Courtesy flickr user epicture, CC-A-2.0When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

Most of us would instinctively say that we see ourselves, but of course we’re really looking at a reversed image of what others see. We’re so conditioned to seeing ourselves this way, many of us think photographs of us look somehow wrong or even unflattering. Our perspective of our image is inaccurate, but it’s nonetheless how we see ourselves through our mirror.

Indeed, the origin of the word perspective is perspectyf, meaning to look through (Middle English, from Medieval Latin). defines one use of the word as,

  • a visible scene, especially one extending to a distance; and
  • the state of existing in space before the eye

When viewed from one perspective, a hoop is circular. Viewed edge on, it appears as a line. At an oblique angle, it looks somewhat elliptical. From our perspective here on Earth, the heavens appear to revolve around us. Only through scientific observation and analysis do we know otherwise. Our perspective greatly affects our beliefs and our understanding of all that surrounds us.

Perspective, of course, is about much more than physically observing something. It also means (

  • the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship; and
  • a mental view

In short, our perspective includes how we see things around us, and how we see others. It explains why people see us differently. It’s not just that they see a three-dimensional representation of us, it’s that each person has their own predisposed perspective through which they develop their perception of us. They see us in the context of their job, their role in the community, their entire history with us, their knowledge of us, their experiences with others they consider like us, those we associate with, and much more. In the workplace, perspective is also highly dependent on a person’s role in the organization, what their responsibilities and  accountabilities are, and what they are tasked to accomplish.

Why perspective matters to training organizations

While different training departments serve a variety of customers, they all share common attributes: they have a population of workers who use their products and services, a smaller population of managers who look to training to address performance and knowledge gaps, and sponsors who fund the training departments. This means that learning and development (L&D) professionals must understand not one, not two, but three significantly different perspectives when addressing performance needs in the workplace.

The business leader (sponsor) perspective

One perspective is that of business leaders who fund the work. As Ajay Pangarkar writes,

Business leaders place Learning practitioners under tremendous pressure to demonstrate that their learning efforts and initiatives are worth the budget they allocate to it. This is probably one of the biggest challenges facing those involved with any aspect of workplace learning.

I think most of us recognize the business leader perspective and agree with Ajay that there is increasing pressure to demonstrate our value to our organizations. All too often we respond with any metrics we think might help, even when we know they have little to do with the efficacy of training. Charles Jennings seems to agree in What Does the Training Department Do When Training Doesn’t Work? where he describes how many organizations try–and fail–to justify programs using return-on-investment measures.

The manager perspective

Within the organization, the management hierarchy is typically how accountability for carrying out strategic plans flows down to individual business units. Managers are responsible for achieving tactical objectives, carrying out the day-to-day operations that make the business run, and implementing programs that align with organizational strategy. Within the business units, workers need a sufficient set of skills and knowledge to perform their jobs for the organization to succeed. Training may be needed to address performance gaps. Similarly, an employee may approach his manager to request training or to participate in programs offered by the training department. The manager makes a decision to authorize this as well as provide any needed funds.

The manager perspective is that of specific needs. She has approved a training expense for a reason and expects results in the form of improved individual and organizational performance. But while this perspective seems straightforward, it seldom is. Individual managers send employees to training for many different reasons.

The participant perspective

The most widely varying perspective is that of the participant. In one instructor-led session, all employees self-enrolled. In another, employees were assigned by their manager. The facilitator could easily see differences between the two groups. The self-enrolled group was, as a whole, much more engaged with activities, more active in conversations, and generally participated more than the assigned group. The self-selected group was excited to apply just-learned skills back on the job, where the assigned group left silently.

This simple example evidences different attitudes toward training, which is just one aspect of an individual’s perspective. There is little doubt that every participant in training brings his unique perspective to it, and that may be influenced by many factors (including past bad experiences with training) that can affect his ability or desire to learn.

Matters of perspective

In it’s simplest view, the business leader perspective of the training organization is that of a cost center. Training is an expense they recognize as an essential function of the enterprise. Under-skilled workers don’t help the organization succeed. At the same time, the expense has to bring value to the organization.

The manager perspective is that of effectiveness and performance improvement. Managers need workers to better do the jobs they’re assigned. As such, training may be thought of as an investment–not in the usual sense of the word, but an investment in people. In return for this investment, they expect demonstrated performance improvement.

The participant perspective is that of each individual. Training may be viewed as something welcome or feared. It may be embraced or it may be resisted. Some approach it looking to learn something new, while others think they know all they need to know.

Perhaps ironically, training departments know best how to address the most diverse of these three perspectives: the individual. Our design process are centered on effectiveness and we are always looking for ways to make our products more engaging. Increasingly we are focusing on employee performance, which directly addresses the manager’s perspective. The more we influence performance improvement, even when we recommend a response other than training, the more we help the manager succeed. Where we seem to fail is in responding to the business leader’s perspective. When we feel pressure to justify ourselves and our programs, talk of effectiveness falls short. We then grasp for any measures we think meet the business leader’s need: return on investment, employee contact hours, cost of training per employee, the number of trained or certified employees, levels of compliance, or any number of similar concepts. None of these really matter.

Training departments need to be an integral part of the business and not apart from it. We need to work with both business leaders and managers with the same attention we give our participants, understand their perspectives, and address their needs. To support business units we must continue to emphasize performance improvement and develop ways to measure the effectiveness of our programs at that level. At the same time, we need to bring solutions to the table other than training. And, as an integral part of the business, we must use our resources wisely, focusing on those strategic needs that are best served by the services we provide. Embracing the 70/20/10 framework can help guide that, as well as facilitate conversations with business leaders. We must also clearly and visibly align our programs with organizational strategy, and communicate this with stakeholders across the organization.

Our role in the modern workplace is complex, and this is certainly no time to be lazy in our approach. We can’t afford to be (or perceived to be) only creators and providers of training, but must seamlessly integrate our traditional roles with performance support, social collaboration, and professional learning. While it’s important, we can’t focus exclusively on employee learning. We also can’t focus only on employee performance. To be a valuable part of the business, we need to do both effectively, and at the same time work with business leaders to continuously realign ourselves with the direction of the organization.


Perspective Matters — 4 Comments

  1. When I started reading your post I thought immediately about a Tweet of mine earlier this month.

    I figure “life is 99% perception and 1% reality” which plays into the whole perspective thing. L&D definitely perceives their role very differently than how the business perceives and how they need it. To be fair though I don’t think even business understands how the role of L&D needs to be and sometimes just throws money at the problem.

    L&D being in existence in an organization in the traditional sense seems to be proof of the money throwing problem of how business treats training.

    Eventually they’ll catch on though and if L&D hasn’t evolved by then or at least prepared to, then it’s doomed to be on the chopping block at the first opportunity, and rightfully so. Of course you’ll hear all kinds of foul about what is the org going to do without L&D!? People don’t train themselves! How are they going to learn? Well, easy, they’ll just do it. So, if L&D can’t get out of that role where they can easily be cut then it’s just downhill from there.

    This was supposed to be a simple comment with just my quote above, but then I read it again and well, never works out for the simple if I just write, that’s what revision is for right?

    • Excellent points, Nick. Perspective definitely shapes perception. It is certainly not a simple situation to analyze. I didn’t even introduce the lifecycle of an L&D department. In a great many cases, the executive team that created it is not the current executive team paying for it. Then of course there are all the past experiences with bad training on the part of people in all three roles I discussed. That puts a completely different spin on everything and may shape perception even more than a person’s current role.

      Then there’s the question of what to expect from a centralized L&D department, or maybe whether decentralized or autonomous approaches are better. Add to that increasingly interconnected workers across all departments and ongoing pressures for faster, better, and cheaper…

      At least we can make some generalizations to guide us, but ultimately need to understand our unique situations and do something other than what “we” as an industry seem to have been doing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: