Friday, January 9, 2009

Four Recommendations for Learning Professionals

Flourishing During Rough Economic Times

Alma Morgan was a dairy farmer in my home town of Circleville Utah. He had the wonderful gift of optimism – which is a remarkable attribute for any dairy farmer. Once, after experiencing significant losses within his dairy herd, my dad asked Alma how he remained so positive. Alma's response was, “I just tell myself that this too shall pass and it does.”

Anyone who has been in the learning business very long has already weathered previous economic storms like the one we’re facing. But times are such that we ought to do more than just bunker down and wait it out. It won’t serve our industry well, especially the people with whom we work, those we serve, and the organizations that employ us.

Denis Pombriant has insightfully observed that:

The meltdown of 2008 will be seen as the mother of all disruptions … disruption makes things new again, and what might not have been possible in the old regime suddenly is. …”

“Change is difficult. It's hard, and people avoid it when we can, but change eventually happens when the consequences of standing still look worse than the consequences of taking a chance on change. … It's time for all of us to change -- standing still is not an option, and we can only imagine the disruptions ahead.” ( )

Pombriant makes a stellar point here. Disruption not only “makes things new again” (e.g., creates new opportunities), but it often compels us through a door to opportunities that “might not have been possible” previously. There has never been a time when this has been truer for the learning industry than right now. As I have mentioned in previous blog articles, we face a time where continuously disrupted markets require organizations to “learn at or ahead of the speed of change.” Globally connected markets, technological disruptions, demographic churn, and political upheaval have created an atmosphere of unrelenting change. We are in that spot Pombriant describes where the consequences of standing still are “worse than the consequences of taking a chance on change.” This circumstance provides us a clarion call to action. We must step up and take on the changes that need to be made in how we go about this vital work of ours. Here’s what we need to do to flourish during rough economic times.

1. Make learning a Strategic Imperative for Organizational Success

These times provide real opportunities to promote learning as the strategic imperative it merits being. For example sustainable competitive advantage requires today, more than at any other time, a highly engaged workforce. Organizations who fail to engage their disengaged people will fall behind in their efforts to learn, adapt, and execute. They will simply be no match for the highly engaged enterprise. There is also in play today the “most talented Principle.” This principle holds that the most talented people in an organization are the first to leave an organization if they cannot achieve high personal engagement. Less talented people are less competitive and tend to stay in an organization even if they are disengaged. No organization can afford this happening in today’s economic environment.

In an earlier blog article on engagement, I briefly described five of the six primary drivers of performer engagement. “Learning” is one of those drivers – and when learning resources diminish, as is often the case during rough economic times, engagement diminishes as well and the “most talented principle” takes effect. Corporate leaders can't afford to ignore engagement. And when they face it they have to look "learning" squarly in the eyes.

Peter Senge observed:

Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. …There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.

Certainly the principles of engagement merit our attention, and especially attention to the role of learning as a fundamental driver of that engagement.

In addition , I continue to fervently believe that the most compelling case for positioning learning in its rightful place of strategic value is found in the pursuit of Organizational Learning Agility. If you don’t have a copy of our research report “In Search of Learning Agility,” let me know. ( I’ll provide you a copy. The risks, threats, trends, and recommendations listed at the end of the report merit consideration for anyone wishing to make learning a strategic imperative for organizational success.

2. Cultivate Strategic Vision Within the Learning Function

My Uncle Orion used to say, “I like anyone who likes my kids.” But his wife, Aunt Gwen, was a bit more realistic in her view of their sons. When anyone asked her if Bert and Brent "belonged to her", she would reply, prior tocommitting herself as their mother, “Why do you want to know.” She knew those boys had a few warts. And frankly, we’ve got a few flaws we need to face in the learning profession. One of them is our failure, for the most part, to maintain a current strategic vision within the learning function. We often give this lip service. But the real measure of this reality happens every time the economy suffers. To the degree that training budgets get hit harder and earlier than other areas your organization provides a proportionate measure of your success at cultivating and acting with strategic vision.

Our profession is filled with hardworking, gifted, tactical implementers. There is so much that needs doing that we naturally get completely caught up in the learning machinery and we fail to look outward. For more than twenty-years I’ve heard continuous talk of “goal alignment” with “business objectives.” But we’ve attempted to do so without processes in place for the ongoing cultivation of strategic vision. For example, to what degree does your training function have in place an “early distant warning system” that allows you to idenify opportunities, challenges, and threats ahead of their impact upon your business? In today's age, training needs to be immediately responsive to what lies ahead. We mustn't fly blind.

For more information about this specific vision capacity, I invite you to watch a 15 minute podcast recording by my partner, Dr. Timothy Clark.

Most traditional conceptions of strategy offer static models that are frozen in time and space. They contemplate a snapshot of organizations in the context of factors, forces, and conditions. Of course students of strategy acknowledge changing conditions and dynamic response, but we still don’t account for it very well. As the global age compresses timeframes and hastens the obsolescence of competitive advantage, we account for it even less well. As change in the world accelerates, the timing of an organization’s response to adaptive challenge becomes a more crucial factor in the equation of advantage. Indeed advantage has and always will be a function of timing, along with other critical factors.

This podcast discusses the inherent tradeoffs that accrue based on the timing of an organization’s response to an adaptive challenge, especially including critical differences between early and late response. The very designation that an organization is responding early or late to a particular challenge implies not only a dimension of time, but also one of distance. Response time is determined by what Dr. Clark refers to as competitive distance. By this he means the distance that separates an organization from a potential, likely, or impending adaptive challenge.

This is just one example of the kind of strategic vision capacity that needs to be cultivated within the learning function in order to render meaningful strategic benefit to the overall organization.


Carl Rogers observed that “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” Most organizations today have some sort of training in place for leading or managing change. But providing change leadership training is a far cry from actually leading change – and no group within your company should be more competent in leading change than those who stand with you and have shared responsibility for learning in the organization. Carl Rogers got this one right. Learners must not only know how to learn, they must be willing and able to change. Here’s another 15 minute podcast that introduces an approach for reducing the potential for failure in any change initiative.

To flourish during rough economic times, this capacity to lead change is vital. Here’s what Dr. Timothy Clark wrote in his book EPIC Change, How to Lead Change in the Global Age:

When competitive forces accelerate, it elevates the leadership challenge. It introduces new demands and skill requirements. The compression creates more cognitive complexity and emotional intensity. Without warning, forces may combine at any time to thwart existing plans and with a hard shoulder push you as a leader onto a different path. If you are not prepared to lead in the midst of turbulence, the global age will pin you against the limits of your ability to respond. If you can’t perform on the new leadership stage, you eventually will fail upward.

The challenge is to get comfortable with uncertainty, live on the edge of chaos, and sustain competitive advantage in the face of endless dynamism. It has become a universal aspiration to figure out how. (page 4)

4. Engage the Efficiencies of Performer Support

Performer Support as Bob and I define it at this blog has always had the capacity to bring greater efficiency to the learning function. It allows learning solutions to become more compact and at the same time achieve greater effectiveness. The time required in formal learning can be legitimately shortened without harming outcomes. What needs to be learned can be learned at the level required – not more or less. And ongoing support costs can drop dramatically. All this and more occurs through the proper implementation of a comprehensive performance support strategy.

This is what Bob and I have been discussing with you in this blog for the past year plus. There’s never been a better time to deliver the full promise of performer support. And you’re doing it! In the past few months, we’ve been seeing increased interest in performer support and rightly so. This performer support community is well positioned to continue to lead the way.

A Concluding Thought

My grandfather was the oldest in a family of 7 children. Both his parents died while he was still very young; his mother first and then his father (my great-grandfather.) While my great-grandfather was on his deathbed he gathered his young family around him and distributed them out to their aunts and uncles to be raised.

Thirty-five years later his oldest son, who is my grandfather, was killed in a farming accident at the early age of 52. Following his funeral, my grandmother received a letter from Grandad’s brother, Uncle Dwayne (who had been an all-American basketball player, but had been crippled with rheumatoid arthritis as a young man.) In his letter, Uncle Dwayne gave my grandmother this counsel: “Look forward always, thinking of the good and the beautiful.” This attitude coupled with resolve and hard work helped that family flourish during rough times.

Great opportunities lie ahead fior the learning industry-if we’ll act collectively to bring these things about. As you make the journey, I suggest you add to the four recommendations above Uncle Dwayne’s counsel. It’ll make the trip more enjoyable – even if the weather turns a bit rough.

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