Developing L&D Teams as Capability Coaches

There is a lot moving quickly in the modern workplace and the role of L&D is no exception. In fact, it’s arguably moving faster than most other functions as learning becomes a more fundamental part of modern business strategy. New capabilities are urgently needed and there is an increasing level of uncertainty about the skills and knowledge of tomorrow.
We’ve been working with a great L&D team at a large company (35k+ employees) and global industry leader. Despite being known as a highly innovative business, it’s clear there are many pervasive and outdated ways of thinking about learning which are common in the team’s various stakeholder groups. Of course, some of these old ways of thinking also have a tendency of popping up within the learning team itself (in sometimes subtle ways) and working their way into L&D strategy.
A primary challenge they are facing relates to confronting these outdated perspectives, both within stakeholder groups and the L&D team itself. How do we skillfully disrupt old views of learning and shift our stakeholders’ perspectives? How do we need to develop our own views first? What new roles for us as L&D practitioners are we being called to?
It’s very easy to slip back into old ways of thinking and working. For example, we may be aware of the need for network-centered social learning, but we are approaching this need in the same we always have. We aim to meet our stakeholders’ expectations to be the “expert” and deliver the solution that plugs into the machinery of existing systems. We fail to see how the network-centered paradigm applies to our design from the get-go.
What we’re now working on with this particular client is growing as an L&D team into new roles which focus more on developing capability and capacity in our stakeholder systems, rather than simply delivering solutions. There are multiple reasons why a shift to this type of role is needed now more than ever:
Relying on a centralized source of L&D is too inefficient
It used to work relatively well to go to L&D for all of your team’s learning needs. By the time a solution is rolled out, things have changed and it’s no longer the right solution for the new context.
Relying on SME knowledge transfer hinders change management capacity
Even more fundamental than the point above, we are experiencing the limits of an expert-centered view of learning and development which focuses largely on transferring best practices to the learner. The reason is the same: the faster things change, the faster current best practices become former best practices. We try desperately to keep up with updating and retraining, finding ourselves trapped in an endless and accelerating cycle of waste.
Furthermore, with this old approach we are reinforcing a dependency on expert direction which presents a critical barrier to building change management capacity. It’s this dependency that must change, yet it runs very deep. We have been largely conditioned from a young age to associate learning with expert-centered instruction.
It takes strategic disruption on every level
Effectively and skillfully disrupting old ways of thinking is as much art as it is science. This is an ability that is largely lacking for us as L&D practitioners. We need to be thinking about both how to develop it for ourselves and how to support others to do the same.
Fundamentally, what is needed now is capability rather than just skills and knowledge. While there are different definitions floating around for these terms, the following from researcher Steward Hase I think offers a useful perspective:
“Capable people are those who: know how to learn; are creative; have a high degree of self-efficacy; can apply competencies in novel as well as familiar situations; and work well with others. In comparison to competency, which involves the acquisition of knowledge and skills, capability is a holistic attribute.”
Developing as Capability Coaches
We are exploring an emerging role for L&D professionals (and beyond for leaders across the organization)  which we’re calling Capability Coaches. This role has some things in common with other approaches to coaching, but with some important differences as well. For one, Capability Coaches are focused on developing the capacity for self-managed strategic growth both within individuals and teams. They are also focused on supporting individuals and teams to contribute to building this capacity in their stakeholder systems through their work: in their organizations, customers, communities, supply chain ecosystems, and so on.
Our approach to Capability Coaching focuses on developing 3 meta-capabilities and 9 core capabilities, as illustrated in the Developmental Capability Framework below. This framework was adapted from the work of our personal mentor Carol Sanford, who outlined these capabilities in her book The Regenerative Business.
Adapted from The Carol Sanford Institute - used with permission
An effective Capability Coach will be consciously working to build build these capabilities in themselves, in their clients, and through their clients’ work in larger stakeholder systems.
There is no shortage of demand for this type of support in the modern workplace as these capabilities are urgently lacking. What there is less and less demand for, however, is experts focused on sharing tomorrow’s former best practices–as well as learning designers skilled in helping them “effectively” transferring these practices to the learner.
Want to learn more about developing Capability Coaches in your team or organization? Click here to schedule an informal chat now to explore possibilities.
Tom Palmer