Why we need to redefine L&D maturity

When I first researched Linking Learning to Business back in 2003, I didn’t realise I was kick starting a personal interest in L&D maturity that has been with me ever since.

At that time, we had seen a global surge into digital learning as travel literally stopped overnight post 9/11. Many grappled with using technology for learning for the first time and many stumbled.

As a result of frustration, organisations flooded back to face-to-face learning now armed with their own ‘proof’ that digital didn’t work. Ed tech companies, originally leading innovation had to take a step back to keep in line with customer demand (or lack of it).

During this period, a stat was circulating: 60% of eLearning projects fail! I have no idea where the data came from but, unsurprisingly, it resonated with many. For me it got me asking why were 40% successful? And my journey began!

The development of an L&D maturity model

For the next 16 years I worked with the UK government and L&D industry to develop a maturity study that still runs today. We explored the data that L&D shared about business impact – their goals, their achievements, and their practices.

It was developed for the industry by the industry, continually shaped by experts and practitioners around the globe. The research continually embraced the latest thinking but was model agnostic, our questions deconstructed the frameworks being expounded at the time (you’ll know the ones!). It was a dynamic process. As we added new practices to the question bank, we were able to watch to see if anyone was actually doing this and, if yes, what difference did it make to the impact that they reported?

Pretty clunkily I will admit – but over the years working with thousands of L&D practitioners, workers, managers and millions of data points, patterns emerged.

As our analytic capability increased, we were able to see which practices and tools were correlating back to business impact and which weren’t. Models of L&D maturity surfaced that could be tracked and benchmarked using an industry index that monitored predictive behaviours.

Over the first 16 years of the study, technology significantly shifted business models and consumer behaviours, the economy survived a major recession but, on my shift (2003 – 2019) the factors influencing L&D success remained pretty constant:

  • If L&D improves how it aligns with what is important to the business AND what is important to the individual,
  • If the L&D function understands and responds to and works within the wider business environment,
  • If learning professionals build their own capability to more effectively enable the capability of the organisation,
  • If we are proactive in engaging with the organisation and being a catalyst for change,
  • If we are willing to continually track and improve,

then business impact will follow!

Not just reductions in cost but improvements in employee retention, in organisational agility, customer engagement, and revenue.

We found that as these factors improved as a whole, the maturity characteristics of the L&D function and the learning culture of the organisation improved with it.

To the left of the maturity curve we found that learning activity was transactional, L&D were seen as producers and benefits were limited to cost saving and pushing numbers through. To the right of the maturity curve, L&D became enablers, with learning becoming a strategic business imperative with impact owned and tracked by multiple stakeholders.

Whilst the data that I worked with led to one definition of a maturity model for L&D[1]it was very similar to others in the field at the time. Maturity models, for some, became invaluable for shaping L&D decisions, justifying budget and for benchmarking with peers.

Maturity models are maps not the territory

How do L&D maturity models stack up post Covid? The challenge with any L&D maturity model is that it is a map not the territory. Maps do not reflect the complexity of an organisation, its dynamic culture and the continually shifting competitive commercial environment in which it operates.

And boy, has our environment shifted in the last two years!

In 2020, Covid catapulted L&D into the digital world, ready or not! So two years on, I couldn’t wait to explore the findings of the Learning Benchmark Report 2022, now in its 19th year and in the capable hands of Gent Ahmetaj who heads the research team at Mind Tools for Business and his colleague Anna Barnett.

Key findings that jumped out at me from their latest L&D benchmark report included:

  • In terms of driving better business value – The L&D maturity model is still standing strong with those at highest stages of the curve are two to three times more likely to report a reduction in employee turnover, an increase in organisational productivity, and an increase in organisational revenue.
  • The Organisational Learning Index (tracking the elements described above) has gone up from the dip in 2020 as people scrambled!
  • But overall organisations are struggling to sustain short term gains reported last year.

I’m getting a sense of déjà vu from my early days here!

The report also outlined detailed insight on the activities in 2022 that predict the extent to which organisations can become future proof, develop a learning culture, and create smarter digital learning interventions (essential for those looking to upskill or reskill the organisation).

This insight showed the importance of:

  • Focussing on business outcomes
    – Top performers are 6x more likely to identify actions that employees need to take to achieve business outcomes compared to the lower performers
    – 6x (more likely to ensure performance management integrated with learning strategy
  • Working with others to shift culture and deliver results
    – Top performing organisations are 4x more likely to building relationship with stakeholders
    – 13x more likely to agree managers make time for learning
    – 8x more likely to work with experts in other parts of the business (data, marketing)
  • Thinking talent not just courses
    – They are 8x more likely to be involved in supporting career development of individuals
    – 4x more likely to include activities that help individuals practice
    – 12x more likely to audit their own skills
  • Using data as a guide throughout the process
    – Top performers are 17x more likely to use it to improve the service offered
    – 24x more likely to use analytics to understand employee needs

Note that this is just a sample of the actions flagged through the detailed analysis – download the report for plenty more!

Reimagining L&D maturity for a post Covid world

The 2022 report actually isn’t showing anything that the data hasn’t shown before. What it does show is that the maturity models and indicators still stand and are valid.

But this year’s report has flagged that our thinking about maturity absolutely needs to shift.

Originally for me, L&D maturity was all about results, all about that impact on performance, agility, people, and organisations.

But now I am wondering if we need to define what L&D maturity means for us individually in order for us to make a difference.

Maturity isn’t guaranteed. We might age as we grow from child to adult, but it doesn’t mean that we mature emotionally or personally.

As an adult or as a learning professional, maturity means

  • Taking personal responsibility for our own action’s vs blaming others
  • Understanding that not everything will be going our way all the time
  • Working with others to achieve goals rather than being the hero
  • Knowing when we can make a difference and when we can’t
  • Applying our knowledge and experience in new ways to cope with new challenges
  • Letting go!

This year’s Learning Benchmark report shows us that the maturity models still stand. The actions that correlated to better culture, agility, and performance back in 2003 are the same actions that are correlating to those business results today.

The difference today is that the world has changed, workers are ready, the path ahead is clearer.

Our success won’t be defined from where we sit on a maturity model – although that process is vital to help us prioritise! Our maturity won’t be defined by what we see trending, what we know or what we discuss in conferences – that just helps us know we are not alone!

L&D maturity in a post Covid world will be defined by the way that we take personal responsibility and step out in courage to act on the basics that we know work.

For 19 years, this Learning Benchmark study (alongside many many others) has consistently flagged the practices that make a difference for L&D professionals. I want to personally thank the team at Mind Tools for Business for continually holding up the mirror that we need to improve as an industry.

But when it comes to L&D maturity, the response is down to us!

Which of those actions will you start working on today?

You can download the 2022 L&D Benchmark Report here

Prioritise your own actions by taking part in the Learning Performance Benchmark here

[1] See the transformation curve 2019 for the first iteration of the L&D maturity model

* The first version of this article was published by Training Zone on 13 July 2022

Mind Tools for Business Annual Benchmark Report 2022 cover

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