Today’s learning organizations must prepare their workforces to deliver superior performance in an increasingly complex and dynamic business environment. In such an atmosphere, failing to connect learning content with an organization’s business strategies and the competencies expected of the workforce is a risky prospect.
A misaligned learning strategy stands to waste a significant amount of time and money and might actually alienate busy employees who seek a practical focus from the learning experience. Moreover, it could ultimately raise problems for retention, as staff members draw potentially negative conclusions about the relationships among the effectiveness of the HR function, how well-coordinated and meaningful the overall learning strategy of the organization is and what that means to their career paths.
People want to invest time in learning if they can see a real benefit to themselves and to the organization. Especially in today’s business environment, which calls upon employees to produce more in less time and with fewer resources, spending time in a classroom with no productive or economic benefit, as opposed to staying on the job and accomplishing their work, makes little sense.
CLOs who fail to align learning strategies with workforce competencies also jeopardize their credibility. Extremely well developed and connected learning prepares employees to accomplish business strategies and deliver results, as well as positions the CLOs as valued management advisors. However, if the CLOs operate from a limited perspective and conduct a misaligned training effort, employees will be underprepared and the organization might fall short of its goals. From a personal standpoint, CLOs will fail to meet performance expectations, will not be viewed as important consultative resources by executive colleagues from the line and operations side of the house for learning solutions, and will likely find their jobs diminished or at risk. Put most simply, these CLOs will be marginalized, both personally and functionally.
Step 1: Understand the Business Situation
The first step in aligning learning content with competencies involves conducting sufficient study to determine which competencies—the collective knowledge, skills, abilities and motivations—the organization’s employees must demonstrate to achieve desired business results.
To do this, CLOs need a realistic and thorough understanding of the company’s current business situation, and must determine not just which learning strategies need to be undertaken, but how they ultimately will empower employees to fulfill targeted results within a certain time frame. Wise CLOs continuously balance the learning needs associated with today’s circumstances with a forecast of the workforce’s future needs. The following contingencies can serve as a guide to help the CLO make some projections:
- Steady state: If the market space remains stable and no significant new competitive strategies emerge, the organization should be able to reap results from the current set of knowledge, skills, abilities and motivations. In that case, the learning content would need to focus on sharpening existing competencies.
- Change to market space: The CLO needs to gauge and respond to the learning needs associated with changes to the company’s market space, either from an outside stimulus such as a regulatory change or something internally generated, such as a new business opportunity.
For example, iPods opened a huge new market space, presumably requiring learning executives both at Apple and at competing organizations to reevaluate what their workforce would need to know to compete successfully. They would have needed to assess which competencies would drive the best performance in those circumstances (such as the ability to determine what customers are looking for and how to meet those needs) and what would allow them to capture the majority of the economic value from the new market space.
The CLO should be sitting at the executive table, participating in internal planning and discussions related to external threats and opportunities the company might discover through market and competitive intelligence and evaluating that information to determine whether a new set of workforce competencies might be required.
Situations in which an organization executes poorly or faces negative circumstances caused by regulatory surprises, technological disruption, economic downturns, natural disasters, etc. that severely damage the existing market space or interrupt the revenue stream, will require a different set of competencies. The CLO must be acutely aware of any downside risks to the organization and determine the knowledge, skills, abilities and motivations that employees in all roles will need to be able to contribute effectively going forward.
Step 2: Understand the Role of Values
When outlining workforce competencies, the CLO needs to address another dimension apart from the company’s business situation. Most companies commit to a set of values—the collective behavioral expressions and practices of the organization. Values frame the corporate culture and fit well into behavioral terms: This is how we hope employees will think about our business and customer relationships, this is the attitude we hope they will have, and this is what we anticipate they will demonstrate by what they say and do in response to certain circumstances or business situations.
For example, if an organizational value at a national banking institution is to take great care of customers, then employee actions and responses should support that value. When employees prioritize time and allocate resources, the provision of excellent customer service must be at the center of their decisions.
Meanwhile, the CLO needs to understand how such values link to expected workforce competencies. For instance, to take great care of customers, the bank’s employees will require specific knowledge about what customers value. They also need to know how to meet customers’ expectations of the service experience, and they should know how to conduct themselves to earn and maintain long-term customer relationships.
Step 3: Understand and Support the Company’s Critical Knowledge
Another key consideration for CLOs in determining the competencies required by a company’s workforce is gaining an understanding of the critical knowledge that lies at the heart of the organization’s value proposition. Critical knowledge is the specific source that creates and drives the core value sought by an organization’s prospective customers. It also fulfills the principal mission of the organization. For example, in simple terms, one such critical knowledge is the recipe and preparation process for consistently serving KFC. Another example is the proprietary methodology Google uses to extract targeted information from vast search sources.
Since the mid-’90s there has been even more extensive research and practitioner attention to some of the initial findings of Peter Drucker regarding the knowledge worker, in terms of what knowledge an organization needs, how it is applied, how it will be shared, stored, transferred, propagated and measured to consistently deliver and realize its latent economic value within targeted market spaces.
With this in mind, the CLO must be keenly aware of the identity of such critical knowledge within the organization, how it translates into value for the target market or customer base, who has it, who needs it, how they need to understand it and convert it into valued assets, and what specific support skills are needed to realize the full value of that critical knowledge. The CLO must craft and execute key learning strategies, content and context for specific critical knowledge and protect it from competitive invasion or access.
For example, a critical knowledge area in the health insurance field would be the understanding of the costs and risks involved in putting together policies and insured coverage at price points that are fair for the employer, the employee and the risk assumed by the insurance company. An underwriter must engage in data analysis, use specific decision rules to interpret findings and apply judgment to arrive at acceptable risk choices that will satisfy all stakeholders. To support this critical knowledge and realize the full value of its derived outcomes, an underwriter must have the capabilities to communicate the findings in ways that are understandable and actionable by others. He or she also needs to demonstrate collaborative skills in interactions with other employees and departments. Ultimately, this critical knowledge and the derived outcomes need to be converted into understandable messages that have appeal and can be used effectively by the health insurance producers with their customers. To deliver a superior performance, an underwriter requires these competencies—the knowledge, skills and abilities—that provide specific support to the organization’s critical knowledge.
The CLO must ensure the learning content reflects the entire set of needs, the knowledge is thoroughly understood and being applied accurately and fully, and the complete range of supporting interpersonal relationship skills are acquired and practiced to realize the full value of the highly prized critical knowledge for the benefit of the customers and the organization.
Step 4: Giving It Legs
Once the CLO knows the set of workforce competencies that will drive the best business performance and fit organizational values, he or she can determine with precision what learning content, aligned with the company’s business strategy, will stimulate the right combination of competencies.
At this point, the CLO has begun to map out pinpointed development targets—what the people in the various roles in the organization will need to know and do exceptionally well—that will ultimately constitute the learning content.
It’s important to note the role of organizational context in any learning strategies. In order to be relevant, the learning content must appear in the appropriate framework. It should make clear:
- The pinpointed developmental target the employee is expected to acquire.
- Why that target is important.
- The circumstances in which the employee would be expected to use it.
- What the impact would be.
- The consequences if it’s not applied.
Learning scenarios should reflect situations that are likely to occur as employees execute a business strategy. For example, during a team meeting situation at the bank mentioned earlier, the group could be trying to solve a problem with a new product line. As differing opinions are offered, the discussion devolves into unproductive conflict. The idea is for a team member sitting in the meeting to make the association from relevant learning experiences, recognize the problem and apply the necessary skills to help bring the situation to a successful conclusion.
Or, for an employee in product development at a manufacturing company, the role might involve moving the product through its initial stages, meeting a budget and preparing the product for presentation to the marketplace so customers will buy it. That person needs to provide language for technical writers and might need to work with the sales department or even with customers. In this example, the needed competencies could include communication, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and influencing skills.
Using pinpointed developmental targets as the center of learning content and coaching learners to use those competencies in realistic scenarios will help employees quickly recognize opportunities for application and seize them. When the learning is done properly, employees will be able to do this with real competence, great comfort (especially if they have the opportunity to apply the skills in authentic scenarios) and great confidence. They will know what the competencies are, how they relate to their jobs and the results they should produce.
Other Factors to Consider
Beyond the classroom, there are a couple of other issues that a CLO can design, influence or shape:
- Reinforcement: The CLO should pay attention to the reinforcement tools or techniques learners can use with mentors, managers or supervisors, and provide the appropriate kind of follow up and practice environment that enables employees to apply their new competencies to daily functions.
- Rewards and recognition: The CLO needs to look at both formal and informal rewards and recognition with an eye to how well they stimulate the right combination of competencies in the given scenarios. The organizational environment, culture, formal policies and practices can either make it easy, smart and comfortable to try new competencies, or they can make it difficult, uncomfortable or even punished. The CLO should be involved in setting incentives, rewards and recognition programs to ensure that the pinpointed developmental targets in the learning content can fully function and aren’t being placed at risk.
From Strategy to Results
It’s critical that CLOs can plan and govern what happens in all learning environments. Beyond that, though, it’s important to extend the impact of learning activities to the full working climate, paying attention to confident application and execution. It’s the province of CLOs to ensure that employees know that when they apply the competency, it will elicit a given result and will lead to a specific positive impact. When learning content is properly aligned with workforce competencies, employees will be equipped to fulfill their roles, execute on organizational strategies and contribute to the achievement of desirable business results. In this scenario, everyone wins, from customers to individual contributors to the organization as a whole.
Joyce A. Thompsen, Ph.D. is executive consultant for AchieveGlobal, an experienced corporate executive, consulting practice leader and educator. She can be reached at email@example.com.