By Clark Quinn
When Frank Nguyen took on learning for Sears Holding Corp. as divisional vice president for integrated learning and performance, he faced what he called a “compliance culture.”
To onboard an employee required a six-week course. Nguyen looked at the practice more broadly and recognized that this was too long. But too little information wouldn’t stick, and the information offered had to be “in the world.” Using podcasts and performance-support tools, he was able to drop onboarding to two to three weeks — all because he looked at the bigger picture of learning in the organization.
As context, the nature of what people do, day-to-day at work, is changing. It has been gradual, but the increasing rate of change has shifted tasks from the ability to execute against well-defined parameters to situations that are frequently ambiguous and uncertain — and that is a good thing. As our ability to make intelligent systems increases, people doing mundane work decreases in viability.
Our brains do well at making patterns and establishing meaning. We are designed to make decisions in complex circumstances, a task that technology finds quite challenging. Consequently, our cognitive architecture argues for a shift, as knowledge work is increasingly the necessary component of organizational success. This requires a shift in organizational learning and in technology use. It’s time to go bigger when assisting the organization’s efforts to effectively leverage available talent and the power of computing.
What’s Stopping Us
The premises we’re currently operating on in the workplace — about how we learn, think and work — are out of date. Several long-standing assumptions underpin existing approaches, and they don’t make sense in light of what’s coming out in new research. Learning leaders need to understand these shifts, and then realign what they do to accommodate this awareness.
The information dump and knowledge test strategy common in organizational learning, for example, is out of date. Science tells us that learning should be focused on sufficient and meaningful practice, supported by annotated examples and models to guide performance, supplemented with emotional engagement.
Then, we should extend that learning via the 70-20-10 framework, with mentoring, coaching and stretch assignments to reactivate and reinforce desired outcomes. In short, most of what learning and development leaders are doing, they’re doing badly.
Cognitive scientists also have begun to expose how much of our thinking is not in our head, as we’ve assumed, but distributed across the world with representations like diagrams and thinking tools like spreadsheets. There are flaws in learning architecture as well; we often have trouble recalling arbitrary information and miss steps even in well-practiced tasks. Thus, tools such as checklists and lookup tables are perfect learning supplements, but too often they are neglected as opportunities in favor of formal learning to cover all ills.
Nguyen leveraged these opportunities to outperform the old approaches. Amy Rouse, a director in AT&T University Operations Training, had a similar experience as the company re-instituted performance consulting. With business units as partners in determining the problems and opportunities for solutions, AT&T Inc. is using performance support instead of training as the only tool.
Rouse is also looking at social networks as a mechanism to address another opportunity. Research has shown that innovation is often the result of people working together. We also know that formal and informal learning outcomes improve when learners work together. With this in mind, she said AT&T is “tightly combining and aligning traditional learning with informal and social opportunities.”
Going Above and Beyond
Not everyone knows how to ask for help in ways that are likely to get viable responses, nor do all people know how to offer help in ways that will lead to acceptance. Learners’ ability to effectively access resources on their own isn’t a given either. Similarly, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone has problem-solving skills, or the ability to brainstorm well. On principle, these meta-cognitive and meta-learning skills about how to think, work and learn should be actively developed and assessed. Arguably, this is the best investment in developing agility learning leaders can choose.
For this to work optimally, learning leaders need to create an environment to nurture these skills. That means the learning organization must help to create a culture to optimize knowledge outcomes. That includes valuing diversity, openness to new ideas and psychological safety as well as allowing reflection time. Leaders need to not only support learning but also model it. Facilitators need to explicitly develop and reward appropriate interactions. Continual experimentation has to be the norm. Yes, leaders can get some benefits without this culture, but such companies will be passed by those that understand that culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Learning leaders can’t detect what is happening, whether and how people are interacting, and whether development experiments are working, if they don’t collect data and evaluate the outcomes. Measurement is one of the big gaps in learning and development. The large proportion of effort is about efficiency — How much does it cost to have a body in this seat for one hour? — instead of effectiveness — Is this body in this seat for one hour affecting key performance indicators? Until we start working with our business partners to determine the necessary changes, and work until we achieve them, we will not be a strategic contributor to the business.
An open question is whether these are roles for learning leaders — should they be responsible for job aids and portals as well as social networks? Let’s consider the alternatives. While the information technology group likely has responsibility for the infrastructure, they’re highly unlikely to be skilled at designing and developing performance support, let alone facilitating innovation.
Similarly, while business units are the end customers for these types of support, and will similarly need to be involved, again the specific skills for curation and productive interaction are best left to skilled learning facilitators. Of course, if human resources is doing any of these activities, they are acting, de facto, as learning and development. The key argument is that no one has more appropriate expertise to facilitate the learning. The corollary is that if it’s not performed by learning leaders, then what is the learning function’s role?
So, how to get started?
We need to drive change across three elements:
- Doing learning better to share organizational knowledge.
- Supplementing learning with performance support to operationalize organizational knowledge.
- Supporting people working together to continue developing organizational knowledge.
For each of these areas, we need to institute change. To do so is to not merely initiate change but also create a strategy that takes the organization from where it is now to where it could and should be in ways that build upon one another in a sustainable way. This requires a systematic process. This is cyclical, to be followed initiative by initiative and to feed back to new priorities and choices.
This is not done by the learning function in isolation. One of the clear implications of looking at the bigger picture is that partnerships with both business units and information technology are necessary. To truly deliver on performance consulting, identifying gaps and remediating, learning leaders must work with the business units using their metrics. Similarly, if the learning function doesn’t participate with IT on the infrastructure, a coherent performance ecosystem cannot be developed.
These changes are worthwhile. The benefits are tangible, as are the results.
By switching the focus to more naturally match how employee’s think, learn and work, and instrumenting the environment to evaluate the outcomes, Nguyen established a development approach that produced millions of dollars in benefits.
By moving beyond formal learning to performance consulting and supporting informal learning, Rouse demonstrated similar outcomes. Implementing the Kirkpatrick model, her organization identified measurable business impact in Level 3 and 4 evaluations. Further, by more closely aligning resource expenditure with outcomes, she documented that “our cost to the business has significantly decreased as we are able to do the same or more work with fewer people and better tools and processes.”
In short, taking a broader view of what learning is can create better outcomes. This includes formal learning to meet known needs, and informal learning to meet new challenges.
Learning tools go beyond courses. The learning management system and authoring tools are only a component of the whole picture. Consider media production tools to generate performance support, as well as portal software with robust search capabilities to make information accessible in ways that focus on the learner, not the business unit. Consider using tools for both communication and collaboration, such as social media.
Ultimately, the bigger picture integrates infrastructure, strategy and culture together into a coherent whole that improves people’s ability to work effectively, alone and together. Our goals are to achieve performance on what we know we have to do and to continually develop our abilities, individually and collectively, and address the increasing changes we face.
This is the opportunity that learning organizations face, to be more efficient in resources by not only removing sources of errors that courses alone can’t address, but also improving the ability to adapt, the most valuable activity in the organization. It’s time for learning leaders to look at the bigger picture and move to a more strategic contribution to their organizations.
Clark Quinn is executive director for Quinnovation, an independent consultancy. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.