In 2005, the National Educational Association (NEA), one of the nation’s largest professional organizations, representing the interests of 3.2 million teachers and other school employees in 14,000 districts, recognized the potential impact of changes in the economic and political landscape. The NEA convened a transformational dialogue group to reflect on and address the deepest values of the organization and its members. The group redefined the association’s mission, vision, core values and associated strategic approach, transforming it from fixed to fluid so that it can evolve and change with the environment. This shift better positions the NEA to influence the U.S. educational system and demonstrates a tangible leadership commitment to build a learning organization.
The NEA recognized that success depends on not only systems and processes, but also an inspired workforce empowered to make decisions based on knowledge and learning, and this begins with the most senior officers and executives.
With the appointment of its first chief learning officer, Julie Garcia, the NEA developed a systematic framework to acquire, interpret, transfer and act on knowledge linked to a high-performance framework for its members and staff. The NEA transformed not only its management of daily operations, but also its approach to strategic positioning, expanding the boundaries of the learning office. At the NEA, the CLO’s job is broad in scope, including employee and leadership development, strategic planning, environmental forecasting, enterprise systems integration and operations effectiveness.
In partnership with senior leadership, Garcia has enhanced the NEA’s adaptive capacity and strategic results as follows:
Supportive leadership: The NEA is committed to building and sustaining a climate where it is safe to speak up, reflection is appreciated, and there is respect for diversity of thought at all levels. Leadership has fully embraced a philosophy where failure is viewed as part of the journey to success, not as a punishable offense, and leaders provide practical and symbolic support.
Supportive learning processes: Garcia has built her organization around supportive learning processes that maximize knowledge sharing and adaptation to improve results at the enterprise level. For example, because she oversees strategic planning, her office is positioned to guide the NEA’s efforts to create effective strategy. Systematic analyses of internal and external threats and opportunities are conducted several times a year, with broad input culminating in recommendations to the NEA’s executive committee. Ultimately, these recommendations are implemented to impact strategy and operations.
The NEA also employs a formal process of disciplined reflection in which teams of cross-functional experts collaborate to explore processes and progress toward strategic objectives. For example, planning meetings are used to analyze the NEA scorecard, determine how processes influence outcomes and figure out how results can be accelerated. The NEA scorecard includes long-term strategic measures, including minority student achievement gaps, dropout rates and the number of low-performing schools, as well as more tactical measures, such as member engagement, financial health and organizational risk.
Supportive learning infrastructure: The NEA is redesigning internal processes to support collaboration, reinforce learning behaviors and sustain knowledge sharing. For example, workspaces are being redesigned to promote collaboration and teamwork; videoconferencing is increasing contact among geographically dispersed staff; and data-sharing systems ensure enterprisewide communication and learning. Further, management and employees work together to define learning goals, linking them to overall NEA strategy and required business results. Most importantly, employee involvement is tangibly recognized on the company scorecard. Creating a great place to work and maintaining high morale are measurable goals that are discussed at quarterly meetings.
CLOs have a unique opportunity to leverage a rapidly changing business landscape. The NEA’s CLO is doing so by enhancing capabilities to interpret, transfer and act on knowledge acquired to achieve business results, building adaptive capacity. Now, the NEA is better positioned to reflect and act upon lessons learned to adapt, respond and achieve results in today’s transforming public education environment.
Charley Morrow is president of consultancy Sage Assessments and Amy Bladen is an independent leadership and talent development consultant and principal at Sage Assessments. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.