Organizational Learning & Development – From an Evidence Base

Cover OLD from pdfThis is the new sister title to ‘Professional HR’. Together they provide the complete, evidence-based approach to people management for the mature organization.


Review by Angela Risner, Orange Learning Solutions

“Full disclosure: I received an ARC (advanced review copy) of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I happened across Paul Kearns’ name while doing some research on consulting in the learning field. Kearns wrote a series of articles, “From Trainer to Learning Consultant,” back in 2004. Those articles formed the basis for his new book, Organizational Learning & Development – From an Evidence Base.

If you’ve been in the learning and development field for more than a few years, you know that the hardest part of the job is trying to demonstrate your value to the organization for whom you’re working. Whether you’re an instructional designer, trainer or both, you typically show up on the books as an expense. When the business hits a rough spot and has to make cuts, you are usually considered to be the most expendable.

To be honest, most of us found ourselves in this profession by accident; we were Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) or super-users. Because we performed our jobs so effectively, we were tasked with training new people (even our own bosses.) I was doing instructional design before I knew that’s what it was called. When I was thinking about graduate school, instructional design programs were few and far between.

It took years before I learned that I didn’t have to say yes to every request for training, that training was not always the answer (because the question was one of performance management and training can’t answer that question.) It’s only been in the last decade that the learning and development field has started to think about their role in the business as a partner, rather than a “necessary evil” (as one of my managers said to her team in order to get them to come to training.)

In 2006, the authors of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning (known as the 6Ds) challenged the learning and development world to only provide learning that aligned with your company’s objectives. Training for training’s sake was no longer the rule; the only acceptable form of learning would improve an employee’s job performance, which would ultimately improve the performance of the business.

The 6Ds is a great step in the right direction. However, speaking from experience, it can’t work unless the organization itself is at a certain point of maturity. Unfortunately, the 6Ds does not address this. Kearns’ book does.

Kearns applies his previously developed HR Maturity Scale to learning. There are six stages of maturity on a scale from reactive (where training requests are “reacted” to and there is no curriculum mapping or conscious design of learning) to strategic (where learning is a natural part of the business process and the organization becomes a whole system.)

For a business to truly evolve into a learning organization, it must be honest with itself about where it is on the Maturity Scale. To move up the maturity scale, everyone must be rowing the boat in the same direction.

Kearns also takes on Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation. He correctly states that they do not hold the training department accountable to any business objective; instead, they simply evaluate the trainer as a facilitator. Using the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) model instead to establish a baseline measurement or evidence base makes much more sense.

This book is the best blueprint we have to move learning and development into full-fledged business partners with permanent seats at the table. If we can follow the principles in this book, L&D will no longer have to fight to stay relevant and prove its value.

I have pages and pages of notes marked, but here are some favorite moments:

  • …it marks the shift away from focusing on training, which is always an input, to learning, which is an output.
  • Professionals are always focused on business impact; amateur trainers are satisfied with their training activity.
  • Evaluation is not just about measuring success; it will equally expose training failure.
  • Traditional processes for performance review and development planning tend to suffer from a common condition – the culture does not allow for difficult conversations to be held in an open, honest, transparent and grown-up way.
  • Performance management works best in mature organizations, with Stage 4 being the minimum goal, where performance management is perceived as less of a big stick and more of a positive reinforcement of valuable behavior.
  • Learning should be encouraged to happen naturally and organically; it should not be designed as intervention, nor viewed as such.
  • Education means looking at how somebody else made a fire. Training means you have to know how to make a fire, not just describe the process. Applied learning means you make a fire.

 Highly recommend. (And should be required reading for all L&D folks.)”

Professional HR. Evidence-Based People Management & Development

‘Evidence-Based HR’ – ran from August 2010 to July 2012 and contained 110 of my posts (email if you need to read any). Many of the ideas expressed here, and the research behind them, were incorporated into my 2013 book “Professional HR. Evidence-Based People Management & Development“. This demonstrates how anyone wanting to be a top HR Professional has to become evidence-based and working in a mature, organizational environment.  If you want to understand the concept and principles of HR maturity you can now join the new, professional Maturity Institute – MI – that has been established for that very purpose.

Paul Kearns

PT on EBHR 2


“That’s the state of play in human resources today mindless imitation of what others are doing, little to no systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of management practices and programs, infrequent data-driven diagnoses of the problems HR is expected to address, in short, little of the professionalism now almost taken for granted in medicine, to take just one example.”

From the Foreword to the book by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, co-author of ‘Hard Facts‘ and a leading advocate of evidence-based management.


‘This is an important book that provides a positive road map for the future of the H.R. profession. Its importance lies in its willingness to address the big questions: why has Human Resources been at the crossroads for over a decade? What does it mean to operate as an H.R. professional? How can H.R. apply evidence based practice to be more systematic in its priorities and evaluate the business impact of its activities?

The book, a combination of analysis, argument and anecdote, check-lists and case studies, ranges far and wide in exploring the debate about the role of Human Resources, the nature of professionalism and the utilisation of evidence based practice.

Professional HR is also a refreshingly authentic book that provides a candid insight into the connections between academic research, consultancy activity and H.R. practice. Paul Kearns takes on with insight and courage: snake-oil consultancies selling solutions of dubious value; the academics that gave their blessing to any number of flawed research wheezes; those H.R. practitioners who valued prize winning more than the implementation of processes that “worked”; and the various professional bodies that stood on the side-lines rather than a take a lead in raising and reinforcing standards.

For some, this book – with its willingness to “name and shame” several of the players who contributed to H.R.’s current reputation – will be an awkward reminder of a past that missed opportunities to establish Human Resources as a critical component of organisational success. For the emerging H.R. practitioner who wants to make a positive impact through a combination of a professional ethos and evidence based practice, Professional HR will be indispensable reading.’

Andrew Munro, Director of AM Azure Consulting

‘Kearns’ book is a timely reminder that neither precise, legally enforceable regulations nor reliance on human moral points of failure can address the paucity of moral courage and deliberate systemic myopia of our political and corporate leaders, or of academic experts. What he is seeking is a widening of the purpose of management to include value to society, humanity and stewardship and to resist the corrosive effects of relying on narrow performance measures like profit. Kearns is advocating that his brand of professionalism be central to organisational life. He asks the right questions, itself doubtless a process of testing hypotheses and paying attention to the quality and relevance of data, blending critique of methodology with topical examples and practical checklists. Kearns’ Professional HR, to be sure, is worthy of a wide managerial readership.’

Dr Wilson Wong, Academic Fellow CIPD

Professional HR is every bit as ground breaking as his previous book HR Strategy: Creating Business Strategy with Human Capital. Kearns’ new work points out clearly that the lack of professionalism and standards are destroying the public’s faith in business, and in many cases, businesses themselves. He makes it clear that evidence-based professional HR management is the way to stem the tide. This book is a blueprint for training a new generation of true HR professionals.’

Patricia Turnham, Kaplan University, USA

‘Amidst the fallout of a deep economic depression, the malaise organisations find themselves operating within affords a very real opportunity for HR professionals. HR has the chance to become what it has failed to do since its strategic aspirations were first voiced in the 1990’s; the chance to become a value proposition for organisations. This value proposition is about demonstrating that the very best people management is a route to healthy, vibrant and sustainable organisations that produce real value for all stakeholders. Paul Kearns’ book shows how and why HR professionals should take this opportunity and reposition both themselves and their own organisations to succeed in the 21st Century.’

Stuart Woollard, Kings College London, UK

‘In this book Paul Kearns provides a compelling vision for the future of the HR professional and the HR profession. This vision challenges the HR professional to approach their role in a far more reflective and evidence based way. Kearns provides a convincing prescription for how a more professional and mature HR practitioner can deliver on the potential and value of human capital which remains untapped in many organisations.’

Prof. David Collings, Professor of HRM, Dublin City University, Editor, Human Resource Management Journal.