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Learning (or Training), the shunned relative of HR...

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

I've worked in Learning since 2004. At the ripe age of 34, I can say I've genuinely spent nearly half of my entire life working as a Learning Expert (though the expert is a relatively recent thing ;) ). In my time working in learning I've held many 'roles' and been told that I'm a 'Jack-of-all-trades'.

The truth is, I work as a Contractor, Supplier & Freelancer (all at once!) - I support clients directly and through agencies with a host of things like:

  • Facilitating Face-to-Face & Virtual Programmes

  • Instructional Design

  • E-Learning/Digital Learning/Online Learning (Pick your label ;) ) development

  • LMS implementations

  • LMS Administration

  • Learning Partner, Consultant, Specialist

  • Learning Experience Consultant

  • Leading Learning Projects & Programmes of various scales and complexities

  • Global Transformations

And as I read that back, I can see again why I look like a 'Jack-of-all-trades'. So let me explain...

I do what I do for one simple reason - to make learning easy, for everyone. Some of you will know exactly what I mean by that, because for some reason learning at home (like when you need to put up a shelf, or fix something) is as easy as Googling something. Whereas the moment you walk into work there is a long, convoluted process which often serves Administrators, Developers and Data analysts instead of learners, or those seeking learning services.

So I do everything I can to make learning easy.

And then there's the fact that I genuinely like to keep my hand in with the 'practical' aspects of corporate learning. And I'm a bit of a nerd, so I love getting hands-on with new tools and technology. I genuinely enjoy it. And the continual experience at all levels of learning feeds my learning and decision making when I'm dealing with the more complex aspects, like transformation and programme management or leadership of complex initiatives.

What's this got to do with the title of this post?

Simple - it's in these experiences I've seen how Learning is always the shunned relative of HR.

You see, whenever situations like the Financial Crisis in 2008, or the current COVID-created economic crisis occur Learning often takes a huge hit - and yes, I know it's not the worst hit industry/field, but it's the one I'm qualified to comment on, so I will.

And in these times there are some good news stories - like how even businesses like mine have accelerated their provision of Virtual Learning & Digital Learning courses (feel free to take a look when you've finished reading this).

But more often than not it means that learning services, learning teams and learning in general is decimated. And which means the years of skills and expertise an organisation had at their fingertips is no longer available. And instead of creating and delivering learning experiences that could be actively helping the business push through the crisis and rise higher, learning 'stops'. Because it isn't a 'money-maker'.

The perception I am outlining here is primarily one based both on my direct experience throughout my career and from what I've seen and heard from my wide L&D/Learning/Training network throughout.

That said, I wanted to check what the data said before rambling on here, and happened across this report from Cegos, which summarised some great data on the back of the 2008 crisis:

  • In the UK, the 2010 Learning and Development Survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), revealed that training budgets were cut in more than half of the 700 organisations questioned – up from a third that were cut in 2009.

  • In the US, 2008 and 2009 saw double digit cuts in L&D budgets, although the roots of recovery are in place with companies spending an average of 2% more on training in 2010 than in 2009, according to the latest Corporate Learning Factbook 2011 from Bersin & Associates.

Note: The Fosway Group are currently conducting research into the impact of COVID on L&D - take part, here. And for the record, I'm not associated in any way, just a very interested observer. (And take a look at some of their other research, it's awesome!)

And it also means a few other things...

  • Experts who've been in the industry for decades, and may be fairly close to retiring, are suddenly not as able to make a difference to peoples lives and careers as they once were, and may never come back. The same is true for those who haven't been in the industry long, but are (or will be) the future of the industry.

  • Employees who are already worried - because of the crisis - are missing out on opportunities to learn and grow, improving their ability to be 'money makers'.

  • Organisations try to 'make-do' with learning which results in poorer quality learning experiences and outcomes, devaluing learning entirely for their employees - sometimes permanently.

  • And then there's the sorry truth of the 'opportunists'. The people who see an opportunity to 'break into' the learning marketplace. But offer shoddy solutions at ridiculous prices. Because anyone can create learning, right?

So how does this make learning the 'shunned relative'?

I make this statement for a couple of reasons. First, value.

Learning is too often just seen as 'part of HR' instead of a specialism in it's own right - I'll leave that rant for another time - and in part this causes it's true value to be poorly understood.

The misconception that anyone can 'do learning' means it's the first to be hit with cuts. And the 'cheapest' product or service is often brought in to fill the gap.

Because of this, employees quickly become numbers - people to make money. The support, development and encouragement they should expect to receive from their learning team is nowhere to be seen - because the team doesn't exist, or is struggling to create quality experiences with minimal resources.

This pushes up the true cost of learning. Because poorer learning experiences and outcomes drives down returns. Causing more questions on the value of learning. Would you continue to spend your limited funds on a service that isn't actually delivering anything of value?

Could you imagine the same happening in the broader HR function? Without HR services organisations would rapidly find themselves grinding to a halt - particularly during a crisis. HR specialists are a genuine treasure!

Back to Learning...

I've touched on a few points about the value of learning in an organisation. Let me throw in some research I'd seen that part-prompted this blog.

As far back as 2011 IBM's report on 'Training building skills for a smarter planet' pointed out:

  • 84% of employees in Best Performing Organizations are receiving the training they need, a full 68% better than worst performing companies.

  • When preparing for a project, teams receiving 40 hours of training per member met their significant project objectives three times as often as teams that received 30 hours of training or less.

  • Objectives will be met 90% more often by increasing team skills. Increasing team skills by 1/3 increases likelihood of stakeholders meeting their objectives from 10% to 100%.

And then there The Association for Talent Development, based in the US. Who surveyed around 830 organisations in 2015 and found those with a culture of learning were some of the highest performers, attracted better talent and had higher customer satisfaction.

I also came across this piece from 2016 that really illustrates the benefits of investing in Learning during slow economic times.

As a final point on this one, just because I'm a fan of the book and have read it cover-to-cover more than handful of times and this always stands out to me: Strategic Speed By Jocelyn Davis, Henry M. Frechette, Edwin H. Boswell mentions the opportunity identified by Morgan Stanley in 2008 to launch the Morgan Stanley University. A prime example of a major organisation seeing the value and opportunity in learning.

If you've read it you'll know this book is more a talk about strategy than Learning but the point remains - learning is incredibly valuable. And hey, this is my blog, I'll write what I want!

The second reason Learning is the 'shunned relative'

Learning is easy - when it's created by experts who know the science behind it. Like how to structure the content, present challenges, drive engagement and offer immersive experiences.

Learning is easy - when it's developed, delivered and supported by people who genuinely love learning.

Learning is easy - when learning is at the core of an organisation's culture.

And to make learning easy, it takes special people. Learning people. And while it hurts me to say it, we Learning people are one of the biggest contributors to blame for this second reason - The complexity of learning (or apparent lack of)

Because there are times we're the kings and queens of bullshit bingo! Are we Learning? Training? Education Services? Trainers? Facilitators? Designers? Instructional Developers? Executives? Partners? Capability Specialists?

These are just some of the labels my jobs have been given in roles in the past and I know you'll all have had the same. So the fact of the matter is that if we can't even decide what we are, how on earth will anyone else? And if people don't know who we are, then how can then truly value us?

Then there's the far-too-common tendency for us Learning people to ignore the ROI/Value factor in our day-to-day too. We're often so happy to help people we don't check that we're doing something valuable. And when it comes time to measure that value, it's too late to agree the measurement or we've run out of time before the next initiative.

We (Learning people) all know learning is pivotal to personal and organisational success. We all know learning is a passion, a genuine skill and something backed by centuries of science.

But when we present such a muddled picture of what we do, it's no surprise organisations decide to cut large parts of L&D and/or opt for the lowest bidder. So we really need to start practising what we preach about the value, purpose and impact of learning.


What all of this brings me to is this.

  • I know businesses are struggling and cash-flow is tight for many businesses, so there sometimes is little choice but to cut. But given the fact that Learning is one of the biggest contributors to sustained growth of people and organisations, I would argue it should be closer to the bottom of the list of things to cut, not the top.

  • And as learning professionals we must take some responsibility for this. Let's tidy up the terminology and settle on a term. Let's call a spade, a spade for once. Make it crystal clear who we are and what we do. And most importantly make it unquestionable that while learning may not be a direct revenue generator, a strong learning strategy supported by internal and external learning experts that drive a powerful learning culture is likely to be the most important investment a company can make.

  • Finally, let's be stronger. Be confident that we are the experts. So when a stakeholder asks you for 'Refresher' training because their team isn't performing, challenge it. Identify the true gap. And solve it. Do what your stakeholder/client needs, not just what they want.

About the Author

Andy Appleby is a Learning Expert who has worked at all levels of organisational learning across Learning, Telecoms, Energy, Insurance, Finance & FMCG sectors as an internal specialist, external consultant, contractor and supplier since 2004. And everything he does is to make learning easy.

Check out the courses, learning store and wider services on offer through Apples Learning Solutions Ltd - like Virtual Courses and Digital Learning covering a whole host of topics including Digital Learning & Leadership and Management.

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