Business Integration: Maximizing L&D’s Impact and Influence

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled Business Integration: Maximizing L&D’s Impact and Influence. In it, Bob Mosher is joined by APPLY Synergies’ CEO Einar Schow and together they explore how to align learning initiatives with larger business needs. Specific areas of focus include key business drivers and the challenges in understanding them, evolving skills and roles, the rise of L&D, and the elusive ROI.

Bob Mosher (BM): Today, I’m honored to be joined by Einar Schow, APPLY Synergies’ CEO, to discuss L&D aligning with the business. He is a remarkable businessperson and a dear colleague and friend. Einar, we’re glad you’re joining us. Please give a little bit of your background and what’s gotten you here, and then we’ll get into this important topic.

Einar Schow (ES): Absolutely. Thank you for having me on today. I love to be here talking about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I started my career in L&D with an old company called the WordPerfect Corporation. Some of the “old timers” might remember that one. I went from L&D into the marketing department and ended up being a director of one of WordPerfect’s business lines. So, I shifted early on from L&D and went into business management, which has occupied most of my career until now. I started working with APPLY Synergies (and Bob and Con) four years ago. It’s been a wonderful journey, getting back into the L&D world, this time as L&D business management. I love the topic we’re going to be talking about today relative to that.

BM: And you’re the perfect guest for it!

L&D professionals are a wonderful group. Many of us have remarkable pedigree. Some come from a business background, but a vast number of us don’t. We have all the ins and outs, all the language and jargon of good things like ADDIE and more, but we always struggle—me included—with the idea of business acumen and speaking the language of the business. I will say that the 5 Moments of Need and workflow learning pulled me into this conversation kicking and screaming 10 years ago, but really helped me understand it better.

So, let’s start with some remarkable data: 53% of L&D professionals agree that L&D has a seat at the executive table, compared to 24% in 2020. Why do you think we’ve seen this jump? More importantly, can we sustain it or is it a one-hit wonder? Why do you think we’re sitting where we are today?

ES: First, I think that seat is ours to lose. We’re there, and let’s stay there. As to why we’re there, I think it’s partially because of all the changes we’ve seen over the last few years, starting with COVID. What an amazing event that changed everybody’s life overnight. The world shut down. Think about this, Bob. When we were youngsters, we couldn’t have done anything virtually, but suddenly, we had this virtual world. We could connect everywhere, and educators—K-12 teachers, university professors, L&D teams—quickly stepped up to bat in an absolutely remarkable way and proved their worth to the entire world. I think that’s one of the factors.

The other factor that we can’t overlook is a shift in employee requirements. Over the past three years, employees have indicated that having learning opportunities is the number one requirement for accepting a new job or staying with an employer. Why? Because workers are afraid of becoming obsolete. The amount of change every industry is facing every day is such that pay has now become the number two consideration for accepting or keeping a job. Everybody’s feeling so much pressure from the speed of change. Learning, by its very definition, is on the front line of resolving that issue.

BM: My question with that, Einar, is around key business drivers. Obviously, the shifts you just mentioned from the employees’ perspective are massive. I remember being told, “Your kid’s going to change jobs seven times. They’re so marketable.” What a pivot to this difference in feeling some insecurity around people’s marketability and their ability to sustain and hold a job. I remember talking with Scott Schmoldt from UnitedHealthcare, who has been on this podcast before. He said he had tried for two years to get virtual technology implemented in his company, but he couldn’t get it past IT, let alone to anyone who cared. Then COVID hit and his CEO called him—not just anybody, the CEO of the company—and said, “So, what are we going to do?” They stood up and were using virtual technology in a month. What a remarkable pivot and momentum to ride! So, what are these key business drivers that you think we need to better understand, ask about, and focus on in our work? What advice do you have for the folks who are listening?

ES: Well, it’s very simple and kind of tricky all at once. At the end of the day, business drivers are actually quite simple. They’re all about making the business better. Ultimately, you’re delivering on key priorities like business growth, profitability, client success, adjusting to market changes, developing for the future, and social engagement: all those things that are important for a business to maintain, grow, and succeed. Those are really the primary underlying drivers of everything that we do in business. But it’s easy for us to get myopic in our focus areas. What I mean by that is sometimes we think that learning, for example, in and of itself is a business driver. Well, it’s not. Learning itself is not the driver. The driver is what learning can accomplish by way of performance, productivity, etc. As we get myopic and step back in our positions, we tend to look away a little bit from that underlying priority, which is really quite simple. How do we make the business succeed?

BM: So why do you think this has eluded L&D so terribly? I mean, I heard “ROI” in the first week of my employment, and this is my 40th year in this industry. At the same time, Kirkpatrick came along, then Philips added his fifth layer, and that kind of gave us a framework. But just like the 5 Moments of Need, a framework in and of itself doesn’t get you there, which is why we promote the methodology of EnABLE to help us do 5 MoN. But how to do ROI has eluded us. We get the stages, we get the five levels, but that isn’t accomplishing ROI. Why do you think the business drivers have eluded L&D? In many ways, it’s almost like we’re afraid and kind of whisper about ROI. We don’t run at it. Why do you think that is?

ES: Well, we’ve been order takers for so long. You’ve mentioned this in a lot of your presentations as well, Bob. When you’re an order taker, somebody’s telling you, “Give me a course on X.” We’ve been conditioned to accept that our role is in the background. To our industry, impact has meant delivering a good or relevant course—not necessarily focusing on improving performance or recognizing our impact on the business. I think because we’ve been kind of ignored, we’re a little bit resentful, so when we get to the table, suddenly we want to be understood. I’ve sat in groups of L&D professionals who have expressed that sentiment, so I’ve said, “Okay, let’s talk about the business. Let’s talk about how we communicate with the business line.” Immediately, they start a conversation about needing to let the business line know what L&D can do and what the possibilities are. Well, I go back to Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and think about this guidance: seek first to understand, and then to be understood. Absolutely, we need to be a part of that strategic conversation, allowing the business line to see possibilities beyond a traditional course, etc. At the same time, we’ve been so conditioned to be those order takers that taking on the role of stepping back and first understanding what we’re trying to accomplish is difficult. It’s a difficult mind shift. But we’ve got to step out of our comfort zone a little bit and engage on a strategic level to get there.

BM: Let me go a little deeper. I’d love your take on this next statement because I hear it all the time: “I try to do that, and the line of business doesn’t know what it needs.” Do you believe that? I mean, most folks that I know who work in lines of business, who are worth their salt, are highly attuned to business needs and, more importantly, shortfalls that keep them up at night. But I hear L&D folks fall back on this a lot—that they can’t get lines of business to tell L&D what they need. They will even say that the lines of business respond with a blank stare. Is that just bad questions or vocabulary? Or is it true? What’s your take? You ran a business, and you ran a very important line of business. Where do you think this is coming from?

ES: Well, we don’t speak each other’s language very well. If we’re thinking about how we’re going to educate a group of people, we’re coming at a problem very differently than somebody who’s trying to, like I said, make the business better. They have a big priority and underlying objective that they’re trying to accomplish. I think it’s incumbent upon us as we come to the table to start speaking their language, because expecting them to come to that tactical level on our end and really understand what we can do is not realistic. They’re going to be focused on their priorities and building a successful business, keeping to those key objectives, KPIs, and more. I do think that they will recognize good strategy when they see it. If they see something that’s different and that has a better chance of improving performance, absolutely, they’re going to get it. They’re going to engage with us on that level and come to our side of the table—a little bit.

BM: Excellent. So, we’re trying to become a partner as opposed to “this wing of the building is where training gets done” or that training happens way downstream as an afterthought: “Oh yeah, we should probably have training on this. Let’s go talk to the L&D department.” To your order taker point, that’s not partnership. That’s a dictatorship. You’ve worn the hat of a business partner, both within the organization you were part of and with the partners you had to support. School us up on this. What does a partner look like in this regard? How do we change our vocabulary and the way others view us to be seen more like that? What would your advice be in building partnerships?

ES: First, you have to respect everybody at the table. Go in with an open mind about their strengths and understand what strengths you bring to the table. Also, respect yourself as you’re going to that table. You belong there. I think that’s what we really have to internalize. We belong at this table. We should be there every single time as we’re talking strategically about how to build and develop the business.

Being willing to engage on a strategic level starts with understanding and internalizing the objective. If you don’t understand the objective, it’s okay to ask questions. Being a passive observer doesn’t help anybody, so if you don’t understand, be willing to step up and ask the right questions. Don’t be intimidated. People want you to ask questions and will respect you for doing that. They understand that you don’t necessarily understand everything right off the bat when you come to the table.

And lastly, take a long-term view of success. A problem throughout our industry is that we often don’t take a long-term view of success, especially because we are order takers and because we think of things in terms of courses, which end and then we’re done. We tend to see our part of the game as being one little moment in time instead of taking a long-term view of success, which is what I love about the EnABLE process and the 5 Moments of Need. They really are about a long-term view. In Train/Transfer/Sustain, you’re spending your time going through a whole process to help improve performance, not just delivering a one-time event. So, if you start taking a long-term view of success, you will become a partner really quickly because you’ll be part of a team that’s helping somebody get over a finish line of some sort.

BM: I love that, and I love the reference to Train/Transfer/Sustain. Con Gottfredson would push us to work from Sustain back, even though we say Train/Transfer/Sustain in that order. I think the business cares most about the sustainment part. That’s the endgame. So, we should start with a conversation about a sustainment strategy, and then work back into whatever amount of training is needed. I love your point about believing we belong at the table. I think that’s an issue for L&D folks. I think there’s a hesitation or a self-image or a lack of courage, so I love your point about not being afraid to earn your spot by asking good questions.

ES: Here’s a mind shift for us. We often talk about ROI, so do we see ourselves as a cost or do we see ourselves as an investment? As soon as we start thinking about ourselves and what we provide as a business investment, then we become a partner, because we’re helping drive a return on that investment. And it changes our entire mindset about how we measure the impact of what we do.

BM: Yesterday, I was speaking to a senior leader who’s involved in some significant cutbacks right now—not just in L&D, but throughout the company. You can tell his first instinct is that he’s going to be cut and that he should back off his product, but what you’re suggesting is he should be at the table saying, “Let me help you get through this. I can bring efficiency. I can cut back on the overhead of training using the 5 Moments of Need and workflow learning. I can walk you through the business and cost analysis of that.” Right?

ES: Absolutely. And he should add, “I can help you become a more productive unit. I want to help every employee start becoming more productive and engaged and free them up to really become the best employee they can be.” That is what everybody wants, from management down to individual employees. Everybody has that exact same objective in mind, including L&D.

We’re fearful of results because we feel like we don’t have any control over them. That’s the baseline of our fear. When we’re delivering a course, we really don’t have any control over the outcome. We can deliver a brilliant course but that doesn’t mean we’ve moved the needle one iota. But if we’re part of this overall team engagement, and really working towards a strategic solution that takes us all the way through sustainment as part of that team, we no longer have to fear the results, because we’re not in a static environment. We’re not done. We can change things up if they’re not working.

BM: Right. We’re in the workflow. We’re in the business. The irony of this conversation is that when times get tough, when (God forbid) 10,000 folks are laid off, those left behind have to be way more efficient and productive than they’ve ever been, because headcount is down. It’s “all hands on deck”. What an important time to be part of the strategic work of the business, but from a performance-first perspective. Because if we ask if we should gear up our classes, the people on the other side of the table are going to say, “No, we can’t afford that right now.” Right?

ES: That’s exactly right. You know, the thing that’s so wonderful about the business world and our lives in general is that we all seek improvement all the time. We’re trying to make ourselves better. Businesses are trying to make themselves better. When we go through recessionary times like what we’re going through right now, we typically see a fairly rapid rebound, because everybody’s starting to pull in the right direction. You may get a little bit leaner and a little bit meaner. It makes you a better business in the long run. So, it’s not too surprising that the rebound happens because, as a team, we start focusing on all the right things. We might have to do them with fewer people, but guess what? Over the long term, that’s not unhealthy. Again, L&D is at the forefront of that. We are in a unique position to move the needle.

BM: But to your point, we’ve got to be on the right side of the ledger paper. We’ve got to be on that investment side.

This is a phenomenal conversation. If I’m out there listening to this podcast, I might have heard some new vernacular and new challenges. Let’s say I’m a leader—more “rank and file”. I’m wondering what competencies, roles, and skills are required for the work we’re describing, and are there some blind spots I should think about?

ES: Great question. The role that comes to mind is performance consultant. I’m not saying go back to school and learn how to be that, but we can fill that void, because that’s another piece that is often lacking at the table: somebody who is focusing exclusively on performance. So, what does a performance consultant do? Well, first and foremost, they look for real solutions to improve the performance of people in the organization. They focus on results and identify the gaps that exist between business objectives and performance. They are always focused on performance. They study the designs and solutions for “the what” and “the how” of what the business wants to accomplish, and this requires research and outside-the-box thinking. For example, if building a course is always “the how”, we’re probably not exploring the options or really understanding “the what”, so it’s critically important that we can explain what the business wants to accomplish, and then focus on the performance objectives. That’s a very simple outline of what a performance consultant does. If we can step into that role a little bit, I think that is exactly the skill set that we need to bring to the table.

BM: So, we’ve referenced 5 Moments of Need and workflow learning a couple times. Let’s run at those specifically. As a businessperson, Einar, why do you find that 5 Moments of Need as a framework/methodology for the workflow learning discipline is aligned so well to this whole conversation we’ve been having?

ES: First, it aligns very well with driving change leadership and strategic engagement. We make the point all the time that leaders are not there to maintain the status quo, right? They’re there to drive change. Likewise, L&D isn’t there to maintain the status quo. It’s there to help drive change, and 5 Moments of Need checks all the boxes when it comes to both change leadership and change management. The reason for that is you’re immediately closer to impact. In a classroom setting, you’re trying to measure the impact of an event. With workflow learning, you’re really trying to help somebody learn while they are working. We go into that definition of workflow learning a lot, because it must mean that you don’t have to stop working while you’re learning. At that point, you’re measuring the impact of ongoing performance support. Think about that. Building a workflow learning solution is never static. You’re continually changing it, you’re massaging it, you’re maintaining it, and you have good governance behind it. So, the solution continues to get better and better. It also allows you to adapt to ongoing change because change happens so rapidly right now. With that sustained learning effort, you’re able to adapt to the changes as well as disseminate information immediately with a good Digital Coach. And there are excellent technologies for this that address true workflow learning and performance support. Technologies like AskDelphi, tt-s, and Panviva are often set aside in favor of repurposing existing software, but if you truly put together a 5 Moments of Need solution with the right software to create a Digital Coach—and we make the point that a Digital Coach is not just software because it’s actually a structure—you’re delivering learning over a long period of time, and you’re continuing to adapt, maintain, update, and measure impact. That was a long-winded answer, but I think the 5 Moments of Need is really the only solution that’s going to allow you to engage at that level.

BM: Your answer is powerful for me because it touches on everything. We are in a recessionary period. We are coming out of COVID. We are at a time of the most rapid, uncontrollable, and unforeseen change I’ve ever experienced in my life. Before all of that, L&D was always seen as rigid, risk averse, highly structured, methodical (using waterfall design), etc. None of that maps to the world we’re in today. None of it. We need to be agile and adaptive. Those are the words of the day in business (not just in learning), but we’ve referred to agile instructional design for 10 years, and I don’t think we’ve done it well—until 5 Moments of Need came along.

Let’s send folks away with some deliverables and next steps. Give me three things that our listeners should try to do when this podcast ends.

ES: First, be proactive. Reach out and start the conversation. If the business leader hasn’t reached out to you, if you’re part of that 47% that’s not invited to the table, it doesn’t mean that the business leader doesn’t want you there. They may just not be thinking about it or feeling like you’re necessarily interested. So, be proactive, reach out, and start the conversation. You might discover that they really appreciate and invite new perspectives. I know that’s not always the case, but you’ll find that it is the case more often than not, because we’re all striving to become better at what we do.

Second, prepare to listen. Seek first to understand and then to be understood. If you’re being proactive and trying to engage with somebody in the business line, start out by listening, because that’s how you start the engagement with anybody. People want to be heard, including business line managers. Start by listening.

Third, review opportunities to define metrics that support business needs. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t step back. And don’t be afraid of missing the mark at first either. That exercise in and of itself is going to help you understand business objectives. If you start focusing on the metrics that you need to drive to deliver the objective, you’ve got to understand the objective. As you start thinking through what that is, it’s going to start clicking. You’re going to start speaking that language.

I think those would be my top three pieces of advice. Just coming back to your point of all the changes that are happening, you and I went to school when we had to write papers—even in college for crying out loud—on lined pieces of paper with a pen. The idea of every home having a computer and smartphones was so foreign to us even 30 years ago. The amount of change that we have seen is astonishing, and now with AI coming to the scene and becoming part of everyday life, we have to embrace that and see that as the next opportunity. Because guess what? AI is a great way to accomplish tactical things. It’s a great way to learn systems. But if we’re going to maintain our value, we need to become strategic. That’s where AI isn’t going next. This gives us an opportunity to step back and allow AI to become part of the build, and we can focus on strategy. If we really want to stay relevant in this industry, we have to focus on becoming a part of that strategic value chain. So, that was actually four pieces of advice.

BM: As a dear friend of mine said, we call ourselves learning or L&D professionals, but we don’t often act like that last word or see ourselves as such. I mean, a lawyer is a professional. A doctor is a professional. They view themselves as experts and strategists in those fields. But we sit back. Sometimes we’re afraid of partnership in the business.

Einar, I’m not at all surprised by this brilliant conversation. You’re one of those rare learning leaders that has walked the walk in the business and sees how those worlds connect. It reminds me of my recent interview with Rob Lauber, who is successful because he understands that, in the end, if the business doesn’t succeed, the learning effort is moot.

Brilliant stuff and thanks so much for your time, your effort, and your wisdom. Really insightful.

ES: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this.

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