Why L&D needs business acumen

We are delighted to have a guest post this week from Jonathan Kettleborough. Jonathan has written extensively on his blog about the need for L&D to align to business objectives. In this post he shares his thoughts on why L&D needs business acumen.

Business acumen – who needs it?  There was a time when the average L&D manager needed to understand a bit about training delivery and be able to spout on about one subject or another in front of a bored audience – but no more.  Now – more than ever before – L&D managers need to be skilled in a range of subjects and top amongst them is business acumen.

What the data tells us

For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of data. One organisation that’s helping to collate some real data about whether L&D professionals have business skills is the Learning and Performance Institute (LPI).  The LPI have developed the LPI Capability Map which measures the perceived capability level against a number of key measures.  One of the capabilities measured is Business Skills and Intelligence.  In 2103 – against four key elements – the average capability was 2.58.  This was one of the lowest scores.  One year on – in 2014 – the score had risen to 2.59, a rise of just 0.45%.  Clearly business acumen is not as strong as it could be.

Business acumen

According to Wikipedia, “business acumen” is keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome. The term “business acumen” can be broken down literally as a composite of its two component words: Business literacy is defined in SHRM’s Business Literacy Glossary as “the knowledge and understanding of the financial, accounting, marketing and operational functions of an organization. The Oxford English Dictionary defines acumen as “the ability to make good judgments and quick decisions”. Given these textbook definitions, a strictly literal definition would be “keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation.”

So, knowing L&D could be better at business acumen is one thing but just how do we begin?

Three steps to business acumen heaven

I’d suggest that there are three key steps that every L&D professional needs to take in order to reach proficiency with business acumen.  These are:

  1. Understanding your business
  2. Understanding your department
  3. Understanding your supply chain

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Understanding your business

Sounds obvious doesn’t it?  I’m sure we all understand the business we operate within, we all know the key business drivers and pinch points and operational models.  But do we – do we really?

A number of years ago Starbucks nearly went bust when the price of coffee on the commodity markets went through the roof.  Airlines constantly battle with securing aviation fuel at the most advantageous price for long-term operation as do steel works with their energy supplies.  These things matter so much they can mean the difference between being in business and being out of business.  But not many people necessarily understand that.

So you think you know your business – you think you REALLY know your business?  OK then, answer these few simple questions:

For your organisation:

  • What’s the core strategy for the next five years
  • What’s the vision, aims, strategies and tactics?
  • What’s the core products/services?
  • What’s the turnover for the last three years?
  • What’s the profit for the last three years?
  • What’s the EBIT/EBITDA for the last three years?
  • What’s the planned headcount/FTE base for the next three years?
  • Who’s your biggest competitor and why?
  • What one thing could really derail your business?
  • What’s the total spend on people related services (HR, L&D etc.) over the next three years
  • What’s the biggest skill gap in your organisation?

There are literally hundreds more questions that I could have asked but most people will struggle with the above. If you don’t struggle then please let me know and I’ll send you some more questions to explore. Put simply, if you don’t understand your business then you can’t begin to understand or apply business acumen. Let’s now look at your department.

Understanding your department

OK, we’re on home ground now.  You’ll surely know lots about your department and the way it operates, so the following questions should all be very straightforward:

For your department:

  • What are the top three strategic issues your department should be working on?
  • What’s the capital budget for the next three years?
  • What’s the revenue budget for the next three years?
  • What’s the ratio of revenue to capital budget? Does this change? Do you know why?
  • What’s your charging/chargeback model for services?
  • Do you know the cost-stack of your top three services?
  • What’s the cost of all your internal L&D people resources
  • How much are you charged for your training rooms/offices etc.?
  • If your services are funded by your organisation, do you know the real cost of providing ‘free’ training?
  • What’s the resource level of your department over the next three years?
  • What – if any models are you utilising e.g. 80/20, 10:20:70 Do you know why?
  • What has Big Data told you about the services you offer
  • If you purchase services externally, are they good value for money? How do you know
  • If you were asked about the ROI or value added of your department, what would you say?

As before, there are so many more questions that could have been asked but these will do for now. Still comfortable, still happy with your answers and knowledge? If so, then let’s look at the final of our three steps.

Understanding your supply chain

These questions apply to any externally provided goods and services.  You’ll probably know most of these so it should be fairly easy.

For your supply chain:

  • Who are your top three suppliers by value?
  • Who are your top three suppliers by volume?
  • How often do you evaluate your suppliers? What measures do you use?
  • Do you have a supplier selection process? Do you adhere to this?
  • Are you suppliers VAT registered? Do you know the difference?
  • How many of your supplier are sole traders?
  • Do you undertake a financial check on all of your suppliers? If yes, do you understand the results?
  • What percentage of your suppliers’ total business do you contribute to?
  • How many suppliers do you use/manage? Is this is right amount? How would you know?
  • What discounts can you get for bulk buying? Do you use these? Are they value for money?


If you’re able to answer most of the above – or at least know where to find the information – then you’re well on the way to demonstrating business acumen. If you can only answer a few of the above then perhaps it’s time for you to brush up on your business techniques and do some research – or perhaps even attend a course!

Remember, L&D isn’t just about classrooms or e-learning.  It’s also about a deep understanding of the business drivers that you need to understand and respond to.

Join us this week for #chat2lrn to discuss your thoughts on Thursday 24 July at 08.00PDT/11.00EDT/16.00BST and let’s chat about it!

Using Analogies and Metaphors to Enhance Learning

Today’s post is written by Andrea May, #chat2lrn crew member and Vice President of Instructional Design Services at Dashe & Thomson in Minneapolis, MN. Andrea is an instructional designer, project manager, wife, mother, Girl Scout troop leader and theater artist.


My mom was a junior high and high school home-economics teacher when I was a kid. She made sure that my sister and I knew our way around the kitchen and a sewing machine, whether we wanted to or not.  I distinctly remember helping her bake a scratch cake for my sister’s birthday one year and she used a metaphor to explain the difference between cooking and baking. “Cooking is an art, and baking is a science,” she told me.  A light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly understood that you have a lot more license to be creative with cooking. Baking, on the other hand, requires precision and attention to detail if you want things to turn out right.

The use of analogies and metaphors in learning programs can have a powerful impact on a learner’s understanding of new or complex concepts.  They highlight the similarities between knowledge we already have and that which we are trying to learn.  Analogies and metaphors create a scaffold in the learner’s mind allowing new information to be added on top.

In a recent post by Annie Murphy Paul The Key to Innovation: Making Smart Analogies she explains analogies and how they work for learning:

A useful analogy reveals the deep commonalities beneath superficial differences. We can think of analogies as having two parts: the base and the target. The base is the thing you know about. The target is the thing that’s new. Analogies are created by elaborating the similarities and the differences between the base and the target. When we us
e an analogy, we take what we know about the base and move some of it over to the target. Northwestern University psychologist Dedre Genter calls this process “bootstrapping the mind”—elevating ourselves into the realm of new knowledge, using the knowledge we have already to pull ourselves up.

For example, if we look back at the metap4196897_orighor my mom used to describe the difference between cooking and baking, the base is art and science.  I knew that art is all about creativity and making something new out of whatever materials you choose as
your medium.  Science on the other hand is much more rigid and focused on proving theories with repeatable results.  So if art is the base and cooking is the target, the commonalities are the ability to be creative, try new things and improvise where needed.  On the other hand with a base of science and a target of baking, the commonalities come down to following strict procedures to ensure repeatable results.

If you think back to your school days you might remember some common analogies and metaphors that your teachers used to help you understand a new concept.  Fractions are often taught by visualizing a pizza or pie with some of the slices removed.  Radio waves are compared to the ripples on water when you drop in a stone.  And electricity is often compared to water flowing through pipes.  These simple ideas that we all understand provide a context for the more complex ideas to take root.

As an industry, we need to use all the tools available to us to increase understanding and retention. Using analogies and metaphors is a great way to do that. In short, if we can find an example that is common knowledge for our learners that can be used to effectively draw comparisons to a new concept, half the battle is already won.

Join us this week for #chat2lrn to discuss your thoughts on using analogies and metaphor to enhance learning. Join #Chat2lrn this Thursday July 10 at 08.00PDT/11.00EDT/16.00BST and let’s chat about it!

Additional reading on this topic:

Skills Practice | Understanding and Making Analogies – by Jonathan Olsen, Sarah Gross and Katherine Schulten

Learning To Learn: Embrace Analogies – by Kalid Azad

Using Analogies – by Akron Global Polymer Academy

How to Write Better Analogies for Learning by Connie Malamed


What can L+D learn from the world of start-ups?

This post is written by Chat2lrn Crew Member, Holly MacDonald. Holly is the Principal Consultant for Spark + Co, and she has worked on several projects that provide training to entrepreneurs on the techniques discussed in this post. She has found inspiration from the start-up community and hopes this chat inspires others to think outside the typical L+D box.

The world of start-ups, which refers mainly to technology start-ups, may seem an odd source of inspiration for L+D professionals, but there are some interesting parallels and techniques that could be used. Those in L+D may not see it this way, but in many ways we are creating training or learning “products” and our “learners” and “clients” are our customers.

We’re going to focus on just three areas where we think start-up ideas or practices could be used in L+D.

  • There’s a drive to focus on understanding what your customer needs and who your customer actually is from Steve Blank’s Customer Development model https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLEebbiYIkI Steve is a serial entrepreneur who teaches a whole series of lectures at Stanford which preach “customer discovery”. He’s a legend in the start-up world.
  • Mapping out the relationship between what you offer to customers and how they get your product, how you make your product and how you deliver value to your customers is a core concept. Using post-its to test your thinking and question your assumptions is almost a religion in the start-up world.
  • There’s an emphasis on iterative approaches, especially through the Lean Start-up. Creating, testing and modifying are how most things are developed. You can’t sit in your office/garage/café and come up with the ideal solution to anything, you need to start with something, get feedback and apply the suggested changes.

One big idea out of the Lean Start-up has been the Minimum Viable Product or MVP . What is it? It’s a concept that suggests products or solutions should be developed to just meet the needs of your customer and no more. Instead of trying to build something fully formed, you should make sure you focus on just the minimum needs and features to meet their needs. Once you have clear indication that your product or solution will meet your customer’s need, you can use it to build out more features and invest in making your product beautiful and fully functional. It’s a concept that most find hard to do in practice, because it forces you to focus on the essence of what your product can do to address your customer’s need, when really many of us think we know the answer already.

The MVP in particular is a concept that has some great applications for those of us in L+D. After hearing Brent Schlenker on elearnchat talking about this, we wanted to explore the idea in a #chat2lrn. Brent is the Chief Learning Strategist at Litmos, many of us probably know him from the e-learning guild. He also writes a popular (and long-standing blog) at http://elearndev.blogspot.ca/

How do you see the notion of Minimum Viable Product applying to those of us in L+D?

“I was thrilled to read about MVP in The Lean Startup because there was finally a name for what I had been thinking and blogging about for many years. Much of what we used to talk about as Learning2.0 was really just the L&D industry discovering what tech start ups had discovered: the power of the minimum viable product.

However, it’s more complicated in L&D because we carry so much baggage from the past. We don’t often refer to what we deliver as a product.  And even if you are open minded enough to see that your course is a product, you may not be willing to completely change your development process to a shorter, iterative, ongoing, development cycle. It truly does require a significant shift in thinking…almost to the point of completely abandoning our traditional ISD models.

And on a side note, I think this is why non-ISD professionals, who stumble into a training role, perform better.”

More of Brent’s thoughts:

What are some examples of this?

“I’ve got 2 good examples: classroom training and eLearning.

I know we would rather not even think about designing classroom training any more, but it’s such a wonderful testing ground for content that I’ve become a big proponent of classroom training as being part of the design/development process. There is more too it than what I can cover here but I’ll give you some nuggets:

1) Let your SME expert include everything and the kitchen sink. This is blasphemy, right? No, it’s brilliant! Instead of our industry whining about this, we should be embracing it. Yes, SMEs want to include everything they know because they are passionate about the subject. So let them. Then get feedback and review it with the SME. You will be shocked to discover that he/she will discover the less desirable elements on their own. So, you work with to revise the content and then deliver it again.  And you continue doing this loop until you’ve got it nailed down to just the important nuggets.

2) Start delivering online learning content ONLINE as soon as you have it! If all that exists is a video of the CEO talking about the company at a conference then use it. Post it to your LMS and add a quiz. No, it’s not ideal, and it’s not perfect, but it’s probably GREAT content that everyone should know. With it loaded in the LMS you now have control, and access to viewing data. You could also offer achievements, badges, points, or whatever, to encourage engagement. The same could be done with any file: audio, PDF, etc”

More of Brent’s thoughts:

How do you alleviate fears from L+D practitioners about the concerns they may have about adopting a Minimum Viable Product mindset when it comes to training?

“There are plenty of valid concerns regarding minimum viable product in L&D. Companies that already have established training departments with a library of courses will probably have a difficult time adjusting to MVP. And like any other project or program change you will need to communicate it, and market it, to everyone.

Your team will also need to be constantly engaged with its products and customers. This is not something L&D is used to doing either.  We design the heck out of a course, cut it loose and then move on to the next course never seeing it again until approvals are acquired for updates may months later.

The reality is that we must provide value to the organization. MVP delivers that value consistently, iteratively, and transparently. When business leaders see progress they see value, and MVP opens up the L&D process for all to see. And that’s a good thing.”


Whether you are an instructional designer who finds inspiration in the MVP concept, or an educator who sees value in adopting a customer development mindset or a training manager/director or even freelancer who can see the importance of identifying the value that you provide to your customer, we think the world of start-ups offers lots of inspiration for L+D. We look forward to chatting about this on Thursday, June 19th.

Excelling as an ‘Accidental Trainer’

This post is written by Chat2lrn Crew Member, Lisa Goldstein. Lisa started her career in the four and five star hospitality industry and ended up being recruited in L&D to share her knowledge of best in class customer service.  During this journey she realized how much she enjoyed helping others to succeed, especially those also finding themselves in the role of an ‘accidental trainer’.

It seems that when I talk to other professionals in a Learning and Development role, I find that so few say that they have known since they were very young that when they grew up, they were going to do the type of job that they do today.  As Learning and Development Professionals, our backgrounds are so very diverse.  Some of us started off as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) or simply individuals who were really good at their jobs. We may have started off in teaching or moved into the position of teaching others how to do those roles as best as they can.  Our roles and our skills vary and are becoming even more diverse.  From small audiences to large we adapt. The way that training is delivered varies from live instructor led training (ILT) to virtual instructor in both synchronous and asynchronous classrooms and beyond. From being an eLearning designer to producing ‘just in time’ job aids and even more.  So, how do you succeed in this role as an ‘accidental trainer’?

Throughout my career as an ‘accidental trainer’, I know I have grown exponentially better at what I do.  This has been primarily because of the brilliant people I’m lucky enough to have made contact with during my career.   Whether that be through simple association via social media and/or as close industry friends. This experience has given me an opportunity to learn from others on a regular basis. I now find that the people I engage with are my most valuable resource.

In our next #Chat2Lrn conversation, we’ll talk more about what it means to be an ‘accidental trainer’ and discuss as a group more ways we can continue to excel in our role.

Additional posts and resources on this topic:

The Accidental Trainer by Shannon Tipton

Do You Really Need an Instructional Design Degree? by Tom Kuhlmann, Articulate

Getting Started in eLearning by Lisa Goldstein

How to Blossom as an Instructional Designer by Ethan Edwards, Allen Interactions

The Accidental Instructional Designer book by Cammy Bean

Is classroom training dead?

090617-N-9610C-029If you listen to the chatter in online learning and development communities, it would seem that workplace classroom training is a thing of the past. It’s usefulness has increasingly diminished with the widespread availability of informal, social, and ad hoc learning opportunities. As “learning professionals,” we talk about scaffolding experiences, mentoring programs, and ways to embrace informal learning in the workplace.

At our professional conferences, there are virtually no sessions on how to be a better in-room learning facilitator, or how to craft more effective classroom activities for the workplace. I don’t know if such sessions aren’t accepted by conference organizers or simply not proposed. And yet when I talk with people at those conferences, many of them sheepishly admit their predominant training methods remain classroom and live online training.

Perhaps more interesting is that a recent survey of employees indicated a strong preference for live classroom training. Most cited a need to escape the distractions of the busy workplace. Many also highlighted the social activities connected with classrooms: meeting colleagues and making new connections. Others said they appreciate meeting instructors, many of whom are experts in their respective fields.

Now I’m not suggesting a return to the practice of using classroom training as the response to every performance gap. I remain firmly committed to the tenets of the 70:20:10 framework. But I do wonder if we’ve spent too much time focusing on how to revolutionize our approach to meeting those gaps and not enough time on demonstrating how to evolve traditional workplace approaches into something more effective and longer lasting.

What do you think? Should classroom training be eliminated in the workplace, or is there a time and place when it’s perfectly appropriate? How can we help our colleagues make those classroom activities more effective? Is there a way to envision an “ideal” future state and architect a plan to evolve current state to get there? Join #Chat2lrn this Thursday at 08.00PDT/11.00EDT/16.00BST and let’s chat about it!

Posted by chat2lrn crew member Tom Spiglanin

Making the most of Performance Support

This week’s post is written by Judith Christian-Carter, crew member of #chat2lrn

Performance Support

Many pundits would agree that Performance Support is witnessing something of a renaissance. After all, it’s been around for a long time (aka coaching and mentoring), so what’s really new?

The answer probably lies in the convergence of two major forces:

  1. how many organisations are now seeing L&D, how it’s practiced and how it gets done; and
  2. the continuing rise of technology and its increasing use in allowing organisations, and the people that work within them, to work and learn in very different ways to those prevalent in the late 20th Century.

Then, today, there is the curse of information that really highlights the need for performance support, such as:

  • information overload (too much information for people to organise, synthesise, draw conclusions from, act upon)
  • information underload (insufficient information upon which to act confidently)
  • information scatter (required information is in different locations and therefore can easily be overlooked)
  • information conflict (information is duplicated and different, and difficult to trust and easy to ignore)
  • erroneous information (information is downright wrong so if used could lead to varying degrees of failure).

Assuming you are on the performance support boat or are thinking of boarding it, just how do you/can you get the most of it? For example, do you/can you use the five cascading levels of performance support to address all instances of learning need (Conrad Gottfredson, Bob Mosher, 2012) and if so how? i.e.:

  1. When people are learning how to do something for the first time (New)
  2. When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned (More)
  3. When people need to act on what they have learned, eg planning what to do, remembering what they have forgotten, adapting their performance to a different situation (Apply)
  4. When problems arise, items break or don’t work as intended (Solve)
  5. When people need to learn a new way of doing something, which requires them to change skills that are deeply ingrained in their current performance (Change)

So, how do you or can you use performance support in your role? Is performance support embedded into your organisation’s infrastructure and workflow processes? If not, should it be and how could it be? Is it a whole organisation ‘thing’ and not just a L&D one and, if not, why not?

Join in the debate and discuss these and other questions on 8th May 2014.

For more ideas, examples, etc. see:






Emotion in Learning – Fad or Fab?

This week’s chat is by Fiona Quigley, head of Learning Design and Innovation for Logicearth, a learning services company based in Ireland.


I’ve just read two books that have changed how I think about the role of emotion in learning. The first is – Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahenman. The second is, The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Steve Peters, who was the psychological mastermind behind the success of the British Olympic Cycling team.

Both books recognise that the brain is made up of different systems and that when we take decisions or make judgements, we are not nearly as rational as we think. Human thinking is full of biases and contradictions, which is useful to realise – particularly when we want to change an aspect of behaviour.

Man does not live on facts alone

So, let’s take an example. Have you ever broken the speed limit while you are driving? Was this because you didn’t have the knowledge or experience to understand the speed limits? Chances are you did know the speed limit, but other motivations were stronger; you were going to be late perhaps, so your rational mind was somewhat hijacked. Or simply, you were distracted by other pressing thoughts, so you didn’t notice the signs.

The point is that there is a lot more going on in our heads than just dealing with facts. And if this is the case, then we need to better acknowledge this when we are designing learning content. Yes – it is important to understand facts and information, but your learner is likely to feel a certain way about that information. It is useful to understand the facts and the feelings involved in the content.

Emotion as a memory aid

We remember experiences that impact us emotionally. Emotionally evocative events somehow get ‘saved’ more quickly and deeply than other less remarkable events. I’m sure we all remember the ‘firsts’ in our lives – first day at school, first best friend, the first boyfriend/girlfriend. The emotional tags generated by those experiences, which are often feelings like worry, anxiety, excitement, joy – somehow anchor that experience in your memory so that it stays with you.

From my childhood, I remember an experience of trying to smoke at the silly age of 9 (because everyone else was doing it!). I always recalled that experience when I was ever tempted to take up the habit.

The emotional power of words

The actual words we use when designing learning content don’t seem to get as much focus as the other elements – use of visuals, animations, scenarios etc. If you read learning content written by a good writer, it adds a deeper layer to the overall learning experience. Even being aware of the power of some words helps, for example:

  • Using the word ‘but’ in a sentence, deletes what comes before it and causes the reader to focus on the second part of the sentence – “I think he is a good worker, but…”
  • Be positive, rather than negative – e.g. say economical rather than inexpensive

 You can find some more useful tips here.

The marketers do it well, again

This is not the first time I’ve said we should look to the marketers and advertisers to see good examples. Marketing is chiefly about persuading people to buy your product or service. Learning should be about persuasion too – helping someone change their behaviour or attitude, which in turn improves their performance.  If any of you watch the drama series Madmen, the principal character, Don Draper is forever playing to people’s emotions in an attempt to persuade. There is a classic example of this here.

In the clip, Don convinces Kodak executes to re-think their advertising campaign by considering what customers will have a ‘sentimental bond’ with, rather than mere product features. And not surprisingly, he uses storytelling to get his message across.

So is there a downside?

I once created an eLearning programme that was about preventing workplace discrimination for LBGT people. The statics were clear – if you were lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender, then you didn’t get promoted as quickly as your peers. There was also the added stress of not being able to talk about your partner and family in the same way as for heterosexual folks.  The Subject Matter Experts for the course were adamant that this was all about emotional persuasion and empathy. They felt that managers and co-workers just didn’t understand the emotional impact of discrimination, even if it was unconscious.

So most of the content focussed on action and consequences stories. We told 4 stories, each covering a real scenario that people from a LGBT background had experienced.

When we piloted the content, while it was generally well received, about 25% of the audience felt that there were ‘too many emotional stories’ and not enough facts. They just wanted to know how to avoid discrimination. They said it didn’t matter if they were biased – if we told them how to act in the workplace, they’d do it.

Representative emotion

So perhaps the use of emotion has to be balanced with more factual type content. We also need to give consideration to making sure that the emotions we invoke are helpful ones. Imagine a course full of scary scenarios where only mistakes happen. This is fine as it goes, but it is probably not representative of real life. I believe the role of emotion in learning should acknowledge how we work – that when we make decisions, there is a certain amount of real emotion involved in it. The better we get to know our target audience and the types of decisions they need to make, the better we can balance this.

It is possible that we can overdo the emotion – people can become de-sensitised to heavy hitting stories and scenarios. In Northern Ireland, over the last few years, we’ve had a series of very graphic road traffic stories as a public awareness campaign to reduce speeding. These short films were shown at primetime on local TV. They covered the blood and the gore, the fear and the emotion at loss and injury, and the impact on families and friends. Initial research showed that the stories had a big impact, but over time, this impact reduced.

So what do you think? How have you used emotion in learning? Did it work for your target audience?