infused with a healthy dose of skills, but without the right mindset, you probably won’t get very far. L&D is no different. 

We discussed the ‘L&D mindset’ in our most recent blog post Understanding business value vs learning value. If you haven’t already read that, it’s a great introduction to L&D values and mindsets, as well as some of the broader challenges facing L&D. Have a look now! We’ll wait. 

If you need a quick refresher, we focussed on why L&D teams need to pivot from a learning values mindset to a business values mindset. Of course, doing so requires broad, team-wide mindset shifts, which is the exciting cliffhanger we finished on. 

To continue that theme, today, we’ll be looking at why mindset matters, the state of L&D mindsets, the role of technology, tips for embracing collaboration, and how to rethink your L&D mindset moving forward. 

First things first, let’s put mind over matter. 

Why mindset matters  

When you examine it closely, mindset is at the heart of nearly everything L&D does. So much so, that 85% of learning team leaders said mindset was the biggest barrier to achieving their team’s goals in 2020, according to a survey by Michelle Ockers

On a broader level, research into business mindsets by Stanford psychologist Dr Carol Dweck found that companies that adopt a growth mindset are “are 47% likelier to see their colleagues as trustworthy, 34% likelier to feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the company, 65% likelier to say that the company supports risk-taking, and 49% likelier to say that the company fosters innovation.”

Bringing it back to L&D, research by Gallup finds that the number 1 reason people change jobs today is a lack of career growth opportunities. From this, they conclude that “if leaders don't change the way they approach development, they cannot expect sustained performance excellence.” That ‘change to the way they approach development’? Mindset. 

Basically, in L&D, all roads lead to mindset. It permeates through culture, skills, and performance, and is at the heart of everything we do. Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear that the current L&D mindset hasn’t evolved to keep up with wider organisational demands. Accordingly, it just isn’t connecting with learners, executives, and team members in the way we intend it to. 

Before we can work on changing this, let’s look at the state of L&D mindsets. 

The state of L&D mindsets 

According to Michelle Ockers, mindset is fundamental to everything L&D does — both good and bad. She explains this in her article for Go1 Crafting a digital learning strategy that creates value, saying, “L&D mindset gets in the way...In addition to adopting a business value mindset, those L&D teams who create the most value let go of tight control and share responsibility for learning with others. They see others as connected contributors to learning rather than passive recipients of content and training. This shift engenders curiosity to use technology to do things differently, rather than just doing things more efficiently.” 

The idea that ‘L&D mindset gets in the way’ should be cause for concern. Rather than facilitating growth and moving towards confidence, courage, and collaboration, the current L&D mindset seems to be holding teams back, focussing instead on control, status quo thinking, and fear of failure. 

This sentiment is echoed by Liberate Learning, who think that “L&D in organisations with predictable learning offerings fulfils ‘organisational hygiene’ purposes of compliance or employee engagement rather than being a critical business function with a measurable performance impact.”

Corporate Learning Disrupted takes a similar view, stating, “we need to transform the way we think as L&D professionals. The old beliefs need to make space for the new if we want to have a chance to align business and corporate learning.” Clearly, it’s time for a change, as L&D values are misaligned with practical, day-to-day realities. 

The 2020 Emerald Works Learner Intelligence Report shows the disconnect between L&D mindset and practical outcomes. They mention “an L&D industry that is declining in impact while consuming more investment”, adding “there is a gap between learning and development strategy and on-the-ground practice.”

To demonstrate this disconnect, only 16% of learning practitioners think their teams engage in online learning without being prompted. However, in reality, 74% of online learners say they’re happy to learn without any prompting. That’s not just a disconnect, it’s a chasm. And it all starts with mindset. Addressing these disconnects should be at the top of every L&D leader’s list. After all, it’s difficult to change your mindset if no one is on the same page.

Additionally, the 2020 Learner Intelligence Report found that, due to a disconnect between L&D strategy and actual impact, “60% of learning and development departments find themselves on the lower end of the EW Index”. This means these L&D teams are having a “transactional impact” rather than a real, behavioural impact, wherein the focus is predominantly placed on “competence, rather than capability.” Only 6% of learning organisations are deemed to have a “high-impact learning culture.”

In large part, this is down to a “lack of evidence-based practice”, as only 10% of learning teams use performance data to measure the impact of their programs, while just 12% use analytics to improve their service. 

The standard L&D mindset simply isn’t connecting. While ‘mindset’ will mean different things to different companies, what is clear is that it’s time for a refresh, moving from tight control to collaboration, from status quo to embracing new ideas, from fear of failure to courage and confidence, and from learning value to business value

The role of technology

As ever, technology has a part to play. According to Michelle Ockers, L&D teams are too preoccupied with “fear that technology will make L&D redundant rather than augmenting what they do and allowing them to create more value.” Given this, she recommends that L&D teams get technology into perspective, labelling it as “an enabler of learning and performance, not the saviour.” 

Thrive Learning puts it a little more bluntly, saying, “We choose to tether ourselves to these “band-aid” technologies. Our salvation. The ‘ooooh shinies’ of the world. The things that make us go “aahhh” and “wow”. Yeah, those super shiny technologies are sexy, sure. But unless we start resolving root cause issues, we’re never going to ever be able to really adopt them.” 

While this might sound harsh at first glance (or hilarious, depending on your perspective), the statistics back it up. Emerald Works’ Back to the Future Report found that investment in learning technologies increased by 3% in 2020. Despite this, “only 15% of learning leaders report successes in driving innovation for business growth – 3% lower than in 2019.” More investment, less output. 

On average, they found that organisations use 25 different learning technologies, spending over 21% of their budgets on digital. Even so, they conclude that “technology alone does not correlate to business or learning impact.” 

This is further evident among the top 10 extreme concerns for L&D, from a survey of 1,123 learning leaders. 29% are concerned by the pace of technological change and their team’s inability to keep up (up 10% from 2019), while 39% say L&D are overwhelmed and under-equipped (up 10% from 2019). 

Perhaps most importantly, 39% say that leaders have traditional expectations of L&D that are difficult to challenge (up 12% from 2019). This is worth emphasising, as it seems that these ‘traditional’ expectations are holding L&D back, keeping teams stuck with an outdated mindset. 

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Technology can be used to facilitate a brighter future for L&D, it just requires (you guessed it) a mindset shift. According to Emerald Works’ Back to the Future Report, high-impact learning cultures (HILCs) spend even more on digital (28%) than other companies. But it’s not the increased spend that correlates with performance, it’s their ability to “look through a different lens in order to change capability”.

The numbers are telling. 66% of HILCs use analytics to improve the learning experience, compared to 12% of average companies, while 91% of HILCs use technology to organise and make learning easier to find, compared to 28% of average companies. Finally, 71% of HILCs use technology to involve learning consumers in design, compared to just 21% of average companies. 

Shifting towards these practices would be an excellent first step for rethinking the L&D mindset.    

Embracing collaboration

When analysing your team’s values and mindset, collaboration should be a primary consideration. As Michelle Ockers said, “L&D teams who create the most value let go of tight control and share responsibility for learning with others.” In other words: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. 

McKinsey summarises the role collaboration will play in the future of L&D, saying, “L&D leaders must embrace a broader role within the organisation and formulate an ambitious vision for the function. An essential component of this effort is a comprehensive, coordinated strategy that engages the organisation and encourages collaboration.” 

Why is collaboration so important? Aside from the obvious, in top-performing L&D departments, team members are 50% more likely to understand how their work is linked to their organisation’s overall performance, while a massive 97% say that business leaders recognise that learning is aligned with the business plan. In essence, these organisations recognise that L&D is one piece in a far larger puzzle.

Additionally, 91% of L&D team members say collaboration is either essential or very useful to their job, while 80% say they are willing to share what they know with others (although 23% say they need a little help getting started). 

Nevertheless, this is another area where there is a major disconnect between mindset and output. In fact, collaboration in L&D is trending in the wrong direction. According to Emerald Works’ 2020 Back to the Future report, L&D teams’ in-house ability to facilitate social and collaborative learning decreased from 25% in 2018 to just 15% in 2020. 

Exacerbating this issue, only 31% of L&D managers work upfront with business leaders to identify the KPIs that they want to improve. Disconnect alert. This shows a worrying lack of collaboration between L&D and the wider business. To evolve the L&D mindset, this must change, with L&D becoming more plugged into wider organisational factors. 

Once again, the difference between HILCs and other organisations is stark. 91% of HILCs say they “actively encourage people to collaborate in building knowledge resources”, compared to just 37% of other companies.            

Moving forward: 3 tips to rethink your L&D mindset

The current L&D mindset needs a rethink. Collaboration is down, disconnects between expectation and output are rising, and technology isn’t closing the gap. While overhauling your mindset may seem intimidating, looking at things from a fresh perspective can have huge benefits for both your team and your business as a whole. 

The best part? Mindset is something you can work on every day, from waking up on the right side of the bed, to encouraging collaboration among your team. Here are 3 concrete tips to help you move forward with a shiny new mindset! 

1. Take stock of your current mindset

Before things can truly change, it’s important to take stock of your current mindset. Do some of the problems outlined in this blog sound a little too familiar? Are things not quite connecting in the ways you had hoped? It may come down to a simple mindset shift. 

Take the time to identify and analyse your current mindset, before openly challenging any engrained status quos that have crept into your thinking. Remember, ‘this is just the way we do things’ may not cut it, so it’s time to say out with the old, and in with a new mindset. 

2. Have confidence in your offering 

To us, rethinking the L&D mindset is all about evolving from fear and central ownership to embrace the three Cs: confidence, courage, and collaboration. It all starts with the confidence to embrace change. This quote from Laura Overton rings particularly true: 

“I've seen evidence that learning and development can really deliver strong bottom line value, incredible value, back into the organisation. I think one of the challenges is that we feel that rather than being that diamond, that precious gem, often we see ourselves as more of a piece of coal." 

It’s time to move away from that thinking. Throw away the fear of failure, and embrace a confident mindset going forward, recognising L&D as the precious, value-laden gem that it is. 

3. Embrace collaboration

We outlined why collaboration is so important earlier, but this one bears repeating. L&D does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, our decisions impact others, just as other people’s decisions impact us. Going forward, L&D must collaborate with business leaders, other teams, and each other, to play our role in the wider organisational context and fully embrace a business value mindset.

Stay tuned! 

Next up in our ongoing deep dive into Digital Foundations, we’ll be focussing on skills. Specifically, we’ll be asking why are L&D digitally underskilled, as well as looking at upskilling vs reskilling, the top skills you’ll need for 2021 and beyond, and how to uncover hidden skills in your team. 

Or, if you just can’t wait (and who can blame you), you can always check out more of our great blog posts here

And remember, mindset matters!

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