The highest aspirations of the learning profession prescribe organizational development — a direct effort to increase a company’s effectiveness. This means strategically deploying learning to further a company’s mission — the goal employees work to accomplish. But focusing on this too much may mean learning leaders lose their grip on what is essential to the success of their companies: people.
The question is, what should learning and development professionals focus on, organizational or workforce development? Does it depend on a learning leader’s style or a company’s overall approach to learning? Is it necessary to focus on one or the other, or is it best to blend the two?
It depends on who you ask. According to Gary Mangiofico, workforce development feeds into organizational development.
“Organization development, generally speaking, would be inclusive of workforce development and employee development because you’re constantly trying to build the capacity of the organization to respond to its context or current business situation,” said Mangiofico, director of the Master of Science in Organization Development Program at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. “So in that sense, workforce development could be seen as a component of organizational development, as opposed to something separate or in opposition to.”
Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations and co-chairman of VitalSmarts, a corporate training and organizational development consultancy, agrees. “I’m sure there’s value in exploring the question as a set of poles, but it’s a false and dangerous dichotomy,” he said. “It really needs to be workforce development within the context of organization development.”
Despite prescribing workforce development as a consideration within organizational development, Mangiofico said there is a difference in their design, and focusing too much on the big picture may mean individual employee learning suffers.
“When you’re concerned strictly with the managerial strategies, you may focus on doing things so correctly or precisely that the human element is overlooked. But [organization design] and the use of organizational development to support anything strategically would by its very definition automatically consider what are employee development needs in order to achieve what one wanted to achieve. So I don’t really see them as necessarily either/or.”
Mere Happiness Risks Relevance
There is a school of thought in learning and development that says all learning is positive — particularly in companies running tuition reimbursement programs that offer employees wide latitude in how the benefit is used. But not all L&D is alike.
“If the needs in that organization are more employee-centric in terms of work-life balance and a happy, healthy, personally fulfilled workforce — a workforce that’s encouraged to be aspirational and perhaps a company is focusing on all those areas because it wants to drive creativity and innovation — then the focus would be on satisfying those intrinsic needs of the employee,” Mangiofico said. “The assumption [is] that if employees are in that happy, supportive, well-developed place, they are naturally going to be able to be more innovative and creative, and certainly research supports and bears that out.”
Grenny, however, counters that such an idealistic workforce development strategy risks rendering learning and development irrelevant to the organization at large, even if it does boost retention.
“Individual development as just a retention strategy — we’re going to do things that make you happy and advance your career, even if they aren’t in the interest of our organization, because you might stick around longer — that really detaches professional development from strategy at some level,” he said.
“We complain so much about powerlessness in learning and development as well as HR in general, and that powerlessness is evidence of irrelevance. If leaders aren’t saving a seat at the table for you for strategy discussions, it’s probably because they think that you’re involved in hobbies or things that are of individual interest to employees but aren’t particularly relevant to the organization’s direction.”
The flipside is an organization developing its workforce for specific business functions. Mangiofico said if the organization has immediate operational or safety goals or needs, the L&D program will shift to develop the employees’ capacity to achieve the organization’s needs. “You’re not really focused on intrinsic motivation when you’re trying to make sure that a safety issue is being accomplished, like the precision of scalpel instruments or functioning brakes,” he said.
Unless an organization is an academic institution, learning generally will not be geared toward teaching people whatever they want to learn. Instead, it will be designed to serve a group of people coming together to achieve a common purpose. “That’s why the company or organization exists,” Mangiofico said. “So arguably, whatever they’ve agreed to as the common goals of that organization is what should drive structure, systems and supporting programs such as training and development.”
However, Mangiofico said employees do have a stake in any learning they absorb, and it would be foolish to ignore their individual concerns. As employees progress in any organization, performance, productivity, innovation and creative energy all work in tandem to drive intrinsic motivation. “The naï¿½ve perspective on the part of an organization would be to assume that ongoing development of people isn’t a part of their continuous improvement and development,” he said.
The trick for learning leaders is to harness their employees’ intrinsic motivation to improve and develop learning that will simultaneously aid development of the organization’s overall goals.
Grenny said the organization should be a place where employees’ introspection drives self-directed change and is assisted by candid, clear management and peer feedback that allows for a mutually beneficial merging of interests. “Leadership’s job is to communicate what the needs and interests of the organization are so the individual can determine how they want to fit in that overall process,” he said. “The organization then ought to enable and support the individual to participate fully.”
Any discussion of the merits of an organizational versus individual development focus should also query whether or not a learning department’s focus should shift over time as the organization grows or as its needs and workforce change.
Grenny said he feels strongly that it shouldn’t. “There’s a principle involved here, not just a temporary exigency,” he said. “The principle is [that] learning and development ought to be a powerful enabler of the organization’s capacity to execute and innovate, and that should be stable and consistent over time.”
Mangiofico, however, said an organization may have to shift its focus depending on its competitive environment or operating context. Essentially, as the economic environment or business factors change, training needs also will change.
For example, if a company has been fairly stable but a series of external factors suddenly force it to move into a more competitive, volatile market, programs that help employees develop the flexibility, adaptability and nimbleness to respond in as close to real time as possible in that new environment are going to be necessary.
“Organizations need to respond and shift and adjust things like workforce development to support employees to not only perhaps do their current job in a new business environment but also look at new approaches that would actually help and advance that organization in that different environment,” Mangiofico said.
Jay Galbraith, management consultant and author of Organization Design, said change is generally what leads organizational design (OD) and L&D to interact. For instance, following a change in strategy, the organization will want the learning organization to work through the leadership development units to cascade that change through the organization. “The best time to provide learning to people is when they need it,” he said. “And that’s when they’re actually going through the change itself.”
According to Galbraith, today’s organization designs are increasingly complex, which is why management programs and OD need to intersect. “Doing what comes naturally doesn’t work very well any more, as most of our leaders have not come up through organizations that had this level of complexity that we’re facing now,” he said. “So it’s part of the leadership development. You make it part of action learning when you’re actually making a change itself.”
Crystal Clear Strategy
To ensure workforce development fuels organizational needs, creating learning that is both people-focused and strategic, CLOs must serve a dual function as leader and communicator to ensure the organization and its workforce are on the same page.
“The healthiest approach is for the CLO to be crystal clear on strategy and to help people find a way to succeed by being engaged in self-directed change that’s aligned with organizational needs,” Grenny said.
This requires a learning department to continually assess its organization and its people’s needs. “Employee needs and their training and development should be part of [an] ongoing organizational assessment process,” Mangiofico said. “Ideally, if an organization has created an organizational development component, that effort would be trying to look at that perpetual assessment and the data that’s created to help the organization create the best training and development strategy for their employees going forward.”
Read More: CLO blogger David Vance shows you how to prioritize learning here.
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