Pardon my French, but best practices are a bunch of B.S.
That probably sounds strange coming from the editor of a magazine dedicated to finding, analyzing and sharing successful examples of corporate learning. Month after month in this magazine and day in, day out on our website we share thought-provoking stories and practices from leading learning executives. Their work exemplifies best practice.
There’s a reason we do that. What we hear most frequently in survey after survey and in conversations with leaders across the country is your desire for research and case studies on how companies and individuals are tackling their organization’s thorniest problems. You’re looking for sophisticated tools and approaches that deliver results. You’re looking, in short, for best practices from the best learning leaders.
But there’s a problem lurking behind the focus on best practices. They’re simply not enough to thrive.
When robots threaten to replace even highly skilled and expensively educated workers, training and development needs to adjust. Pronto. When skills change so rapidly that employers can’t predict what they’ll need next year, let alone 10 years from now, well then Houston, we have a problem.
Too often, best practices are effective in an idealized environment. Apply them to real work with real humans and the holes and assumptions become clear pretty quickly. People are a messy, unpredictable bunch. Economic conditions change. Bosses cut investments and shift priorities.
That’s not to mention that best practices are highly contextual and focused on past results. What works for one company in its culture and circumstances is a disaster waiting to happen in another. By the time you’ve collected, analyzed and determined a best practice that might just possibly work for you, business has moved on.
I heard an executive from GE, often pointed to as the pioneer of modern corporate leadership development, say at a recent conference that his company is completely rethinking how they train workers and turning management development inside out. That tells me things are changing too fast for learning and development as usual.
That’s not to say that best practices and its close cousin, benchmarking, are pointless. They’re a valuable way to get the pulse of the industry and spark ideas. But it’s simply not enough. In today’s business environment, there are no best practices. There are just practices.
Practices constantly evolve in response to the circumstances and the market. They respond to the makeup of the workforce and move in sync with the supply and demand of the talent economy.
What’s more, practices are informed by history, not defined by it. Don’t ignore the wisdom of the 70/20/10 model because of me. Most learning still happens outside the traditional classroom. But realizing that reality — and continually repeating it for the last couple of decades — isn’t getting us anywhere. The history of the learning profession is a starting point, not the end of it.
Consider learning in practice — the focus of this issue of CLO — as a way to accelerate that movement. On one level, Learning In Practice is the name of Chief Learning Officer’s annual awards program. For 13 years, we’ve recognized excellence in learning and development as it’s applied in companies large and small across the world.
But it’s more than just recognition. This issue is about learning in practice in its truest sense. It’s through the practice of what these individuals and companies do — developing programs, deploying technologies and experimenting with techniques and approaches to drive greater workforce performance — that we all learn.
These award winners certainly deploy best practices. But that’s a side effect of what they’re doing: continually experimenting, refining and tailoring learning to their organization’s unique needs.
Perhaps most importantly they’re willing to share their stories. Learning in practice happens within a community of practice — a group of like-minded, forward thinkers dedicated to advancing their companies and the industry.
Adri Maisonet-Morales, the 2016 CLO of the Year, is a prime example. A veteran of operations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, she took the reins of learning and development leadership in 2008. To her and her team, the company’s ever-changing regulatory landscape, regional focus and comparatively small workforce of 5,000 are no limitations. In fact, they’re a spur to innovation.
An active leader in the learning community, her leadership and willingness to share is a just one testament to learning in practice in its truest sense.
Mike Prokopeak is editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer.