When I was a child, admittedly now a long, long time ago, one of the most favorite games we played in school and in our neighborhood was “Simon Says.” The rules of the game are incredibly simple: Do exactly, but only, what Simon tells you to do. If the game leader were to say, “Simon says – put your finger to your nose,” everyone was supposed to put their fingers to their noses. “Simon says – pull on your ear,” we’d all start pulling our ears until they almost touched our shoulders. But if the instruction was not preceded by the term “Simon Says,” you were to do nothing, standing frozen, right hand on nose, left hand yanking on ear. To win at “Simon Says,” one must be obedient and attentive to the core, always mindful of following the facilitator’s instructions, but only when Simon’s name was invoked as a means of legitimizing the command.
I’m afraid those of us in the learning and development (L&D) function are playing a strikingly similar game, with only a slight change in name. Instead of “Simon Says,” we’re becoming all too skilled at “Guru Says.” Brand-name consultants and business school faculty go out on the speaking circuit, promote their latest ointment on how to build transformational leaders in a one-day workshop, and we can’t seem to run back to our offices fast enough to rub that oil all over our organizations. The inherent problem with this approach is not so much the topical themes being promoted by the consultants or professors. After all, at the end of the day they’re just like the rest of us, trying to make a living. The more disturbing aspect in all of this is the apparent lack of perspective and judgment on the part of those responsible for designing and implementing high-impact learning in their organizations. Guru says, “Action learning is the way to go,” and all of a sudden, every program in your company has to have an action-learning component to it. Guru says, “Leader-led,” and we see nothing but leader-led initiatives. Guru says, “E-learning enables thousands of leaders to be developed more efficiently,” and you find yourself designing a leadership program that has your participants trying to learn leadership by squinting into a computer monitor. It’s scary. Take a deep breath, and rely on what you have learned about how adults learn. Do you honestly believe that the high-potentials in your organization will learn how to lead through an e-learning course? Come on.
Learning Effectiveness in Your Organizationï¿½Get the Right Tool for the Job
The point of the introductory commentary is not to deride consultants or business school professors. After all, I have been both, so I know that if used properly, they can be of enormous value to your organizations. Nor is the point to make you feel as though you are not being thoughtful about your fundamental responsibilities as senior learning and development professionals. Most CLOs with whom I have worked are extremely bright, business-minded leaders of their functions. Rather, the point is to underscore how critically important the learning and development function is to building your company’s competitive capabilities. How important? If you get it right, you will develop your company’s critical talent pools, cultivate your organization’s next generation of leaders and enable the execution of your firm’s next-generation strategies. Tell me of a more important role that can be played in helping today’s knowledge-intensive organizations stay out in front.
But in order to get it right, it is critical to find a four-way fit among your firm’s key organizational capability requirements, the customer of your learning initiatives, the context in which the learning will take place and the various learning approaches that will facilitate optimal learning. Brief definitions are in order:
- Organizational Capability Requirements: The critical core competencies the organization needs in order to execute its strategic initiatives effectively.
- The Learning Customer: The internal customer of the learning activity.
- The Learning Context: The physical environment where learning takes place, including business schools, in-company facilities and the job assignment.
- Learning Approaches: The various methods that are available for learning (traditional classroom, technology-enabled, action learning, leader-led learning, structured benchmarking and knowledge sharing and coaching and mentoring).
(Note: For those reading this article who are not in the learning and development profession, you may wish to refer to Figure 1, which provides practical definitions of some of the learning approaches listed above).
Just as many of our organizations’ strategies are moving away from a product-centric orientation to a customer-centric orientation, so too should L&D move away from the product-centric approach to a more customer-centric approach. A product-centric L&D organization might “push” action learning, for example, as the panacea for all training and development needs. The customer-centric approach would address the organization’s and learning clients’ needs simultaneously and find the appropriate solution to those developmental challenges. A customer-centric approach, for example, would enable your L&D function to understand quickly that your team would not be successful recommending an e-learning approach to develop strategic leadership capabilities in your high-potential, next-generation leaders. Starting with the developmental needs of the organization as well as your learning customer, you will be able to develop a matrix that merges capability requirements, the learning customer, the context of the learning and approaches to be used.
Example: Learning and Education at PricewaterhouseCoopers
In the late 1990s, PriceWaterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand merged into PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Overnight, the newly merged firm became the largest professional services firm in the world. At the time of the merger, PwC had 160,000 employees and did business in 125 countries around the world. The firm was also adding 1,000 new employees per week to its workforce. As with any major merger or acquisition, there were sensitive issues to be resolved about the composition of PwC’s top team, its organizational structure, its strategy and values and its emerging population of leaders. In addition to these and other sensitive strategic issues, there was an ongoing need to keep PwC’s professionals highly trained and at the cutting edge of their disciplines, the hallmark of any professional services firm.
Ed Smith, a partner within the Coopers legacy operation, was appointed CLO for the newly created PwC. Smith, a successful consultant within Coopers with little HRD experience, understood implicitly from his work with clients the importance of running a customer-centric L&D operation for PwC. Smith set a series of both doable and stretch goals for himself and his operation – the trademark of a highly successful executive. He segmented his initiatives first by the perceived value added to PwC’s short- and long-term objectives, then targeted key client groups for each of those initiatives.
Using this approach, Smith almost immediately found himself using L&D at PwC as the primary vehicle through which the firm’s top team set its strategy, articulated and communicated its new core values, informed and educated the firm’s newly identified change agents and resolved key issues such as the composition of the top team and the manner in which they would work together. Smith’s choice for these initiatives was a combination of facilitated dialogue and action learning, literally forcing the newly merged groups into behaving more like a team in order to get their work done.
Once the top team was in place and as aligned as a newly merged top team could be in its early days of working together, Smith set out to capture the attention of PwC’s next-generation leaders. Smith knew that many of these individuals were highly mobile and were being actively recruited by PwC’s competitors – and by virtually every well-known executive recruiting firm. Smith made it a point early on to target these emerging leaders as the equivalent of PwC’s crown jewels. But action learning would not be an appropriate intervention for this target group. Instead, Smith convinced Jim Schiro, PwC’s CEO at the time, to engage in a leader-led discussion about the firm’s strategy, its values and its operational challenges. Schiro would use these “Next Generation Leaders” sessions to welcome PwC’s high-potentials into the firm’s inner circle, a move that would prove to be highly motivational for these emerging executives.
Yet another important customer of PwC’s L&D operation were its rank-and-file consultants, those perhaps not identified as next-generation leaders, but still logging hundreds of thousands of billable hours for PwC’s clients. The key objective for this group was to keep PwC’s consultants at the top of their game professionally. In this case, neither action learning nor storytelling through a leader-led program would be appropriate. Rather, Smith and Jim Sheegog, one of Smith’s key deputies, built one of the world’s most impressive technology-enabled learning infrastructures. The firm built what it could internally, created relationships with enterprise learning systems platform providers and contracted with several top-name business schools to help skill-up PwC’s total workforce on topics that were suited to e-learning.
Several years after the merger, it would become more and more clear to PwC’s leadership that client service at the local level was of the utmost importance, so the firm reorganized into a multi-regionalized federation. L&D at PwC has responded accordingly and is now a vehicle for providing each of its regions with world-class learning and educational services.
Key Steps for Assessing Fit of Learning Styles in Your Enterprise
There are four key steps to take when exploring which learning approaches are best suited for your company.
- Do your homework: The more your organization knows about the variety of learning interventions, the more likely you will be to use the appropriate learning approach for your targeted customers of learning. Understand what action learning is all about, when it will have impact and when it might not. Take the time to learn about the use of leader-led development efforts and what the key ingredients are for designing and implementing a first-rate leader-led program. Know which business schools are offering programs that reflect their core competence and not just a perceived business opportunity for them.
- Know what will work in your company’s culture: Not every learning intervention will fly in every company. A no-nonsense business culture might prevent an adventure team-building course on the coast of Maine from ever seeing the light of day. Similarly, while many business schools’ executive education programs are extremely valuable and of high quality, a company that wants to get right down to its immediate business challenges might reject proposals for courses that are more conceptual than applications-oriented.
- Make sure you have a team in place that will deliver excellence: Just having the desire to intervene at the top-team level doesn’t necessarily mean that your L&D team has the capacity to deliver quality at that customer level. What you choose to do internally, execute with distinction. If you need to partner with consultants or business schools in order to deliver excellent customer value, then do so. Don’t make the mistake of playing above your head simply because you perceive it to be more exciting up there.
- Determine if a learning intervention will contribute to a successful business outcome: Learn to differentiate between a series of business decisions and a learning intervention. Ask yourself: “Is there a learning agenda involved in this business need?” “Will one of our learning approaches actually contribute to delivering the business results we are after?” In other words, ask yourself: “Is learning, in this case, the right tool for the job?”
Glossary of Some Learning Approaches
Action Learning: A methodology that blends the conceptual development of new ideas with real work projects as a means of teaching the newly introduced concepts through practical applications.
Leader-Led Development: A learning approach that relies heavily upon the company’s own senior executives to teach the key intended lessons of leadership, strategy and core values. This approach is often used when simultaneously building an organization’s strategic capabilities and its organizational character.
Structured Benchmarking and Knowledge Sharing: Structured benchmarking usually involves a formal process of learning “targeted capabilities” from other, almost always non-competitive, companies. Knowledge sharing is usually referred to as an intra-organizational activity in large complex companies. In other words, a company the size of GE or IBM is so large and often so decentralized that there is usually a great deal to be learned by setting up intra-company knowledge-sharing sessions.
Douglas A. Ready, Ph.D. is founder and president of the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, a Lexington, Mass.-based global learning partnership between 40 global companies and 25 of the world’s top business schools. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.