By the time most learning and development initiatives get rolled out, their shelf life is limited. But redesigning learning systems for just-in-time delivery can help, and revitalize organizational development in the process.
We work in incredibly volatile times. And while this volatile climate is unpredictable, the uncertainty it creates becomes certain, thus representing an opportunity.
The opportunity to enable talent within this complexity — whether through dynamic organizational design or through agile learning and development — is pivotal to the ongoing success of any organization. Unlike pipeline-driven learning teams operating within stable conditions, the agile learning organization thrives when learning modules are needed within weeks or days, when time to learner becomes the most critical measure of success. Thanks to the rise of new technologies and paradigms for peer-to-peer content creation, the possibilities for just-in-time (JIT) development and distribution are now just as compelling as they have been for JIT delivery.
Bob Johansen, author of Get There Early, has significantly advanced corporate awareness of VUCA (Army acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Essentially, VUCA characterizes a system that has too many inputs and inadequate models to understand it, and therefore substantially fewer or more fleeting leverage points. As a moniker for the most unmanageable of management challenges, it’s also incredibly poignant. VUCA is not a model; it’s an interconnected dynamic.
These shifting VUCA “super problems,” whether in projects, markets or management, are the currents on which super-organizations ride. And just as the Army makes distinctions between a modern chaotic combat zone and its slightly more orderly forerunners, organizations are exponentially larger and more complex nowadays. Organizations better able to manage this complexity outperform their peers. And enabling adaptive strength, with learning and development as the engine, helps generate that success.
When need is highest, resources are the most stretched and urgency is critical, technologies and best practices can be implemented to shorten the gaps between cause and effect — input and output — and create natural learning cycles within the fabric of an organization. In fact, the chaos itself becomes the carrier. Certainly, the long circuitous route of many learning programs, which travel from L&D through lines of business and then on to the learner (and back), is inadequate for a solution that will have exhausted 80 percent of its usefulness in the first week.
And yet, most learning programs still are delivered conventionally, as structured programs or self-service libraries using a traditional development pipeline. They may be convenient and easily measured, but unfortunately they fail to empower the organization in a meaningful way. Why? Because they come too late, if at all; leave too many use-cases on the drawing board, frequently for budgetary reasons; inefficiently place L&D in the critical path; and likely suffer from such stakeholder drag and fail to meet the requirements.
Much of what an organization needs today, it may not need a month from now. More aptly, much of what it needs the most today will depreciate at an incredibly rapid rate. That’s not to say there are not stable foundations on which all else can be built more beneficially. It is only to say that a great deal of learning keeps spoiling on the shelf due to a lack of distributed development processes and tools that lower barriers and systematize a natural learning cycle.
Fundamentally, the role of the agile learning organization is to enable a company to learn through systems, tools and frameworks deep in the communication space. Consumers of learning also are the best manufacturers of learning: Every organization is a vast marketplace of active buyer–supplier relationships working in balance, looking for L&D to create efficiencies and lower transaction costs. The programmatic one-to-many formula isn’t sufficient; people need tools, concepts and empowerment.
Thankfully, with readily available technology and a new comfort level with any tool that turns consumers into producers, new models of success that before were unthinkable at any scale as recently as two years ago are growing like weeds. It is possible to redefine the role of learning and development in this VUCA world, beginning with a few useful and repeatable frameworks, but it still will require astounding vision and courage to move both organizations and the vendors supplying them to the next level.
To that end, below are a few methods to embrace the chaos.
The tailored program, reinvented: Tailored programs are effective, thanks to the ability to focus program components, especially the application pieces, on a particular need. In these programs, core training is developed or managed by a learning group, with application and context-setting components developed in the field to both encourage stakeholder involvement and meet more isolated requirements.
Thankfully, this is a widely used framework — really, the basis for any supplier–client relationship — but the common mix between core and tailored pieces may not work as well in a high-volatility environment. Due to a number of understandable factors, these programs tend to lean toward a stable operating environment — perhaps something like 85 percent core to 15 percent tailored.
To make the best use of both program investment and to maximize impact, however, a ratio in the ballpark of 20 percent core to 80 percent tailored may be more appropriate in environments with less certainty. In this way, the higher-cost development (core) is placed safely within the long-lifetime zone without fear of the short-lifetime volatility eroding the value and investment ahead of its time.
Moreover, the ability to evolve the short-lifetime tailored components is not held back by burdensome delivery timelines meant to maximize lifetime of the overreaching core development. By assuming 50 percent of the program will have a lifespan of more than two years and 50 percent of the program will have a lifespan of less than six months, one can be sure to stay clear of any compromises and err on the side of less core in favor of more rapid evolution.
Building a practice of program evolution: This practice encourages the development of programs or program components specifically intended to evolve rapidly. Using this framework, a seed program is released with a set of development tools included to fundamentally alter, improve or contextualize the content at the local level, whether it be by country, region, office, cube or person.
By way of example, imagine a Web-based training for a new product rollout, quickly delivered to global sales. The differentiator in this case is that the training includes a simple development capability within the learning itself. The office in Singapore modifies and adds regional components, and the top salesperson in that office modifies and adds his or her unique tactics. Learners in need can choose a version that most applies to the situation or seems most credible after reviewing the ancestry and modifications that went into it. It’s a model that closely emulates natural, iterative learning cycles and has the opportunity to be incredibly impactful.
While useful as a technique for both encouraging broad adoption of central concepts and creating highly situated programs, implementation of this practice has been slow, potentially due to technological and liability complications, as well as a pronounced lack of innovative technologies in the learning space.
This model performs well in high-capability virtual learning environments such as Second Life. In such an environment, collaborative learning is fully enabled and transitioned from an instructor-to-student paradigm to a student-to-student one. High-capability environments such as this have military applications: They can be used to generate training simulations for soldiers prior to engagement, which are then recreated by soldiers after a day of combat. In this way, soldiers hone the capabilities of their peers, prepare themselves for action and model the enemies’ techniques of the day for instructors at the base.
Salespeople, meanwhile, benefit from product guides and sales training but far more from peers on the ground in other territories, segments and situations. A high-capability distributed learning cycle can generate deals faster. Working within a provided framework, peers can quickly model deal cycles, challenges, regional trends and other dynamics.
While situating learning is a great technique, resituating it is a brilliant one. In the sales example above, providing product data by way of a PDA as the salesperson walks into a meeting is a great technique. But that salesperson using a PDA to add new customer objections to the product sheet and distribute the information immediately is brilliant. It embraces the true complexity of learning and makes “just in time” a production technique instead of a consumption one.
Embracing a philosophy of “tools over schools:” The great frontier for L&D is to embrace technology not as a delivery technique but as complete reinvention. Then and only then will we begin to see the true power. Blogs, wikis and e-mail are good tools but don’t necessarily provide enough structure and certainty of expertise to rapidly construct an ad-hoc learning program. But plenty of tools do, and the most innovative learning organizations are using them. Using these, one can generate a sophisticated and efficient learning marketplace, crowd sourced from the corporate ecosystem and within rules and frameworks developed by L&D.
Through embracing peer-to-peer tools, more targeted learning resources get to the people who need them, instead of rightfully ending up on the wrong side of the budget due to their smaller constituency. Learning groups are able to focus on building core capability and high-impact programs, while the organization itself can be recruited for the rest. Ownership also is transferred to a tighter ecosystem of consumers and producers, and bound to be more applied and actionable than training that would otherwise be produced centrally and distributed.
All of these methodologies leverage the inherent complexity of the situation to deliver improved results over the exclusive use of more static programs. They coordinate sophisticated, and to a large extent unknowable, social networks within an organization into meaningful impact and create a viable learning cycle for short-shelf-life concepts and learning.
They reduce cost, decrease time to learner and provide unique solutions to a problem many experience on a day-to-day basis: how to generate critically effective programs for audiences of varying sizes from five people to 500,000, all on top of a shifting landscape. Partially, it’s a failure of the learning technology market to deliver products of any level of sophistication or alignment with true organization learning cycles. But it is also the long, deep echo from the entrenched and valuable facilitated model. The validity and usefulness of peer-generated and peer-modified learning carries incredible value, relevance and immediate applicability, and lets L&D focus development on the parts that advance the organization on long cycles.
Build the agile learning organization ambidextrously: short-shelf-life cycles on the one hand, and longer-shelf-life cycles on the other. Implement the tools, hand over control and reduce the barriers in producing, finding and consuming must-have-now learning. Embrace the chaos.