The Four Responsibilities of the Learning Professional

by | Mar 9, 2016 | #MakeItHappen, Articles

A note from Laura Overton: ” We invited Clive Sheperd, author of More than Blended Learning to share this guest blog as part of our #MakeItHappen campaign. Clive has been a long-standing supporter of Towards Maturity providing independent insights that have ensured our research continues to evolve. We wholeheartedly endorse the challenges he is making to the industry and establishing a professional attitude is an essential element of equipping our teams for change’

I have been lucky in my job to spend time with many hundreds of learning and development practitioners over the past ten years or so, in all sectors of the economy and in all parts of the world.

Almost without exception I find them to be enthusiastic, friendly and determined to do the best possible job.

Just as consistently, it is apparent that they experience a major obstacle to achieving their goals and providing the best possible service to their organisations. In their interactions with key stakeholders they are not afforded the respect upon which their credibility as true professionals depends. They are simply not trusted as they should be to apply their technical expertise in solving problems that in practice are beyond the reach of the lay person.

Let’s take an example…

What would you do?

Your internal client, a long-serving, senior manager, calls you in for a meeting. He is looking for a training programme to ease the upcoming transition from Microsoft Office to Google Apps.

He suggests a suite of e-learning modules to cover each of the apps in the suite, along with an option of classroom training for those who still prefer this approach. He would like you to go off and work up a proposal with a budget and schedule.

This would not be your favoured strategy for addressing the situation. What would you do?

What it means to be a professional

To be a professional means a lot more than simply doing whatever the client wants. You wouldn’t hire an interior designer only to inform them that you’ve already chosen all the colour schemes and furnishings; you wouldn’t engage an accountant and then explain to them the way your figures should be processed (unless of course you worked at Enron); you wouldn’t employ a fitness trainer and then tell them what to include in your workout; and you wouldn’t buy a dog and then insist that you do all the barking.

So why, then, do we continue to encounter situations in which line managers tell the guys from L&D exactly what they want in terms of learning interventions, with the expectation that they’ll simply take these instructions and run with them? You’d like a six-hour e-learning package to train customer service staff to sell over the telephone? A two-day workshop to teach every detail of a new company system to all employees, regardless of whether or not they will be using it? A one-hour podcast to teach manual handling skills? No problem. That’s what we’re here for, to meet your requirements.

Hang on a minute, you’re probably thinking. This isn’t an encounter between a professional and a client, it’s simply order taking.

When asked to jump, a professional does not ask ‘how high?’. They say, ‘Let’s talk about this a little, because jumping may not be the best solution for you in this situation.’ And if this tactic doesn’t work and the professional is told in no uncertain terms that jumping is the only acceptable option, then he or she has two choices: either they resign and get another job where their role as a professional is properly valued; or they agree to go ahead, but only after having expressed quite clearly in writing that jumping is against their best advice.

Learning and development isn’t common sense; it isn’t intuitive. If it was then experts wouldn’t lecture at novices for hours on end; they wouldn’t insist on passing on everything they know, however irrelevant, however incomprehensible. That’s why we have learning professionals, so they can explain, in terms that the lay person can clearly understand, how people acquire knowledge, develop skills and adapt to new ideas, and how best to support this process. If the customer doesn’t hear this advice, they will assume that the people in L&D are just the builders, not the architects; and, if no-one seems to be offering their services as architect, they’ll take on the task for themselves.

Doing no harm to learners

One of the key differences between professions and other forms of occupation is the fact that professionals are bound by ethical codes. If they contravene these codes they are liable to be disbarred from their profession. Doctors sign a Hippocratic oath which binds them to do no harm to their patients. Their patients’ interests take priority over those of any body which employs them or their own opportunities to make financial gains. Now we all know that, in practice, some doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants and other professionals do break this trust and put themselves first, but generally we are shocked when this happens and expect the transgression to be dealt with firmly.

As those responsible for managing the learning of adults in the workplace, we also like to be regarded as professionals. But you don’t become a professional just by calling yourself one. You have important responsibilities, not only to your clients but also to your learners. Doing no harm to your learners means that you don’t frazzle them with too much content, you don’t bore them, embarrass them or try to sell them quack remedies.

Your colleagues need you

Every time you act as an order taker rather than a consultant, you are letting down the whole profession. Every time you develop or deliver content without question as to its efficacy you are doing the same. Every time you promote a now discredited theory, you are doing even more damage – you are not only risking the whole profession being seen as quacks and new age romantics, you may well be harming learners.

To put it bluntly, every time you behave unprofessionally, you reinforce undesirable stereotypes and make it much harder for your colleagues to fulfil their roles as professionals.

You are important too

Professional skills take time to master. To be cynical, you might say that if a doctor claimed they were ready to practice having just completed a five-day course you’d be horrified; if your electrician said they were happy to re-wire your house having attended a webinar you’d be equally astounded; but if your instructor said they were fully-equipped having attended a three-day train-the-trainer you wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Take the example of an architect. How could they function without keeping up-to-date with the latest building techniques, legislation, materials, and developments in electrics, plumbing and lighting? Imagine a dentist who wasn’t aware of the latest treatments and equipment? They would soon be unable to provide an adequate service and would rightly ushered out of the profession.

The idea of a technophobic architect or dentist seems ridiculous, and yet with learning professionals it is somehow the norm. And yet it takes as long to become an effective learning consultant, designer or facilitator as it does to become a skilled professional or craftsperson in other fields. Your success depends on a long apprenticeship and the most open of minds.

In summary: our four responsibilities


As a learning professional I have a responsibility to my client to help them to achieve their goals for employee performance. Doing the best for my client will often mean suggesting a solution other than the one requested. Sometimes it will mean recommending something other than a learning intervention.

As a learning professional I have a responsibility to the learners who participate in any learning intervention that I conceive or facilitate. I want these learners to be inspired and grow in confidence. I want to help them achieve their own goals for personal development. I want to do them no harm, by boring them, overwhelming them, embarrassing them or peddling them untested remedies.

As a learning professional I have a responsibility to my fellow professionals to uphold the ethics and standards of my profession, and to do nothing that would damage our collective credibility. In the work that I carry out, I want to enhance the reputation of learning professionals as trusted consultants and skilled practitioners; as people who can be relied on to put the interests of their clients and their learners first.

Finally, as a learning professional, I have a responsibility to myself to make sure I am fully up-to-date with current best practice and evidence-based learning theory, that I am constantly reflecting upon and looking to improve my skills, and that I am conversant with the latest technologies that could enhance learning in terms of its effectiveness or efficiency.

How you can help

If you agree with me about the importance of the four responsibilities, I encourage you to go to the four responsibilities website where you can indicate your support. Working together we can do something positive to lift the status of learning professionals around the world and, as a result, exert a much greater influence on the organisations that we represent.

Learn more at

This article was originally published on Clive’s blog, Clive on Learning


Focus your activity and #MakeItHappen

Is 2016 the year of action for you and your team? If you want to continue to focus on equipping your L&D team then it is time for action. To make it easier for you , throughout this year we’re curating and sharing insights, tips and success stories to inspire, equip and help you go deeper.

We encourage you to ‘Work out loud’ by asking questions, reflecting on progress, sharing ideas and encouraging your peers in our LinkedIn group New Learning Benchmarks or at one of our face-to-face Sector Benchmark Groups in the UK. You can also follow us and feedback on Twitter at @Towards Maturity or look for our tweets under #MakeItHappen. We’d love you to join us on the way!




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