Businesses could stand to learn a thing or two from this year’s election season. Successful political campaign teams are like visibly potent learning organizations. They move with agility — constantly generating ideas, monitoring and feeding the news, solving problems, negotiating relationships, and always learning — and are driven by a single purpose: surviving.
“If you can survive campaigning, it might be easier to survive in business,” said Mark Kennedy, political management professor and director of the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
In today’s volatile global environment, survival doesn’t come standard with legacy or even the smartest business strategy. Survival requires a leadership style adjustable to today’s realities, and organizations must operate in an optimized, smart, almost campaign-like manner to survive and thrive.
For Kennedy, a former senior vice president and treasurer for Macy’s and once a U.S. congressman, operating a business is like running a campaign. After all, these special interest groups constantly campaign against business. If organizations “don’t think they’re in a campaign, they’re going to find themselves progressively in a challenge.”
Moving Right Along
A confluence of events has contributed to today’s pressurized work environment, said Kieran King, global vice president of loyalty strategy at Skillsoft. Overworked, overwhelmed and exasperated, today’s knowledge worker is at a deficit when it comes to dedicated learning time as it is, she said.
During the global economic crisis, many organizations downsized the size and structure of their different functions to stay afloat and navigate the sea of change in business. Learning functions were often among the first cut, and many organizations never fully recovered.
King said by not rehiring to pre-economic meltdown levels, many organizations placed new pressures on the employees who remained. With their development stopped or limited, these often over-burdened employees lacked the skills needed to deal with their new reality. At the same time, business practices around bringing personal digital devices to the office were loosening up — blurring the line between work and home life. “Work never got shut off,” King said.
The rise of digital, cloud and mobile technology created opportunities for more agile companies to upset the big business giants that had led the market for years. “If you think about all industries, business agility has replaced market dominance in terms of surviving and thriving into the next new era and certainly to try to combat competition,” she said.
As Cisco Systems Inc.’s vice president and general manager, Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn’s work revolves around the agility of her company. With technology moving faster, it’s been imperative that Cisco move at “lightning speed” with being able to provide people information of what is going on in technology, how it should be used and what to stay away from, as well as the things to do.
Roughly 20 years ago when Cisco first started helping create the networking that enabled the power of the Internet, Beliveau-Dunn said the company had a big challenge: a brand new industry and a lack of talent to plan, design and implement its customers’ networks. She likened the challenge to building a city without the roads needed to support the operation — or the road builders. Further, the Cisco population wasn’t the only group to consider. Beliveau-Dunn said the company had to think about how to get its customers and partners set up to build so the networking could truly take off.
At the time, the global tech company was holding in-person and online training but leaders realized that real learning was accomplished not only through development and certification programs but also from everyday experiences on the job.
“We wanted to make sure that as we upskilled and created this new talent in the industry, we went from about 200,000 people back then to needing about 3 million of them to be able to make the curve and be able to grow networking and the Internet to the scale it is today,” Beliveau-Dunn said.
This development of network builders began with job-role courses, curriculum and certification programs mapped to the best practices in the industry. No sooner had the team realized a need to build a support system where tech workers could go to ask questions, get answers, and collaborate and learn from one another — that the company realized expecting the community to learn just from Cisco was untenable; the company accounted for only 2 or 3 percent of the whole networking workforce population. With the rest of the population sitting outside of Cisco, it needed to build, develop and foster a sense of community to scale.
When the company introduced the social learning platform Cisco Learning Network about eight years ago, it brought tech workers together to get to know each other, network, find jobs and, ultimately, to learn how to be agile.
“The thing is, no matter how good you are at building training and curricula, there’s always a new thing that you found out today that you didn’t know yesterday that you want to make sure gets out there in terms of information,” Beliveau-Dunn said. “Learning communities bring that real-time information to the center of learning within the community.”
In the past two years, Cisco has accelerated learning by taking connectivity to another level by opening up an environment where employees can quickly and easily find experts and engage with them via chat or other applications. Cisco Collaborative Knowledge has all the capabilities of the older platform but with more collaboration tools. Further, it uses data analytics to make searches for experts simpler. Beliveau-Dunn said someone can plug in a few keywords and gain access to a wealth of information from white papers and training as well as people blogging about a given topic or giving classes on it. The company launched the platform internally in late 2015, with 14,000 users and counting. It also sells the solution to customers as a way to build a more agile workforce.
Beliveau-Dunn said with so much of learning coming from daily work, learning tools and capability needed to be built within the work itself to be effective. “That’s going to be the next generation of learning. It’s going to take social … collaborative learning to a whole new dimension to really agile learning.”
Skillsoft’s King said the smart way to go about building a fast-moving learning organization that is positioned to meet the challenges unfolding in today’s fast-paced business landscape requires executives to be conscious of the need to develop a culture of highly engaged employees who can help the business adapt.
But executives often struggle with culture and engagement. In the Bersin by Deloitte report “Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work,” culture and engagement rank highest among pressing business challenges globally.
To foster a nimble and engaged learning environment, King said organizations will have to dismantle a lot of the friction points that are weighing down human resources. For instance, the walls isolating talent and learning into disparate pieces have to be torn down. “CEOs must act with a sense of urgency because of the skill shortage across the entire globe,” she said. “Tens of millions of jobs are going to maintain a vacancy unless we can create a culture of engaged employees that tracks talent and also helps retain and flourish the talent inside the organization.”
Business leaders should intentionally examine themselves from the outside in, then focus on the interior of the organization. Essentially, King said to prevent disruption from wreaking havoc in an organization, leaders have to pay close attention to competitors with new concepts but currently might be at the fringe. “But you can see that if they have a little bit … more capital injected into their financial structure, they could become a serious threat,” she said.
Who could be a fringe disruptor, and how would they pose a threat? Is it because they have better, more innovative business models? Are they more adaptable and responsive to customer expectations? Are their operational infrastructures or supply chains more fluid?
Learning leaders have to intimately understand these answers as well. Employees will have specific and related developmental needs, and the learning organization must enable them to respond quickly during times of change or to any strategic business shift. Learning leaders must learn what employees want and need, what skills they currently possess and what skills the organizations will need them to develop for tomorrow.
“These are some basic things that learning and development professionals must get a better handle on,” King said. “Pretty soon, we’re going to be facing a very serious talent gap. We’re simply not going to have enough skilled professionals to satisfy the number of positions that will be created.
“We’re going to have to really create ingenious ways to develop from within. How can we take the existing talent we have and pivot really quickly, when we need to, and make it malleable so that we have that agility?”
Learning leaders also will need their executive peers’ ear if they are to make progress developing a culture capable of supporting a highly agile workforce. King called this necessary communication “table stakes.” The problem is, she said, things tend to fall apart as strategy trickles down.
Chief learning officers can navigate this and demonstrate that investments in learning pay off big dividends by immersing themselves and their solutions in the lines of business. Learning leaders need to intimately understand each of the business functions they support, such as marketing, sales and finance. Their respective key performance indicators are pretty standard, King said.
“If the CLO can understand what those key performance indicators are and then cascade them out as key performance indicators for the learning team, then we inherit the very same principles, the very same objectives, of those we’re trying to serve,” King said. “We shouldn’t have separate and independent key performance indicators for just the learning function. It should be extremely business relevant.”
When using their insights about employee and organizational needs, learning leaders need to be open to exploring learning delivery options that support learning agility. King said to focus on a specific modality is to put all of one’s eggs into one basket, and organizations risk being able to confidently address all learning moments of need.
Instead, Beliveau-Dunn said, it’s more important to keep key qualities in mind when creating learning solutions. Best-in-class learning modalities combine relevance, convenience and interactivity. Today’s learning is not just about the functionality when employees read an important white paper on their smartphone or enroll in a virtual classroom experience, but also about the mentoring, community-building and knowledge-sharing implicit in these intentionally social environments.
Social networks run as continuously growing threads through many facets of contemporary society’s fabric. To extend their reach to workplace learning is natural, advantageous even — particularly to a business campaigning to have the public clamoring for its products or services.
In a rapidly moving and continuously changing business environment, it’s imperative that organizations access, share and use what they’ve learned with others. Today, learning is no longer discreet, to be attended to at designated place and time, Beliveau-Dunn said. It is part of the business, and it has to be continuous.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.