Reflections on #lrnchat: How do learning professionals sell their ideas/strategies/services in their organizations?

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 “How do learning professionals sell their ideas/strategies/services in their organizations?”. 
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) What parts of your job are the most difficult to “sell” to your organization?
Q2) What sales strategies are you using to sell your idea to the leadership in your organization?
Q3) What sales strategies are you using to promote learning programs to learners?
Q4) What sales strategies are you using to promote your own expertise and services within the organization?

In most organizations, the learning and performance function does not drive strategy.  At best it is a part of the strategic plan; at worst it is simply a tool to be utilized by the strategic plan.  I would guess that most learning and development professionals find themselves somewhere in the middle of that scale, with the majority closer to the ‘tool’ side of the curve.
It’s for this reason that all learning professionals need to incorporate sales skills into their skill set.  While we are the professionals in building effective performance improvement plans, we need to earn the respect of those that are driving the strategy so that we can become more involved in the process – the proverbial ‘Seat at the Table’ we often talk about.
If you don’t have this metaphorical seat yet, then sales is part of your job.  In truth, even the most Senior Learning Officer in an organization with the most supportive and innovative learning culture still needs to ‘sell’ on some level.
This week’s #lrnchat explores how we ‘sell’ our role to the stakeholders of our organization, keeping in mind that our stakeholders involve not only the executive team, but our learners and ourselves as well.
The discussion started by considering what parts of our job are most difficult to ‘sell’ to our organizations.  Here are some of the common responses:
*  The amount of time it takes to develop learning
*  The importance of allocating time to perform a proper analysis of the learning and performance issues and needs
*  The ‘Training’ does not equal ‘Learning’
*  That the Learning and Development Team should not be ‘fulfilling orders placed by stakeholders’
I think that these are a few common barriers of our profession that we have been battling for a very long time.  I also see a certain amount of insanity there, in that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different response.
In all of the examples shared, you could insert the phrase “My organization doesn’t understand…” in front of the statement and hear the echo of the thousands of professionals who have made the statement before.  For example ‘My organization doesn’t understand the amount of time it takes to develop learning’.
What’s missing in that statement is a single but critical word that changes the paradigm: Why.  Adding the word WHY to the statements literally changes the structure of the sentence from a statement to a question, as in ‘Why doesn’t my organization understand the amount of time it takes to develop learning?”.  That change is important, but it’s secondary.
Of greater importance in the change is the placement of your finger, more specifically the direction in which it is pointing.  When I say ‘My organization doesn’t understand the amount of time it takes to develop learning’, the ‘finger of blame’ is pointed at the organization.  If I’m waiting for the organization to change, on its own, to the benefit of the learning function, I will likely grow old waiting.  Adding the word WHY and changing it to a question shifts the focus internally and forces us to ask “What changes could I make to help the organization see us differently?”
One of the things I found very interesting is the correlation these responses had to previous #lrnchat conversations around what is holding us back as an industry.  Most of the barriers described in the two discussions were identical.  It begs the question of what are truly the weights that hold down our profession.  Do we have the energy, drive, and focus to shift organizational L&D away from the ‘old’ methods of ‘push’ and ‘teach’ and are simply struggling with selling it?  Or have we really not sold it enough within our profession to gain mass acceptance?
From there the discussion moved towards what strategies we use to sell our ideas to organizational leadership.  While there were a number of strategies shared, there was one that was easily the most common: If you want to sell your ideas for learning to organizational leaders, you need to do so using their language.
Senior organizational leaders may say they fully support learning; many of them even back up their words with actual supportive actions.  But let’s face it.  That support only exists while the learning and performance function is perceived as providing value to the business.  If the bridges are built between senior leadership and L&D, consider yourself lucky. 
For most though, there is a perceived gap between Learning and Development’s efforts and business impact.  To bridge that gap, L&D professionals need to speak to what is important to business leaders, and that isn’t in an LMS report.  If you’ve ever been in a sales role, there’s a simple rule that always rings true: You don’t sell features; you sell benefits.
If you want senior leadership to buy what we are selling, find out what is important to them.  Find out how they describe it – right down to the words they use.  Sell to that.
One additional strategy I use inside organizations is to be very active outside my organization.  It’s difficult to sell the potential benefits of a specific learning program, especially if it involves using tools and techniques not used at the organization before.  A current example of this is using social media tools for learning.  Many organizations are hesitant to do this.
Having an example to show leaders makes the potential benefits of a program much more real.  Being active in the learning and development community at large not only helps build your skills, it also provides examples that can be used inside organizations.  Here are two quick examples.
I recently set up a Facebook Fan Page that functions as a companion site to this blog.  There are two primary reasons I set up this page.
First, it allows me to extend the outreach of my blog and gives people who follow it another option to do so that may better fit their preferences.  Secondly – and more to the point here – it allows me to explore the potential of Facebook as a learning tool.  As tools and features of Facebook begin to further tap its potential as a tool for learning, I will be ahead of the curve, and will have a living, breathing example to use as part of my sales pitch. 
(Shameless plug: If you check out the fan page, I encourage you to become a fan by clicking the LIKE utton if you find value in these posts.  I am looking forward to exploring some of the additional Facebook functions that are available to pages with larger fan bases)
Another example is the potential of Yammer.  Selling it as “Twitter within the firewall” isn’t going to resonate with senior leaders.  It’s much more powerful to be able to show an example of how Yammer works.
Enter the Social Learning Community, recently launched by Jane Hart of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies.  This Yammer-based community is a tremendous resource for learning professionals to share and develop knowledge and skills.  It also serves as a perfect example to use when selling Yammer’s potential to an organization’s senior leaders.
In short, don’t wait for your organization to say “Go explore XYZ and see if it’s of value”.  Go explore different tools as part of your own professional development, and that outside knowledge will help you sell the benefits of potential solutions within your organization.
From there the discussion moved on to the sales strategies we use to sell learning to the learners. There was a very strong shared sentiment that this question was misguided, and that instead of selling learning to learners, we should be building self-sufficient learners.
I agree with this sentiment.  I also think that ‘building self-sufficient learners’ is a milestone that is further down the road of an evolving learning culture than most organizations have travelled.  There are a number of stops along the way from a pushed required learning culture to one based on self-sufficient learning.  Depending on where your organization is on that road, selling learners to learners may need to be part of your strategy.
So how do you sell learning to learners?  Part of it is simple marketing.  Make sure learners are aware of what programs are available.  In addition, try not to advertise your programs with L&D phrases like “At the end of this program, participants will be able to…”.  Those are features of the class, and as I wrote earlier, you sell the benefits.  Tell a story of a problem potential learners can identify with, and explain how your learning program can help overcome it.
While it’s not a conscious sales strategy, there is something I do that has greatly enhanced the buy-in I get from learners.  Employees in the organizations I have worked for quickly learn that my support of their performance improvement does not conclude at the end of a learning event.  It’s a continuous process with occasional ‘events’ built in.  I know that my continuous support between ‘events’ has helped build the all-powerful word-of-mouth, which in turn has increased voluntary ‘event’ registrations.
The discussion concluded by exploring what sales strategies we use to sell our own expertise and services within our organization.  While this phrase was not specifically stated in the discussion, it sums up most of the responses: “Toot your own horn”.
Don’t wait for someone to sing your praises; do it yourself.  If you get a complimentary email, forward it to leaders.  Try to get involved in key projects, do an amazing job, and then make sure leadership knows how you contributed. 
Personally there are two major strategies I use to sell myself to my organization.  The first is fairly common: I under-promise and over-deliver.  The key to that strategy is the under-promise part.  It’s not about setting a low bar; it’s about committing to the expectations and then delivering beyond that.  It’s having a customer ask for a salad and steak dinner, and delivering salad, filet-mignon, plus a free dessert.
The second strategy I use is somewhat subtle, and admittedly taps into a dynamic that is frustrating to an internal L&D professional: The assumed superior expertise of the outside consultant.
I don’t say that as a slam against outside consultants.  I’m just acknowledging a realistic dynamic.  As soon as an external provider is brought in, there’s a perceived increase of importance and expertise simply because “we brought someone in”.
How does this connect with how I sell myself?  It goes back to my earlier point of being involved in the learning community outside your organization.  When I share my contributions to the field outside our organizations it taps right into that dynamic.  I recall telling a senior manager years ago about a speaking engagement I was asked to give to a local training organization, and he said “You really know your stuff don’t you?”
Why yes.  Yes I do. 
And so do you.  Remember that.  Then find out what’s important to the senior leaders of your organization.
If you remember those two things, the ‘sales’ part of your job is much easier.
Until next week #lrnchat-ers!

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