HR and L&D: Never the twain shall meet?

This blog was originally published on the HRN Blog in May 2016.

Much has been written and said about the relationship between the disciplines of HR and L&D. Representatives of both sides have shared views on the topic and on the most useful framing of a healthy relationship between the two. Cases have been made for merging the functions together; are they not, after all, sides of the same coin, servicing the needs of the worker/employee/staff/workforce/management/leadership and the organisation? All the easier to plan effectively and view the opportunity as a whole with all that capability and expertise available in one place? Cases have equally been put in defence of specialisation and the value of separation. Proponents of the latter view, I suspect, have a tendency to emphasise the weaknesses and failings of the “other side” as they support the inherent value of their own specialism.

Before I proceed, I should declare my own hand. I see this issue more from the L&D perspective than HR, I believe. Five years at the BBC Academy (which, in that time was both within and without HR) have formed something like a world view. Perhaps more significantly, I spent that five years as the Head of Digital for the Academy. During that time my teams and I spent our time selling the benefits of designing for user experience and focusing on the user needs of the learners we were in service of. Very often, we were engaged in some form of disagreement, more or less vigorous, with owners of processes, systems and policy (none of these three are very beneficial to user experience in my view). Very often, the representatives of those entrenched views were from both L&D and HR camps. We were proposing a change to the established way and neither camp felt entirely comfortable about that change. It is that perspective, rather than tribal differences, that I think might be helpful in a view of the challenge of a whole view.

Now living on the outside of corporate life I have a slightly different perspective. In the last two weeks I have chaired discussions at (HR) industry events on the use of technology in learning and on the rise of the digital workforce. The participants in these discussions were senior managers and often senior leaders from HR and L&D teams in a wide variety of organisations. By its nature, the position of the chair is neutral which helped me see the problem afresh. In each discussion I was trying to thread the idea of user experience and meeting user needs through the debate. We all need to try and offer tools and content to employees that behave in the way we expect good digital tools to behave in our everyday lives. Very few corporate systems and services achieve this goal. It is a simple point that was swiftly grasped by smart and experienced people at both events.

But, where to start and how to make it work? That was the real challenge that resonated with all around both tables. In both discussions and from both L&D and HR leaders, the challenge of dealing with conservative naysayers was painfully described. One HR leader described his traditional learning technologies team protesting at the use of social tools because the LMS did not support them and they could not be tracked. The project ground to a halt. Equally, another L&D manager bemoaned a reactionary HR view which stated that social learning platforms do not fit the current policy for corporate social media. That point and anxiety about a suitable process to delete negative comments parked the initiative in the sidelines.

Many other examples were shared and those round the tables nodded with familiarity as the cases were described. My neutral, chairman’s view is that the conservative tendencies arise when we see a threat to our traditional authority in the organisation. This is felt particularly keenly when that threat comes from outside of the team. Whilst so much of the world of work seems to be changing around us, the temptation to retreat to the safer ground of our functions is powerful. The source of traditional power for HR, in these instances, is the processes and policies that define how the organisation will handle communication and content. In the case of L&D, power lies in the systems that define the value of the function – the management (control) of learning and the counting of completions. Neither of these territories will sustain the functions that were built on them for much longer though. They are strengths built on old models and expectations. These expectations are shifting quickly and we need to experiment with new models to meet them.
The imaginative folk around the discussions all championed the view of the worker trying to make the most of their working life and a desire to support that effort. That “worker perspective” needs to be the common ground around which all sides of the debate congregate. We all need to solve the problems faced by those busy and pressured people in the way they need them solved, not in the way that our part of the organisations sees most benefit. I suspect some more imaginative organisation principles would help a lot as well. I also suspect that these principles will come from outside of both traditional disciplines where user needs are paramount.

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