5 Questions Learning Practitioners Must Answer
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Stakeholders Ask Questions, Learning Practitioners Provide Solutions

What is it about operational stakeholders? They keep getting in the way of our learning efforts! I hear this, or variations of it, over and over from many within the learning function. This type of questions toward learning practitioners is quite common. You'll never gain respect from operational leaders with this myopic perspective. It will also get your budget cut and put your role at risk. Here's a typical example: you design an excellent learning effort that will clearly drive results. You bring it back to the operational manager, your internal customer, and they ask you a myriad of questions, such as "How much is this going to cost?" or "How much time is this going to take?"

You're shocked! They came to you to address their concerns! Suddenly, it feels like they changed their minds. Instinctively, you feel rejected. You believe they lost interest in what you have to offer. Rest assured, this is far from the case. The perceived negative pushback is really "please convince us we're making the right choice" questions. Your stakeholders, the decision-makers, are under pressure to make prudent choices and maximize limited resources.

So, what do you need to do to get the respect your learning effort deserves? You've heard me say it before; stop focusing on learning and start focusing on what's relevant to the business. Simply, help operational leaders improve their operational results. Address and answer 5 primary operation concerns of internal decision-makers to build confidence for your learning proposal. Here's how you should answer each one.

1. What’s Their Budget For Training?

My first boss taught me a lot. One thing he would always say, "Son, find out what they're willing to spend and then work within it to make them happy." Why? Because this is their financial limitation. Look at it this way, personally you may want a $150K Range Rover but in reality, you can realistically afford a Chrysler mini-van. It's the same for your internal customer. Ideally, they want the perfect solution but in reality, they want you to solve their problem.

You need to know what their budget is well before developing any learning solution. Why? Because you're spending their money. This is one thing learning practitioners often forget. Your learning budget comes from your internal customer's budget for you to do what you do best. So, don't design or even think about developing a learning initiative before discovering what is their budget. Doing so will completely forego the "What is this going to cost?" or similar questions for learning practitioners because they already know what it will cost. And if they forget what it costs, you can safely reply, "It's within your budget."

2. How Will You Use The Money?

Back to my boss's wisdom—he was an awesome mentor. He would always remind me to "sell the customer what they want to buy, not what you want to sell." (He also said this would help when I get into arguments with my spouse...he was so right!) Your internal customers are usually operational managers. They have many constraints and are under significant pressure to make the most of the available resources. Naturally, they'll want to know exactly how you'll spend their money.

They're asking you to show the value you're expected to deliver. Now, you don't have to go into great detail. It's not that they aren't interested but rather, they need to know how your training will help employees achieve their operational objectives. Just don't explain how the sausage is made; no one wants to know that level of detail. Doing so will only raise more questions that you may not be ready to answer.

Your first step, to the best of your ability, is identifying their learning requirements. It's more than just identifying skills gaps; it's actually about identifying performance gaps and then defining the skills the employees require to achieve specific performance objectives. This is what they want to know.

I recommend getting your stakeholders involved in the conversation. It's their money and their accountability so allow them the opportunity to confirm whether you're heading in the right direction. Allow them to work with you to determine the most appropriate methods to deliver training. Even better, offer various options to choose from. Just make sure they fit their needs and their budget. Knowing in advance what’s financially acceptable provides insight into developing an appropriate and effective training solution. It also ensures operational stakeholder support and approval. It's all about reassuring them they made the right decision.

3. How Much Time Will Employees Need For Training?

Operational managers and their staff face exceptional demands. Don't take it personally if operational leaders and employees say they don't have time for training. They actually don't have much time for anything that distracts them from the task at hand. What they're really saying is, "Yes, we'd like to improve our performance but figure out how to do it without being an obstacle to our current performance." You see, any time employees aren't working is downtime or money-losing time. Often, they'll jump to training through eLearning to limit work interruptions. Don't bite. Remember, you're the subject expert.

When developing learning options, consider how to minimize employee downtime even if you consider eLearning solutions. Even better, work with the operational leader to determine when they expect process downtime, then deploy your training during that time. Every process has some downtime. Don't cause the downtime; leverage existing downtime. The more you limit the downtime and integrate training into their environment, the greater the support you’ll receive from operational leaders.

4. What Will Employees Take Away From Training?

This is the make or break question for learning practitioners. It continues to impress me that learning practitioners can't figure this out when the answers are often right under their nose. Operational managers send employees for training out of self-interest—and that’s to improve operational performance. Be precise on the issues the training will address and the skills it intends to improve. Every operational leader will have defined performance expectations. These expectations align with job tasks and responsibilities. With a little investigating, questioning, and speaking with operational stakeholders, you'll quickly discover the areas requiring attention and, consequently, the skills to improve. Remember, it's always about improving performance and never about learning.

5. How Will The Department Benefit From Training?

This question closely aligns with question number 4. Operational managers have immediate operational needs that align with long-term business expectations. Your training efforts must align employee performance with specific operational performance objectives. It’ll take some time to recognize the performance relationships but trust me, it will be worth it. This will solidify your value in the decision-maker's mind.

If you don't know where to start, ask the operational leader for their key performance metrics (indicators) or KPIs. Working with them, reverse-engineer (breadcrumb) the KPIs to identify the tasks and roles that align with them. For example, if the sales team needs to achieve a specific sales target (the KPI), then work with the sales manager to identify areas to address, which will lead you to the skills to improve.

Master These Questions For Learning Practitioners

These are the more relevant questions for learning practitioners you should be able to address quickly. More importantly, you expect your stakeholders to ask these questions. If you really want to learn what your organization expects from learning, then stop sitting in your cubical and waiting for them to come to you. Be proactive! Get out of your office and meet with operational leaders before they require your support. Learn about their business and become their operational partner, collaborating with them to improve their outcomes. This is the value they expect and the respect they deserve for the money they're spending on learning.

Please share your thoughts and feedback with us. We’d enjoy hearing about your efforts. And who knows, it may be the topic of our next eLearning Industry article. Also, please check out our LinkedIn Learning courses to learn more about developing your business credibility for your learning efforts. Please share your thoughts, and remember #alwaysbelearning!

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