Growing Your Business Acumen (and Your Impact)
In order for learning leaders to be true strategic business leaders, they must know how training works with marketing, sales, IT and other areas of an organization. Ajay Pangarkar, a partner at CentralKnowledge, a leading workforce performance consultancy, provides thought-provoking insights about how L&D leaders can improve organizational performance and achieve targeted business and operational objectives.
Ajay Pangarkar delivers good advice to re-center learning leaders and focus them on getting results. He offers many suggestions including:
- L&D, like other functions must focus on delivering solutions that improve the organization’s performance.
- Be active in uncovering performance issues that learning solutions can positively impact rather than just taking orders to develop training programs.
- Use defined performance objectives to evaluate training investments instead of trying to prove a true return on investment.
- Try to use technology to deliver learning and support at the point of performance which is where and when people need it the most.
Gain more insights from Ajay Pangarkar.
CentralKnowledge is a leading workforce performance consultancy that develop and deliver learning solutions contributing to improving organizational performance and achieving targeted business and operational objectives. Under Ajay’s guidance, the team leverages leading technologies by developing real-time learning opportunities to ensure improved employee performance. Their unique consultative approach guides learning leaders through the selection and implementation of innovative learning approaches, on-demand e-learning solutions, and award-winning assessment strategies.
Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts.
Susan Cort: VO [00:00:00] This is Powered by Learning, a podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations.
Voiceover: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at dvinci.com
Susan: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host Susan Cort. Today I'm joined by d'Vinci CEO, Luke Kempski, and our guest, Ajay Pangarkar, partner at CentralKnowledge. His company is a leading workforce performance consultancy that develops and delivers learning solutions that contribute to improving organizational performance and achieving targeted business and operational objectives.
[00:01:03] Ajay is also a well-known industry speaker, popular business radio talk show host guest, and the author of three books, including Trainer's Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy. Welcome to Powered by Learning, Ajay.
Ajay Pangarkar: Thank you for having me. I'm really pleased to be here with both of you.
Luke Kempski: Yes, so glad you could join us, Ajay.
Susan: Ajay, let's start out by you telling us a little bit about your background and your company.
Ajay: I try to make a connection between the importance of learning within the organization to basically, business objectives, and simply there's a chasm between them two. It's simply this, there is a relevance and a need from senior stakeholders for learning to make a connection to their organizations' business objectives. Sometimes I come across a bit of a translator, but in the consultancy process, I'm trying to help the learning group make that connection, make that operational and business connection to key performance indicators within the organization.
Luke: That's great. [00:02:00] Thanks for sharing more about your background, Ajay. I love your Twitter handle, by the way, @BizLearningDude, I think that's perfect. Also your brand line, "Where learning means business." Can you tell us about the gap that you fill with your consulting and your books and your speaking engagements? Why is it that learning leaders seek you out?
Ajay: Well, Luke, thank you for that. The BizLearningDude was a little bit by happenstance, so if anybody wants to follow me, I welcome them. I just want to share with people that my Twitter is my learning resource as well, so, if you do join me, I use it as a learning tool and I try to share back as a learning tool. I hope people get a chance to follow me and I'll follow them back. As far as the gap in the organization as I mentioned, is that there is a significant gap between what business wants, what the stakeholders within the organization wants, and what learning is delivering. It's surprising to say to this day, there's still that gap that exists between the two.
[00:03:00] Now, allow me to qualify that. There's a lot of great organizations out there doing a lot of great work and are making that connection and we can see them in action in real life. You can name them, Luke and Susan, we see them every day in the Starbucks of the world. I use that as a primary example of how learning and business objectives work together. Think about it, next time you're in a Starbucks line, you're ordering your coffee, ask yourself, what does it take within three to four minutes to get that coffee at the end of the line exactly the way you ordered it, and to that precision? And you could do that anywhere in the world.
It just speaks to the power that Starbucks has between the connection of how they develop their employees and delivering on their mission and objective goals. Basically, that's really where I'm going with this. I don't make a lot of friends [chuckles] at times with learning, but that's really where there's the need. There's a chasm between the two and it's not about learning, it's about improving organizational performance.
Luke: We certainly hear a lot more about that from the guests that we have [00:04:00] on Powered by Learning. You know what else, we also hear a lot about the integration between the learning and development function and other areas of the organization, whether it's sales or information technology, human resources, finance, really across the board, training has to interact and integrate with all those different functions.
When you talk to learning leaders and you talk to them about how they participate as strategic business leaders in this environment, what kind of advice do you give them about making sure that they're being listened to and they get the opportunity to really have an impact on the organization?
Ajay: There are a few key points I like to bring up at these podcasts. I like to keep this brief and have people focus on some things. First of all, let me remind people in L&D that on the senior stakeholder list when you're talking about the senior stakeholders within your organization driving the organization, we're talking even the highest levels from the CEO down. Under top five priorities, and maybe top three, [00:05:03] things like people knowledge and organizational knowledge is part of their priority. Those L&D people who tell me that their organization doesn't see them as important or valued, they're wrong. They do see them, but they're not seeing the value come out of them, that's the difference.
Now, some of the key points I would like to bring up with people is first, for L&D especially - and allow me to try to be gentle about this. L&D for the longest time until maybe the last 20 years has been what we could call the spoiled child of business. Meaning that nobody really understood what we did, and they would get a bunch of money in their budget and just say, "Do what you need to do." We got used to that over 50, 60 years of getting free money and not really being held accountable.
But subsequently, businesses have scarce resources, especially money, and they have to allocate those resources in a very strategic way where it will drive most value to organization.
If you're not delivering value to organization, you're not needed. Right now, learning is under the gun to show that. Learning is [00:06:00] not something that's outside the scope. It is part of the business. It's an operational activity, and hence, you're not about developing learning, you're about improving whatever the organization needs to improve and that's their people.
I need people to keep that in mind and not to forget to keep that point in front each time they're having a conversation with the stakeholders. I always tell L&D people, "Stop being an order taker, stop waiting for them to come to you, get out of your cubicle, get out of your office and go find out what they need. Go find out what pressures they're under and become their partner to solve it." Those are the four key items I like to get L&D people to align themselves strategically.
Luke: I think that's great. That definitely connects with being integrated within the organization. You have to be out there to be able to really understand where the intersections happen between the different areas in the organization and how they come together to make it really work.
Ajay: [00:06:55] May I-- because you said something relevant, that word integrated, and I think L&D need people need to really listen to that word. Because if you look at the organizations that are successful, I mean truly successful, when I mentioned Starbucks or Toyota, or any of these leading organizations that really are firing on all cylinders, they're not perfect, don't get me wrong, but they are in the top 10 or top 20 of organizations in the world. Their learning is not an afterthought. Their learning is an integrated component inside the business. It's not something, "Hey, we need to go get some training." It's planned into, it's vested into the organization. It's part of the fabric. It's like your skin on your body, you can't live without it and that's really the key point for integration.
Luke: I've been excited to hear more and more of our podcast guests starting to talk like that which has been really exciting to hear. I know still though, definitely hear learning leaders still talk about being advocates for the learner and that they are learning-centric. Is that the right way for them to think about what they do?
Ajay: What I'm about to say is a bit controversial and you might get a lot of letters.
Susan: I see you smiling. I can imagine.
Susan: We shouldn't focus on the learner?
Ajay: Okay, here we go. Are you ready for it? Just buckle up people. [chuckles] No, you should not be learner-centric. Allow me to qualify what I'm about to say here. If you're in learning, yes, you are hired for a particular purpose, to get people to learn. I get it. That's your expertise. Just like a person in finance or in accounting within the organization is meant to do that, but that's what we do internally, it's the vehicle of what we do to make things happen within the organization to contribute the value that we need to the organization I mentioned before. It's basically our secret sauce.
You don't go to McDonald's, I'm sure it's brand names here, but it's all about that secret sauce on a Big Mac. I love the taste of the secret sauce but I never go ask how they make it, and I don't know if I want to know how to make it.
[00:08:57] But the point being is that the end result is that I love that secret sauce on my burger, and I don't care how to make it, it's just the end result. Same thing, our learner centricity, if you want to call it that, about focusing on the learner is about what we do to end up with the end result. It's a means to an end; it's a vehicle to get us there. If we're able to get people to learn, that's the first step. The second step is actually making it valuable to the organizations.
When we talk about the Kirkpatrick methodology, the four levels of Kirkpatrick, really, your focus should only be on level three and level four. Level one and level two is the learning-centric part. While getting people to learn is relevant and I'm not discounting that, there's a lot of expertise there and you are hired for that expertise, you need to realize that's not the endpoint. That's not what you were meant to deliver. What you're meant to deliver is value to the organization, and so keep in mind there's actually three macro issues that if you want to deliver value, is that use your learner-centric approach to deliver value in three areas.
One [00:10:00] is improving performance, which is what I call the easiest win for learning and development. As I mentioned before, go back and say, if you're going to visit with that internal customer and you understand the performance expectations that they have to meet, well, figure how you fit into that equation and help them meet those performance expectations for their people. That's the easiest win.
Or if change is happening in an organization, whenever change happens, it means there's an unknown, and when it comes to unknown, that's our wheelhouse. That's what we do is to help people understand the unknown, and so go help them learn about the unknown. Finally, there's the risk area, and whenever there's risk, there's also unknowns, and so you are there to deliver that knowledge value to help people perform better.
Again, I'm going down maybe a little too far down the rabbit hole but all I'm trying to say here is that the learner centricity part, granted I'm not taking that away from anybody, that's what you hired for, but remember that's not your endpoint. That's not what you are there to deliver and that's, I guess basically it.
Luke: I think it's important that it's what we verbalize to the other stakeholders. Then we should be really advocating for the learner's performance and how that aligns with what the organization is trying to accomplish.
Ajay: Exactly, exactly.
Luke: Then when you step back, I think that we often want to achieve pure, like what is the return on investment in the training itself or the learning that we're delivering to the organization? We'd love to be able to go to that finance department and say, ‘look at our returns, we've increased sales or we've decreased costs at X amount and we invested this much in the L&D intervention.’ But that's of course, really, really challenging all the variables that come in into play. How do you consult around that mission to try to get to the return on investment?
Ajay: Now, we have to be careful here because there's a literal sense of return on investment, which is what all stakeholders go to. As a trained business professional myself and an accounting professional, [00:12:00] when everybody says return investment, my brain was into calculation mode. I got formulas going in my head and everything and that's the literal sense because I've been, in a positive light, I've been brainwashed to learn that way, and so all these business leaders who are educated that way. Then there's a figurative sense, what return am I going to get out of it? What we mean by that is what value we're going to get. Here we're delivering a learning result that has a causal relationship to help them improve in performance, and that's what we have to keep in mind.
Luke: Here we are winding down 2021 and preparing for 2022 and we certainly see an explosion in the use of technology, education, training, and learning, and it continues to accelerate. Of course, people who've been around like we have for a long time have seen technology involved in learning for years but it has definitely accelerated in the last couple of years.
For learning leaders, decisions are more complicated than ever on all the different options they have for distributing learning experiences to get those outcomes that we're looking for. [00:13:02] When deciding among all the different options, how do you recommend that we view those decisions and what should we consider and prioritize in making those decisions?
Ajay: I'll start off with this, you called me old just a second go. I'm okay with that, Luke. I'm okay with that. I've accepted that fact, so I always jokingly--
Susan: [laughs] I think we're all the same age, so it's okay.
Ajay: That's fine. I jokingly say to my students, when you look at me, I say, back in my day, I used to work by my laptop by candlelight. It doesn't click with them right away, they're like, that's true he'd be working by laptop by candlelight. It just doesn't click in them.
But that is a loaded question, Luke, and first of all, I think to me, learning technology is a significant blessing for learning development. It's something that will help facilitate learning value within the organization.
Because as we've seen in other areas like retail and marketing and so forth, we've seen technology [00:14:00] make it very tangible. Algorithms have been able to track people's buying behaviors and all that stuff. Now, think about if you use that technology to do that with learning, and the way marketing has now been more targeted rather than 20 years ago or 30 years ago where you put an ad out and you hope people came to see you, here, people can target exactly using technology with algorithms.
What if we could leverage that technology to do that with learning? Which you can, which I've done it. Actually, a name drop here. We did work with Apple for five years about 10 years ago and they were very targeted. This is before big data and analytics were a thing, they were actually targeting specifically the needs of what their customer support people needed. They would go address that in some way, not just throw them in a course, but try to fix it and improve them and then find the next iteration. It was an iterative process and they would analyze this through the data analytics through their assessment systems in the backend.
It's quite extraordinary what technology's going to do for learning - and Toyota does this significantly, they don't talk about it. It's called lean learning. Because they see it as an internal competitive advantage, but they learn from their mistakes. Like described in my Apple example, they do this iterative process, so it becomes integrated again. Now people can use technology to do that, to drive the knowledge in learning to the right areas where your organization needs it.
If you're going to simply ask to invest in technology, you're going to fall flat out on your face from your stakeholders, making that decision, because those are significant investments. If you're able to build a proper business case, and that involves also working with your IT department to understand how the technology is going to integrate within the organization. Two, working with your finance department to develop a proper return on investment case because here is where you have tangible capital expenditures that must be measured in the literal sense. Then you can build a proper business case and bring in the right technologies that would deliver value.
Again, don't go to a trade show and start looking at a great booth and saying, yes, I need that technology. You better go back to your office and say, how does this fit into our overall [00:16:00] learning strategy? How's it going to drive value to the organization? There's a lot of moving parts here when it comes to learning technology, but suffice to say, I think learning technologies are fantastic. I'm excited about the future of learning technologies. I'm just afraid about how learning people are actually going to acquire it and use it and not use it the way 20 years ago when e-learning became all the fad.
Luke: No doubt. I know too that we see the challenges of speed becoming more and more important to get learning interventions out. Sometimes that means not making sure that 14 subject matter experts weigh in on making it perfectly accurate before it actually gets out there because we have to move so fast. Have you seen that in other organizations and how do you advise in terms of maybe approaching things differently?
Ajay: Honestly, learning has an opportunity here. For some reason, we're fighting that, we're existing, and when I say we, I'm talking about the collective learning space. [00:16:00]
Generally, we're resisting moving towards becoming what you just said, Luke, that immediacy, that targeted approach, and we say, we still need a course, and somebody, they're not in class but they still need to sit before a computer for a half-hour or hour or a day or whatever it is to do this course.
I was like, no. Luke, you just said it, right? Learning has now the opportunity to be deployed, first of all, in a targeted sense, as I mentioned. Two, in real time. Now you can use a software like you guys develop and say we can deploy the knowledge where it's needed, when, and how it's needed and in a way that people can access it and actually apply immediately.
Now think about the power of just doing that. Forget about all virtual and all this stuff, but just having people go on their computer access, this knowledge, and need and that's impactful. Ten years ago, I think it was 15 years ago, there's a utility company here in Canada that we worked with and very quickly, they were going up and down a pole that people were working on the transformers and what they wanted to do [00:18:00] is reduce the time.
This is just when iPads and stuff, tablets were coming out. I said to them, well, why do they have to come down, call the office because they didn't have all the expertise. Two things, why aren't we putting a resource help desk that they can do and call right from the pole instead of coming back down? Second, why can't we just have them access the immediate learning, like the access to the manuals or whatever, this is like a little old school but, or the subject expert on that tablet.
What they did a benchmark study, they did the timing of what it cost of time up and down to pole and going out brownouts and blackouts and stuff like that. Then we put a piloted version for a few techs and we had him do this. We measured again and not only did we save a significant amount of time for them going up and down poles and repairing it, but the customer satisfaction rate went up significantly because there were less blackouts or the blackout times were shorter or the brownout times were shorter. It was just impactful and they were just thrilled. This was like 12 years ago or 15 years ago.
Today we have more power than ever. You guys have a software that can do that. There's no reason we can't have real-time, impactful training when and where and how we need it. And if we're going to fight that, then what use are we as far as a learning environment?
Luke: That's great. Certainly really enjoyed talking to you Ajay, but before you leave us today, you have a lot of exciting new projects going on. Can you share some of them with us?
Ajay: A couple of things going on. One is that I just got recently told from one of our major clients, an accounting body here in Canada, that they want to develop a virtual learning environment for aspirational future accountants. People can be at high school and colleges that are looking to become accountants. We're building this competency framework so people can go in and get some basic pre-assessment and pre-learning around simple enabling competencies that accountants are expected to possess moving forward into the future. That's really some good news, we're working on a major project for us.
The second thing is that we're working on actually, [00:20:00] it's still early but we're working on a 10th course with LinkedIn Learning, so a little plug here, if anybody wants to see more of my face or hear about what I have to say, I developed nine courses now both in the accounting space and L&D space with LinkedIn Learning. This one is actually on driving business decisions through financial tools so I don't know if that applies to a lot of L&D people, but they may get some value out of it.
Finally, we're launching a new site, learningsourceonline.com, and we're offering, basically, we're developing very targeted courses, e-learning courses that we're giving away for free to organizations. Primarily, the ones who are going to benefit most are probably nonprofits and people are saying, "Well, what's the catch?" Well, the catch is that we take a share of revenue, but the organization doesn't incur any risk of developing the courses in any way. They get, especially non-profits, they get a new revenue source, or a profit-driven organization basically, we're able to allocate the cost appropriately to who and when uses it, so it's a new thing that we're doing right now.
Luke: That's definitely exciting stuff and certainly appreciate all your insights today, Ajay and--
Ajay: I had fun.
Luke: For our audience, we can have them check you out on Twitter @BizLearningDude, it's biz learning dude. Certainly a lot of great insights that you shared where learning means business and that's certainly something that we can all keep in mind as we move forward. Thanks again for joining us.
Susan: For sure.
Ajay: Thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure to be with both of you.
Susan: Thank you, Ajay, and thank you, Luke.
Luke that was a great conversation with Ajay. He definitely has some thought-provoking ideas. What were some of the takeaways you got from the conversation?
Luke: That was a fun interview, Susan. I think most learning leaders have really grown and aligning the value of what they do with their organization's mission and strategy. I see Ajay pushing it to another level. He pointed to models like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines where they've [00:22:00] closed the gap between what the learning function is delivering and what the organization wants and needs, and how when this alignment happens, it's even recognizable by customers and other outside stakeholders.
He reminds us very clearly that learning exists in an organization like all other functions and that's the power of performance. He makes clear we can't just be order takers; we have to be active in uncovering the most important performance issues that can be improved by learning and by learning solutions. It requires the learning function to be integrated and value-focused. While we're creating instructor-led or e-Learning courses or other deliverables, we really need to be delivering change, value, and improved performance.
Ajay also reminds us that evaluating all learning programs based on their return on investment is not really the point and will only take your attention in the wrong direction. We really want to focus on performance objectives that are aligned with the strategy.
We also talked about using technology and how we can deploy the knowledge where it's needed and when and how it's needed in a way that people can access it and actually apply it immediately.
We've heard that from other guests like at CVS and Best Buy Canada and IBM, where the learning function is making their deliverables a lot more accessible rate at the point of performance. Lastly, Ajay talked about the courses he's been publishing on LinkedIn Learning. Based on our discussion, it sounds like practical success metrics in your training program will be a really good course.
Susan: Thanks, Luke, that was a great summary of our talk with Ajay. We definitely need to stay in touch with him and have him on again, and I want to let all of our listeners know that some links to articles he's written and the courses that he's put together are going to be available in the show notes. Lots of great things going on with him and some exciting things going on with d'Vinci as well. What's new?
Luke: I don't know if you've heard about the Quest Diagnostics Project?
Susan: Yes, that's a really neat project that d'Vinci team members got [00:24:00] to work on. Really meaningful and timely.
Luke: Yes, no doubt. d'Vinci's parent company, JPL, which serves as a marketing agency for Quest Diagnostics which is the leading provider of diagnostic testing, including COVID-19 testing. Quest and JPL came up with this brilliant idea to support COVID-19 testing in schools thinking they should have tools to educate teachers, students, and their families.
The JPL marketing team turned to the d'Vinci learning solutions team and we worked together to create these fun, age-friendly materials for elementary and middle school students that help ease their fears about COVID-19 testing, and then teach them how to collect samples for testing. It's always fun to develop learning solutions that educate customers and compliment a product that the client provides to its customers.
Susan: In this case, really serve some good as we're trying to support everyone staying safe and healthy.
Luke: No doubt.
Susan: Thanks, Luke.
And thanks for joining us today. If you have any questions about what we talked about, you can reach out to us on d'Vinci social channels, through our website d'Vinci.com or by emailing us @poweredbylearning@d'Vinci.com.
Susan Cort VO: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d'Vinci.com.
By Luke Kempski, CEO
d'Vinci Interactive is an award-winning comprehensive learning solutions provider for corporate, government, medical, non-profit, and K-12 target markets.