Martyn Sloman is a research academic who specializes in training
and development. He has extensive practical experience as a
training manager, and is a visiting professor at Kingston Business
School, Kingston University, and a teaching fellow in the
Department of Management and Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck
College at the University of London.
Sloman also is principal consultant to the TJ (Training Journal)
L&D2020 project, and the author of several books in the
learning and development field, including the newly released
L&D 2010: A Guide for the Next Decade. He has lectured and
presented at conferences and colleges in 19 countries across five
continents. He has been the keynote speaker at the European
Commission Training Day in Brussels and has also spoken, by
invitation, to the Central Training Committee of the Chinese
Learning Executives Briefing: You note in your
book that the field is moving toward a learner-centric and
business-centric model, but then suggest there may be no need for a
model at all. Why do you believe that is the case?
Martyn Sloman: Learning and development
professionals have always been too introspective. They are too
eager to talk amongst themselves rather than look outward to the
organization. As a result, they have developed their own
vocabulary, which reflects their own models or ways of thinking.
ISD or systematic training, the learning organization, and ROI are
good examples. Our profession needs both a new mindset and a new
skill set that are both grounded in the way that the business
delivers value to its clients or customers.
LXB: What has changed so radically in the field to
make you think we are headed in that direction?
Sloman: What has changed, and this is a global
phenomenon, is the individual skills and knowledge that the
employee needs to deliver value. Technology is the most obvious
example. When I started my career at a UK public utility in 1968,
there was one calculator with a memory in the building. I used to
be sent upstairs to ask to borrow it; the calculator would just
about fit into a briefcase. In a developed country today, about
three-quarters of the working population regularly use
sophisticated technology at work and more than half of the
population regard a personal computer on their desk as an essential
tool of their job. Most of the skills involved are learned rather
than taught. Workers develop their ability to use the system by
trial and error or asking others rather than being taught by a
trainer in the classroom.
The second set of skills that are growing in importance are those
that could be labeled "influencing skills" - getting work done
through others. These are about communication, assertiveness,
document writing, and the softer skills around emotional
intelligence. These skills can be trained to an extent but mainly
such skills are acquired and reinforced through feedback. A good
boss makes a huge difference. If the valued skill sets have
changed, so must our profession.
LXB: It's probably fair to say that an ROI-driven
model for learning and development has been the most assailed
approach in recent years, yet there are still a number of experts
who feel it is a legitimate method? Is ROI dead?
Sloman: No, ROI is not dead. However the concept
is rightly under challenge and should never have achieved the
prominence it attained. I know that I will upset many when I say
that hierarchical evaluation is a dated concept and a barrier to
effective communication in the organization. There are occasions,
for example when a new management development program is
introduced, when a full evaluation is necessary. However, all too
often the learning and development department only goes the whole
hog when it wants to justify its existence because it feels under
The fact is that the benefits of most learning and development
solutions are impossible to isolate. Most business leaders fully
understand the complexity of these solutions and their impact. They
need to feel confident that learning and development initiatives
are fully aligned with the needs of the business and that the
learning and development department is operating efficiently and
effectively. This requires an altogether different form of
LXB: You suggest that learning and development is
a craft activity "centered on" solutions, which in the
organizational context deliver business value. Is this at odds with
organizations that seem to be focusing much of their learning
efforts on "culture"?
Sloman: Not at all. Every organization has a
learning culture and every L&D professional worth their salt is
trying to advance that culture so that the employees will recognize
and seek to acquire the knowledge and skills that deliver business
value. What is different is that the way that this can be done
reflects the context of the organization. The situation that you
face in a global technology firm where you have committed ambitious
professionals who are wholly comfortable with the use of computers
is quite different from a retail organization employing part-time
workers with a low educational starting point. The craft skill of
the L&D professional lies in her ability to read and understand
the organization and tailor the solutions accordingly. This is why
I was so critical of the learning organization movement. It seemed
to wholly disregard business economics and treat all organizations
as if they were knowledge intensive.
LXB: In your new book, you introduce nine
principles to guide learning and development practitioners. In one
of them you suggest that they understand the difference between
training and learning. How do you define the difference?
Sloman: At the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development, where I worked between 2001 and 2008 we developed
the following definitions: Training was defined as "an
instructor-led, content-based intervention, leading to desired
changes in behavior" and learning as "a self-directed, work-based
process, leading to increased adaptive capacity." Training and
learning are related, but they are conceptually different
Learning is a discretionary activity that takes place in the domain
of the learner. Learning activities, of whatever form, will only
receive managerial support if they are seen to add value to
business and its customers or clients. They will only receive
support from the learner if the learner is motivated and feels
capable of undertaking them. The acquisition process is encouraged
or facilitated by solutions. Training is one of these solutions,
but only one. The skill sets that are needed to build value in
today's organizations demand a growing focus on their acquisition
by the learner and less focus on the trainer's skills of delivery.
Hence the profession needs both a new mindset and a new skill set.
LXB: You suggest that the profession "disregard
anything that was written in the last century." Why does the
profession need to dispose of its past beliefs?
Sloman: Our legacy has become a millstone. The
solutions that need to be made must be firmly embedded in the
operating systems of our organizations and these have changed as we
have moved into what I describe as the "service-led and
knowledge-driven" economy. Learners are becoming more aware and
more confident as they have experienced (or suffered!) more
training. Their motivation has become much more of an issue. Hence,
with the greatest respect to what has gone before, we need a
LXB: You note that the profession needs to
distinguish between processes and context. How do learning
organizations confuse the two?
Sloman: Context comes first. We need to understand
the way in which our organization builds value - the business
model. Process is about the initiatives that are needed to support,
accelerate, and direct learning. Obviously both are interrelated
but there is an important conceptual distinction. Get that wrong
and you make mistakes. Let me give you an example. A number of
retailers in the United Kingdom invested heavily in e-learning in
the early days without taking account of both the limited IT skills
of their staff and the difficulty in getting time and access to the
store computer. Nice idea but the wrong process for the context.
LXB: You also suggest that the learning and
development department needs to build organizational benefits
through higher value products and services. How do they sell those
concepts, both up the organization to the board room and down the
organization to the learners?
Sloman: If you get it right it you'll get the backing and support you need at all levels. If the solutions that support, accelerate, and direct learning are seen by senior managers to promote business value, they will put their weight behind them. If not, they will be seen as an interruption and an indulgence; line managers and learners will try to avoid participating. It all comes back to value to the business.