The team of five stood proudly before the panel of senior executives during the challenging questioning over their proposal to change a key financial process. This new process would enable the organization to better deploy resources just in time to seize market opportunities. Each query had an answer that was backed up by data or examples that had been gleaned from across the business. The team’s coach remembered how when they first came together as a team for the intensive simulation at the Leading Finance course, they had trouble reaching agreement, yet here they were supporting one another and making the complex assignment they had completed look easy. They had been working together for four months since the workshop to complete their action-learning project and were able to do so despite being based in four different countries across several time zones. They had to rely on their colleagues at headquarters and others to contribute knowledge and experience to their project, or it never would have been approved. How did they do it?
The learning program was developed to help change behaviors across the organization’s finance community in support of their strategy. A four-month learning process supported by leadership experts, coaches and technology was designed and had an observable impact on the participants’ ability to work over distance and across the enterprise. Care was taken to select the right mix of delegates from diverse backgrounds and cultures and to combine them at the workshop to encourage working with different styles. A simulation was combined with instruction on new finance approaches and leadership styles to give participants a chance to learn, explore and practice. Trust and understanding were built during the programs, and were instrumental in growing team members’ commitment to one another during the virtual working modules. Each team decided how to work together, and instruction was provided on the company’s online community tool, where team members could share information and coaches could monitor their progress. The combination of these elements provided a well-supported learning process where technology was an enabler, not a driver, for the team members’ inevitable and necessary collaboration. As a by-product of the program, key leaders across the organization are much more likely to reach out to one another in general for help, and will use existing and emerging tools to work across distance, having experienced success before.
Learning professionals can play a key role in building and promoting collaboration across the enterprise. The value of collaboration—of working together to solve problems and to create and seize opportunity—is recognized by many, yet most organizations struggle to leverage it. It’s not the tools that make the difference, but the culture and practices of the employees. So, how can one influence culture and practices? Corporate learning programs are rich opportunities to introduce collaborative tools that support learning objectives and people’s ability to work together. Utilizing technology in the development and delivery of learning programs enables the learning professional to walk the talk in using collaboration tools, from including subject-matter experts in the process to connecting learners with one another and the experts.
To begin, you must understand the tools that are already available in your organization. Talk to IT colleagues about existing and planned systems that could be used for interactivity. You might be surprised to find the breadth of tools that could be used with a little creativity. Examples include discussion boards, online communities, instant messaging, mobile phone text support, knowledge management systems, expertise listings or directories, virtual classroom and meeting tools, desktop webcams, videoconferencing, push-to-talk mobile phone systems, audio conferencing/bridging services, interactive webcasting systems, document management systems and so forth. Once the landscape is known, assess the type of collaboration needed to meet learning objectives and choose the right tool for the job. If there truly is a gap in what’s needed to support collaboration in the enterprise, become an advocate and find some partners in the business and IT, and have them drive implementation in support of a key business objective versus in support of learning programs.
Understanding your organization’s business strategy is another prerequisite. What are the big changes on the horizon? What is the learning needed to accomplish the business goals? What is the behavior change in the organization needed to succeed? These should be the underpinnings of the learning programs that are built and delivered. They are the high-visibility, high-impact areas that are ripe for enhancing performance with collaborative technologies.
Depending on the size of your learning professional population, you may want to educate them on the tools you recommend by getting them to try them and understand where they could best be used. Developing a matrix of which tool to use for which need or outcome helps ensure the right tools are consistently applied.
Unilever brought 400 top managers from around the world together to discuss the company’s next business strategy, but it first had them explore what was working and what wasn’t with the existing strategy in an online community for five weeks. The chairman and directors of the company were given access and monitored the discussion. The results were positive, with leaders pleased that the dialogue at the workshop seemed to start at a more advanced level and produced richer debate. Wireless laptops were used with feedback collection and sorting tools during the workshop to further gather input on the spot and drive discussion. Even the highest-profile events with the most senior leaders can be great opportunities to practice working in new ways that add value. Lessons learned during that experience include being sure that questions posed to the participants are clearly worded and are thought-provoking yet straightforward to answer, that online facilitators play a key role and can help provide support, and that it is important to do whatever necessary to get senior leaders to participate if that’s how the expectations have been set. Continuing to explain the process and rationale are also important. David Coleman, a global learning manager at Unilever who helped design and facilitate the experience, recently explained how important it was to design interaction into the process and facilitate it, and also how challenging it was to get very busy executives to return to the online community to build on each other’s comments.
Online communities are likely to continue to grow in use for collaboration and learning. Critical success factors include ensuring that members have a shared purpose for being together online (otherwise the site will be underutilized and members will become disillusioned and drop out), and clearly explaining roles, from administration to facilitation. A few organizations use online communities among their learning professional populations. Unilever and State Farm use online communities to connect learning managers across their organizations to share resources, and standardize on and utilize tools in their programs. An intriguing innovation in this space is the ability to see dynamically generated graphic representations of the dialogue in the community (e.g., a growing tree with branches and leaves) without having to log in. This helps create interest and bring people into the conversations.
Unilever used virtual meeting software to do train-the-trainer and stakeholder engagement sessions across the enterprise with key HR leaders who hadn’t used the system much prior. These leaders then voluntarily used the system for their own training sessions, saving thousands in travel and dramatically increasing the speed of delivery. Influencing the use of value-added collaboration tools inches an organization toward a tipping point—when using the tools is the preferred, not resisted, method. Planning and execution, more than the stability and ease of use of the tool, lead to successful experiences. Virtual delivery takes just as much preparation as takes place for a classroom event. Joining instructions are key. Ease of access and registration should be optimized. Access for different countries or companies should be tested as needed. A trial or pilot session should be undertaken to assure smoothness. I’m always amazed at how much time gets wasted during the first few minutes of nearly every session. Technical support arrangements should be clear to the participants and shouldn’t involve the presenters. Follow-up information should be planned and communicated. It’s not a bad idea to send out slides and content prior to the session as a backup. Attention to these aspects will improve the experience and better enable interactivity and collaboration.
One of the more interesting developments in collaboration tools is the combination of live classroom with virtual/remote participants. With the pressure to increase the amount of learning while decreasing the amount of travel and cost, the opportunity is ripe for innovation in this space. Why not include live video of a business school professor or corporate executive without incurring videoconferencing charges? How about broadcasting the live classroom across the network and to home workers? How about broadcasting to mobile devices? Wi-Fi, home broadband and 3G phone networks provide the capability to view and contribute to enterprise learning events from nearly any location. The more you can expose your leaders to these innovative and sometimes-fun approaches for learning and communication events, the more likely they will be to utilize them for ongoing collaboration.
Utilizing emerging technologies such as these requires internal and external partners you can work with to trial and innovate. The best relationships are collaborative—where you can influence the development of the tools and applications to better meet your needs.
A little learning, experimentation, planning and incorporation with key initiatives can go a long way to impact top- and bottom-line performance. The days of epic training courses are dwindling under the constraints of time pressure. Just-in-time content and, increasingly, collaborative access to experts and other employees and team members are the key enablers of performance going forward.
Ron Edwards is president of Ambient Performance, and his “be where the eyeballs are” approach to mobile learning and gaming enables organizations to bring fun and anywhere, anytime engagement to performance development. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.