Thursday, January 28, 2010


Note:  The following is a reprint of an article written by Timothy R. Clark and Conrad A. Gottfredson.  We include it in this blog because Performer Support is a core contributor to organizational learning agility.

Organizations have reason to ponder their mortality these days. A few short months ago, a financial tsunami hit the United States. The rippling effect sent the economy reeling into a recession second only in magnitude to the Great Depression. Out of the wreckage a permanently altered reality—a new normal—has emerged. Organizations now compete in faster, more complex, and more volatile markets. And casualties are mounting. Consider that six of the top ten bankruptcies in US history have occurred since September of last year. Those six corporations had a combined asset value of over $1.25 trillion. What’s more, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that corporate bankruptcy filings have doubled in the past twelve months. We’re not out of the woods.

At stake is the fundamental capacity of organizations to adapt to rapidly changing conditions—and do it again and again. It’s becoming increasingly clear that strategy will not save us. As the span of competitive advantage shortens, strategy cycles come more frequently. Whatever competitive advantage an organization enjoys today is melting away. The only question is the rate of the melt.
How can organizations sustain competiveness? We believe the answer is found in the pursuit of learning agility—the ability of an organization to learn at or above the speed of change. Organizations must accelerate knowledge cycles to keep pace with competitive cycles.

Organizational learning agility is an enterprise capability that requires deliberate and systematic design, including essential cultural, structural, process and technology support elements. Based on our research, there are five primary factors that interact to promote or hinder learning agility within organizations.
Figure: The Five-Factor Model of Organizational Learning Agility
  1. Intelligence Function— The capacity of an organization to survey and interpret its entire business ecosystem, including the internal competitive environment and the external competitive environment. The intelligence function interprets information and feeds the strategy function, which feeds the learning function.
  2. Learning Mindset—The prevailing assumptions, beliefs, and dispositions relating to the way people learn.
  3. Leadership Behavior—The dominant patterns of leadership within an organization.
  4. Organizational Support—The processes, systems, structures, and other forms of support that organizations provide to help employees in their formal and informal learning and execution activities.
  5. Learning Technology—The forms of technology employed to enable learning at individual and organizational levels.
Factor 1: The Intelligence Function
The first factor is the intelligence function, which is intended to be the distant early warning system and interpreter of the outside world to the organization. Some organizations approach business intelligence-gathering in a systematic way. Most are haphazard and ad hoc. Regardless of the configuration and maturity of the intelligence function, it is critically tied to the learning agility of an organization.

To move to a high level of learning agility, organizations must establish a comprehensive, balanced, and systematic process for gathering, integrating, and interpreting intelligence from a variety of intelligence domains that bear on the competitive position of the organization. They must have an established framework and logic to help them organize, prioritize, and inform the organization. Finally, there must be direct communication and coordination among the intelligence function, the strategy function, and the learning function. Otherwise, the learning function will be blind-sided with unforeseen events and no time to respond. It will remain a tactical, passive, and uninformed business partner.

Factor 2: The Learning Mindset
The second factor in the five-factor model is the organization’s prevailing learning mindset. The dominant learning mindset across organizations is undergoing a second major shift since the postwar period. For centuries permanent learning was the prevailing model, which envisioned “one-time learning for permanent qualification.” As markets became more turbulent, learners gradually embraced a continuous learning mindset as a response to relentless disruption and skills obsolescence. It was during this time that the notion of the learning organization came into currency. Today, organizations find themselves in the midst of a second major transition. As competitive environments increase in speed, complexity, and volatility, organizations and individuals are compelled toward a dynamic learning mindset. Dynamic learning is defined as rapid, adaptive, collaborative, and self-directed learning at the moment of need. The new mindset recognizes learning as the source of sustained competitive advantage in the context of a protean organization.

As organizations move toward dynamic learning, they face a number of challenges. For example, employees across every demographic cohort demonstrate a general need for guidance in the use of social networking and digital media as learning tools. Many fall into patterns of inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and need help avoiding super saturation, working memory overload, non-productive learning, or irrelevant learning.

Learning leaders should consider more carefully the return-on-instruction for teaching employees how to develop skills for problem definition, scoping, searching, filtering, integrating, and interpreting to replace the unguided, free flow, and stream-of-consciousness patterns that prevail among employees. It may be time for learning organizations to take a step back and offer new “learn how to learn” solutions to help employees learn in the digital environment. Even Millennials, who are natural swimmers in social networking and digital media, don’t necessarily know how to learn in the domain. Swimming and learning are not necessarily the same thing.

Factor 3: Leadership Behavior
The third factor is leadership behavior, which we define as the dominant patters of leadership within an organization. The new behavioral requirement is shifting from knowledge and skills to the ability to acquire knowledge and skills. Competence is becoming a matter of individual dynamic learning. Not surprisingly, the new requirement can be personally threatening and psychologically unsafe for many leaders who have operated on the leader-as-expert model for so many years.

Leaders must stand first in line to model patterns of high performance learning. This requires a very different emotional and social posture. Leaders must become comfortable portraying themselves as competent by virtue of their ability to learn and adapt rather than on the basis of their current knowledge and skills. The new environment requires a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien to most traditional conceptions of leadership. Ironically, leaders are being challenged to develop and engender confidence in the very act of their not knowing. Leaders need to be able to acknowledge publicly when reality moves beyond their knowledge and skills, and do so based on their demonstrated ability to learn and adapt. They must be submissive to the fact that they will pass through periods of temporary incompetence as they move through learning and change cycles. But they will do so based on their underlying ability and willingness to learn. What’s different today is that credibility is based on personifying the qualities of a high performance learner more than those of an expert.

Indeed, we are starting to see the emergence of a new kind of leader. It may in fact be the biggest shift in emphasis in leadership development theory in several decades. As a pattern, the new leader is exceptionally attuned to the changing environment and the perishable nature of competitive advantage. Because of this ongoing acknowledgement, the new leader is less wedded to trappings of status and privilege, less ego-driven, less yearning for deference, and certainly less attached to the status quo. Instead, dynamic learning leaders are more concerned with understanding the changing ecology of their organizations and protecting the value the organization has created through a vigilance and readiness to learn and adapt. The leader understands that learning is where advantage comes from, that it represents the highest form of enterprise risk management, and that the biggest risk a firm can take is to cease to learn. It seems increasingly clear that leaders who don’t possess deep patterns of aggressive and self-directed learning in their dispositions are almost certain to fail, whereas the ones who do are almost certain to succeed, provided, however, they combine those learning patterns with the ability to engage people.

Factor 4: Organizational Support
The fourth factor is organizational support. High agility organizations support learners at all five moments of learning need:
  1. Learning how to do something new for the first time.
  2. Learning more based on prior learning experience. 
  3. Learning at the moment when learners apply what they have learned in the context of workflow. 
  4. Learning when things change in order to adapt to new ways of doing things.
  5. Learning when things go wrong in order to solve a problem.
As a simple diagnostic, an organization can measure its basic learning agility by assessing the organization’s capacity to address the five moments of need. As organizations put in place systems that facilitate learning agility, those systems must be aligned and integrated in an efficient and intuitive way to accommodate performance for all five.

There are other critical aspects of organizational support. Learning agility is a co-creative process that springs from richly enabled interactions within and beyond the organization. There must be a process-oriented view of the business as a whole rather than fragmented sets of siloed activities.

In addition, highly agile organizations embrace collaborative learning and apply effectively the collective knowledge and skills within and even beyond their borders. Collective knowledge and skills encompass not only what is resident and evolving within people, but also all that has been captured and stored along the way, made and kept useful in a form that is immediately accessible and adaptive to individual needs.

Factor 5: Technical Support (Learning Technology)
The fifth and final factor is technical support. As organizations step into a full-out pursuit of learning agility, they must guard against being techno-dazzled, and instead pursue learning technology as a means to enable the previous four factors. In spite of the lost paths that many organizations pursue, there is promising news.

The learning technology market is finally turning serious attention to the informal side of learning. In response, performance support, authoring, delivery, and brokering tools are going mainstream. In addition, performer-generated content through social networking is extending performance support capacity in response to the widespread need for fingertip knowledge support.

Learning Content Management is also reasserting itself in the form of multi-channel publishing from single-sourced, metadata-enriched content. Other broader knowledge management technologies and practices are beginning to wrap around these LCM systems, enhancing the ability to capture, store, manage, and maximize the usefulness of content capital.

Other types of technology that accelerate collaborative work are integrating as mashups, further disallowing structure, aggregating human capability, and harnessing innovation and value out of what, at a tactical level, is a chaotic creative process.
And as Web 2.0 tools and systems continue to integrate, orchestrate, and extend across the traditional siloed boundaries within and beyond the formal structures and firewalls of organizations, they will continue to enhance but not drive learning agility.
All of this reflects a beginning of what technology can and is doing to help organizations learn at or above the speed of change. The key, here, is to apply these technologies to this vital mission.

The Pursuit of Learning Agility
Two decades ago, Peter Senge challenged organizations to develop the capacity to learn and adapt quickly. Most leaders acknowledged his point, but did very little to make the learning organization a reality. In the meantime, markets have become more unforgiving. The good news is that leading companies are making significant gains in various aspects of learning agility. However, few are excelling in all five factors. There simply isn’t a more important leadership challenge today than to move an organization to higher levels of learning agility. For learning leaders, the call to action is clear. A seat at the table is available for those who are prepared to meet this challenge and thrive in the new normal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

I’ve always been a big New Year’s resolution guy. I’m not sure why I don’t muster up the same determination and focus throughout the year, but there’s something about that “clean slate” feeling of turning another page in the calendar to get me going. Although 2009 CLEARLY had its challenges, it was an amazing year for Performer Support and the growth of this community. We doubled in size and now have over 600 member companies visiting the site on a fairly regular basis. The conversations and energy around the many PS solutions occurring across this community are overwhelming. Both Con and I are anxious to see the many exciting things 2010 holds for this community and PS as a discipline. We both firmly believe that as we begin to come out of this recession that the training as we once knew it will never be the same, and are anticipating that PS will play a major role in how we serve our learners going forward.

With that said, I would like to share my Professional New Year’s Resolutions with you and see what you may be thinking about for 2010. PLEASE click on the comment “envelop” at the end of this post and add your two cents. We’d love to hear and share how this community sees training and Performer Support progressing in the upcoming calendar year.

New Year's Resolutions:
1. To continue to grow this community by over 500 new members this year. This may be a bit aggressiveJ but as the energy continues to grow we feel that this number is possible. Please feel free to invite any of your colleagues from within your company or those you know in your network. The more we add, the stronger and more helpful the community becomes. If you’d like to send them our email addresses so they can be added to the e-mailing list that would be fine.
2. Redesign and expand the PS Blog and community experience. Con and I have been hosting this blog for over 2 years now. Although we have enjoyed the dialogue, it’s time to take this discussion to a whole new level. We will be moving the blog to the NING platform in the first quarter of this year. This new technology platform will allow us to add other social networking capabilities which will enable us to serve each other better. We’d love to hear your feedback on what features/functionality you would like to see us add first. If you'd like to take our online survey please click here.
3. Explore, and continue to expand, new form factors such as mobile support – Having worked on a few mobile support projects in 2009, this platform seems to be perfectly positioned to play a strong role in performer support going forward. I’d like to see this community become a testing ground for the best ways and tools with which to deliver PS.
4. Single Source will explode in 2010 – Singe-Source publishing seems to be the tie that binds when it comes to effectively designing and integrating PS into an already vibrant learning strategy. Most organizations already use too many tools with redundant outputs and out-of-date content. Single-Source publishing has finally come of age and can do an amazing job of serving outputs for all 5 moments of need. I’m anxious to continue exploring this area and would love to see us share our collective experiences.
5. Elevate the moment of Apply – In these difficult economic times, and frankly any work environment I’ve ever known, the moment of Apply is where it all comes together. I would like to see the training/learning industry better recognize this all too critical moment of need for what it truly is and begin shifting our attention and efforts toward supporting it better. As a colleague of mine recently said, “If all we do isn’t about apply. Why even begin the journey”. For too many years we have been mired in formal instruction and helping our learner stall at only acquiring knowledge, or the first two moments of need. I hope we see 2010 as the year of Apply where we move beyond old models, tools, and strategies to an approach that is first and foremost performance driven, not simply knowledge driven.

Again, we’d love to hear your PS resolutions for 2010!! Please feel free to contribute a comment as we’ll post them to be shared across the community.

Monday, January 4, 2010

When Things Go Wrong


It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer.  Albert Einstein

Leaders are problem solvers by talent and temperament, and by choice.  Harlan Cleveland

One of the realities of life is that things don’t always work the way they’re supposed to work; life doesn’t always happen according to a script. And sometimes, in our rapid pursuit of doing what we need to do we make the wrong turn and experience those unique learning moments called road blocks or even failure. In the New Normal, it isn’t enough to know how to do something correctly, it is also vital to be able to diagnose and solve problems that happen along the way. The situations we call “problems” can be caused by unforeseen circumstances, other people, and ourselves. Regardless of the source, these moments of “Solve” require diagnostic skills coupled with performance support.

The traditional organizational bandage for solving problems that arise in the workflow are “help desks” and sometimes intentionally created support networks—both backed by capable troubleshooters. When life was copasetic with only a few twists or turns along the way, this may have been a sufficient solution. But, today, this model, alone, absolutely won’t solve the “solving” challenge.

The New Normal has shifted the definition of competence from simply applying knowledge and skills to continually acquiring and adapting knowledge and skills. Competence is now a matter of individual learning agility and the moments of “Solve” are prime contributors to the agility challenge.
Learners, today, must be comfortable in their ability to “Solve” unanticipated challenges. They must have confidence in the very act of not knowing. They must be disposed to face challenges beyond their current knowledge and skills. This confidence at these critical moments will come from:

  • A performer support infrastructure that has anticipated their needs at the moment of solve
  • The training they have received to engage those tools in solving problems,
  • The on-the-job successes they have along the way
  • Organizational acceptance of failed attempts that may happen in the process
 In addition, microblogging technologies provide remarkable opportunity for instantaneous access to the collective wisdom within and beyond the organizations we serve. Immediate collaboration at the moment of “Solve” combined with the capacity of individuals to resolve the core challenges that come their way are the scalable resources help desks need to meet the demands of the New Normal – a work environment in the state of constant flux.