Mind the gap

They're one of the business world's best kept secrets. Yet L&D people are both passionate and subtle.

Written by Charlie Swift
Published 16 July 2015
Mind the gap

L&D specialists are one of the wider business world’s best kept secrets.

They care about performance and health and happiness. They see connections everywhere, often between the unlikeliest of topics, and they’re keen networkers. They have a vision for the future, never stop innovating, and value the potential in everyone.

Now, you know these qualities already, because you’re in the profession. And I know them, because I’ve worked with L&D people for years. But most of my “lay” colleagues and friends, from a range of roles, levels and sectors, have never knowingly met someone from L&D. The term itself prompts hesitant questions at best, blank faces at worst. How sad and frustrating, when this highly honorable profession is working so hard on their behalf!

Such an extraordinary disjunction is only possible because L&D people have two other qualities: humility and hope.

They’re humble enough to be largely invisible, working behind the scenes. They plan the strategy, select the software, design the program, validate the andragogy but, mostly, they don’t stand up and deliver it face-to-face. And if they do, they’re known as “trainers” and judged mainly on their ability to entertain a class on what is, after all, a day away from “real” work.

And they’re hopeful enough to believe that the very thoroughness, effectiveness and, at its best, joy of their work will lead inevitably to its adoption and celebration. Both the leadership and grassroots of an organization must surely be able to see the worth of L&D! So much so that they will commit time, money and effort to engaging with it, and even make it a core part of their lives.

The reality is that intricately planned programs can fail at the first fence of implementation. Leaders and managers might complain at the resources “wasted” by their teams’ involvement, and participants may have no understanding of why they’re involved, how to benefit from the opportunity, or what they can bring to it. There can be widespread resentment at the interruption L&D represents to business as usual, and a belief that it’s a luxury, not a must-have.

The potential solution that is mentioned most often is using quantifiable facts, and sometimes qualitative feedback, as evidence of the worth of L&D to the business. This is surely right. But I’d like to argue that the other half of the equation needs some attention.

The people who will deliver the improvements in quality, efficiency, profits, reputation, and so on that the company demands are the recipients of L&D. And learner engagement is central to every piece of L&D. There’s just one problem. All of that beautiful design and preparation of the product will go to waste if the learner doesn’t know it exists or doesn’t think it’s for them.

They need to open the box to see what’s inside. And, to extend the metaphor, if they’re not browsing in your shop, in your neighborhood, or even on your planet, you’ll never reach them.

This is where I must declare an interest: I’m an immigrant to the Land of L&D from the Kingdom of Marketing, Communications and PR. (Greetings!) And I’ve served as a diplomat to the distant island homes of the Bored-to-Tears Warehouse Operatives, the Hard-Pressed Middle Managers, and the Put-Upon Administrators, as well as the Detail-Driven Technicians and the Enthusiastic-but-Inexperienced Fundraisers, and more.

Diverse as these peoples are, they have one thing in common: the desire to be spoken to in their own language, via familiar and accessible channels, in a tone that they like, and with meaning that they can see is relevant. And at the moment, a lot of L&D publicity doesn’t meet these basic criteria, so it’s instantly “tuned out” and forgotten, if it’s seen at all.

Imagine Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II voicing an advertisement for auto maintenance lessons for under 18s, on a classical music radio station. Fun, but not effective, if stereotypes hold true! And sadly, L&D news is just as alien to many parts of your organization.

So my suggestion – in fact, my plea – is that you search out and befriend your local internal comms department, or a management-staff panel, or the union’s representatives, or those keen individuals dotted randomly through the organization who already “get” your culture and meaning. Win their support for your project, and then ask them how best to communicate with your various colleague groups.

With their help, tailor your messaging as carefully as you would the content of your resources. Research the optimum timing, frequency and style of your announcements and invitations. Commit resources to this vital communication.

Harness all the skills you can from across the organization and make a leap of the imagination. Together, you’ll bridge that chasm between L&D and the rest of the business, and maybe, for once, you’ll be famous!

About the author

Charlie Swift

Charlie Swift

Managing Editor
Charlie has 25 years of editorial experience in the science, education, non-profit, and L&D sectors. He's been part of Mind Tools' in-house Content team since 2015, and is responsible for researching and planning new resources. He collaborates daily with internal and external experts to ensure the highest standards and to gain the best insights.

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