Organizations are at the dawn of a major breakthrough. Many forces, including technology and digitization, global competition, communication, social media innovations and expectations of new workforce members, are causing incremental changes. Yet top-down power relationships, decision-making and attitudes toward failure still exude “traditional enterprise.”
Amid the traditional, something new is trying to emerge — an enterprise that is more fluid and agile, ecological, innovative and quick to recognize and mine insights from problems. Enterprises are trying to become learning organizations — alive and with inbuilt capacity to continually adapt and shapeshift.
So what role do the learning leaders play? They hold the key to full transformation.
Not Just an Add-On
Functioning as a learning enterprise can be hugely beneficial. Learning is fundamental to agility, innovation and responsiveness. Skill and attitude requirements are changing fast: The World Economic Forum projects that by 2022, 54 percent of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling. Learning opportunities attract and retain talented people. This is true for all generations at work, but especially Gen Y and Z, who are more likely to leave if they don’t feel they have support for their learning and development. And learning and increased productivity go hand in hand. However, according to “Wearied Science,” a 2017 article in The Economist, productivity gains are not rising as fast as investments in automation and technology, indicating that people aren’t keeping up.
In response to all this, companies are increasing their investments in formal learning but without consistent measures of returns on their investments. There is a lot of money going into upgrading companies’ learning infrastructures, for example. Companies are moving from local learning management systems to the cloud, investing in both internal and external learning programs, building mobile and online learning technology and apps. Talent development staffs are increasingly strategic and capable. These investments signal that companies are trying to react to the challenge.
But learning is not primarily a formal training and development problem. In fact, formal training makes a tiny contribution — about 2.5 percent, according to the 2018 Training “Industry Report” — to any person’s development once he or she is in the workforce. Many other less formal forces have much higher payoff potential if they are used together and in a systemic way. Becoming a learning enterprise is a culture-change journey. And there are many levers.
Think about learning as a deep and pervasive process capability of the business that is evident in employee and management adaptability, problem solving and creativity — and in how people work together. Company and personal strategies and values guide it. Business processes and systems support it. And people are skilled to both learn and teach in ways that create a safe, challenging and productive haven for experimentation, risk, and quick recognition and recovery from failure.
In this view, learning is not an add-on. It is not courses and formal programs, or something that the company and L&D team simply provide to employees (though these are part of the solution). It is a pervasive capability and attitude of the business. More fundamentally, it is a capability that is essentially personal and individual. For it is individuals who learn, by paying attention to information, focusing on it long enough to know what it is about, accepting it as information to act on, and then turning it into behaviors and results.
If individuals do not learn, the organization does not learn.
Of course, there are many ways that individuals, the people around them and the organization positively or negatively influence what is essentially an individual process and responsibility. And these are key to unleashing the learning enterprise.
Ready, Set, Unleash
Carol Dweck popularized the concept of fixed and growth mindsets. The fixed mindset is based on a belief that many capabilities of people can’t change. The growth mindset is based on a belief that humans are built to change and adapt. This contrast between change resistance and change enablement represents a dynamic that has been present for decades. Organizations are struggling to become more change-friendly. Of course, there needs to be stability and cohesion in an enterprise. But as things speed up and become more complex, continual skill refreshment and renewal become vital for both business success and individual job and career versatility. The traditional hierarchical enterprise has a difficult time making this shift to a more agile way of operating.
The solution is not to just “train people better.” There is much more to creating an enterprise that is built to learn. Like any complex change management process, you need to focus on several tracks simultaneously.
Track 1: The Learners
Dependency thinking about learning (“the company is responsible for my learning”) is fast going the way of the rotary phone. Ultimately, an organization’s learning capacity depends on every person’s ability to manage his or her own development. In other words, the organization’s learning will only be as good as the learning and self-change skills of its people.
There is one absolute truth about learning that makes the learner the most important focus of all: Whether it is conscious or unconscious, all learning is under the control of the learner. If learners don’t attend to information, there will be nothing to process in their brains. If they don’t focus on information long enough to create neuron changes in short-term memory, there will be nothing to store in memory. If they don’t take steps to store information in long-term memory or turn it into viable skills, any possibility for change disappears. And if learners don’t transfer learning into their work and life, what they have learned remains only a potentiality.
There can be no high-value learning and therefore no learning enterprise without conscious, competent learners.
Track 2: Managers and Formal Leaders
The act of learning is a personal process, but social and performance context matters. In fact, it matters a lot. Every day, people in formal leadership roles and those with special expertise or influence have many opportunities to help others learn. They may help others solve problems, see alternatives, find resources and information, or feel safe to stretch and take risks. But the helping role has several layers.
The best helpers go beyond just helping others “catch fish” in the moment. They help them learn how to fish, coaching and sponsoring them to become more competent and confident self-managers and to develop advanced learning skills. The best helpers know that in order to play this more comprehensive role, they need to understand human development. They draw on the sciences of learning and helping and have specific frameworks and tools to guide them in their support roles.
Managers, colleagues and other third-party helpers influence 20 percent or more of all learning. But their support is often hesitant, unintentional and may not be skilled. Well-meaning helpers often talk when they should listen and solve the problems when they should assist the other person in thinking through solutions. And they miss opportunities to provide that little bit of encouragement and appreciation that could help others stick to a learning track.
Track 3: Teams
Teams are a key organizing principle in today’s workplace, and it’s common for individuals to work on two, three or more at a time. Teams are increasingly important building blocks of the learning enterprise. So, it’s important to examine whether teams are a positive, neutral or negative learning force. Do teams’ emphasis on performance make it difficult to notice or admit problems as they arise? Do team members share knowledge and expertise freely or hoard it? Do they help each other learn — or even know what others’ learning agendas are? Are members in a win-lose or competitive game with each other?
Many companies have well-defined processes for setting team performance goals, tracking progress and rewarding success. But a learning enterprise does more. Members value and use processes for shared learning, and team members use advanced learning and helping capabilities. They create visions of what the team will learn together. They recognize and work to mitigate any negative carry-overs from previous team experiences where learning was not supported. They openly communicate their own personal learning agendas and commit to helping each other achieve them. They raise problems quickly, seeing them as learning opportunities. They are vulnerable with each other, whether it’s through asking for help or feedback or sharing creative ideas.
For successful teams in a high-capacity learning enterprise, it’s about performance and learning.
Track 4: Systems and Processes
In a learning enterprise, learning is embedded in the business’ systems and processes. For example, people know what knowledge and skills they need in order to use any new process or system — and they are supported to develop these capabilities. They also continually monitor the effectiveness of the processes and systems they use. People keep processes and systems alive, not allowing them to turn into sclerotic bureaucracy that adds work without value. Like everything else in a learning enterprise, all processes and systems are subject to review, improvement and even replacement.
Most critically, people become smarter and more awake, not dumber or robotic because they are using a system or following a process. Think of how cellphone use has made people addicted to adrenaline surges of receiving new messages. Or how performance management in many companies has become a form-filling exercise devoid of real personal or business impact. Any process, system or technology will remove vitality from an organization unless the human learning and change implications are identified and well-supported. Advances in artificial intelligence will intensify this challenge, because AI will begin to do more of what we used to think was uniquely human work. It will be important to continually articulate the changing human role and help people prepare for it.
Systems and processes ensure stability and consistency and free people to be more innovative, strategic and focused on value. They also reduce the amount of dangerous, routine, computational, analytical work that people do while creating more time for people to do what they do best: notice challenges and opportunities and use their creativity to continuously improve, innovate and set values and direction. AI systems will continue to do more of what humans do, but this only means that people have to evolve with technology and continue to enhance themselves and their unique capabilities. This is the realm of smarter learning — the realm of real competitive advantage.
Track 5: Executives
Leaders set the tone in any enterprise. Their attitudes toward learning and failure, how they react to bad and good news, and the time they spend debriefing and learning all set examples and seed the culture. Leaders’ words, actions and intentions have outsized impact on whether the people they lead will be agile, goal-focused and creative at work, or protective, risk-averse and likely to wait to be told.
So, what do leaders do to create a smart learning enterprise? For one, they are curious and questioning, and they listen to alternatives. When problems occur, they encourage people to reflect on what happened, what they learned, and how to apply that learning next time. Leaders in learning organizations are also visible learners: They share their own learning agendas and talk about what their successes and failures have taught them. They provide the personal leadership and financial resources for developing the learning and helping capabilities of the enterprise. And, of course, they are skilled learners, mentors, sponsors and coaches.
Track 6: Learning Professionals
Many businesses are trying to become learning organizations. But it is a cultural challenge and one that requires mindset and role changes, as well as rethinking systems and processes. Enter learning professionals as change agents to guide and support these shifts. It’s their role to ensure that everyone has the mindset, knowledge and skills for success in the new distributed learning enterprise. It’s not an easy transition from a culture where people equate learning with “school,” where they see learning as the company’s responsibility, where employees often take a dependent stance, and where teams prioritize performance over learning. It’s up to talent professionals to facilitate the cultural and capability changes this requires.
Learning professionals can also review an organization’s systems and processes to eliminate assumptions of dependency. Where there is language that “the manager must do X,” add: “… and, it is the employee’s responsibility to do Y.” This review and reengineering applies to all processes and systems, but it can start with HR and work outward to finance, operations and more.
It’s also up to talent professionals to create, publicize and develop strategies to implement a high-powered vision of the learning enterprise that shows how all six of these tracks work together for success. They can coach and support executive leadership to make the personal, strategic and financial investments that will set the enterprise on a new learning and performance trajectory.
Of course, learning professionals continue in their more traditional roles, providing education, training and learning support in the form of a variety of old and new technologies. These include tools for planning and executing individual development plans as well as services that scan for and curate learning resources and help people work through the fog of information and resource overload. They create and provide access to learning resources of all kinds. And they help people find coaches and advisers and ensure that all the HR systems support a learning culture.
Built to Learn
Learning is a defining quality of any living system. It is the process that helps the system mature to fully use its capabilities, enables it to adapt to changing conditions and supports the exploration of trial and error. Learning leads to discovering new and more efficient ways of being. In humans, it fuels creative thinking and innovation. It is fundamental to personal and organizational breakthroughs.
Without learning there can be no corporate agility, problem solving or innovation — and no competitiveness.
Today’s successful organization requires learning to be an enterprisewide capability embedded in roles, processes, systems and culture. In other words, the learning enterprise must be “built to learn.” This is the organization design challenge of our times.