Historically, successful organizations were built to support monolithic structures and bureaucratic strategies — not to change them. As noted by learning theorist Willie Pietersen, in today’s global, technologically savvy, knowledge-based economy, the leadership challenge is to recognize that the ability to learn and adapt is the only truly unique source of competitive advantage.
The New Order
Organizations must continuously learn from their surroundings and their actions, making modifications accordingly. The more often an organization repeats this cycle of ongoing renewal, the better it will become at enhancing its adaptive capacity and its ability to achieve results.
Perhaps no one captured this linkage between an organization’s ability to adapt and its competitive edge more poignantly than Jack Welch in his final letter to GE shareholders:
“What sets GE apart is a culture that uses diversity as a limitless source of learning opportunities, a storehouse of ideas whose breadth and richness is unmatched in world business. At the heart of this culture is an understanding that an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive business advantage.”
With results and high performance in mind, now more than ever chief learning officers have an opportunity to help their organizations improve their adaptive capacity by leveraging learning and innovation. Interestingly, the CLO title originally evolved in the mid-’90s from a desire for learning professionals to shift their roles from the tactical design and delivery of training programs to something more strategic. Within the past decade, it’s become clear that simply training employees to achieve goals in a specific way cannot provide the skills necessary to transform an organization. Today’s forward-thinking learning leader recognizes the need to empower employees at all levels to change with their environment for high performance.
By serving in the dual role of learning and operations process expert and change agent, the CLO can accelerate adaptation for competitive advantage. As a process expert, for example, the CLO can help leaders leverage knowledge from systems and processes wherever data are already being collected, such as scorecards, customer relationship management systems and operations reports. Where there is missing data or knowledge gaps, the CLO can help create new systems. Likewise, in the critical role of change agent, the CLO can promote a climate for learning — one that actively supports risk taking and communication and, most importantly, allows for, rather than punishes, failure in the interest of learning.
Driving Learning Principles
Chief learning officers can help to create a climate for learning by championing several fundamental principles underlying the learning organization. These core principles suggest that true organizational learning will only occur when leadership and employees believe:
- Learning from the past is what leads to solutions and sources of innovation.
- Learning is the collective experience of reflecting on and learning from others’ perspectives.
- Learning from reflecting on how processes were implemented is as important as results achieved.
- Learning is directly connected to strategy, vision and values.
- Learning is recognized and rewarded by the organization at the individual and team levels.
- Learning must be acquired, analyzed, interpreted, shared and acted on to provide maximum value and create high performance.
- Learning from failures is just as important as learning from successes and is supported rather than punished by the culture.
Underlying these principles is a commitment to team learning, which is critical in today’s matrix- and project management-based organizations. Reginald Revans, the British action learning theorist who introduced a method of skill building by solving problems in groups, once said, “The mark of a leader is not the answers he gives but the questions he asks.” Practically speaking, this means that knowledge can be better acquired, interpreted, shared and acted upon in groups as they work through business challenges by figuring out what questions to ask and how best to learn from the answers.
A commitment to team learning ensures that critical information is not missed and that multiple perspectives are taken into account before decisions are finalized. In essence, team learning serves as its own system of checks and balances for effective business practices at all levels. Team learning is in fact an integral part of organizational learning and an important lever by which CLOs can help their organizations continue to grow and adapt to remain competitive.
Team learning helps to create a high-performance organization with a culture that embraces its employees as assets, not liabilities. These organizations provide employees with tools and processes to empower themselves and make valuable contributions while actively encouraging diversity in perspectives and opinions. They recognize that such diversity is an asset that fosters creativity and innovation and ultimately drives competitive advantage. At the heart of high-performance organizations is collaboration, teamwork and knowledge sharing. Team members who are encouraged to provide input, regardless of their level in the organization, are often more productive, more satisfied at work and higher performers overall.
Putting Learning Principles in Action
Organizational beliefs are not enough to build and sustain a learning and high-performance culture, but today’s CLOs are in an ideal position to help their organizations put these principles into action. Specifically, they can create supportive learning systems and processes that foster a supportive learning culture, ultimately improving their adaptive capacity.
Supportive leadership: Any organizational change, especially a fundamental cultural transformation, such as evolving into a learning organization, must be championed from the top — from the CEO and all levels of leadership. The CLO is in a key position to influence senior leaders to communicate messages about learning within the organization — walking the talk on adapting with the times. Senior leadership should actively foster a supportive learning climate by promoting transparency, inspiring learning and driving out fear of failure, fear of retaliation or fear of anything that could stifle innovation. By creating a safe environment in which to share information — and make mistakes — leaders send a message that continuous improvement is highly valued and employees should seek to raise the bar without fear of punishment.
Supportive learning processes: Given the technological and other changes in the way knowledge and learning can be leveraged in a learning organization, new processes and systems should be established to facilitate high performance. CLOs can help their organizations replace traditional, tactical needs analyses and training programs with strategic learning processes that yield measurable improvements in an organization’s adaptive capacity. Such processes add structure to ensure that knowledge sharing is maximized in all situations and that collective findings can be applied to improve results at the enterprise level. Formal processes are often created for:
1. Group learning: Systematic questioning, respectfully challenging and openly exchanging ideas underscored by the belief that whole-team thinking is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
2. Learning review: Similar to after-action reviews in the military, this carefully scrutinizes all processes and results after the fact for learning purposes; this reflection process is critical to discover what did or did not go well in every interaction.
3. Learning application: Doing whatever it takes to internalize and act on learning, whether this means changing or abandoning long-held practices, stopping production of a beloved product or letting go of personnel.
Supportive infrastructure: The best learning processes and the most inspiring leadership cannot foster a sustainable learning culture without a supportive context. The CLO must partner with senior management to align internal operating systems, team processes and data repositories. Teams can be formed across organizational boundaries to maximize the diversity of perspectives. Further, performance management systems can be structured to encourage a collaborative culture and key employee behaviors such as risk taking, collaboration, creativity, learning on the fly and flexibility. Finally, executives and employees should have access to critical information to assist them in making informed decisions. Key data systems such as HRISs, financials, metric dashboards and learning management systems should be broadly accessible and user-friendly.
CLOs, with the support of their CEOs and management teams, can help their organizations interpret, transfer and act on the knowledge they acquire, hence rapidly increasing their ability to adapt to the changing environment for maximum performance.
Companies stubbornly committed to the old paradigm of winning based on static, top-down strategies and a fixed definition of success may wish to reconsider their competitive position. Such strategies may have worked before, in a less technically savvy and knowledge-based era, but will not today. Successful companies willingly reinvent themselves from top to bottom, changing anything and everything, from strategic planning and daily operations to their mission, vision, values and even their cultures as they internalize lessons learned.
Organizations that are built for continuous transformation and innovation are positioned in today’s turbulent workplace to gain the edge on the competition, and all eyes will surely be on those CLOs who can demonstrate the accompanying improvements in performance and results.
Julie Garcia is chief learning officer and head of organizational effectiveness, strategy and operations at the National Education Association. Amy Bladen is an independent leadership and talent development consultant and principal at Sage Assessments. Stephen John is associate professor at Kean University and an independent organizational effectiveness consultant. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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