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Ask the Experts: Michelle Parry-Slater

Michelle Parry-Slater is a learning professional with over 18 years in the field. She is an award-winning expert, active in many areas of learning and development from directing to public speaking.

I had the pleasure of meeting and learning more about Michelle at an L&D charity event and couldn't wait to pick her brain!

Let's take a look at what she had to say.

1 – L&D director, podcaster, and author, your career is inspiring to designers throughout the field. How did you get started in L&D and what has kept you captivated in the field?

I got started in L&D as I moved into the industry following time spent teaching English in Japan. Once I returned to the UK I ended up being the person that all new staff sat with to learn their jobs. Eventually, I was doing more of that than my actual job, so I did a train the trainer course, I started a journey of continual CPD and I made it official becoming European Training Manager, back in the day when training was the focus. My career has moved to embrace the whole end-to-end learning process, from needs capture, designing, delivery and facilitation, and even into organisation development.

The industry is continually moving forward, and I love that, although it does move at the pace of the organisations, so everyone I work with now as a consultant is starting a different place. And that is OK. Start where you are!

2 – L&D can be a difficult field to get your head around, but your book, ‘The Learning and Development Handbook’ is a perfect start for newcomers and an aid to current practitioners. What is one area that you’ve seen L&D professionals struggle with and how could they improve their practice?

Having a voice is often a problem. L&Ders are TOLD Bob needs a sales course, so our role is to provide a choice of sales courses. I say no! Our job is to ensure we ask why does Bob need a course? Perhaps Bob needs a mentor, or clearer guidance, or a better product to sell. Organisation issues are not always learning issues.

I wrote the book to speak to that sole L&D practitioner in the role who is being told their job by others, but they want the confidence to push back, to offer better value and impact by doing the right thing, rather than replicating the same thing over and over. It is tough to get a voice, however, if you start with facts, with data, it is harder for people to argue against that value. It is not the fault of those asking for a course, as that may be all they know in workplace learning - and who doesn’t like a day out off the shop floor to go on a course, with a lovely lunch, good coffee, cookies and chats?

But learning is not all about the biscuits! When we present an evidence-based, consultative approach we professionalise and can demonstrate our increased value. Talking about the issues and concerns of our stakeholders means we can improve our voice within our organisations.

3 – There is a multitude of learning theories being pushed as must-follows. How do you approach design and are there any theories or processes that you align with?

I think the first step is to understand the business strategy - what is the organisation trying to make? Learning needs to fulfil that strategy. Next up look at the data and understand the real needs of the organisation. Once we have a sense of that, I work within my 3Rs Framework. The Rs are required, resourced and referred. Designing for what is minimal required learning to achieve a goal such as simple behaviour change or knowledge transfer is the first step. Often we offer too much or make learning complex. The required learning may be a simple checklist or a blended programme - it is all about the minimal viable learning product. People are busy with work and want to know ‘how to’ so they can get on with their jobs. Layering on point of need resources on top of the required learning offers learning in more accessible and multiple formats which people can draw upon when they need to.

And finally, there is the socialised element in learning, which is people referring content and learning reflections back into the cohort and community. These referrals happen when you have a rocking learning culture. In L&D we can influence this by providing spaces for people to connect and learn. However, we do need to deliberately design these paces and not just assume they will happen organically. Another framework from my book is EPC - Environment, Permission and Culture - which speaks to why clarity on design is necessary. Without addressing learning spaces (online and in person), express permission and your company (learning) culture, if you built even the best programmes, they may not come!

4 – It’s all well and good to have a great design but what are some ways professionals can track their learners’ achievements in metrics?

Oooh interesting question - we do really need to get better at metrics. It perhaps starts with understanding what a metric even is - a bunch of measures we correlate to tell a story. A measure is a piece of data such as completion rates, number of learning hours, participation rates, and test scores. Alone they tell us absolutely nothing, though these are often the things which L&D professionals have KPIs set against. Who cares how many ‘bums on seats’ you achieved? It does not speak to how much impact you made. With better measures correlated against each other, we get somewhere more useful. So better measures would be how many items Bob sells before the learning intervention, and how many afterwards? Or how many customers give 8-10 NPS scores before and how many after? You get the idea here that we need to compare stuff! Using the business strategy as the basis for the needs we can pick our measure which will be useful.

Once we have the measure, we can combine them for metrics. For example, the number of sales and the number of mentor sessions before we see an increase in sales. Or the number of sales, number of mentor sessions and learner demographics. You can see how the more we drill into the details, the clearer, and more useful the stories emerge.

I love playing around with data and metrics as it helps us make design decisions that are more likely to work.

5 – The focus of engagement vs learning vs performance has been brought up a lot online lately. Where do you stand on the discussion?

When I see this debate I think about ownership. Whose responsibility is engagement? Whose is performance? Is learning something done to us or that we engage in to improve our own performance? Clearly, I believe that all these belong to any individual. We make our own choices in life and in our careers. Yet it is fascinating to me that in business I hear “I have not had any learning and development this year” Really? None? You haven’t sat in a meeting and reflected on your performance in that meeting afterwards? You haven’t been self-aware enough to click through the elearning and ask your colleague for the quiz answers just to get your compliance tick in a box without ever wondering why do we do all this compliance stuff anyway?

It is fair to say that in general only people working in L&D really care about L&D. This means that even if we believe individuals should take responsibility for themselves, we do have a role in encouraging engagement, in offering quality learning that is required, in providing performance support resources and in creating spaces in which people can ask questions and get quality answers.

6 – There are many learning theories, including debunked approaches like learning styles, that float around the internet. How can professionals discern what to follow and what to avoid?

Eek Learning Styles! When will that one die? I am as guilty as anyone when I was first taught to be a trainer, learning styles was on the curriculum and I blindly followed along. What I quickly noticed was there was no point in ‘doing the learning styles survey’ as I needed to design for every style. What difference did it make to me to know if someone had a preference one way or the other. In the early days, I held this questioning to myself because who was I to question my profession?

As I got older and more vocal, I questioned everything. A lot. I pride myself on being an evidence-based practitioner, so I seek evidence for everything. How do we know that is something I ask a lot. So my advice for those looking to discern what models, frameworks, ideas, theories, etc to follow is to do your research. Question everything.

If that sounds like too much work in the time you have available, you can shortcut by following research and content published by the CIPD which is reliable as it is for the industry by the industry.

7 – Technology can be an amazing tool to support learning or a wasted money sink. ChatGPT, VR/AR/XR and fully online learning are all hotly debated in the field. How do you feel technology factors into our work?

Tech is a tool like books are a tool, like a pen and paper are a tool. It is what we do with tech that creates great learning experiences or poor ones. The ability to select the best tool for the job comes from knowing your audience and the problem they are trying to solve and their desired outcome. In L&D “we must be advocates of the right solutions, for the right problem, for the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons, delivered in the right way.” P166 The Learning and Development Handbook

8 – As our industry drastically changed in a post-covid world, how do foresee our roles functioning in the next 5 years?

Covid was terrible for many people for many reasons. For L&D it accelerated a long-held belief that face-to-face was the best or the only way to learn. Practitioners had known for years that injecting knowledge into people in a workshop was never all going to enable total recall. Forcing even the sceptics to move online, the pandemic helped people realise there is another way. I am not anti-face-to-face, in fact far from it, but it is not the panacea it was held aloft to be. It is simply a tool, part of the blend for when getting people in a room is the right solution. L&Ders, therefore, need to be equally comfortable in online learning spaces as they are in person. This role has already shifted, and some digital skills are in need of upskilling.

9 – Lastly, what other advice would you offer to new designers coming into the field?

Follow the evidence! Design what people really need in a way that fits into their day jobs.

Thanks for your time Michelle, that was great!

Please take a look at Michelle's website for more about her L&D Handbook here.

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).

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