An Interview with Charles Jennings
Charles Jennings is a leading thinker, practitioner and consultant in the areas of performance improvement, change management, and learning.
From 2002 until the end of 2008, Charles was the Chief Learning Officer for Reuters and Thomson Reuters where he had responsibility for developing the global learning and performance strategy and leading the learning organization for the firm’s 55,000 workforce.
Charles has deep experience in both the business and learning practitioner sides of performance improvement and effective learning solutions. He also knows 'what works' in the world of strategic talent.
His career includes roles as head of the UK National Centre for Networked Learning, as a professor at Southampton Business School, in senior business roles for global companies, and as an evaluator for the European Commission’s learning, performance and eCommerce research initiatives. He also sits on steering groups and advisory boards for national and international industry and professional bodies. He is also a Senior Advisor to the EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development).
Charles has an impeccable record of developing and implementing leading-edge performance solutions spanning more than 35 years.
- Learnnovators: How do you look at the radical shifts happening in learning paradigms (such as social learning, flipped classroom, Bring-Your-Own-Device [BYOD], etc.) fueled by the enormous possibilities thrown open by emerging technologies? How encouraging is the new learning landscape? Where do you see today’s organizations in the midst of these radical shifts?
Charles: I see these shifts in learning as being driven not only by re-thinking the process of learning and development and by emerging technologies, but also by fundamental changes in the world of work. Factors such as changing organizational structures and evolving work practices are important drivers. Organizations are becoming generally less hierarchical, flatter, ‘softer’ at the edges and more agile. Jobs are changing where there is a clear move from role-based work to task-based work, less transactional work and more work that requires decision-making and dealing with ambiguity. Each of these is driving changes in the way we understand that learning needs to happen. High value knowledge work requires different capabilities and different mindsets to transactional work, and networked organizations have different needs compared to highly structured organizations.So the pressure on organizations to realign their provision of learning and talent development to meet these changing needs is immense.Of course, learning has always been a continuous process. We know that adults at work develop the majority of their skills and capabilities through experience, practice, interaction with others and reflection. However, for purely practical reasons, and purposes of control, the concept of the curriculum and structured event-based learning has been the dominant model for the past 250 years. We have the Pietists in 18th century Prussia to thank for this. However the 21st century global world is far removed from the long-past world of the Pietists. Some learning and talent professionals, together with some organizations, are finding it a challenge to make changes from these age-old HR and learning practices. However, it is inevitable that they will need to adopt new ways of learning to support new ways of working sooner rather than later.
- Learnnovators: What are the latest trends in organizational learning & development, and performance support? What do some of the interesting research findings and survey results point to?
Charles: We now know that people learn more about their work informally than they do formally. That is to say, the input that results in the development of high performing individuals and teams comes more from new and rich experiences, practices, conversations and sharing, and reflection than it does from structured away-from-work training and development. We have known for more than a century that learning without context rarely sticks and rarely changes behavior (and ‘learning’ is fundamentally ‘changing behavior’). So we are seeing increasing interest in social and informal learning. Both of these can be supported in the workplace rather than in the classroom or through structured eLearning. Of course, structured learning approaches can support social and informal, but social and informal learning don’t need structured processes to happen. They are happening anyway, and have always happened.Performance support – providing support to workers at the point-of-need – is becoming more common, too, although most learning professionals have little experience in designing performance support solutions.Some of the most interesting survey data supporting this was published in the Corporate Leadership Council’s 2011 L&D Team Capabilities Survey. This data is no longer ‘new’, but it presents a powerful argument for change. The Council sampled more than 1500 people in 53 organizations across the globe. The organizations represented a wide range of verticals – finance, retail, energy, health, and technology, as well as government and not-for-profits. When asked how they rated individual learning interventions (training and development programs), participants and their line managers both responded positively (84% of participants were satisfied or highly satisfied; 79% of their managers were satisfied or highly satisfied with the individual learning interventions). However, when managers were asked their views on how the L&D function was supporting them as a whole, the story they reported was very different. 76% felt that their L&D function was ineffective or very ineffective in helping them achieve business targets, and only 14% reported that they would ‘actively recommend to a colleague that they should work with the L&D department’. This survey, and others like it, point to the need for the learning function to make some significant changes in terms of both what they do and how they do it in the future. If they don’t, it’s almost inevitable that it will become irrelevant.
- Learnnovators: Today, we see many organizations adopting the 70:20:10 framework for organizational development. Why the 70:20:20 Model? What is its significance in today’s world
Charles: The 70:20:10 model is a deceptively simple framework for extending learning and improving performance. Many organizations understand the potential 70:20:10 has to support change in the way they provide learning. Its significance is that it is a holistic model. This means that it brings together various development activities that are often dealt with as separate entities, or not dealt with at all by the learning function. 70:20:10 integrates structured development with social and workplace learning. However, the framework does more than that. It provides a scaffolding for change, and is an ideal tool to support the development of new strategy and operating principles, and to define stakeholder relationship models, support enrollment of line leaders and to provide a clear path to up-skill learning, talent and organizational development professionals.
- Learnnovators: Do you think this model is a realization of our understanding of the way people learn? Why do you think we took such a long time to realize and accept this fact?
Charles: 70:20:10 is certainly a realization of our understanding about how adults in the workplace learn. Although the numbers are artifacts and should be taken as a ‘rough guide’ only, we now know that high performing people learn most of what makes them high performers in the workplace rather than in the classroom. Just ask anyone you know “where did your greatest learning occur?” and it’s highly likely that their most impactful learning moments occurred while they were involved in completing a task of some kind; in other words, while they were in the workflow. I have asked thousands of people that question and almost invariably more than 80% report their greatest learning occurs while doing work rather than whilst in a classroom or workshop session.Added to this, we know that tacit information is best learned experientially and through conversation and interaction with others – whether they are experts or colleagues. More and more work involves dealing with tacit information, and less and less work involves purely transactional work. There is a lot of research that supports this trend. Also, workers who provide the greatest value to organizations are inevitably those working with tacit information and making decisions. To do this well requires a lot of practice and experience. We can’t produce a high-performing knowledge worker by simply having them attend a few classroom courses and complete some structured eLearning modules. It requires a lot more than that.The reason it has taken so long for many people and organizations to realize that people learn primarily through ‘doing’ rather than ‘knowing’ is that, for many years, they had the luxury of maintaining learning organizations that may not have been assessed in terms of the tangible outputs and business or organizational value they were delivering. As soon as budgets became tighter, particularly following the global financial crisis in 2008, the more forward-looking Chief Learning Officers, HR Directors and business leaders looked to alternative approaches. Many have found the 70:20:10 model to be a better fit than the almost-total focus on structured development away from the workplace that was used in the past.
- Learnnovators: You say there’s a "conspiracy of convenience" between many learning & development managers and business managers, which serves as a barrier to effective L&D operations. Could you please elaborate on this?
Charles: The ‘conspiracy of convenience’ is a term I first heard used by David Wilson who runs Elearnity, a UK learning and talent analyst organization. I think the term perfectly describes the situation that used to occur, and still occurs in some organizations, where managers see every problem that is identified as being caused by under-performance as a ‘training problem’. They then turn to their training manager and ask for help in solving their ‘training problem’ (unaware that training is simply a solution to some problems, not a panacea). The training manager, who sees their job as ‘doing training’, responds by creating a training course. The ‘conspiracy’ comes in because once the training has been completed the manager feels he (or she) has done their job, the training manager also feels they have done their job, and whether there is any impact or not, they are both happy. Especially if outputs – and the on-going performance of the trained people – is not measured. This conspiracy of convenience used to be rife. It is less so now but is certainly still with us. Together with the process called ‘training needs analysis’ (the output of which invariably results in training), I think the conspiracy of convenience has represented one of the two major barriers to effective workforce development during the past 50 years.
- Learnnovators: How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support workplace and social learning?
Charles: They certainly need to evolve! Learning is a process not a series of events and it needs to be underpinned by models that support continuous learning as part of the workflow, and of learning with others and, where effective, through structured courses and programs. A common misconception about the 70:20:10 model is that it is ‘anti-training’. That’s certainly not the case. It simply provides guidance to address performance issues with a full suite of approaches that go beyond the traditional structured model of design, develop and deliver content-rich, experience-poor training and development events.
- Learnnovators: Most L&D professionals possess high levels of skills around the traditional training (formal learning) area. However, their skill levels fall short around the informal or social learning areas. What is your advice to L&D professionals for upskilling themselves?
Charles: Almost all Learning professionals need to work on upskilling themselves in new approaches and new technologies as these come into more widespread use. My colleague Jane Hart, a world expert on social learning, said in her Social Learning Handbook, “social learning is not something you just talk or read about; it’s something you do”. Equally, capability in other areas is also important. Key capabilities include understanding performance support and the options it offers, understanding and tracking developments in learning technologies and other technologies that may be used to support learning and development, and also rapid development skills. Apart from these skills and capabilities, there are others that every L&D professional should have; such as business skills (how many L&D professionals can read a balance sheet or a P&L account, yet how many of their customers and stakeholders will be focusing on these every day?). Also skills and capabilities such as critical and creative thinking skills, research capabilities, a thorough understanding of adult learning and, increasingly, of brain science research.
- Learnnovators: In order to implement the 70:20:10 Model, committing to the “informal learning first” mindset is the first step. Could you elaborate on this for our readers?
Charles: One reason for ‘informal first’ is that formal learning is usually the most expensive and slowest option. Formal learning takes time and money to deliver, whether the type of formal learning involves designing and developing a structure and the content for classroom training or designing and building structured eLearning modules. Face-to-face learning and development also doesn’t scale at speed. The strategic use of 70:20:10 is focused on learning at the speed of business™ and, as such, solutions should be built that address that need for speed.However, this type of thinking does involve a change of mindset and does take time. It involves always first thinking ‘outputs’ rather than inputs, and ‘performance’ rather than ‘learning’. It also involves using a performance consulting approach to identify root causes of performance problems.
- Learnnovators: As we know, informal learning cannot replace formal learning, and the best approach would be to strategically integrate both forms of learning in the right way. However, by doing this, are we actually trying to ‘formalize’ informal learning, which could lead to a break-down of the purpose and value of informal learning? If that is the case, how do we avoid this pitfall?
Charles: I would argue that in some cases informal learning can replace formal learning very well. In fact, it is sometimes imperative that informal learning does replace formal learning. However, in many cases, an integrated approach will prove more effective. To give a specific example, if the requirement is to provide people with information to help them build their knowledge stocks, then bringing them into a classroom is probably the most ineffective and inefficient approach to do that. However, if the requirement is to engender attitude and culture change, then bringing people into a face-to-face event is one of the most effective and best ways to achieve successful outcomes.‘Formalising’ informal learning is not something that really can be done in any way effectively. Informal learning already happens without input from learning professionals. Certainly learning professionals can encourage informal learning and help make it more efficient and effective, but ‘managing’ any form of learning really sits with the learner themselves. The learning function’s role is to embrace, encourage and support self-directed learning, not to try to ‘manage’ it.
- Learnnovators: Please describe your experience implementing the 70-20-10 model for Thomson Reuters’ 55,000 employees when you were the Chief Learning Officer there.
Charles: When I joined Reuters (as it was then) in 2001, the various training departments were primarily focused on designing and delivering classroom training. Together with my colleagues, we carried out a transformation to align all the training services and aggregate them into an aligned learning and development function. We used the 70:20:10 framework to underpin this transformation, and explore opportunities to build our workplace learning provision. We integrated the 70:20:10 model into the skill requirements for job role framework and in other ways. 70:20:10 helped bring consistency and build capability across a large L&D function.
- Learnnovators: There is an argument that the 70:20:10 Model was developed before the Internet, and hence, it does not account for the numerous technologies that support or augment formal learning (such as e-learning, mobile learning, virtual learning, just-in-time learning, etc.). How do you think it (the model) is still relevant today?
Charles: One of the major misunderstandings about the 70:20:10 model is that ‘it’s about the numbers’. It’s important to be aware that 70:20:10 is a reference model and not a recipe. The numbers are not a rigid formula. They simply remind us that the majority of learning and development comes through experiential and social learning in the workplace (the ‘70’ and ‘20’) rather than through formal classes and courses (the ‘10’). Of course, structured and directed ‘formal’ learning can help, but it rarely, if ever, provides the complete answer.Equally, with the rise and rise of social media, it’s almost inevitable that the ‘20’ will become more important as a channel for learning. At some point it may be sensible to discard the numbers, but I don’t think now is that time. However, some organizations use the model without using the 70:20:10 name. One global technology company refers to their learning model as the ‘Three Es’. They refer to Experience : Exposure : Education. The way in which the 70:20:10 model is communicated will depend on individual organizational cultures.At times people have manipulated the 70:20:10 numbers and produced different ratios. Although some of these ideas are the result of thoughtful and useful analysis, others are ‘angels dancing on heads of pins’ and missing the point that the numbers are artifacts. It would be an exercise in futility to re-define a model as the 45:30:10:8:3:2:2 model for instance (these are the ratios a large global company identified for a range of development activities including experiences on the job; manuals and instructions; training programs; networking; mentoring and coaching; special assignments; and workshops).
- Learnnovators: What would future (organizational) learning look like?
Charles: This is again a difficult question to answer. Future-gazing is always fraught with potential pitfalls. When we look back to future predictions made in the 1920s, we read of a future with robotic typists, flying buses, and spirals of quartz suspended above cities to light them at night. Despite the pitfalls of prediction, I’m prepared to suggest that future organizational learning will be very different from today.L&D departments will be smaller; they will primarily be focused on facilitating and supporting learning and development as part of the workflow and the social context in which most work gets done. Where they continue to design and run structured courses, these will be principally for high-value employees where the benefits of the face-to-face experience are considered to justify the cost. Otherwise learning and support will be provided primarily via technology. ‘eLearning’ will lose the ‘e’ as most learning and development activity will involve technology – even if only to bring people and teams together virtually.The use of social media will become ubiquitous for learning. This may be managed by the learning function, but more likely by the marketing and corporate communications department.Most organizations will deploy their own ‘internal YouTube’ type services (or the future equivalent) to support employees. L&D professionals may have a role in managing the user-generated content in these systems.The prime focus of learning professionals will be to provide performance consulting services, content and community curation services, and workplace analytical services to identify potential future capability gaps. They will work in a much more integrated way with their stakeholders. I see all of these potential developments as very exciting and a great challenge to be addressed by all learning professionals.
Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Charles. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!
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