How often do you think about the future? Are you on auto-pilot when it comes to development programs, stories and statistics? What if you continued this same course over the next one, two or five years? What would the impact be on those who rely on you for expertise if you didn’t stay up to date?
Most of us consider ourselves lifelong learners. How does that translate into our informal and formal development efforts? If we’re using the same ideas, thoughts and guides to mentor or teach others year after year, does it retain value?
Marshall Goldsmith’s book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” comes to mind. It’s simple yet profound. I’m of the opinion that leadership values are constant laws, but how those get manifested and how we learn and grow changes by the minute.
A Learning Organization
We should ask ourselves: What is our goal? What is the intended value we are aiming to realize? Let’s not assume that we or our stakeholders know, as that’s always a liability. I believe the goal is to be a learning organization. An organization that is in sync, not in competition with, the outside environment and one that is aligned to the needs of the business. Any learning and development goals outside of this are a waste of time.
In his book “Building the Learning Organization,” Michael Marquardt defines a learning organization as a “company that learns effectively and collectively and continually transforms itself for better management and use of knowledge; empowers people within and outside of the organization to learn as they work; utilizes technology to maximize learning and production.” The key here is to continually transform, and we cannot do that without constant learning.
If our learning and development is not current, we become less valuable over time because our knowledge and skills are not keeping up with the ever-increasing demands of our work. Plus, ineffective training costs businesses between $17 billion and $30 billion a year. So what does “up to date” mean? It means that our development is constructed with both current and future needs in mind and delivered in the “right” way.
The “right” way is dependent on many variables. Some of these include the type of content, the learner’s level of knowledge and experience, the resources available, the timeline available and so on. It also means that we are meeting the needs of the business, that we have a skilled workforce available to realize our mission and strategy at just the right time.
The challenge we face is keeping our development ahead of, or at least on par with, the rate of change. In a HuffPost article by Ricardo Azziz titled, “Too Fast, Too Slow: The Challenge of Keeping Pace in Managing Change,” he shared that organizations often judge the pace of change based on internal factors. This is obviously not the true test as our company operates at a local, societal even global level affecting the rate of change. Similarly, Tess Taylor stated in an HRDive article, “Learning programs need to adapt to become more experiential, urgent and convergent with work realities.”
While this brings up more questions than answers, it provides good food for thought when it comes to devising updated development. Are we truly meeting the needs of the learner and the business? What experiences, skills and “work realities” need to be considered? Each learner and organization is different so you won’t find a boilerplate that works for you. It requires considerable, ongoing thought.
Is our current structure and practice based on the current state of knowledge? How do we know that we are keeping pace with change? It requires interaction with the outside world. Sometimes this means hiring up-to-date talent and other times it means developing our talent with new knowledge.
Does every layer in our organization receive ongoing, current development? This requires research, which necessitates information literacy. This is a key element in our goal of creating a learning organization. We have to be information savvy.
Albert Einstein is attributed with the quote: “Education is not the learning of facts, but training the mind to think.” I think Albert had it right. We should be approaching our education and development as a means of training our mind to think in order to be savvy in our ever-increasing world of information. This means our stakeholders need to possess information literacy skills — the ability to gather, interpret and act on data. To be critical thinkers, to use information wisely and think more systemically. With this skill, we will all be better positioned to readily adapt to our environment and avoid depreciation costs. Plus, this will promote our ability to readily adapt our organization to the external environment.
Business Process Reengineering
A tactic that I find helpful in keeping our development current and more focused on training our minds to think is business process reengineering. It’s a term I learned way back in business school (the first time) and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. The idea is that the business, process, systems — basically everything — is taken apart and analyzed. This is a figurative process forcing us to question everything that is being focused on.
In this case, let’s consider our development. If you could start from scratch, how would you do it differently? What questions need to be answered? What data do you need? Basically, blow up the existing and create a whole new system. Just be sure that the new system you create is in line with the business as a whole and doesn’t alienate, and thus compete with, other business systems.
Business process reengineering is a great way to engage your team and other stakeholders. They will likely appreciate the opportunity to provide input and to help develop something new. It will help account for other business needs and help create a shared mental model and likely shared accountability.
Without doing this type of analysis regularly, we jeopardize our existence by jeopardizing our value. And let’s not assume that everything we’re doing is out-of-date or needs a complete revision.
There are numerous ways to start thinking of how to get the necessary inputs to keep development current. Do we have our stakeholders adopt an action learning or action research approach? Do we have the luxury of time to do this or is not doing it too much of a risk? Do your L&D efforts have an advisory board to provide objective outside-in perspectives on relevancy? Are we gathering external data from multiple sources? What’s the best way to operationalize or hardwire these processes? What subject matter experts should we speak to or what sites should we visit to gather current information?
I recommend following Lori Niles-Hofmann, chief learning officer at Fuse Universal. She is an ambassador for avoiding the use of just theory and intuition in our decisions and in favor of using data-driven learning design. This is a more sophisticated approach to our learning that is taken from marketing research. The idea is that we’re not guessing about the best way to design learning, we’re using data to make better design decisions by understanding user engagement. This is a great video to summarize this concept.
Think about the best strategy for your organization. The key is to foster information literacy skills while hardwiring ways to gather, interpret and use data from the internal and external environment. While doing this also consider the type of values that you are portraying. These go beyond the value of learning and adaptability and include the manner in which we learn and execute strategy.
Consider also the barriers of operationalizing our strategies to keep development current. One of the biggest ones must be time. Others often include competing priorities, lack of shared vision, money, bad data or even manpower.
These aren’t unsurmountable, and our efforts will always be a moving target. We must keep trying to stay relevant and overcome these barriers. For time, consider carving out a half-day or full day to host a strategic planning retreat. This will allow an intentional time-out from day-to-day issues and promote an objective view of current reality. When it comes to competing priorities, speak with stakeholders and share your vision for keeping learning and development strategies updated and the importance of doing this. Share the dilemma of internal competition and solicit input on how the currency of content can be a priority. For each barrier we identify work with stakeholders to identify solutions
Our goal should be to foster a true learning organization that thrives symbiotically with our environment. If we are not keeping our learning and development content and strategies up to date, we are depreciating ourselves and our companies.
Matthew J. Painter, Ph.D., is the director of leadership development at the University of Alabama Birmingham and the founder and principal of Straitpath, a consulting firm specializing in corporate talent solutions. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.