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Invisible isn’t investable

Laptop in a meeting room

For close to a decade, learning and development professionals have been making inroads to get a proverbial seat at the corporate leadership table. Numerous articles have been written on this topic, about how learning practitioners can be influential within their businesses while leveraging their seat to make a lasting, positive impact on corporate culture.

One leading voice in the profession hypothesizes that as times change, so must the ways we develop employees, and highlight this shift by way of an invisible learning and development approach. While I am philosophically supportive of remaining relevant, I believe this invisible approach is misleading and potentially harmful.

Instead, learning and development should be integrated within the business—for all to see and to take full advantage of the opportunity to attract, develop, and retain talent for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s unknowns. Further, in an era where data analysis and metrics are drivers for decision-making, why would invisibility be a good choice? It is our role, as learning and development professionals to ensure that employees have abundant opportunity to invest in themselves—both just-in-time and in more formal, structured ways. This is a blend of the new world and traditional methods. Balance is important in our lives, and should not be discounted in the workplace.

This notion of invisibility does serve as a wake-up call of sorts to spur organizations to assess their learning cultures. Ideally, learning and development will at times push to employees what is needed to be successful—things not visible from their vantage point and directly correlated with learning and development’s seat at the table. At other moments, the individual will be granted full decision-making rights regarding what they may want to learn to further develop their capabilities—or simply because it seems interesting and may enhance value on a matrixed team.

It is learning and development’s responsibility to create opportunities that empower employees to learn. The creation of social learning platforms, communities of practice and mentoring programs are just a few examples of how to empower the individual to participate in their own development in more seamless ways—at the same time using technology effectively in the creation and dissemination of techniques, tools and strategies.

If learning and development is invisible, who does the business turn to when programs need updating, employees don’t close their performance gaps and bottlenecks at the middle management level continue? Being unseen and unheard, takes the pressure off, but at what cost? Robust conversations that should occur between human resources and learning and development most likely will evaporate or won’t ever progress to frame discussion in new and more meaningful ways. Is this because in an era of data, measurement and analytics, the learning organization doesn’t know how to address those things so it becomes easier to avoid?

I encourage you to evaluate your company’s learning culture and ask: Have you done all that is possible given the marketplace, technology and your business strategy, to integrate learning with short-term tasks and long-term initiatives? Further, ask yourself if you have created a learning culture that supports the business in which employees are expected to consistently add value and lend the latest thinking and skills to be technically competent and behaviorally confident.

The language we use is exemplary of our thoughts and simultaneously impacts others’ first impressions and, quite possibly, strongly colors lasting perceptions. We look for evidence to support what we already believe, so it isn't wise to give anyone the impression that being an invisible learning and development function supports the commercial success businesses must achieve. We operate in a complicated, volatile marketplace that is riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty that doesn’t pave the way for a mutually beneficial partnership.

Lastly, learning and development is invisible. It is easy to leap to being unseen and unheard, which translates to un-investable as a business partner. Let’s be careful how we label ourselves - lest we disappear.

Melissa Vuernick is Executive Director of Kaplan US Leadership and Professional Development.