John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach whose teams won championships and set records with regularity, introduced new players to his coaching philosophy with an important lesson in fundamentals. He would instruct the players how to properly tie their sneakers. In order to win, he argued, you had to score, pass and defend. In order to score, pass and defend, you had to run. In order to run, you had to prepare and care for your feet. And to do that, you had to tie your sneakers properly. The lesson: Basketball is a fast game, requiring a mastery of fundamentals to succeed.
The same might be said today of learning organizations. The pace of business has become exceedingly fast, and the stakes for learning organizations and the people who lead them have become increasingly high. There is more pressure to deliver results and more demand for meaningful impact.
In such an environment, it is often easy to overlook the fundamentals that ensure success. But doing so can have dire consequences. A program that ignores the fundamental principles of workplace learning can fail both the individual and the organization, making it unlikely to deliver the desired impact and results needed to help the organization and justify continued investment in learning.
At the same time, programs that pay appropriate attention to fundamentals can help individuals and organizations quickly learn the skills required to thrive in the emerging business climate. That’s especially true for two areas that will be among the most critical for organizations in the fast-changing, quick-tempo world of business: leadership development and customer relationship competencies.
Why these two? Leadership and management competencies are the keys to creating alignment and focus around a new business direction, and to fostering innovation, flexibility and speed. Customer relationship competencies are critical in building and sustaining profitable relationships with clients, developing customer loyalty and creating strong ties across companies, from the executive suite to the front line.
Recently, The Forum Corp. surveyed 60 experts in workplace learning, each of whom has trained an average of more than 11,000 workers over his or her career. In addition, Forum interviewed 24 learning consultants and conducted panel discussions with professionals responsible for learning in a cross-section of companies and industries. The goal was to learn how leadership and customer service competencies can be learned most effectively.
The survey found that despite the dramatic difference in contexts in which these competencies are applied, they tend to be learned in the same way. According to the study, learning programs that observe six fundamental principles of workplace learning enable managers and workers to effectively learn leadership development and customer relationship competencies and improve the learning organization’s prospects for demonstrating impact and ROI.
Link Learning to Value for the Individual and the Organization
Line managers, training buyers and learners are feeling more pressure than ever to produce results. They view training not as an end in itself, but as a means to creating greater business impact faster. As a result, the learning organization must ensure that learning is highly engaging and relevant to real business challenges, that it produces a “payoff” for both the individual and the organization, and that the learning objectives for both the participant and the company are closely aligned. An opportunity exists to achieve greater business value by focusing more heavily on application and continuous learning on the job.
The CLO’s challenge is to make sure the organization is designing learning that strikes a balance between individual and organizational results. If learning is too focused on individual results, such as greater self-awareness, without a link to the business results, the program will be of little value to the company. But without a clear benefit for the participant, such as greater effectiveness in the current role and preparation for career advancement, participant motivation is likely to suffer.
This tension between individual and organizational value manifests itself in the need to simultaneously demonstrate value today while ensuring long-term results in the future. It also manifests itself in the desire to change cultures, typically seen as an organizational endeavor, and the desire to change performance, typically seen as an individual endeavor. In reality, a strong culture is usually built by paying attention to what individuals value, while performance goes awry if it is not linked to organizational goals and norms.
To apply this principle:
- Build learning into the job by managing the informal learning that occurs routinely and regularly during work.
- Involve management in the learning process by having managers identify learning goals in advance or by inviting a senior executive to set the business context and goals during the program kickoff.
- Build in opportunities for accountability to oneself and the group by asking participants to share their goals and action plan with fellow learners at the end of the program, and by holding a reconnect session to ask participants how they have applied the competencies on the job.
- Provide opportunities for participants to share experiences and advice through such channels as a Web site, e-mail, conference call or by assigning each participant a “learning partner” who can lend support in meeting business and individual objectives.
Connect Action and Reflection in a Continuous Cycle
Recent research confirms the ancient wisdom that learning must consist of action – mental, physical or both – followed by an opportunity to reflect on the action and its outcome. People learn by doing and then thinking about what they have done. This confluence of action and reflection generates lessons for future action, and continues as a cycle of learning.
Action needs to build on reflection and reflection on action. Yet some people naturally prefer to spend more time on reflection, others on action, creating differences in learning styles. Being aware of learning styles is important primarily because it allows individuals and teams to balance their natural tendencies. The CLO’s challenge is to create learning that balances and connects action and learning under extreme time and results pressures.
To apply this principle:
- Make guided reflection part of the work process in order to encourage learners to pause, evaluate and become aware of their knowledge. One example is found in the military, where personnel use after-action reviews to examine what worked and what didn’t during an operation with the goal of sustaining strengths and improving weaknesses.
- Engineer on-the-job learning experiences that encourage learners to be conscious of their actions and active about their reflection.
- Raise learners’ awareness of learning styles and of the strengths and vulnerabilities of each. Organizations can use an awareness of learning styles both to improve learning programs and to help teams accelerate their learning on the job. When individuals understand their own and other’s learning styles, they are in a better position to leverage colleagues’ strengths and to capitalize on learning opportunities toward which they themselves might not naturally gravitate.
Address Learners’ Attitudes and Beliefs in Addition to Behaviors
Learning theorists have helped us see learning as more than a matter of acquiring skills and changing behavior. While it is true that observing a person’s behavior is the only way to evaluate learning, a behaviorist approach to explaining and teaching leadership and customer competencies is likely to be narrow and ineffective. These competencies are deeply intertwined with people’s view of themselves and their world – their ideas, attitudes and feelings about what happens to them and how they should respond. Indeed, this type of learning might be described as “helping people make sense of their experiences in new ways.”
Consideration of learners’ internal points of view tends to highlight the limitations of self-directed e-learning. Although a Web-based tutorial can tell or show you a process, test you on the process and tell you when you get something wrong, it cannot mirror or seriously challenge the many different perspectives, attitudes and beliefs that different learners will bring to the table. E-learning also tends to overlook the highly individual process of trying out new competencies and fitting them into one’s own worldview.
Here, the CLO must manage yet another dilemma: the tension between addressing an internal point of view and addressing external skills and behaviors. Addressing learners’ habits of mind is critical, yet without an impetus for behavior change, talk about thoughts and feelings can degenerate into aimless conversation.
To apply this principle:
- Consciously connect action and reflection to ensure that learners recognize how their attitudes and beliefs influence their behaviors.
- Make use of stories to advance learning. Stories are one of the fastest ways to influence people’s points of view and actions by helping learners “identify with and adopt new ideas instead of seeing them as foreign influences,” as author Stephen Denning notes.
- Cultivate dialogue techniques by helping organizations and individuals master the skills of inquiry and advocacy. When we give people tools and techniques for bringing their attitudes and beliefs to light, holding them out for discussion and seeking to understand others’ points of view, we encourage simultaneous internal and external change. This means putting skilled facilitators in charge of learning events and, even more important, training leaders in the disciplines of dialogue so they can model those disciplines throughout the organization.
Provide Learning With a Balance of Challenge and Support
Today’s workplace can be highly stressful, and the pace is unlikely to slow down. For many experts Forum interviewed, a key challenge is helping people learn in a highly stressful environment. One way companies can help is by providing learning opportunities that balance challenge and support. When people are given permission and feel safe to explore new ideas and actions, and to make mistakes without being harmed, they are better able to “stretch” in taking on higher levels of challenge.
To “support” does not mean to provide sympathetic hand-holding, but rather to offer an environment where the learner can take risks and learn from failure. To “challenge” means to encourage learners to experiment and reflect on ineffective behavior. In today’s fast-paced workplace, support and challenge both require that managers sanction learning. By providing time, space and encouragement for learning, managers are supporting their employees and at the same time challenging them to reach higher.
The CLO’s dilemma is to find ways to create sufficient challenge but still provide enough support.
To apply this principle:
- Set expectations about the learning experience. Learners form an impression of a learning opportunity early through formal communication materials as well as word-of-mouth. It is important to take advantage of these communication channels to convey that the learning process will be challenging, and also to set expectations that learners have important responsibilities in the learning process. When learners begin the process expecting a challenge, they are better prepared to learn than if they are simply going through the motions.
- Create a climate that allows mistakes and rewards learning from failure. A supportive environment enables learners to admit to not knowing and to making mistakes, and encourages them to try what they have not mastered. Senior management plays a key role in shaping an environment that supports learning, part of which involves tolerating some failure. For example, senior executives may speak about significant failure experiences in their own careers and what they have learned from them. They may also consider risk-taking and occasional failure as criteria for promotion, since they indicate that a person is resilient and able to learn from experience.
- Provide coaching and mentoring. Individual coaching can be a powerful tool for helping learners apply new knowledge and skills to their unique job challenges, and to sustain performance improvement over time. Mentoring programs can also be highly effective in helping learners take on increasing levels of responsibility and new challenges.
- Create regular opportunities for feedback. 360-degree feedback tools can be used to help learners understand the need to change based on how their co-workers perceive them. Even more important, feedback must become a part of everyday work, and all employees should be trained in effective feedback methods.
Create Opportunities for Participants to Teach as Well as Learn
Learners are not empty vessels to be filled with information by experts. The best learning happens when they actively explore and discover new knowledge, and share their own expertise with others. Instructors also play critical roles, as models, guides and coaches. The most powerful organizations are those in which everyone teaches and everyone learns.
The CLO’s challenge, then, is to create an environment in which participants can be learners, willing to question their assumptions and listen to others, while also being teachers, willing to share their expertise and coach others.
To apply this principle:
- Expand the role of the classroom instructor to ensure the creation of intensive classroom experiences in which the instructor is able to show the relevance of the content, model the skills, provide feedback and coaching and demonstrate commitment.
- Enlist managers as teachers. Many of the most-admired CEOs are known for achieving great business performance by investing much of their time and energy as teachers.
- Foster a culture of teaching and learning. One of the best ways to learn is by teaching others, which not only helps the learner to understand the content more deeply but also helps the learner become more motivated to achieve learning goals. When individuals teach one another, in addition to accelerating their own learning, they contribute to a more powerful, agile organization, where everybody teaches and everybody learns.
Design and Cultivate Learning Communities
Learning consultants and designers are usually encouraged to develop and distribute learning media: knowledge packaged in course materials, facilitator guides, implementation plans and learning management systems. In giving so much attention to knowledge artifacts, however, we risk losing sight of the knowers – that is, the people who have and use knowledge. The development of learning communities seems less tangible than the production of learning-ware, but it is equally important.
The CLO’s dilemma is to create learning communities and learning media that reinforce each other.
To apply this principle:
- Use a variety of community-building delivery methods. There is power in learning delivery methods that focus on human relationships – and these include much more than the classroom. When our survey respondents were asked what delivery methods they would choose for a leadership/customer competencies course if classroom delivery were not possible, three methods received by far the most votes: on-the-job assignments, personal coaching and manager-led reinforcement sessions. Using a variety of community- and team-oriented learning activities and methods can lead to big changes in social context and, in turn, behavior.
- Give learners human models and stories to provide a sense of context and community even when they cannot literally come together.
- Remember to bring people together to address common problems or discuss common concerns. Learning increases naturally when people talk to one another. Communities of learning are strengthened when people feel they are a community.
As learning organizations face increased demands and pressures, it is often enticing to embrace the “new” new thing – the most recent theory or technology that promises to solve problems and deliver results faster and easier than ever before. While it is important to always be open to new ideas, it is equally important not to overlook tried-and-true principles that deliver impact. As John Wooden would remind us, we can’t forget our fundamentals. Or, as he would say, how to tie our sneakers.
Tom Atkinson is director of research for The Forum Corp. of Boston, a global leader in workplace learning. Jocelyn Davis is vice president of Forum’s service capability practice. This article is condensed from their research report “Principles of Workplace Learning: Insights and Tools for Performance Improvement,” which is available at Forum’s publications page (www.forum.com/index.html?page=sig). The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.