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Developing an L&D “playbook”

Later this month, Brandon Carson, a Vice President of Learning & Leadership at Walmart and author of the recently published book, L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age, will be speaking at the Association for Talent Development’s annual International Conference and Expo about the importance of developing an L&D playbook for the digital age.

Recently I had a chance to talk with Brandon, and my biggest take-away was that it’s silly for folks in L&D to insist on a “seat at the table” where decisions are made in an organization if we haven’t done our homework and identified the needs of individuals and teams we’re working with. L&D professionals shouldn’t wait for someone to tell them to do a needs assessment. We need to be proactive, which is how we bring value to the table.

Of course, once a needs assessment has been conducted, then we need a strategy to address those needs. That’s where Brandon’s concept of a “playbook” comes in.

Transcript of the Conversation with Brandon Carson

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And we are brought to you today by Soapbox, which is the world’s first and only rapid-authoring tool for instructor-led training. So it’s a little bit like Instant Pot for training / lesson plan design – you throw in a few ingredients such as: how many people will attend? How long is your session going to be? Is it going to be in-person or virtual? What are your learning objectives? And then a few seconds later, it will spit out a lesson plan for you. So If you want to find out more information about that, go to

Today we are talking about the digital transformation in the world of learning and development, and we’re joined by probably the best person I can think of to speak about this. He’s written a book called L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age, which is out now and you can pick that up. He’s also the VP of Learning and Leadership at Walmart. Brandon Carson, thank you so much for joining us today. 

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Brandon Carson: Oh, I’m excited to be here, Brian. Thank you for having me.

Brian Washburn: Well, this is part of our series of people who are speaking at ATD ICE in 2021. And so I’m really excited to jump in here. (Editor’s Note: Brandon Carson will be presenting L&D’s Playbook For The Digital Age at ATD ICE on Aug.31 at 10:30am)

6-Word Biography

Brian Washburn: But before we get into anything, obviously we need to have you introduce yourself. And as we always do, we ask people to introduce themselves with a six-word biography. When it comes to this topic of an L&D playbook for the digital age, for me, I would introduce myself saying, “Sometimes I’m digital, mostly I’m analog”. How about you, Brandon? How would you introduce yourself in six words? 

Brandon Carson: Okay, so, this may not make sense, but I’m going to say it anyway: “Provides love for Ringo the dog”. So I have to explain a little bit of that – the six words – Ringo is my little dachshund that sits with me as I’ve been in lockdown for the last 18 months, working at home. And he’s constantly, kind of, my companion, if you will. So that’s really what I do all day is “provides love for Ringo the dog”. 

Brian Washburn: I love that because– I mean, we are more than just who we are at work, right? And so we’re whole beings. And so I love that’s exactly where you went in terms of how you are going to invest your six words. 

Let’s talk a little bit about this idea of a playbook for the digital age. But before we get to that, you know, playbooks– when I think of a playbook, I think of like sports, like football, things like that – where you have a strategy and you have specific ways that you’re going to run the ball or whatever it might be. So playbooks to me are a strategic or an intentional way to meet a challenge head-on – if the defense does this, then you go this way. So before we talk about this concept of developing a playbook though, can you tell us a little bit about the kinds of digital challenges that folks in the world of L&D need to face these days?

What Are the Digital Challenges Facing Learning & Development Professionals Today?

Brandon Carson: Yeah, great question. I think our challenge isn’t necessarily digital, although that is a significant component. The digital age is reshaping every aspect of how business is conducted and at the same time, obviously, rapidly transforming work. So what we want from work has– especially over the last year – what we want from work has changed. And so the digital transformation, though, is also impacting that – that was well underway before we had this pandemic. 

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Brandon Carson: But the pandemic just accelerated our move to digital, and it requires us in L&D to move away from being kind of that siloed, cost center function delivering up learning-on-order, you know? And really think about how do we– I don’t want to be too negative with this, but I’ve been a part of this problem for the last 25 years that I have been in this business, so how do we think differently? Because for all that time, we’ve talked about how to become more relevant and meaningful. And for too long, we’ve been under-invested in, we’ve been fragmented and we’ve been unable to lead the conversation about the real challenges facing both business and the workforce. So, when I advocate for a new playbook– you’re right, it’s really coming from the sports world, you know, where coaches have a playbook that is based on plays. And some of these plays are plays you’re thinking about that you definitely want to do during the game, and some of them are plays you have in your back pocket because you don’t know what may happen, right? But the idea of this playbook and the reason I’m advocating for a new one for us is because we need a wholesale change in our direction. 

Brian Washburn: And I love the metaphor, right? So it’s this idea of– so maybe you have a set, kind of, what you’re going to do for this situation in mind. And there’s also in your back pocket an audible – you’re ready to change it up if something doesn’t quite look right in terms of that situation. So it’s not just one thing, right? You’re not set, but you have some scenarios in mind in terms of going about it. And so let’s talk about this now. Can you explain a little bit more about what kind of plays might be in this type of digital playbook?

What Kind of Plays Are in a Digital Playbook for L&D?

Brandon Carson: Yeah. And I’m using the term playbook here really in place of the word “strategy”.

Brian Washburn: Mhm. 

Brandon Carson: Because we need to lurch our practice into being, you know, definitely more responsive to the rapidly changing face of work, or how work is changing. And also the workforce has expectations, like I just said. We don’t have the luxury of sitting down to create comprehensive, multi-year strategies right now. We had, during COVID, when I was at Delta– you know, it’s an interesting experience being on an airline during a global pandemic– but our strategies were kind of day-to-day for the longest time there. We had a lot of emerging needs, those kinds of things that we have to have affordance for. So we need a flexible plan to lead the business and the workforce forward, understanding that these emerging needs will pop up without a lot of notice that we must address on demand while also driving the broader, strategic execution, you know, of what we’re doing as it applies to learning solutions. So– like at Delta, we didn’t have a playbook for a global pandemic, if you will, but from a learning standpoint, we also didn’t have crisis scenarios mapped. We really had to pivot literally overnight, in a highly regulated environment to ensure business continuity because we were deemed an essential service to the nation. And the business looked to us in training for a lot of the answers. So that’s why I’m saying a key part of the playbook – putting it together – is doing some of that scenario planning, and too many of us don’t do that, and a lot of us hadn’t thought about it. But it’s important for this complex age we’re in to do that. And so the playbook needs to map your strategic vision, your tactical strength to execute. And as we all know, strategy is nothing but a pretty PowerPoint if you can’t execute on it. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Yeah. And this is so interesting because– and I’ve had these conversations over the past year with a number of colleagues in the world of learning and development where we went through an economic downturn, and we didn’t see L&D losing jobs like they would in a normal economic downturn. A lot of times people were looking to L&D – whether it was, “Hey, can you help us figure out how to do this ‘Zoom’ thing?” Or, you know, “Can you put together a training program? Because now we need to teach people how to do something very different, very quickly”. Or, “Can you convert this from what we used to do in person to e-learning?” Now, I’m kind of curious – and you mentioned that you’ve worked with some organizations that maybe didn’t necessarily have a playbook or a strategy in place – what are some risks to those who haven’t or won’t draw up this kind of playbook? Or this kind of strategy? 

What Are The Risks When You Don’t Have a Playbook or Strategy in Place?

Brandon Carson: No, it’s a good question. I think the pandemic obviously exposed some of the risks to businesses that aren’t prepared for a crisis. And I’m not saying that we need to be perpetually in crisis mode, but some of the lessons learned from the last 18 months showed us where our vulnerabilities truly are. And candidly, the massive skills gap was sharply exposed along with, probably, an awakening, if you will, of a lot of people who are rethinking what they want from employment. 

I mean, we hear almost every day how many jobs are available versus how many are showing up for them, right? And so I would recommend thinking of the playbook from, like we mentioned earlier, the sports lands. So playbooks outline your game plan for not only the current game, or the series you’re in, but also provide you a guided path to where you want to end up – if it’s a Super Bowl champion or World Series champs or wherever you want to go, right? The key component is building in flexibility to adapt to the changes that are going to be thrown our way. And so now it may move away from being a crisis, like a pandemic, but it’s going to be this massive skills gap that we have in front of us. 

And so I’d say the two most significant challenges for business today are that– number one, is that nearly intractable skills gap that every business faces as every business on earth moves to digital first and every aspect of what they do, that’s in front of us.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Brandon Carson: And if you’re not thinking about it in L&D, you’re really late to this game. And the second, is that relentless deficit in solid leader capability and capacity across our enterprises. We’re not developing people to lead our businesses through the largest scale job transformation in human history – which is what we’re in now.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Brandon Carson: And I don’t want to sound overly negative, but that skills gap and that leader deficit that you have in your organizations will be the difference between whether you’re one of those big movers and shakers in your market and in your industry, or you’re not. And so I think L&D now– you’re right – L&D is the function that everyone’s looking to for help with this. We have seen investment increasing. It’s not on par with the investment going on in technology, within businesses, and so we need to get it on par. It needs to be looked at as the business strategy now. And so I think– I would say those are your number two areas that a playbook would help you with.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Brandon Carson: Two number two areas.

Brian Washburn: Sure. And that makes sense. I’ve only worked for small organizations and, you know– compared to your experience at Delta or Walmart or Yahoo or other places. But every place that I’ve worked, we’ve had that issue– is that we have really good individual contributors, that are promoted to managers and don’t know how to lead people or teams. So what you’re saying really resonates in terms of a giant deficit right now. 

Now this idea of a playbook can be kind of daunting, right? If people are listening, thinking, “Oh my gosh! Now I need to put together this whole book of plays, of strategies”, right? And maybe one step – a concrete step – people can take is to, you know, purchase the book that you’ve put out to help teach them – L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age. But aside from that, is there a specific step or a few first specific steps that someone listening could take to develop a playbook? Now you mentioned scenario planning a few minutes ago and– so is that something that people should go about doing first or what should people be doing? What would be the first couple of specific concrete steps they could take?

Steps to Get Started Developing Your Own L&D Playbook or Strategic Plan

Brandon Carson: Yeah, it’s not difficult. Most of us leading learning practices and business already have strategies, or components of strategies. What I outline in the book is a simple step by step process to outline the key areas to think about as you embark on recalibrating. So the first step I discuss is to conduct, what I call, a strategic needs analysis across the enterprise you support, to gain a fresh understanding of the workforce sentiment as it applies to their career growth opportunities, and ability to easily access training and development. So what do they need to advance themselves? What’s their sentiment as it applies to that?

Brian Washburn: If I could just, kind of, stop with that real quick and ask should they be doing this even if nobody across the organization has asked them to do it, right? So L&D a lot of times– people in L&D feel, “Oh, well, we’re order takers. Nobody asked me to do this. Then I should be focused on, you know, this training or this e-learning or whatever they asked me to do.” So what advice might you have for people that are like, “Well, nobody asked me to scan the horizon and conduct a needs analysis for the unit I’m supporting”. 

Brandon Carson: Yeah, that’s what I’m advocating in the book is moving away from that order taking model. And that’s a big challenge for a lot of organizations because what I’m asking for during some of these steps in this experience of outlining your playbook is to take a holistic view of how you’re funded, where you sit in the enterprise, who leads you, what are your team’s capabilities, how do you need to be leading the company forward as it applies to developing their workforce and the talent. And so it’s a big undertaking to have a much stronger voice and a more– really a more courageous stand and let’s flip this model and let’s move forward. And the only way you can do that, developing the talent in the right way, is to even go deeper than just aligning with the business, but become a key component of the business strategy itself. 

I remember at Delta– this was before the pandemic, but our CEO told us in one of his speeches to all of us that we need to become a learning company. Which is– I would say, “Yes, every company needs to be a learning company. What does that mean for your company?” And, you know, the key component there is the learning strategy shouldn’t really be this separate artifact outside of the business strategy. It should be the business strategy of how are we going to really do this type of workforce development. There’s a massive skills gap in front of you – I don’t care what company you’re at – it’s there. 

And, then on top of that, now you’ve got people rethinking what they even want from work, right? And so it’s really taking an honest look at your own L&D practice and, you know, look at how you’re invested. Too many of us are invested by our headcount and maybe our projects, you know? How can you do your own R&D? How can you think ahead to figure out what the solutions are that you need to be putting into place?

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Brandon Carson: And how capable are you at leading a culture of continuous learning across the company? So it’s time we have that more disruptive conversation with ourselves and our leaders about how we can transform not only ourselves, but our businesses. And so that’s what– it’s a step-by-step guide in there, but it’s also a little bit of a therapy for you as a learning organization to take a holistic assessment of, not just the business you support, but of yourself. And how can you bring more measurable business value? 

Brian Washburn: Well, if people want to know more, obviously they can go take a look at the book. 

Get to Know Brandon Carson

Brian Washburn: We’re out of time here in terms of the substantive questions, but before we go, Brandon, I think that people would love to know you a little bit more. So I have a few speed round questions. 

Brandon Carson: Okay, good.

Brian Washburn: Are you ready for those?

Brandon Carson: I’m ready, let’s do it.

Brian Washburn: Okay. So you’re presenting at ATD ICE at the end of the month. What is your go-to pre-presentation food or snack? 

Brandon Carson: Well, I’m five years into being a vegetarian, Brian, so I’m always looking for new recipes. But my 100%, all the time go-to food is anything Indian. I love Indian. 

Brian Washburn: That goes well, I think with vegetarian. Obviously they– there’s all sorts of things. I know that when I traveled to India, when I would choose the vegetarian options, they were so good.

Brandon Carson: Yes!

Brian Washburn: What’s your favorite city to travel to for work? 

Brandon Carson: Well, what gets me there is “for work”. So I originate from San Francisco Bay area where I spent most of my adult life, and although I’ve been away for seven years, I jump anytime I have the opportunity to go to the Bay area in San Francisco. I love it.

Brian Washburn: And it is, it’s different traveling for work and for pleasure. 

Brandon Carson: Yes.

Brian Washburn: So I thought I’d throw that wrinkle in there. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Brandon Carson: From my dad, when I was a kid: “Pay your bills on time, and stay out of debt”. 

Brian Washburn: (Chuckle) I will pass that along to my own children. And before we leave, do you have any shameless plugs for us?

Brandon Carson: I do. Last year, I created a volunteer organization called L&D Cares to help those in the learning profession connect to a larger network of practitioners – originally to help us survive the pandemic. But I would encourage everyone in this practice to come join our network. We’re about a thousand strong now. We’re dedicated to advancing our profession, working together so we can thrive and flourish. We have lots of programs – they’re all free. Just, and even join in and volunteer. We’re having a great time just sharing knowledge and helping each other along our journey in this industry.

Brian Washburn: Well, Brandon Carson, thank you so much. He’s the VP of Learning and Leadership at Walmart. Also the author of the recent release L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age

Thank you to everyone else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which can be found on Spotify, Apple, iHeart Radio, wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, we’d love it if you could give us a rating, cause that’s how people find us. Until next time, happy training everyone. 
This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

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