Innovation. I’m willing to wager dollars to doughnuts that there is not a more frequently used term when it comes to the competitive success of today’s enterprise. Often, the charter to innovate is coming directly from the C-suite in hopes that the benefits at the lowest levels of the organization will bubble back up to the top. However, this is rarely the case.
For innovation to become an enterprise’s cultural norm, it has to begin at the top. That said, it’s especially difficult today as the C-suite is under pressure from Wall Street to show the results of innovation without engaging in the risk, uncertainty, expense and failure that come with it.
This is where the learning organization comes in. The connection between innovation and learning is not always obvious. After all, a large block of training expenditures go to “structured learning” — content that is not contributed by the learner but is dictated by a third party with interest in skills development. And another big portion of the learning budget goes to compliance-related training, which is rigid, highly structured and defined by third parties. Typically, the learner has little flexibility or opportunity for creative thinking — both of which are key elements of innovation.
So how does learning support innovation? Research done by the consortium of The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, ASTD and SHRM provides important evidence based on feedback from employers. In the study, titled “The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce: Exploring the Challenges of Employer-Provided Workforce Readiness Training,” employers pinpointed challenges present in the current workforce and the skill deficiencies among new hires.
Specific areas that the respondents rated as “high need” were:
- • Creativity and innovation.
- • Ethics and social responsibility.
- • Professionalism and work ethic.
- • Lifelong learning and self-direction.
- • Critical thinking and problem solving.
These five categories are important elements for successful innovation. Further, creating lifelong learning programs to address these needs challenges learning leaders to do some innovation of their own.
So where does this bring us in the linkage between innovation and learning? The key assertion is that the innovation required for the very survival of the enterprise must actually be done in the C-suite. To facilitate that, learning leaders need to make a much more compelling case that learning as an enterprise strategy is necessary for innovation to take place. In some cases, this may require a shift in thinking. For example, learning expenditures must be considered investments, not operating expenses. And the only way this is going to happen is if learning investment alternatives are evaluated in the language of the C-suite. In its most basic form, this requires learning executives to do a much better job of educating their leaders on the benefits of learning. This will only be done when learning leaders become proactive advocates for tracking the investment expenditures. Arguing that C-suite executives are not asking for such evidence is simply untrue.
Until this innovation occurs, learning will remain in the backwater of executive decision making. Such a missed opportunity would indeed be a shame, both for the leadership team and for the enterprise itself.