Experienced and successful learning leaders know something their less successful peers don’t. Their secret isn’t about learning design or delivery or some new technology. Their secret isn’t even a secret. It is recognition, acceptance and ownership of the fact that learning alone isn’t enough to change behavior.
Today’s top learning leaders recognize that how learning is implemented is every bit as critical as content, modality, learner engagement and evaluation. They know that to see long-term sustained behavioral change and performance improvements they need to attend to a number of practices that have proven to be highly effective over the past several decades.
Learning leaders across a wide range of industries are leading the charge to bridge the gap between what participants learn in the classroom and what happens on the job. While every leader is unique, there are six universal best practices that form a consistent core for any effective implementation:
- Link to business strategy. Clearly linking learning to the business strategy is best practice number one in both order and importance. This clear linkage to the business is what enables learning organizations to get support and active involvement from leaders at all levels of the organization. Successful learning leaders don’t roll out any initiatives without an identified business need.Kevin Carpenter, sales training manager for DuPont Pioneer, is responsible for generating performance results and ensuring that salespeople deliver a consistent customer experience. This is a big enough challenge for companies with their own dedicated sales force. In Carpenter’s case, the challenge is even greater because none of the salespeople work for Pioneer; each is a small-business owner who contracts to sell Pioneer brand seed. Yet, year after year, sales agents embrace the learning and use the skills and tools the training team provides. “Our training is always about meeting a business need,” he explained. “We never roll out learning without a clear link to our business objectives or data that shows a gap in existing knowledge, skills and abilities needed to drive performance.”
- Gain executive sponsorship. Key executive involvement in learning communicates the critical importance of the skills, knowledge and behaviors being taught. While some learning leaders try to gain executive sponsorship after they have designed a program or initiative, the most successful start with the strategy and actively partner with business leaders to identify learning needs.Michael Woodard, global learning leader for GE Power Services, embodies this point of view. With responsibility for developing thousands of employees in 120 countries, he partners closely with a global advisory board of executives to identify the human capabilities that will be essential for strategy execution. From the earliest planning stages, Woodard emphasizes that delivering bottom-line results will require the active involvement of executives and leaders at all levels, and he engages them on an ongoing basis.
- Plan ongoing communication. Marketing professionals accept that people need to see an ad seven times before they can recall it. Salespeople know it takes five to nine contacts to capture a prospect’s attention. Yet, many organizations expect employees to adopt new skills and behaviors the first time they are exposed to them. Failure to plan and execute ongoing communications turns a learning system into a forgettable “one and done” event.As a 28-year veteran of the learning industry, Steve Woods knows that when participants seem reluctant to attend a class or when managers resist supporting training, disillusionment is often the root cause. “I get it,” said Woods, manager of airport operations training design at United Airlines. “Many things end up being flavor of the month. It’s rather discouraging when something you liked seems to lose traction and disappear.” Woods said he counters initial skepticism by deliberately and repeatedly communicating a consistent message that each workshop is part of an ongoing journey that directly links to the business. His communication plan includes inviting an executive to kick off every session and asking them to address topics such as:-What is our strategy?
-How does this program fit into our strategy?
-What’s coming in the next five years?
-What can I expect after this session?
-How will we keep the learning alive on the job?These same messages are repeated many times before, during and after people attend a learning program using a variety of communication methods.
- Integrate skills and tools with work processes. Successful learning leaders know if new skills are treated as an “add-on” to current work processes, learning will not result in performance improvement. For learning to translate into real-world applications, the knowledge, skills, concepts and behaviors must be integrated into day-to-day work processes. Tools and processes are the scaffolding that supports employee learning and speeds time-to-proficiency on the job.Failure to integrate application tools will mean that learners will struggle to use the skills and may decide it is too hard. “We do more than integrating the skills into the work,” Woods said. “We integrate the skills and nomenclature into our culture. Terminology from our courses becomes part of how we communicate every day in emails, signage and meetings. Now, new hires pick it up because it’s become the language of how we work here.”
- Ensure manager preparation. Ensuring managers and other stakeholders support the learning is the single most significant thing learning leaders can do to ensure the transfer of new skills to work performance — but this does not happen automatically. Managers need to be prepared. Effective ways to prepare managers include communicating clear responsibilities, developing coaching plans and coaching skills training, and providing managers with coaching playbooks and other on-the-job tools. Failure to prepare managers will result in situations in which managers are not equipped to coach.Woods said he provides lessons from experience. “With past programs, we were probably overly optimistic. We thought leaders would do more coaching on their own. It didn’t happen as much as we expected. While people loved the courses, we didn’t hear much happening in the way of follow-up. With our more-recent programs, the first thing I did was make sure that leaders take the exact same course as their reps. Second, I added another day of coaching skills.” As a result, managers are equipped and enabled to support the application of learning each day on the job.
- Drive coaching and reinforcement. Most organizations now include reinforcement components and coaching tools in the same design as their learning. While providing these tools is a great start, learning leaders need to take steps to ensure these tools are actually used. These steps include developing concrete coaching plans and accountabilities, and ensuring managers follow through with coaching, conduct best practice sharing meetings and lead application sessions. Without these steps, new behaviors won’t be sustained, and leaders won’t see the business impact their organization is expecting.For example, GE Power Services’ Woodard said one recent initiative included weekly post-training engagement with managers and participants. The company developed a five-week cadence of meetings that held managers accountable for coaching. Woodard reported progress — or lack thereof — on a weekly basis to senior leaders. After the first week, people realized executives were involved, and engagement soared.
Program development and follow-up best practices are one thing, but they’re not all there is. Implementation best practices are rooted in research and common sense, yet they are surprisingly not common practice. All too often, learning teams focus on what happens in the classroom rather than what happens in the workplace. They get caught up in the pressure to push out programs quickly, and they neglect the factors that dictate whether the learning will improve performance.
Why do leaders so often fail to give adequate attention to implementation? Learning leaders often say things like: It’s too hard to get support from the line. I don’t have the budget. Or, I don’t have time.
Unlike many of his peers in the learning industry, Woodard said he doesn’t have a problem getting buy-in or budget dollars for learning. He understands that the business may require the learning organization to pivot on a dime. What remains constant is that he extends the same rigor applied to developing the best program content to all aspects of the implementation.
Woods shares a similar perspective. He said when peers cite time as a barrier to executing on the implementation best practices, he asks, “Do you have the time to be successful? There is a difference in looking at it as a burden or looking at it as investment.” Investing in the right implementation approach has a multiplier effect on the results generated from any learning initiative.
To help decide where to invest time, it can be helpful to do some quick analysis to determine the relative importance of each initiative. Rank each learning and development project based on the impact each initiative will have on the organization’s ability to execute its business strategy. The higher the ranking, the higher the stakes. The higher the stakes, the more the organization can’t afford to risk the consequences that come with neglecting best practices.
Ed Emde is president of Wilson Learning Corp. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.