Experts’ Table – From People Management to Talent Leadership: 8 Directions for Learning Leaders

🕑 7 minutes read | Sep 17 2019 | By Becky Gendron

Fellow learning leaders, what is the biggest challenge that you’re facing today? If you’re like many of your peers, you’re most likely facing two key issues:

  1. Increased demand for learning from the business
  2. Increased complexity in terms of solution design, development, and delivery

You’ve worked hard to build your team—you’re invested in their success and you think that they are talented. Unfortunately, you also realize that it isn’t enough. Not only do you not have enough people to do the work, you fear that you don’t have the right expertise. As experts in performance, we sometimes don’t consider our own strategies for talent leadership. We fall back into people management—assigning resources, approving hours, and making do with the best that we can. What we should be doing is looking at our overall expertise portfolio. Are we leading toward a future state where the talent “stack” looks quite different because we’ve assessed and analyzed our upcoming needs? If you consider the brand or reputation of your learning group, are you recognized for your resourcefulness in the face of constraints or for the innovation of an optimal solution?

So, yes, we’re tired of making do, but the reality is that we have a lot more options than we did previously. TTA has compiled a list of eight of the current directions in talent leadership. Although some of these trends are true across the enterprise, we think they are especially relevant for learning leaders with limited headcounts and a hungry group of business stakeholders.

  1. Agile Workforce

An agile workforce is one in which talent is available on-demand to fill in gaps or expand capacity beyond what is possible with your full-time team. Industry researchers report that 66% of leaders believe that developing an agile workforce is the most important factor to their organization.[i] Why is it the most important? It helps us meet both of our initial challenges. We may have surge or extension needs for learning talent, but we likely require additional expertise to round out the full talent profile of what we think we’ll need. We might need learning strategists, experts in serious gaming, or a developer for a specific learner experience platform. Sure, your in-house team may be able to get up to speed, but what is the opportunity cost? Also, it can often be easier to secure a temporary budget instead of committing to another full-time hire.

How you tap into the agile workforce may be as strategic as the talent you leverage. Most organizations are not going to engage individual contractors on a one-off basis each time that a need emerges. To scale and manage quality, organizations are turning to service aggregators with the right processes and tools to maximize the value of the “human cloud,” in which the work is done remotely and on-demand by independent workers.[ii]  

  1. Full-Time Placement

Many learning leaders are facing a difficult challenge when it comes to full-time placement. The legacy issue is that we’ve been historically understaffed. Technology has made it easier to scale our efforts, but, typically, the headcount of our respective teams is not calibrated to meet the full demand. We are also nearing the end of a boom in hiring, and resources have become relatively scarce.[iii] Part of the value of developing both an agile workforce strategy and a full-time strategy is that you can seek out talent through both channels. Savvy leaders are looking at both options, and because of the tight market, placing an ad on LinkedIn may get you an abundance of resumes but not an abundance of the precise skills for which you’re looking. More specialized agencies (like TTA) can tap into networks and relationships specific to our industry. Often, they will have first-hand experience working with the talent being recommended.

  1. Talent Experience

By this point, we’re accustomed to talking about the full talent lifecycle, and we’re now better prepared to create experiences for our team members that will increase retention and maximize engagement. What you may not be looking at is the experience lifecycle of your independent workers, consultants, and even your vendors. Having a vendor mindset doesn’t work well in terms of agile talent, for example, because it creates a second-class status for contingent workers. Have you considered readiness or onboarding needs for everyone with whom you’re working? Industry experts report that more than a third of organizations have no strategy for readiness or onboarding of independent consultants.[iv] Additionally, more than 50% of independent workers report they were not given feedback or coaching during their assignment.

  1. Customer Enablement

Today, over 40% of an organization’s talent is non-employee.[v] If you have a working strategy for agile talent in your organization, you might also need to look at how you’re working with your internal stakeholders and business unit leaders. Passing through an independent contractor directly to a business unit leader is a good way to sabotage your agile strategy. That’s why an important component of your talent strategy should be the enablement of your internal customers.  Much of the research on creating a frictionless customer experience has relevance here.[vi] Is it frictionless to expect your stakeholder to manage an external talent or provide feedback on instructional quality? It’s likely the opposite. Our goal should be to create an easy and positive customer experience powered by a hybrid approach. It’s not about providing a body to do the work; it’s about ensuring on-demand talent that will outperform other options.

  1. Digital Staffing

Part of what makes the human cloud feasible is the emergence of new technologies that streamline each step of the staffing process. A new generation of applicant tracking systems (ATS) allows for better searching and screening of candidates. Tools for video interviewing can automate the interview process, and predictive assessments (based on data and not mere models) contribute to smarter ecosystems that support and sustain all your talent. Because of the size of most L&D teams, we have been slower to take advantage of digital staffing solutions. The scale hasn’t justified it. However, if we factor in the complexity of an agile approach, such technology becomes critical.

  1. Changing ID Roles

Evidence of the increased complexity in our discipline is manifested in a proliferation of roles and titles. Here are a just a few of the possibilities for instructional designers:

  • Content developer—gathers, scripts, and produces instructional content
  • Instructional designer—designs activities to meet enabling objectives
  • Learning Experience (LX) designer—specializes in the design of LX systems
  • Learning strategist—analyses and recommends as a performance consultant or architect

Many learning teams are simply too small to have such differentiation of roles and yet these differences can be very impactful in terms of results.

  1. Hiring for Soft Skills

Another direction to consider as you build out your talent strategy is the importance of soft skills. In addition to thinking through the technical skills necessary to achieve your goals, you should also consider the enabling soft skills that will make it possible for the team to be creative. LinkedIn recently identified the top soft skills for 2019.[vii] They feature creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management skills. It’s important to realize that your agile strategy can also introduce important soft skills to the team—as these are becoming just as important as the hard skills traditionally used to vet independent consultants.

  1. Total Workforce Management

The goal, of course, is to lead, coordinate, and optimize all the talent within your circle of influence. One analyst writes, “as the workforce becomes more ‘blended,’ the concept of ‘total workforce management’ will be a necessary program for . . . the management of both sides of their workforce (non-employee and FTEs) under a single program.”[viii] Just as you’re strategizing the learning tech stack for your organization, you need to develop a learning talent stack comprised of full-time talent, agile talent, and trusted vendors.

The upside of intentionally and strategically managing your full talent portfolio is that you are also creating new possibilities for learners in your organization. While it is important to make the best of what we can, it’s also vital that we consider every available channel for meeting needs. A primary role of the learning leader is one of curation—finding the right approaches, assembling the right team, and evaluating the talent and competencies that will be required for the future.

If you are interested in learning more about L&D trends, join us on Wednesday, September 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Natick, MA for a one-day TTA Learning Conference.  Ken Taylor, President and CEO of Training Industry, will explore how resource decisions are changing and share important corporate training trends and opportunities at the event.

Panel Discussion: Trends in the Learning and Development Market

Ken Taylor, President and CEO, Training Industry, Inc.

Ken will be presenting on the trends in the learning development market. Training Industry is known to be the most trusted source of information on the business of learning and is the leading resource for industry best practices, innovative approaches, and training products and services for organizational learning.

The day will also be filled with a variety of other current, compelling, and innovative topics that are impacting the workplace today. The speaker lineup is a remarkable mix of industry experts and authors who are eager to share their personal stories and experiences on developing leaders and teams and creating an engaging learning culture. Its smaller attendance ensures a more personal and meaningful experience, where you can expect to learn and create strategies that help you and your organization.


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