LAURA OVERTON – CRYSTAL BALLING WITH LEARNNOVATORS

Laura Overton is the Founder and Managing Director of Towards Maturity

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ABOUT LAURA OVERTON (MD, Towards Maturity)

Laura Overton is the Founder and Managing Director of Towards Maturity – a not for profit benchmark practice that provides independent research to help organisations deliver improved performance through learning innovation. Her work is based on 25+ years of practical experience in implementing technology enabled learning strategies for business advantage and is backed by her independent research.

Laura authored ‘Linking Learning to Business’ in January 2004 – one of the first industry benchmark studies at the time. Since then she has authored over 35 independent reports and hundreds of articles sharing benchmarks and effective practices to drive L&D performance which are referenced around the globe. Laura is a respected industry expert and speaker, conducting workshops and stimulating debate around the globe.

Laura is an Academic Fellow of the CIPD and a fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute. She is on the steering board of Online Educa Berlin, the LPI and the L&D advisory board of the CIPD. In February 2010, she was the first woman to be awarded the LPI’s prestigious Colin Corder Award for services to training and was the recipient of the inaugural elearning age Special Achievement award at the 2012 elearning awards. In 2014 she was voted number 1 in the Top Ten’ most influential people in the corporate e-learning in the UK and in 2015 she retained the top position in the UK and was also voted 5 in the Global List and 6th in the European list.

ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW SERIES:

Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.

THE INTERVIEW:

1. Learnnovators: Hi Laura. We’ve been following you and your organization, and think that you are doing great work. Thank you so much for that. Would you like to start off by saying a few words about Towards Maturity?

Laura: Towards Maturity is a not-for-profit benchmark organization. We started our research programme in 2003, and since then we’ve seen a lot of change in the field of L&D. We have always been interested in L&D outputs and how we can improve performance through learning innovation. So, our core focus is to support the learning industry with trusted, independent evidence about what works and what doesn’t, and identify practical ways in which learning innovation can improve performance.

2. Learnnovators: How significant do you think it is for organizations to rely on modern benchmarks such as yours vis-à-vis traditional benchmarks?

Laura: This is a great question! Other parts of the business use benchmarking as a tool to improve performance, that is, they continually compare themselves with top performing peers in order to identify how they can substantially improve their own performance.

However, with learning and development, when you ask someone about learning ‘benchmarks’, typically they talk about:

  • How much money we are spending on learning?
  • How many people are involved?
  • What are the completion rates of a typical online learning program?

But, these metrics are not true benchmarks – they track learning inputs but do not give any indicators that help an individual organization improve the way they perform in business; they will only know how much money they are spending compared to their peers – having a great budget doesn’t guarantee learning outcomes. At Towards Maturity, we have been concentrating on a benchmark for L&D that will help improve performance. So, in the Towards Maturity Benchmark Study we have been looking at two things:

1. One is we’ve been looking at performance outcomes (Key Performance Indicators).

We’ve been tracking learning development teams who, through innovation, are improving productivity or reducing attrition rates or decreasing the time to market… important business metrics that can be influenced by learning.

So, we’ve been looking at the outcomes of learning and creating benchmarks around those areas to provide L&D and business leaders with an idea of what they can expect to achieve through learning innovation.

2. We’ve also been identifying those top performing organizations, those that are consistently delivering the performance outcomes and looking at what is it that they are actually doing in order to develop an effective practice benchmark as well.

When people take part in the Towards Maturity benchmark study, they compare their outcomes AND approach to learning innovation with their peers. Everyone gets a free Personalised Benchmark Report which gives detailed comparisons so that all the participants can they use both the KPI’s and effective practice benchmarks to work out how to improve performance.

To sum up, while traditional training benchmarks may be interesting to L&D leaders, they have no impact on performance, we have been focusing on what improves performance only.

3. Learnnovators: Are there any success stories of organizations that have transformed through innovative workplace learning & development inspired through your benchmarking?

Laura: It is really interesting because we provide the service completely free of charge, and L&D leaders take part around the globe during June and July. We don’t always hear feedback from people, but the case stories that we do hear always encourage us.

There is one organization, a finance organization here in the UK who needed to establish a modernized learning strategy that would help them respond to a rapidly changing market. Before investing in new tools and approaches, they took part in the Towards Maturity Benchmark to establish their goals and how to achieve them. Their offering shifted from a traditional course based solution to a service that supports the staff with short sharp learning interventions directly aligned to business needs, and supported by a vibrant social community.

Their aim was to not only improve performance in the organization, which they did by improving customer satisfaction and reducing time to competency, but also to win an award within two or three years. They actually won an external award within 18 months by establishing their solution on the Towards Maturity Framework – and that was just the first of many! The Towards Maturity Benchmark had a massive impact on the organization in terms of engagement and performance. They’re also acknowledged and recognized in the industry as well.

That was just one example, but we’ve had many many others in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

4. Learnnovators: Where do you think we are on our e-learning practices in this age of workplace learning?

Laura: I think what’s interesting is today, aspirations of L&D are incredibly high when it comes to learning technology. As a result, we find in our studies that Learning and Development are increasingly investing in technology as a means of helping them to achieve those aspirations.

However for most that means e-learning courses supported by Learning Management Systems. 70 to 80% of learning professionals are now using these tools. But even at this most basic level we’re not exploiting the power of the tools in our hands. Fewer than half are using video, animations or images to support text in e-learning courses. Only 30% are responding to the tight time issues of learners by providing content under 10 minutes. Only 31% are using the power of stories in learning design.

Few L&D leaders are thinking about the transfer of learning, the role of communities or how to help people apply learning back in their workplace.

So, there is a long way to go to really impact performance. But, it is the wide range of tools that top performing organizations use that is more interesting for us, in the way they use them to support performance back at work, to facilitate communities, using them to support collaboration and application of learning, to connect with experts. But typically many organizations are just turning to the technology and expecting it to achieve results, but what they don’t understand is that they have to apply the skill and understanding to get the best out of technology.

5. Learnnovators: So basically you are talking about balancing between technology and right practices.

Laura: Absolutely! In fact, from the first day we started, we were very interested in how some organizations are able to use technology better. For, when we analyse all of the behaviour and the results of these successful organizations, it wasn’t the tools that they were using that impacted performance, but the practices that they were applying… and that’s where the Towards Maturity model surfaced – it represents the practices of the top performers.

In the last 10 years, technology has come and gone…so many different technologies such as mobile learning, social learning, e-learning, gamification…and we’ve been tracking all of them. And none of the tools specifically correlate back to the performance outcomes. Success comes down to how L&D professionals apply these tools to the business problem of learning.

6. Learnnovators: You say that innovation is key to L&D. What would be your advice to L&D professionals to upskill themselves to achieve innovation?

Laura: Our last report ‘Modernising Learning Delivering Results’ talks about learning and development specialists being agents of change. The research shows that we need to be developing new skills to implement the effective practices that we have been talking about. One of those skills includes business awareness. Success comes from understanding what we are trying to achieve in the business, first and foremost. Alignment as far as I am concerned is also about meeting the needs of both the business and the individuals. Understanding how our staff are learning what they need to do in their jobs, in the sense of learning analytics. Where are people going? What should they be doing? How should we be using that to inform our strategy and make it meaningful?

Besides learning analytics, I also believe that influencing skills are critical. For example top performing organizations in our benchmark are not only linking learning to business but also linking into HR and talent. They understand the importance of the work environment, the work culture and role of line management. So, influencing skills, the ability to work collectively as a team and engage business stakeholders, is critical. Clearly, building the core skills of the L&D team is very important – the skills that help us support performance, design learning, harness technology, facilitate collaboration and evaluate impact are critical in the modern workplace.

And, the other skills that we talk about a lot are the ability to manage change, to engage, and to communicate. When we are talking about shifting from a course catalogue, or a list of courses in the Learning Management System, to facilitating modern learning approaches such as 70:20:10, we need to be able to manage change.

And then the final, critical, skill is our ability to articulate and demonstrate business value…. this underpins all of these areas we have been talking about.

The Towards Maturity Benchmark has been highlighting these evolving roles for L&D and the evolving skill sets needed to support that for some time.

7. Learnnovators: What kind of a shift in thinking do you visualize for building a learning system that aligns with the dynamically changing demands of this knowledge age?

Laura: Well, I think many people who’ve used our Benchmark have talked about the need for organizations and individuals to be equipped to learn and unlearn very rapidly.

New models of learning have started to be articulated. We’ve worked very closely with Charles Jennings over the last 5 to 6 years in order to explore the thinking around 70:20:10. And what we have done is, we’ve deconstructed the behaviours behind the 70:20:10 model within the benchmark process as we’re keen to see if the activities within the model have an impact on learning outcomes. And they do – for example we definitely see the top performing learning organizations are facilitating collaboration very quickly, involving line managers more effectively. They are extending the learning experience into the workflow and finding new ways to support individuals with courses and resources.

My concern is that, learning and development professionals are very happy to talk about these things… but our benchmark says that very few are actually changing the way that we support learning. There is a lot of talk about new models of learning. But, whilst we are investing in new technologies, we are tending to stick to the traditional practices.

8. Learnnovators: Speaking of Charles Jennings, he says there’s a “conspiracy of convenience” between many L&D managers and business managers, which acts as a barrier to effective learning solutions. If yes, how serious is the situation, and what steps would you suggest to break this?

Laura: I agree with Charles. We see a lot of learning and development professionals hungry for change. But they report to us that their business leaders are still requesting courses from them. I understand it is difficult to say ‘no’ when the people who are paying you are asking for a service… our ’boxed in’ ideas about what learning should be form a distinctive barrier to innovation and what learning could be.

This is a serious issue for learning and development professionals because they are not equipped at the moment to challenge business leaders.

Our role at Towards Maturity is to provide learning and development leaders with a really solid foundation of evidence to show how learning innovation when used effectively can impact productivity, efficiency, time to competency, talent, and all of the things that the board level people are interested in.

So, we need to be more confident in using this type of evidence to challenge assumptions, and equally leaders need to expect more from the learning and development function as well. They need to be saying to them: ‘I have this business problem. And, I need to work with you in order to resolve it. What would you suggest?’

There is an amazing story in the UK of the transformation of a social services organization. With over 15,000 people they were being taken to task in the press for poor delivery and care, and they had to completely transform the way they were providing care to the elderly. The interesting thing is that the chairman said to the Head of People: ‘This is my problem. How could you help?’ And he was open to new ways of learning and to new ways of thinking. And the modernized learning approach that transpired was fundamental in turning that business around in a way that was not only recognized by staff and customers but also by the UK government. A complete business transformation because the business leader said to the L&D lead, ‘We need to do this differently. Help me’. And the difference that it made to the organization was enormous. (Check out the story here.)

9. Learnnovators: That was an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing it. Coming to the learners of today they are basically self-directed, and are capable of organizing, driving and managing their own learning. What are some of the major changes you recommend to L&D professionals to address these challenges?

Laura: What’s really important, I think, is that learning and development should challenge their own thinking about learners. I completely disagree with the concept of learning styles, but I understand why people are so interested. Because it helps us to box people. And when we box people, we can design more efficiently.

Equally, the millennial learner, and all of the generational thinking about learning is also boxing people in. We’ve done many Learning Landscape studies with individual companies who are genuinely interested in finding out how their staff, right now, regardless of age, are learning what they need to do their job. The results that come back provide real customer insight. Over 90% say team collaboration is critical to help them learn what they need for their job, and 7 out of 10 are turning to web searches and their managers. Technology is playing a major role with many learning on the way to and from work or at weekends out of their own volition. Knowing this about our own staff can really inform how we design services to support them.

But equally, 3 in 5 are still saying that classroom has a role to play although 82% also want to learn at their own pace. So the challenge for L&D leaders is to not only understand their learners and respond to their needs with relevant resources but also to make it simpler for them to use and access learning. They are learning themselves on the go but it is still clear that they want a sense of structure as well.

We need to really be cognizant of how our staff in our organization are currently learning what they need to do their job. And that challenges our thinking and allows us to design an ecosystem that helps us think about their future and helps us take them into that future by building on what they are currently are already familiar with.

10. Learnnovators: The book ‘The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual’, includes a chapter you’ve written on learning and development. Could you give our readers a brief about this book please?

Laura: It’s a real privilege to be invited to take part in that book, because there are so many great experts in this field and many of them were each able to contribute. Everyone has a different voice which means that the eLearning Instruction Manual provides a great introduction to both new and experienced L&D leaders. It is very practical, has lots of suggestions, lots of ideas, and lots of evidence to help challenge your thinking and help you drive change through in your organization.

So whilst I wrote a chapter for it, I equally enjoyed reading the chapters by the other experts and I have a well-thumbed copy on my bookshelf.

11. Learnnovators: You are in the middle of your Towards Maturity Benchmark campaign for this year. Going by your enormous experience in the L&D field, what new findings do you foresee in the benchmark results of this year?

Laura: Its early days, and we would love your readers and community to take part in this because the benchmark is not about doing a survey. It’s about taking time out to reflect on some of the things we have been talking about in order to make change happen in our own organizations.

I think what we’re finding at the moment is that the future of learning is very strongly on people’s minds. Are we ready to align with business? Are we ready to harness all these different opportunities like social, mobile technology, learning in the cloud, that’s going to be a part of our future. But, are we equipped to do that? So, it’s very clear that the things we have been talking about today are firmly on the minds of many learning and development professionals… except for the fact that we are still struggling to actually make this a reality. So, what’s coming through in the benchmark is that the people are still challenged.

However, we’ve found that about 89% of those who have used the Benchmark to review their approach so far this year have said that it has inspired them with new ideas that they can go away with. So, there’s still a way to go and there’s hunger in this year’s participants, and already people are finding that participating in the benchmark is helping them.

12. Learnnovators: Great. What makes you passionate about what you’re doing? Processing learning data to produce insights that could help organizations embrace action?

Laura: For me, it’s really interesting, I got involved in the field of online in the mid 80′s and I just saw the power of technology to support adult learning theory. I was a psychology graduate and I’d joined the training department and it was clear to me even based on what we learned in science then, that technology had an opportunity to really connect and engage. It’s been too many years, let’s not count them :-). But I think that the really exciting thing is that we know more now about how adults learn and the technology platforms that we have available to us are much more ubiquitous. So, I think that’s what is really driving my passion and I believe that learning can really have a bottom line impact on the performance of businesses but also in the career and performance of individuals in terms of having a fulfilling life. Technology creates an opportunity to really harness and deliver that performance in ways we wouldn’t have been able to conceive 30 years ago.

So for me, it’s about: How can we help each other to achieve that maturity, achieve that performance, achieve that vision of the future of learning. Everyone comes at this from a different standpoint but it doesn’t matter where we start as long as we help each other. Take the next step forward in that journey and that’s what drives me… to help people, to take their next step as well.

13. Learnnovators: One final question: How do you look at your achievements?

  • The Colin Corder Award 2010, The Learning and Performance Institute, February 2010. 
  • E-Learning Age Special Achievement Award, E-Learning Awards, November 2012
  • No. 1 in the Sixth Annual Top 10 E-Learning Movers and Shakers (UK)and 6th in the globe (2015)

Laura: It’s an absolute privilege. I meet many people in this industry who are passionate to see change happen, and passionate to help others change. So to receive an award for just doing what I love to do, what most people in this industry love to do, is an incredible honour. I have to say that receiving some of these really big awards like the “Colin Corder” and the “Special Achievement” is almost like you said lifetime achievement award but there is so much more to be done! So I’m not resting on my laurels… I’m still pushing forward for the industry.Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Laura. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

Readers inspired by this article can take part in the Towards Maturity Benchmark during July for free at www.towardsmaturity.org/benchmark. All participants will immediately receive a resource pack ‘how to become a top performing learning organisation’ – full of hints, tips and case studies. They will also receive a free 13 page Personalised Benchmark Report in early September.

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