Links between L&D and Business Results

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This piece is specifically for L&D professionals that are looking to understand how their work might enable the achievement of desired results in the organizations or parts of organizations they support. We’re going to explore various links and pathways between learning & development and results in business (and vice versa), using simple words and not necessarily L&D jargon like competencies, capabilities, skills, self-efficacy, and so on. I’ve sketched these interconnections based on what I’ve discovered so far in my practice and study - so I invite you to look at the mapping of these links as a work in progress and not as a comprehensive or finished model.

Why spend the next 12 minutes reading this?

In my work as a Strategy & Organization Adviser, I’m partnering with L&D teams quite often, in our quest of enabling together organizations that are more effective, achieve their desired results and that create more relevant value to their stakeholders. 

This piece is specifically for L&D professionals that are looking to understand how their work might enable the achievement of desired results in the organizations or parts of organizations they support.

We’re going to explore various links and pathways between learning & development and results in business (and vice versa), using simple words and not necessarily L&D jargon like competencies, capabilities, skills, self-efficacy, and so on. 

I’ve sketched these interconnections based on what I’ve discovered so far in my practice and study – so I invite you to look at the mapping of these links as a work in progress and not as a comprehensive or finished model.

Hope you’ll find it useful and that you will start a conversation with your colleagues about better connecting with the desired results in business, after reading this article.

Let’s dive right into it!

A. Links between I learn and I know

Let’s first explore the connections between these two verbs. 

If I learn about something, does it necessarily translate into knowing about that something?

As a practical example, if I learn about presenting in front of a large audience by participating at a conference and seeing one of the keynote speakers in action, does this mean that I get to know about presenting in front of a large audience?

Not necessarily. I might just feel that I’m learning about presenting through the captivating experience that I’m living. At the same time, I might not notice the various aspects of what’s making that presentation great. I might not connect the dots with my own experience of presenting in front of others and seeing what’s different now. Maybe I don’t even have the intention to remember any of the “how to present”-related insights and I just focus on the actual messages that the speaker shares. So will I know more about presenting after this kind of learning experience? 

Let’s look at the links from the other side: If I know about something, does it translate into learning more about it the next time I’m interacting with the topic?

Coming back to the presentation example – let’s imagine that I already know about presenting in front of a large audience, things like using simple words, engaging the crowd with teasers or meaningful stories, etc. Does this mean that the next participation at a conference will be a learning experience when it comes to becoming a better presenter?

Again, not necessarily. After realizing that the keynote speaker is using some techniques that I already know, I might conclude after the first minute of their presentation that I won’t learn new things about presenting. So my attention will redirect to other things that are more interesting in that context. Learning opportunity missed… Even though there were some core presenting elements that I immediately recognized, I might have missed how the speaker used some unexpected analogies or metaphors that would have been valuable in my own work. Or how the speaker had a good sense of the audience dynamic towards the end of the presentation and left everyone curious to learn more about the subject matter.

The connections between learning and knowing are not trivial, as you have seen from the two examples above. There are some conditions that make these connections come alive. Things like: being aware and not on autopilot, being able to notice what’s different, continuously connecting the dots with your own experience, being open-minded and curious.

As L&D professionals, are there ways in which you could enable these conditions? 

B. Links between I know and I am able to

Another interesting pair to explore: If I know about something, does it necessarily translate into being able to do that thing?

Let’s take a very common scenario: giving feedback. I might already know about giving feedback through an article that I’ve read or through attending an e-course about the topic. Will I be able to give feedback the next time when this is the right thing to do?

Not quite. First things first, I might need to know when giving feedback is the right thing to do. If I just know how to give feedback, I might be hesitant in picking the right context to apply this know-how. 

Also, even if I know when to give feedback, I might feel I’m not able to do it because of possible consequences if things go south due to my inexperience with giving feedback. Do I feel that giving feedback is a safe thing to try in this organization, in this context?

Another perspective to consider is that we forget things. This is how our brain works. So, coming back to the feedback example, I might think I know how to give feedback because I remember learning about this topic a while ago. But when I’m facing a situation when feedback is needed – I might discover that I’m not able to give that feedback because I simply forgot how to give feedback.

Looking at the links from the other side: If I’m able to do some things, does this mean that I know about them?

This is an interesting and unusual question, as very few people ask it (in my experience, at least). Let’s explore it by considering the practical example of being able to inspire other people. 

In my experience, there are lots of people who are able to do this, just from their way of being and through intuition, without necessarily consciously knowing about inspiring other people. “You have a natural talent to inspire people!” is something that they might hear quite often.

A further question is: would being able to do something in an intuitive way further trigger someone to get to know more about it?  Again, not necessarily. I might feel, for example, that I’m able to inspire other people at a decent or good enough level, without knowing anything more about it. So I’ll probably want to get to know other things, given my limited time, energy and attention. 

So the links between “I know” and “I am able to” are worth paying attention to, as one doesn’t necessarily translate into the other. As explored in the practical examples above, there are some conditions that make these links come alive, as well: knowing when not only knowing how; feeling that applying new things is safe to try; being able to easily remember how to do something, or combining intuitive ways with learned ways of doing things.

As L&D professionals, are there ways in which you could enable these conditions? 

C. Links between I am able to and I do 

Going further with the exploration, let’s see whether being able to do something translates into doing it. When is this not the case?

I’m asking myself: In my own experience, were there cases when, for example, I didn’t give feedback to a colleague, even if I was able to do it?

Yes, of course. One of the reasons that come to mind is that I didn’t want to, even if I was able to. For example, if I was just starting working with a colleague, I wanted to wait for a couple of weeks of working together before giving them feedback. So in that case, it was about a timing decision.

Or things got very busy during a certain period so I didn’t “find the time” (prioritized) doing this. 

Or I felt that giving feedback directly to the person isn’t something that would have been appreciated by the person’s manager, with who I was also working. This one is related to “how things are done around here”.

Or the relationship with the colleague was conflictual and wanted to stop working with them and I didn’t see the point in giving them any feedback.

There are countless reasons why being able to do something doesn’t translate into actually doing it. Understanding these links is, in my experience, critical on the pathway between learning and results.

At the same time, as exemplified above, many of the factors influencing the path from being able to do something to actually doing it are contextual. Depends on the person, depends on how they perceive their context, depends on how they interact with others, depends on the timing, and so on. 

Given this variety of factors and the countless possibilities in which they could mix, you can imagine that things become more and more uncertain. 

In other words, even if I learned something, got to know about it, and feel that I am able to do it, there are still high (contextual) chances that I won’t actually do it. 

Are there still some conditions that pave the way between being able to and doing? In my experience, these conditions are all about clarity. Being clear on why doing some specific things is needed, being clear on the impacts of not doing those specific things, being clear whether doing those things is part of “how things are done around here”, being clear whether doing those things is expected by others and so on.

Without clarity and especially in a very busy work environment, the ability to do something has a low chance of translating into actually doing it. 

As L&D professionals, are there ways in which you could enable these clarity conditions? 

D. Links between I do and We do 

Getting closer to the idea of results in business, let’s explore the leap between doing something alone and doing something with others.

And, while doing this, let’s have in mind this concrete example: a team that is organizing a big event. In this case, the big event is not something that any of the team members can do on their own.  So they do it together. 

Let’s further imagine that one of the team members is an experienced event organizer, that could easily do any of the things needed for organizing a big event, but not all of them during the limited time for organizing this specific new event.

How easily does “I do” translate to “We do” for this experienced event organizer? 

This question is not trivial and with no definitive answer. Why? Because similar to the connections explored in the previous section, there are many factors at play. 

How much experience do the other team members have? How challenging is this common project? How well are the team members working together? Who leads the team and how? How do they decide how and when to do things?

Similar to team sports, there might be cases when teams with very experienced team members fail to do what’s needed to achieve results or there might be cases when teams with low experience do exactly what’s needed to successfully implement the project.

There are conditions that strengthen the connections between doing something alone and doing something together. In my experience, they are about the quality of the relationships of the people working together. How well do we connect to one another, to do things together? How well do we appreciate our differentness while working together?

As L&D professionals, are there ways in which you could support these related conditions? 

E. Links between We do and We achieve 

Finally, let’s look at whether actions always lead to results. 

Are there times when we don’t achieve what we intend, even if we do what’s needed? 

Let’s imagine the case of a sales team that works well together, doing what’s needed, both collectively and individually, building on what they are able to do, know and learn. 

The desired business result in their case is very clear: a certain target revenue to be achieved in a specific timeline. 

We’re doing all the right things right. Will we achieve what we want? 

Again, the answer is: not necessarily. 

We are a good sales team in a good business. But we’re not alone in the market and everything changes at various speeds: what our customers need, what our customers are willing to pay, who else is connected to our customers, what do others offer our customers, who our customers are, what can be offered to address the needs of the customers, how the value is created and delivered, what technologies are being used, how the economy shifts and so on. 

Business performance is something that is emergent and results from all the countless interactions exemplified above. 

Fortunately, there are multiple aspects that you can directly influence through your actions. Unfortunately, there are countless aspects that are out of your direct influence. 

All the business aspects are interconnected in one way or another, so acting in the wider system has visible direct effects and countless side effects that aren’t always visible. 

So, what are the conditions that better connect what we do together to what we achieve together? A simple answer is understanding what you, as a team or just as a group, can influence in the wider system; understanding what you cannot directly influence and, of course, constantly updating both of these understandings.

As L&D professionals, are there ways in which you could equip teams to better understand these things? 


A final reflection

Today, we explored how “I learn” is linked to “I know”, to “I am able to”, to “I do” to “We do” to “We achieve”, and how specific conditions make these links come alive.

My invitation for you, as L&D professionals, is to reflect on all the ways in which you could enable these conditions. 

Are you currently doing these things in your organization?

Would you be able to do these things in your work?

What do you need to know more?

How could you learn what you need?

How could you enlighten the path between L&D and business results?