Sales and customer-service professionals aren’t the only employees who need just-in-time learning. Time-starved executives and managers can benefit from this approach, too.
A manufacturer planning to launch 40 new products during the next few years discovers a painful breakdown in market planning, just six weeks from the start of rollout. The analyses of costs, competitors and likely revenues done by each brand team are spotty, at best. Worse, each team seems to be following its own market-planning process, no two of them alike. Methodologies vary, as do terminologies and tools. This makes meaningful comparisons impossible. Priorities are unclear. Choices cannot be made.
What to do? A logical approach, of course, would be to train the teams — fast — to use a standard set of methods, tools and technology. But exactly what kind of training will work? Certainly not traditional classroom training.
Classroom training, by definition, follows a “learn-do” sequence. That is, it uses curricula prepared in advance to help trainees prepare for future actions that are already anticipated — the antithesis of the spontaneity needed here. Moreover, the format of such programs is full immersion, away from the job, which could be catastrophic in this case. These teams simply have to stay where they are and keep moving.
What about using a typical, one-off, post-action review — the “do-learn” approach, in which learning follows action? Wouldn’t this help? Not really. Reviewing what’s just been tried, either in real life or via simulation, and then pondering lessons learned is a good way to improve implementation, not to fix an urgent problem. Further, having one team record lessons and then pass them along to the next simply cannot help all 40 teams change their processes within six weeks. There just isn’t time.
Fortunately, there is a learning approach that’s emerged in some companies that addresses exactly this sort of challenge. Although it’s not yet widespread or fully developed, it has already demonstrated great promise — and great results. What we call just-in-time or do-learn-do executive learning provides a means for line managers to capture new knowledge and develop new capabilities, spontaneously, in real time.
As senior teams respond to an urgent business problem, its members learn while they are doing, according to need, in a series of increments that begin right then and there, and end in a few days or weeks. Managers learn right where they are, when the need is high and the action hot, in compressed chunks of time and in ways that mesh seamlessly with their company’s ongoing problem-solving efforts.
How It Works
The learning doesn’t happen in a classroom, nor does it occur during a post-hoc, off-site review. Instead, it takes place in a series of continuous learning exercises that train people just in time, right where they are, while they are solving their most pressing challenges.
Moreover, it’s not just another form of action learning by an ad-hoc, cross-functional team. Instead, it focuses on continual learning and adjustment by any number of intact teams, the members of which also will continue to be responsible for applying this learning through line execution over time.
We think this new learning approach to time-sensitive needs has great promise. In fact, we have used it, and it works. We do not think — and certainly do not want to suggest — that it should replace all the dominant learning approaches currently used in organizations. We believe as needs vary, so should the approaches employed. By meeting a previously unmet need, just-in-time learning provides an important complement to the existing portfolio of learning models and variants.
The Four-Fold Way
All successful do-learn-do approaches rely on an empowered learning team that is embedded within the relevant business unit to address a real-time agenda that has been “pulled” into action by an executive who spotted an urgent need and had a credible way to measure success. All four of these elements appear to be essential:
1. Fully empowered learning teams with the right skills, mindset and senior management support to facilitate effective interventions.
2. Embedded learning professionals who have earned a seat at the decision makers’ table by winning the respect and trust of senior management.
3. “Pull” by line or senior executives (vs. “push” by the learning and development organization). To be effective, this type of learning must be “pulled” onto a company’s priority list by senior line executives who are motivated by urgent needs, not pushed on the organization by learning professionals according to some pre-existing agenda
4. Demonstrated, value-added impact that is not merely anecdotal, but is based on concrete measures of value delivered.
How to Demonstrate Value
It always has been a challenge particular to executive learning and development to demonstrate in dollars the return on investment delivered by successful learning programs. JIT executive learning is no exception. But to be effective, leaders can employ one or more of the following three approaches to demonstrate its value to senior management.
1. Natural field experiment: The most objective way to demonstrate the success of a just-in-time executive learning program is the natural field experiment. Briefly, this approach involves running an intervention in one part of an organization (or geography) and not running the intervention in a designated “matched pair” location.
2. Objectives-based assessment: With JIT learning, as with any initiative, objectives for a particular program are set a priori. If financial outcomes run a third higher than projections, management can discuss which portion of the incremental sales was most likely attributable to the JIT training. While they may debate the exact percentage (see below), just having the discussion will make clear that the learning yielded significant results.
3. Pre/post experiments: A similar approach that’s also useful for demonstrating impact is to measure controlled experiments in the field against baseline metrics of performance. One learning/management team had five-year data on a product that was increasing sales at 10 percent per year. It then designed a JIT training program specifically intended to increase growth to 20 percent per year. By carefully designing an experiment in a particular region, it began to have confidence that it could attribute changes to the JIT learning intervention.
Which Metrics to Employ?
So there are ways to demonstrate that something good resulted from a JIT leaning intervention. But these days, for many companies, that won’t be enough. When performance improves, how does a company tease out the actual portion that was a direct result of the learning intervention?
As we’ve studied these experiments, we’ve observed three categories of metrics used to measure program impact: behavioral change, business-process change and financial impact. Each has been effective in situations that might otherwise have defied measurement of any kind.
Admittedly, just-in-time executive learning still is in its formative stages. But so many companies need a way to bridge the gaps left by traditional training programs that we believe this approach is going to pick up steam fairly quickly. We recognize that many aspects of JIT learning may appear daunting to senior managers and executive learning and development leaders. Organizational turmoil, possible shortages of qualified learning consultants and simple inertia likely will make adoption challenging, even for those who recognize the value to be gained.
Nevertheless, why wait? The downside of continuing to do business as usual, especially in mature companies, is far greater than the risk of trying something new. So let us consider the approach we describe above in terms of actually doing it for the first time.
Integrating trained learning professionals into business units is not a trivial undertaking. That is why we think it far better to try to get an existing L&D professional up to speed than to bring in someone cold, or even from a relevant line unit, to develop a company’s first JIT intervention.
Our experience indicates qualified people are less likely to be “found” inside a business unit than they are in a learning organization. Is it possible to teach a line manager to have the desired facilitative, consultative attitude and keen interest in trying out a new learning approach? It’s debatable.
That said, many competent L&D professionals have subject matter expertise, but not the skills needed to help change a team’s behavior, especially in situ, as opposed to inside a classroom. All told, right now, we feel there’s room for experimentation. The best embedded “starter” for your unit might even be someone located somewhere else entirely in the organization.
Just-in-time executive learning is pulled onto leadership’s radar screen and into a group’s activities by a company’s real-time needs. However, when a company is just starting to experiment with these interventions, it can be tricky to choose which pull to respond to. Since striking out on the first intervention can cause loss of enormous credibility and momentum, it seems wise to over-resource the first effort or two. At the same time, it also seems important not to get carried away.
Given that the very heart of this approach is to encourage such interventions to be spontaneously pulled into action by urgent needs, how do you budget and staff for that? Importantly, our experience indicates organizations likely would need to consider two forms of budget: the traditional yearly budget that is associated with learning and development organizations and just-in-time budgets that are established within business units — or even by product line within certain firms.
How high up do managers need to go to find the first business-unit champion? The higher, the better. A senior manager can, for instance, free up resources, lend credibility, create profile and buzz, and communicate results within a larger network. Just involving senior people peripherally does not seem to pan out. From what we’ve seen, at least one of these senior people has to be a genuinely enthusiastic champion of the intervention, or the whole thing withers.
When Is an Intervention Warranted?
How did the embedded learning professionals we observed — or senior managers for that matter — determine when a JIT intervention was warranted? The best “screening” we have seen in practice asks two questions:
1. Is the issue strategically significant to the firm?
2. Can a learning design be crafted in a way that delivers a practical solution but also creates a learning experience that converts the solution (or the process used to achieve it) into new organizational knowledge?
Today’s rapidly changing business arena is making increasing demands on company management to learn new things all the time simply to hold its competitive position. We no longer have the luxury of taking a time-out to learn these new things. And it’s getting ever more difficult to syndicate learning across large, geographically dispersed management populations, particularly within the tight lead times we are seeing.
Neither traditional classroom nor post-hoc learning is well-positioned to step into the breach. But a new, just-in-time learning approach seems to hold promise. We hope to see more of it.
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