Learning professionals need a host of skills in order to be successful. One that often gets overlooked is business acumen. If trainers don't truly understand how a business works, what it expects out of its training department, or what it ultimately wants its employees to be able to do, they simply can't be effective.
In our book, Critical Skills All Learning Professionals Can Put to Use Today, my coauthor Mitchell Levy and I write at length about the importance of developing business acumen. So for Part 2 of this series on the skills learning pros need now, we focus on five ways L&D pros can develop their business acumen skills. (You can see Part 1 here.)
Hang Out With the Business
As the saying goes, "You can't fly with the eagles if you hang out with a bunch of turkeys." It's the same with training. If you want to improve how you serve the organization, you need to "hang out" with the people you're designing learning programs for. I see too many trainers sit at a desk sequestered from the rest of the business.
Get your laptop and move to an open cubicle next to the sales team. Go out to lunch with the customer service managers. Hang out with them. Get to know them. Your next step will be to get invited to all their department staff meetings. Hanging out with the employees you're hoping to serve should cut your needs analysis time by several days, if not weeks. Over time, you'll develop a true understanding of the business you serve, and you'll begin to understand what the business wants.
Understand What the Business Wants
This involves two parts: First, understanding the company's overall goals and strategy, and secondly, knowing how each individual department or business unit fits into that strategy.
For instance, imagine a company's CEO setting a goal to increase revenues by 12 to 15 percent in the upcoming year. One of the strategies they've laid out to get there is to retain more existing customers by improving overall customer satisfaction rates. Meanwhile, the director of customer service could have a goal of increasing customer satisfaction rates by improving call-quality scores by 20 percent. The training manager developing a program for the customer service department needs to be plugged in to all these goals and plans in order to deliver on what the business wants: improved call quality scores, customer satisfaction scores, customer retention rates, and revenue growth.
Know the Numbers
Don't worry. You don't need to go back to school to get an accounting degree to master the financial skills necessary to honing your business acumen. Instead, just read Ram Charan's book, What the CEO Wants You to Know. Try to develop an understanding of how the organization turns a profit and generates cash flow. If you can help it improve profit margins, you'll never have to worry about justifying your department's existence or your budget.
Run Your Department Like the Business Runs Itself
You may not have to run your department exactly like the rest of the business — for instance, you're probably not being asked to run at a profit. But there are two things any organization, or department, can and should always do: Look for ways to be more efficient, and look for ways to be more effective. Efficiency is about producing the same output with fewer resources. Effectiveness is about producing more with what you already have.
When you combine efficiency with effectiveness, you are living up to the expression, "doing more with less." Doing more with less is difficult. If you have to choose, be more effective.
Find Business Problems and Solve Them
People often write about how learning pros should start by aligning their strategy to their organization's. Certainly that's an important step, but it's not necessarily the first one.
If you focus on Step 2 — understanding what your business wants — you'll be in an incredible position to add value to the whole organization by spotting issues that other managers can't necessarily see, and designing ways to overcome them and help the business achieve what it's most interested in.
A Manager Like Any Other
Instead of thinking of themselves as learning leaders, L&D pros should think of themselves as managers just like any other manager in the organization. Our job is to help the business achieve what it cares about most, whether that's revenue growth, customer satisfaction, increasing membership, or something else. Yes, organizational learning is our primary skill, and it's what we do best, but developing business acumen is just as important, if not more important. I can't say enough about how critical it is to develop it.
In next week's post, I'll explore the second must-have skill: Rapid Instructional Design. And of course you can read more about must-have skills in my book, Critical Skills All Learning Professionals Can Put to Use Today.
Related: (Part 1) Five Must-Have Skills for Learning Professionals: An Update.
Bill Cushard, author and Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.
Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user wwarby.