Many times the learning department is out of step with the business, providing training that is no longer relevant. To be more agile, the learning function can provide rapid instructor-led training and e-learning and become more closely aligned with the business.
“Perfect speed is being there.” Some may remember that somewhat enigmatic, Zen-like phrase as a bit of wisdom from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book by Richard Bach that was, perhaps surprisingly, a best-seller for several years in the early 1970s. It’s a fable about a young seagull who loves to fly but who becomes frustrated at the fact that, no matter how good a flyer he becomes, it still takes time to get from point A to point B. What would the alternative be? Perfect speed: the ability to instantaneously transport yourself to a new destination.
Organizations and their people live in the real world, of course, not in novels and not in the “higher plane of existence,” where Jonathan the seagull ultimately discovers how to achieve his goal. But the same frustration and a similar goal exists for today’s executives: “It takes too much time to move my organization from where it is now to where it needs to be to stay competitive. How can we get there faster?”
Getting people thinking and acting in new ways is the primary drag on an organization’s perfect speed. At least that has been the traditional business mindset. Set a strategic goal; move the people. Set a new strategic goal; move the people again. Is there a better way? Can organizations — and the talent and learning professionals whose primary charge it is to “move the people” — become more agile?
Today we are seeing new developments in the way the learning function is organized and managed, as well as specific innovations that are helping people stay more in lockstep with their businesses — helping them understand strategic goals and get there faster. Even more promising is the opportunity to tap into good thinking on an organization’s frontline so that, when an organization gets from point A to point B, many of its people will already be there. If perfect speed remains an unreachable goal, a number of learning executives are helping their companies become, at the least, “more perfect.”
Speeding Up the Development Process
Traditional training approaches, for all their good intentions, often end up unintentionally impeding an organization’s ability to be agile. I describe this as the “rubber band effect.”
The executive team sets the corporate strategy and then looks to the training department to develop the capabilities in people so the strategy can be executed. Well, that takes time. One end of the organizational rubber band moves ahead and then has to wait for the other end to snap forward. By the time the supporting training program is in place, the organization may have moved on to a new strategy or refined it in ways that make the training less relevant. But because the training represents a considerable investment, chances are high that it will be implemented anyway. The result is that you have people who are well-trained to solve yesterday’s problems and a learning function that makes an organization less agile, not more so.
Here, recent developments in rapid e-learning have shown great promise in getting people what they need to meet today’s challenges instead of yesterday’s. Embedding podcasts, audio and video in PowerPoint presentations, or even something as simple as sending an e-mail series, are ways to reflect current thinking in training deliverables and get them to people faster.
What’s truly important about rapid development, however, is as much in the mindset as the techniques or deliverables. The rapid e-learning trend owes much to the IT world, where a certain tolerance for what we might call a “90 percent solution” has existed for some time. Not sure you’ve gotten all the bugs out of a product? Release it anyway and slap a “beta” label on it. For example, who would even remember or care anymore that the wildly popular Google Maps software, for example, was released as a beta product? Or have you got a security and encryption protocol that is helpful but admittedly not the answer for every security attack? Call it “Pretty Good Privacy” and get it out there anyway.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” Voltaire once wrote. If you can get “pretty good” learning experiences out to your people quickly, you can help your entire organization become more agile. Similarly, if you can get a wiki or blog series started around a topic that is on the minds of a critical workforce such as sales or service, the group thinking is naturally going to push toward a new solution or approach. It may not be perfect, but chances are it will be good enough to take people to the next level of thinking and performance.
Rapid Instructor-Led Training
Rapid development also can apply to instructor-led sessions, a form of training which, properly applied, is gaining renewed respect in the corporate learning community. Indeed, a frequently heard comment from CLOs is the recognition that e-learning didn’t replace classroom training but helped us understand better where and when instructor-led training (ILT) is important to the overall learning experience.
This has been an important insight at Health Care Service Corp. (HCSC), a mutual reserve including Blue Cross plans of Illinois, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. According to Mary Jo Burfeind, vice president of internal operations, learning and talent for HCSC, “What goes around comes around. Some of our most effective learning experiences today are actually the instructor-led sessions we run in conjunction with what we call our ‘performance solutions,’ 10-minute Web-based learning nuggets that people can take at their desktop.”
HCSC is combining those e-learning experiences with follow-up instructor-led sessions to provide opportunities for people to ask questions, dialogue with peers and apply principles to their work. Ultimately, said Burfeind, “People want a chance to practice, and they want to be able to ask a learning person, a coach or even sometimes their own supervisor for guidance and further direction based on what they’ve learned.” ILT provides the human element and the community experience necessary to move learning from theory to practice.
At the same time, ILT doesn’t have to equal slow learning. Burfeind and her team have developed toolkits that have not only improved development times for the instructor-led sessions but have also moved the entire process more deeply into the business. With the toolkits, she said, the learning and development teams can speed up the process that used to involve having a learning instructor understand the business need, develop a learning program and then go out to the people or bring them to a training facility.
Instead, she said, “the design team provides a development toolkit for the supervisor or developmental specialist out in the field who can use our templates and tools to teach the lessons whenever they are appropriate, to whomever needs the learning most critically.”
Rapid ILT means HCSC is not dependent, as in the old days, on classrooms and scheduling and having an instructor around. Yet, the organization can still provide workers with the one-to-one interaction that is vital to creating a learning process capable of shaping new behaviors in line with strategy.
Ever Closer to the Business
Beyond speeding up the development process, are there other ways for learning and development to get closer to the business and keep it more continuously agile? This is a question currently top of mind for Mike Barger, senior vice president of fleet operations at JetBlue Airways and head of its training organization, JetBlue University (JetBlue U).
Barger is a founding board member, as well as a student, in the Executive Program in Work-Based Learning Leadership established by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Barger has completed a master’s thesis and is in the midst of doctoral research on the application of a balanced scorecard methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of a corporate learning function in shaping corporate strategy and then keeping it on track with what’s actually going on throughout the business.
In Barger’s words, his current research “is all about building a case for the fact that learning functions often do not have a great mechanism in place for aligning what they do with the needs of the business. We talk about it a lot because it’s a hot topic. But few people have a good sense of how exactly to do it. Many learning executives have a difficult time putting together an annual learning plan, much less a strategic learning plan to support the business.”
A second dimension of Barger’s work is refining the scorecard capabilities that would help learning executives articulate to a management team the links between the learning function and business outcomes, and then actually evaluate the effectiveness of the learning function in meeting the aligned goals it set out to accomplish during the year.
At JetBlue, Barger has found a way to use the trained employees coming out of JetBlue U to offer insights to the business. “It’s a fairly common occurrence,” he said, “to have people leave your classes or leave your corporate university and then go out into the business to find that what they just learned isn’t really the way things are being done.”
That could mean either of two things. First, that the business isn’t really serious about its intentions — that it’s telling development people to teach something that the business has no intention of embodying in real work. Second, it could mean the learning function is lagging behind the real needs of the business. Either way, something has to be fixed.
So Barger has created mechanisms for learners — employees entering the workforce with fresh eyes — to identify for the university opportunities to identify misalignments between learning and performance and help the company as a whole be more agile and move in the right direction.
“This approach helps a learning executive like me to sit down with a business unit lead and say, ‘OK, so here’s the deal: Either you need to change the policies and procedures to meet what the business is actually doing, or you need to help us make sure the people understand that what we’re teaching is the way we should be doing business,’” Barger said. “That’s something that we have spent the last couple of years getting our arms around, and it has been incredibly productive for JetBlue University and the business as a whole.”
Another insight is to make sure the teams put together to develop new organizational and workforce capabilities are business teams that include a learning dimension, rather than learning teams constantly looking for input and direction from the business. At HCSC, for example, the business side of the company actually has taken the lead in putting together multifunction, multidisciplinary teams to go out as a kind of SWAT team to diagnose challenges and put the right suite of processes and training in place to meet the challenge.
If the business hears of a particular hot spot in the organization, a team will be assembled and hold preliminary meetings to set goals and objectives. Then, as Burfeind put it, “the team will actually descend on the location, if you will, and conduct in-depth interviews, hold focus groups and engage in other types of root-cause analysis.”
Once that information is gathered, the learning and development people on the team determine which part of the ultimate program involves training. Then they use rapid development techniques to get new information and practices to the people who need it — “all of it, integrated with other things going on organizationally and from a leadership perspective together add up to a total solution that improves people’s performance and that of the entire organization,” Burfeind concluded.
Tapping Into the Best
Obviously, a lot of good thinking and practice already is happening. This can help companies use their learning organizations to stay more strategically agile and more nimble in the marketplace. Indeed, finding that good thinking more systematically and feeding it back through the organization more rapidly is the next plane of existence to be achieved while working toward the ultimate goal of “perfect speed.”
This next phase in creating organizational agility will be much more systemic, more organic. No one has to teach your brain, for example, that you’ve entered a hot room. Your skin feels it and functions are set in motion immediately to try to keep the body functioning optimally. The equivalent for an organization would be the ability to find and immediately tap into people with the knowledge and skills to meet any challenge and to constantly create innovations that propel a company forward in the face of change.
But that’s another article … for another time.