Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Challenge Worth Pursuing

Surviving Unrelenting Change
During the past few weeks we have seen a financial tsunami hit our country. It’s impact is reverberating throughout the world because of today's globalization of markets. This interconnected world-wide economy presents to us a competitive environment unparalleled in intensity. Ultimately to survive organizations must be prepared to continuously undergo new knowledge cycles to prepare for new competitive cycles—constantly re-tooling in order to maintain competitiveness.
So, how prepared is your organization to meet this challenge. Is it sufficiently agile to survive the ravages of unrelenting change including at times seismic shifts in the marketplace?
Most companies are not. Their organization and technology infrastructure, work processes, and a lethargic learning culture constrain them to slow and clumsy responses to adaptive challenge. There may not be any greater organizational challenge of our time than transforming organizations to a state of ever readiness with the ability to immediately respond to opportunities, threats, or crisis.
This state of competitive agility can only be achieved if at the heart of the organization there is a culture of continuous learning—with a fully-loaded performance support infrastructure that facilitates rapid collaborative learning. Only then can any organization approach the capacity it needs to grow, change, or innovate at or above the speed of its own market.
What are you doing to help your organization cultivate this state of learning agility? The charter naturally belongs to the learning field but we need to pick it up and run with it. Here are some suggestions to help you do this.

Note: Much of what is in these suggestions has been adapted from our Research Report: In Search of Learning Agility in an effort to address your specific role. I encourage you to read the entire article. You can obtain a free copy at

One: Align all Learning Inputs with Organizational Outputs
My father was a dairy farmer. His was a small business forever struggling to survive. As such, he simply couldn’t afford to invest in anything that didn’t deliver to the bottom line – which for him was producing milk. This was the fundamental output for his business. One of the inputs for that production was hay. We had a hundred acres of alfalfa and did all we could to grow as much as possible and ensure it had maximum nutrient power. We had to keep the soil rich, protect the hay from insects, cut it at the right time, dry it properly, bail it with the dew on so the leaves wouldn’t fall off, and then haul it to a place where we could ultimately feed it to the cows at the best times possible.
The hauling of hay was my least favorite part of our work. My dad had a worn out 1948 Ford flat-bed dump truck that he used every hay season to load thousands of 100 pound bales of hay and then haul and stack them in the barnyard. My brother and I had the job of lifting those bales onto the truck. It was miserable work. My Great Uncle Rex had a machine that would automatically haul hay. I tried to talk dad into buying one. It would have made life so much easier for me. But dad couldn’t justify it because it wouldn't contribute any added benefit to our “output” of milk. It wasn’t until my brother and I left the farm that dad retired the ’48 Ford. He had to get hay to the barn and his help was gone.
In every business decision Dad made, he never lost sight of what we were about in the Dairy business. All his inputs were aligned with three core business outputs—increasing milk production. increasing the price he received for that milk, and containing costs. All our inputs were aligned with these outputs.
In the training world we, all too often, fail to judge our inputs in the way my dad judged his. We get caught up in the things we do and produce for the organization without checking them against core business outputs—what the business must do to succeed. And too often, whenever we speak with corporate leaders, we tend to speak about inputs (e.g., courseware and technologies) rather than organizational outputs. We must continually make sure that all we do links to the fundamental outputs and associated business initiatives of the companies we serve.

Two: Assume the Mantle of an Always-learning Leader
Real leadership isn’t defined merely by a position on an org chart. Rather, it is much more about influence and effect. You have knowledge and a perspective that puts you in position to exert great influence upon the future success and even survival of your company. As such, you need to be an always-learning leader. Your personal learning quest must include keeping abreast of all that is going on in the training profession, but mustn’t stop there. You need to understand business and leadership. And, most importantly, you need to understand what is taking place in the specific markets where your business resides.
You also need to cultivate the ability to engage people. This is especially vital in unforgiving market environments. “Solutions to adaptive challenges,” Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie argue, “reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.”[i] Leaders in these circumstances won’t have many answers; but they must have the capacity to draw out those answers by tapping the creative potential of the organization. No one is in a better position to help do this than you because of your place in the organizational learning channel.

Three: Help your Organization Move Forward with Initiatives that Cultivate Organizational Learning Agility
Here are some initiatives that merit your doing all you can to bring them to fruition. No other part of your organization is in a better position to operationalize these initiatives. And, if you don’t take them on – at some point someone else will. Don’t abdicate this opportunity to lead out in your organization’s pursuit of learning agility.

1. Unify learning, and other support functions to cultivate learning agility. Performance Support can serve as a common catalyst for unifying and aligning the efforts of training and other performance support groups such as help desks and technical publications. These groups have been fragmented long enough. Maximum learning agility requires these silos to disappear. This doesn’t require any real organizational boundary changes. Rather, it requires the establishment of common practices under a common charter. That charter needs to be driven by a commitment to delivering strategic value by cultivating learning agility. Ultimately, if what these groups do doesn’t unitedly contribute to people’s ability to grow, respond, change, and innovate at or above the speed of the market, they will fail their companies.

2. Integrate learning and performance support practices to address formal and informal learning at all five moments of need. The widespread recognition that most learning is informal is turning attention to developing performance support capabilities for informal learning. But the solutions identified must be implemented with formal learning still in mind. It is in the formal learning environment that self-directed learning and self-support are either initiated and reinforced or undermined. Self-directed learning, self-support, and learning collaboration must become primary instructional objectives in formal training. Employees should be trained to use performance support solutions that will be available to them when they’re “on their own.” Many need to learn how to become independent learners for the first time using those tools. They also need to learn how to collaborate in problem solving and ad hoc learning situations when necessary.
Historically, informal learning has been neglected in most organizations. For the most part, individuals have been on their own. Formal learning has done little to prepare them for their ongoing learning journey. Even today, when an employee steps out of the formal classroom, chances are that he or she will not be given any survival gear in the form of post-training support. For those who are given support, there is an even greater chance that the individual won’t know how to use it and ask the right questions.
An integrated learning infrastructure is comprised of the tools, information, and survival skills employees need to contribute at a high performance level. In addition, the infrastructure must free-up people to focus on higher value efforts. Instead of spending time trying to remember something or perform a routine task, employees need to be free to focus on application, resolution, collaboration, prioritization, innovation, and creation. With the right infrastructure in place, people should learn quickly from their mistakes and then, with the right performance support infrastructure in place, contribute new knowledge to fill the gaps.
This blending of formal and informal learning requires a fresh look at the unique skills trainers bring to the organization. No other learning modality can diagnose problems, prescribe solutions, or give personalized feedback better than the skilled trainer. These capabilities define the unique and critical contribution trainers can bring to the learning table. The search for learning agility provides an opportunity to redirect the trainer’s role from being the “sage on the stage” to a more enabling and coaching resource that helps learners grow in their capacity to be agile learners.
Ultimately, formal and informal learning practices must become inseparable. Organizations must address informal learning directly and use informal learning solutions to improve formal learning practices, including helping learners learn how to learn in their informal environments. This ultimately allows formal learning and trainers to become more integrated into the entire learning process as they help learners cultivate self-directed learning habits.

3. Cultivate evaluation as an individual and organizational competency. High agility organizations today are different from those who are not based on their evaluation capacity. They cultivate it as an individual and organizational core competency. Evaluation is the analysis and interpretation of performance. It is the study of relationships and causation. It is also the dispassionate and non-politicized consideration of contribution. Most individuals and organizations are profoundly poor at evaluation precisely because they were acculturated under a learning tradition and mindset that emphasized “one-time learning for permanent qualification.” This mindset has conditioned individuals to evaluate both people and situations based on a slow-moving industrial context. As a consequence, many employees are dependent learners with old tools, old frameworks, and old criteria. Further, many employees are highly unskilled in their ability to evaluate themselves and their peers. Yet the skills of self and peer evaluation are vital when individuals and organizations are confronted with turbulent change. Evaluation capacity is a vital precondition to learning agility. It is the taproot of adaptive response and innovation.

4. Cultivate an organizational culture and leadership behavior that supports learning agility. Culture is about patterns. It’s about what most people in an organization think and do most of the time. Whenever people come together to form a collective, a culture is born— not immediately, but gradually. It’s the natural result of social forces exerted through every-day interaction. With time, patterns of thinking and behavior develop and calcify within the organization.
When any organization begins the pursuit of agility, culture will inevitably get in the way. For this reason, leaders need to identify cultural liabilities and work to turn them into cultural assets. Through deliberate means, organizations have the opportunity to design and cultivate the culture they need rather than live with culture that blocks learning agility.
Culture change is a matter of finding the points of leverage that shape culture in the first place. Fortunately, those levers are the same regardless of the nature, composition, and purpose of the organization. There are of course differences based on industry and market, but the same basic set of levers shapes culture in every context. The most important levers of culture have to do with what is:

  • Modeled

  • Communicated

  • Taught

  • Measured

  • Recognized

  • Rewarded

Of all of the levers that shape organizational culture, the single most important one is the factor of leadership behavior. Leaders shape culture through “modeling” or demonstrated behavior. Organizational cultures don’t change unless leadership behavior is manifestly different and reflects the desired culture. But there is a caveat: Of all the categories of organizational change, changing culture is the most difficult because it is rooted in human behavior. You should expect a culture change effort to take longer and require more effort than other types of organizational change, such as changes to structure, process, systems, technology, capital assets, cost-cutting, and the like. Culture tends to preserve and protect itself against change. Over time, culture becomes hard and encrusted as thought and behavioral patterns become entrenched.

5. Continuously grow and manage unrestrained content capital. Content becomes capital when it’s captured and made useful to the organization. Content becomes unrestrained when it’s free from proprietary formats or delivery forms. Learning agility requires that organizations continually capture content and make it available in many different forms that are tailored to the individual and role requirements of different people. And it all needs to be up to date. All of these content management requirements can be met with current technologies such as multi-channel publishing and user-generated content. Yet the movement toward content capital management has been slow because organizations have seldom been able to make the business case for the investment. What’s changing this is the growing number of organizations who have been caught flat-footed when their markets are besieged with new entrants, disruptive technologies, or other unforeseen threats.
A growing number of organizations are able to cost-justify content capital management on the basis of multi-channel publishing alone. This is where content is developed and stored as a single-source and then transformed into other forms at any time. For example, a single-sourced procedure could be transformed into an online help file, a web-based learning course, an online reference job aid, and a PDF case-based practice guide. And since the content isn’t locked into any proprietary format, the case-based practice guide could also be published out as a Word file in addition to the PDF file. This same procedure can also be pushed as data into a virtual lab where the lab scenarios would automatically incorporate the procedure into a practice scenario.
Contrary to popular thought, the challenge of content asset management is not with the technology; it is with the practices associated with how content has historically been created, managed, and produced into its various forms. Within most organizations there is significant duplication of effort. The elimination of that duplication, alone, often justifies the investment. There are significant efficiencies that can be brought to bear as well. A second, less quantifiable benefit is the ability to capture performer-generated content, which is becoming a crucial component of successful strategy execution.

6. Drive collaboration within and beyond the organization. When organizations begin addressing the formal and informal learning needs of people, the strategic value of collaborative learning becomes clear. Ad hoc collaboration within and beyond the organization is crucial to organizational agility. Historically, this collaboration was limited to those within earshot of the individual employee. This so-called “sneakernet” support where peers helped one another based on geographic proximity has been shallow, random, and costly. Collaboration tools have dramatically changed the rules of the game. But the adoption of new collaborative technologies has been slow across the board. The primary reasons are limited demand and ineffective implementation. Organizations simply haven’t found the value proposition to engage most employees.
Part of the solution is to make collaboration readily accessible, intuitive, and helpful. Helpfulness is determined by an upfront assessment of collaboration needs at every level of the organization. The technology solution should be fitted to meet those exact needs. Virtual communities can become an effective way to drive collaboration within and beyond the organization. Certainly, Generation X, and to a greater extent, Generation Y have been weaned on these types of collaborative environments. But much of the current workforce is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with new forms of collaboration. Leaders have to be willing to make a significant training investment to help them adopt these new technologies.

7. Push ownership of learning to the front line and to the learners themselves. Front line supervisors have the ability to see the immediate cause and effect of learning in the work place. They witness the application of new knowledge and skills and see the consequences. Not surprisingly, when front line managers believe that certain learning solutions will help their people be more successful in their work, they commit themselves to provide those solutions wherever possible. Because of this personal commitment and the unique line-of-sight vantage point of the front line manager, learning outcomes are usually stronger when managed at this level. A second point is that when employees are committed and independent learners, learning outcomes increase again.

There has never been a time when we have been in such a perfect position to link what we do to the strategic needs of our various organizations. No other group within those organizations can do what needs to be done as effectively. Our charter naturally places us at the heart of organizational learning agility. Let’s step into it and make it happen.

[i] Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Buisness Review January-February 1997, p. 124.

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