Reflections on #lrnchat: Working as a One-Person Training Department

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Working as a one-person training department”.  This was a particularly applicable topic for me, as my current role is that of a Department-of-One.
I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the discussion questions that were presented to the group:
Q1) In a one-person Training Dept, how do you ensure you are involved in new initiatives within the organization?
Q2) What are the pros/cons of being a one-person training department?
Q3) What methods/tools do you use to effectively manage your time (in a one-person training dept)?
Q4) In a one-person training dept, how do you combat the problem of familiarity with you and your programs?
Q5) What advice do you have for others in a one-person training department?
Key Learning PointsWorking as a Department-of-One has both its benefits and its challenges.  In this chat we discussed what those benefits and challenges are, and we shared ideas on how some of those challenges can be overcome.

Getting Yourself Involved
The discussion started with a focus on how a one-person department can ensure that he or she is involved in new initiatives within the organization.  If there was a consistent theme in this part of the discussion it was this: Being involved isn’t an entitlement; it’s something that must be earned.
So how does a one-person Training Department earn participation?  The best place to start is by showing the value that you bring to the organization.  For the initiatives you are involved in, don’t just show your value, celebrate it.
There’s an old adage: “Don’t Toot Your Own Horn”.  As a former trumpet player, I never understood that; the only horn I wanted to toot was my own, and sharing someone else’s mouthpiece is, well, kinda icky.  But I digress…
When it comes to showing the value you bring an organization, DO toot your own horn.  Don’t assume that people are aware of the contributions you have made to a project.  Take the initiative and make sure the organization, especially the key stakeholders, are aware of the value you bring.  Remember, regardless of the amount of value you bring to an organization, your effective value is non-existent to someone that isn’t aware of it.
One additional thought on this topic: I do believe that an effective Training Department should be involved in all performance-related initiatives.  However, that does not necessarily mean that every new initiative needs support from the Training Department.
Those two statements may seem to conflict.  To explain, I’m going to draw a comparison between Learning and Performance Professionals and Plumbers.  (Feel free to pause a moment to get any toilet-related jokes out of your system)
If I have a flood in my basement, one of the people I might call for assistance is a plumber.  I would expect the plumber to come in, look at the situation and be able to say “Your flood isn’t a plumbing issue; your sump pump system lost power.  You need to contact an electrician”.  I would count on the plumber’s expertise to determine that my issue isn’t related to plumbing.
There are a number of solutions that can be applicable for performance issues; training is just one of them.  It’s important, especially for one-person departments, that the training function be involved in all new initiatives if only to accurately determine that training is not needed.  Without that, the organization runs the risk of the unqualified and grossly overused assessment: “It’s a training issue”.
Pros and Cons of the One-Person Department
From there the discussion moved on to the benefits and challenges of working as a one-person training department.  Having worked as a department head managing a team of 13 and as a department-of-one, I can say without question that the greatest benefit of being a solo practitioner is your autonomy.
When you are the sole decision maker on most topics, the process can often move quicker.  In addition, you often have the opportunity to gain experience and exposure to aspects of the Learning and Development profession that you would be unable to in a larger organization that employs specialists in those areas.
An individual operating as a department-of-one also has a certain amount of control to pave their own path.  If you are ultimately responsible for all aspects of learning and performance at an organization, you are also ultimately responsible for the quality of the experience for the organization’s employees.  That’s generally understood.  What’s lost in that is that you are also ultimately responsible for the quality of the experience you have as an individual.  As a one-person department, you definitely get out of the experience a reflection of what you put into it.
I think some would disagree with that sentiment.  In truth, it’s hard to feel in control of your own destiny when something is assigned to you that ‘must’ be done that you recognize is less important than something that ‘should’ be done.  And yes, circumstances like that do represent a certain lack of control over the quality of your experience… to a point. 
It’s often hard to remember, but while we cannot control everything that happens to us, we can always control how we respond.  If you understand and believe that, then the idea of ‘paving your own path’ makes a lot more sense.
Autonomy is a double-edged sword.  While it is the greatest benefit of a one-person department, it is also its greatest challenge.  For one thing, when you have no dedicated team, your options for brainstorming and sharing ideas are limited. 
You can mitigate this challenge by leveraging social media to find peers to share with.  This is a must-use strategy for today’s learning professionals, regardless of the size of your department.  Still, these relationships cannot offer the same feedback that someone that is living and breathing the organization’s culture might be able to provide. 
In addition, chances are that if you are the only employee in the organization with Learning and Development experience, you are also the only one that understands the nuances and work patterns associated with the role.  It’s this lack of understanding that results in questions like “Here’s something I need you to train on that you’ve never even heard about.  Can you run a workshop on it tomorrow?
The last challenge I’ll discuss is the biggest one for me personally, but it may not be for someone else depending on their goals.   It deals with the question of “What are you looking for in your career?”
If you are looking to advance in a career, where are your internal opportunities if you are the only employee in your function?  You may be able to create organic growth by showing your value and expanding your influence, but this is often dependent on the performance and growth of the entire organization, which is not in your control. 
If you are with an organization in which you do not see the opportunities you would like becoming available in the future, you have two basic options: Be content, or move on.
Time Management for One-Person Departments
From here the discussion moved towards time management techniques, which are critical to a one-person training department.  There is a direct connection between how effectively a one-person department uses his or her time and the value that his or her efforts bring to the organization.  With that in mind, here are some tips anyone can use, and that one-person departments should definitely consider.
Automation is a must for the one-person department, as it’s one of the few ways you can actually ‘gain’ time.  One-Person departments should always keep their finger on the pulse of technology and look at it through the lens of automation.  If there is an opportunity to automate – in a cost-effective manner – something that currently takes up your time being processed manually, jump at the opportunity.
Another way you can actually ‘gain’ time is through delegation.  Some readers may look at that and think I’ve forgotten the ‘one-person’ aspect of the posting, but hear me out.  Remember, the solutions you help develop are not YOUR solutions; they are your STAKEHOLDERS’ solutions.  As such, they have vested interest in working on the project, so get them involved.  It could be as simple as having them complete a form that you set up, or as complex as having them actually write content.  The point is to remember that your subject matter experts can function as de-facto members of the training department if you network and coach them properly.
The last time-saving technique is the most important.  Unfortunately, it’s often the hardest to implement.  In concept, the technique is very simple: Learn to say NO. 
Most people have heard the quote from Peter Drucker, but it bears repeating in this context: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.  It’s critical that one-person training departments remember this, as very often, it’s actually NOT a training issue.  Not saying no in those cases wastes your time, the organization’s money, and ultimately does not address the issues that are causing the performance problems.  While not easy, it’s better for all if training departments learn to credibly say no when applicable. 
Familiarity Risk: What is it and What Can I Do About It?
The next area of discussion dealt with how trainers can deal with the challenge of familiarity.  There seemed to be some different interpretations of this question. Does familiarity deal with familiarity of the content or are we referring to learners’ familiarity with our techniques and style? I think both interpretations are valid, and their challenges are something to be aware of. 
Some participants in the chat argued that you can never be too familiar with your content. I disagree.  I think you can never be too familiar and knowledgeable of the subject matter, but you definitely can be too familiar with the content. 
Expanding your subject matter expertise enables you to expand the possibilities for learning.  It enables a facilitator to be in a better position to respond to questions that reach outside the structure of the curriculum – the type of questions that explore possibilities and have a better chance of resulting in growth.
Content includes subject matter, but it usually is restricted by the learning objectives and the time allocated to the initiative.  In truth, the content should be limited to the parts of the subject matter most critical to the overall performance objectives. 
The term ‘content’ isn’t limited to only the subject matter; it also includes the activities and methods used to facilitate learning.  There is risk associated with becoming overly familiar with your content.
Last Saturday I took some time to go to the mall to go Christmas shopping.  As I drove, I suddenly became aware that I had turned off the main road much earlier than I needed to.  I had turned on the street I turn down every day to go to the train station I take to work.  I do it so often that even in a situation where I didn’t need to, I did so almost unconsciously. 
That’s the risk of becoming too familiar with your content: you facilitate on auto-pilot.  I’ve worked with trainers who have said with pride “I’ve done this workshop so many times, I could do it in my sleep”.  For a facilitator, auto-pilot is a very bad thing.
Advice for the One-Person Training Department
The discussion concluded by asking what advice you would give to someone in a one-person training department.  My primary advice would also serve as a warning: If you look at yourself as a one-person department, you’re already behind the 8-ball. 
Networking is a necessity for the one-person training department.  You need to network within your organization to make people aware of your value, and to give them opportunities to use you as a resource.  At the same time, you also need to gauge the skills and willingness of your internal network as potential partners that you may be able to use as resources for the organization’s learning and performance initiatives.
Internal networking is important, but it’s only half of the networking puzzle. A person working as a one-person department must also network externally with learning and development peers outside the organization.  This is important not only for your personal development, but for the benefits of the organization as well.  It’s very easy to get comfortable in your own habits.  Exposing yourself to the learning community at large helps an individual working as a one-person department keep his or her skills sharp, which helps increase the value brought to the organization.
Overall, this was another excellent discussion that offered some great tips for not only the one-person department, but for people that work on teams as well.  For additional tips and perspectives, check out my earlier post, There’s No Such Thing As A One-Person Training Department.

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