The changing role of the Learning & Development Professional

When I look back on my career in learning and development, I can see it has fallen into three distinct stages, with a fourth stage now I’m an independent.

What has struck me over the years, however, is how much of the role is about things other than training design and delivery, which is often the first thing people think a career in Learning & Development is about. I’m also consciously aware of how the role is expanding, with an increasing skill set. Here I will examine the three main stages of my L&D career prior to becoming a freelancer, drawing on my own career ‘story’ and giving a simplified overview.

Stage 1 – Training delivery, design, and co-ordination

I kind of ‘fell in’ to training delivery – as a Business graduate I landed a job providing start-up business training and one to one support for people on a government funded scheme. In a sense this was my first ‘pinch’ moment. I was delivering training and giving business advice to people much older than myself, and I didn’t have any real business experience to share. I was, however, resourceful and could give examples and make the content relatable in other ways, drawing on experiences of others. So thus was my first lesson learned – you don’t necessarily have to have ‘done’ something to be able to deliver training in it.

A relocation to a new area meant I had to look for another opportunity, and then I was able to land my first in-house role where I had to create training content. My job title was ‘Training Co-ordinator’ and the clue was in the job title. As a small business with 100 employees, I was not expected to deliver everything but to co-ordinate all the training activity. As an organizational change project was underway, I was able to support that with all the soft skills delivery (team building, communication skills) and job skills training. I re-skilled whole teams by using in-house experts and putting them through my own train the trainer programmes and then worked with them to create their content and methodology. This phase was exciting, and although I enjoyed training delivery, I enjoyed developing others to deliver job skills training even more so, as this brought a problem-solving element of ‘what’s the best way to do this?’.

A maternity leave brought this time to an end, and after a spell of freelance work delivering Total Quality Management Awareness training for a global manufacturing company, I took another corporate role.

Stage 2 – Managing a function, setting the strategy, and broadening out

I consciously sought after a role in a larger organisation as I felt I still had much to learn and was excited to secure a newly created Training Manager position for a local authority with 600 employees.

I quickly realised that rather than deliver training myself it would be better to move to a model where most things were outsourced, leaving me free to adequately set up and manage the whole function. At times this felt a bit like cheating, to bring in other people to deliver what I could deliver. I soon realized it wasn’t cheating. Preparing good quality training takes time, and my job was to be strategic and juggle lots of different priorities.

This shift to managing and organizing training does then bring into play a whole different skill set. No longer is it about training design, delivery and facilitation skills, but rather, needs analysis across the organisation, stakeholder management, project and resource management. Of course, having the underpinning skills of training design and delivery are very useful when selecting suppliers as you have an understanding around objectives and outcomes.

In time I also made in-roads towards a digital L&D strategy, implementing an LMS and e-learning solutions. I regularly attended conferences to keep up to date on ‘what was out there’. In terms of a team, I had one full-time administrator, and anything else I needed was outsourced.

An Expanding Role and Digital L&D

My next role was in a larger organisation of 1000+ employees and a group structure. One of the main priorities was putting in place a cultural shift to enable the different organisations in the group to work in a more aligned way.

In time I instigated and led many initiatives that were organisation-wide. These included a new online performance management system, new behavioural frameworks, Diversity Champions, Anti-bullying advisors, to name a few.

This was possible once the foundations of training delivery were in place – and I was able to ‘shift’ my role into having more of an organisational development focus. My two Training Managers took on responsibility for ‘routine’ tasks like organizing the annual training plan, and delivery of the management programme, freeing me up to focus on more strategic oversight with a wider range than just the delivery of learning activities.

Alongside this shift, I led the creation of a digital learning and development strategy. This meant members of my team got to specialize in new areas like instructional design and data analysis. Identifying systems requirements and managing implementations meant that my skills developed further in managing projects. Note – rolling out digital learning platforms has more in common with IT project skills than learning! All of this whilst furthering my knowledge of what a modern L&D team should be offering in terms of online, blended, and collaborative models for learning.

Stage 3 – Organisation Development

Over time I was able to further broaden my skill set into Organisation Development activities. I delivered strategic level training on topics like ‘Managing your Talent’ to senior leaders, and this understanding of workforce planning led to the implementation of several key projects to ‘future-proof’ skills in the organisation. This led to a project on people metrics and a further examination of the full employee life cycle and talent management activities.

As a collective senior HR team, we focused on employee engagement and wellbeing with various initiatives and in-house training as a result. All of this was while I was overseeing the work of a team that were creating custom e-learning content, implementing our own ADDIE process, whilst transitioning our training delivery model to be fully blended with job specific learning pathways.

I worked to create a new vision and culture where self-directed learning was possible through digital solutions key as well as supporting organisation development activities. At this stage I really noticed that I drew on all my previous knowledge that I had built up over the years, and while my team were doing ‘in-depth’ work, I was keeping that helicopter vision, knowing just enough to make informed decisions and to steer how things could and should be done.

What can I learn from my L&D career story?

Implementing full digital learning strategies that go beyond digital content provision and creation mean that there is always more to learn and do for L&D professionals. These areas are new and relatively unchartered in terms of those that have fully integrated mobile, social and collaborative learning.

Growing in a generalist role is great because you can grow and learn gradually. Working with a wider team of HR colleagues and setting the annual HR strategy, each focusing on different aspects but collaborating meant that there was continual learning.

I found putting my career journey together to be a helpful process – and I am still navigating my own journey – now working for myself and consulting for other organisations. What has been interesting from this process, and from discussions with other professionals, is recognizing the ‘tacit’ knowledge I have collected over the years from project after project, one organisation-wide initiative after another. There are some skills you develop over time, resulting in intuition a ‘sense’ of what will work and what won’t, things that a textbook, theory or model won’t teach you.

So, that’s my Learning & Development career story – what’s yours, and when was the last time you shared it was someone?

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