CLOs can become integral to their organizations’ decision-making strategies by fully understanding their companies as personalities.
Strategies are constantly changing. Today we do one thing. Tomorrow we do another. In fact, the only successful strategy is adaptability — to markets, financial conditions and regulations.
So, obviously, learning and development must follow suit. Developing learning environments that support and accelerate an agile business strategy presents a complex journey, but it is crucial. Without flexibility, direction and speed in L&D, organizations will trend toward shifting the burden to outside expertise, further distancing the company’s opportunity for competitive adaptability. Learning organizations must continue to innovate to create a dynamic learning system — but to do so will require heightened awareness, better alignment, sophisticated analytics and the utilization of proven methodologies from other disciplines.
Knowledge of Self
The first thing to consider is the “eyes” of the organization — how it sees itself as a group of individuals working toward a common purpose. Conjoining learning practices to business strategy is impossible without a reflexive awareness of the company. Organizations do what they do as systems of people with strengths, weaknesses and quirks that develop into a personality.
But an organization’s personality is not its culture. Culture is a set of behaviors that represent the communicative aspects of a company. A personality, on the other hand, is how an organization does what it does, from insight and ethics to action. It speaks to how groups communicate, but also to how the organization moves, thinks and measures success. It largely defines how the collective sum will react to a business challenge. In the endless debate of nature versus nurture, it’s the ever-elusive and unchangeable nature. Knowing this nature intimately is the wonderful craft of a CLO — it defines how and when to intervene; what risks to take to let the organization learn on its own; where to spend; and when to accelerate.
Organizations are not machines that can be taken apart and fixed, but rather are social systems. And social systems are only useful within a context. What does an organization do when faced with domestic competition versus foreign regulation? In which context will the nature of the organization thrive? It’s not a matter of taking competency inventories against a necessary set. This is a reactive and generative capacity in the true light of native capability. Add or develop talent as one will, but without an appreciation of the spectrum of adaptability, success will be short-lived. High-leverage opportunities to build strength will go unutilized, while reactive, can’t-win situations will be over-resourced in an attempt to swim upstream.
Awareness happens at many levels — building connection and extensive dialogue with internal business clients, developing frameworks within L&D for how to understand the organization, and working with external customers and partners to develop external perspective on how the company presents itself. Regional perspective is also critical to investigate, as the strengths of the company will likely be perceived with different lenses in different cultures, all of which will bring awareness of the true adaptability against certain challenges.
Decision making is of unique consequence while building awareness of social systems. Heavy lifting happens in the white space of ideas and action as they hop through the neurons of a company’s brain. Undoubtedly, when employees move from one company to another, they stay the same as people, but so does the company. When a learning organization stops focusing on people and starts getting to know its company’s consciousness, it will know how and when to move the company’s feet.
A Seat at the Table
The next step is to apply knowledge of a company’s overall being to strategic decisions. Strategies are set based on market context relative to goals and risk. With a thoughtful awareness of the company’s true capabilities, both in part and sum, risk can be greatly reduced at both the strategic and tactical level.
Learning professionals are often advised to and strive to get “a seat at the table” in their organizations. Such “seats” come from possessing a certain level of business acumen. Learning is fundamentally a business function, not an academic or a humanitarian one, and extensive analytics, financial muscle, valuable market context and visionary insight are the cornerstones of the discipline. The immediate goal should therefore be to invest training resources in business acumen skills for L&D staff.
Absent a role in the decision-making process, the potential risks and opportunity inherent in the learning function will go underrepresented to the company’s detriment. So much of strategy is about how the organization’s strengths can be exercised toward a changing market or internal consideration. It’s not a binary question — it’s the push and pull of what is and what can be done. Knowing the native capabilities of the entire organization or the supported units is fundamental to any contribution at the decision-making table.
L&D professionals should develop business-oriented analytics, consider the history of their organization and build learning into that narrative. They should ask themselves how their department will be affected in the event of a crisis, economic or otherwise. On a constantly shifting strategic cycle, there’s little time to react and retool. In aggressive cycles, the company can only do what it does and know and communicate what it can do in terms of business outcomes and a measurable upside.
Alignment isn’t always built at the executive table, either. Through awareness of internal clients’ challenges, strengths and goals, tactics can be impacted on a broad or specialized level to cause the group or company to move better, faster and more efficiently. Proactively building relationships within the organization and developing political capital and trust frequently distinguish success from failure. Relationships within the company can prove more effective than senior executive support.
L&D pros should ask themselves how prepared their team is to build alignment across the entire company; what’s required to get there; how insulated the L&D group is; and how “just in case” relationships can be fostered and tested.
L&D’s contributions to business outcomes are often unclear. Learning and development is inherently a supportive function, and measurement therefore tends to focus on secondary or tertiary outcomes from specific initiatives. Why invest in L&D? Often the answer to this question is speculative. In turn, this lack of assurance contributes to the cycle of under-consultation and lack of involvement in the decision-making process. The trappings of an L&D organization can be measured in the distance from the performance indicators of the rest of the business.
A pragmatic set of measures lends credibility and caution to the contribution learning plays. And this is not about learner satisfaction or scores. Through partnership with the rest of the organization, true ownership must be established toward the same goals the rest of the organization is measuring itself against. If metrics don’t exist, demand them. In today’s environment, learning professionals must have the same level of analytical capability as their business counterparts. The change begins with a question, and the question should always be: What impact will we have on the business, and how will we demonstrate it?
Learning groups are way too slow. Tools that encourage the distributed development of learning programs are changing the pace, but much more is required. Progressive software development groups use a set of concepts collectively referred to as “agile,” and more and more companies are also using the principles to manage their businesses and reduce market lag and therefore cost and risk. Agile development uses life cycles as short as one to four weeks; self-organizing, highly autonomous teams; and rapid feedback to produce outputs that adapt closely with business strategy. It embraces a philosophy of analytics and eschews any long-term planning.
In an agile process, whether used for software or managing a business, any concept of “perfect” is considered to be 90 percent fictional in even the best light. Partial releases of design are taken to customers at least monthly and tested extensively against a core set of outcomes with different approaches to the problem. The projects are managed by independent teams with a core set of roles that is overlaid upon standard development.
L&D organizations can learn from this approach. Even with the concept of L&D as a service organization now in widespread use, metrics in L&D can be fuzzy, outcomes can be unclear and very little market — i.e., organization — analysis and segmentation occurs ahead of development.
L&D professionals should ask themselves: What does your market need, and how quickly will you know if you’ve seen a result? How positioned are you to adapt to a less-than-desirable outcome? Do you build programs, pilot and then release them, or are you developing a program in two- to four-week sprints and constantly iterating market feedback into the program? Learning groups must begin to act like entrepreneurial upstarts and spend every dime on reducing delusion and achieving business results just as measurable as revenue using agile practices.
Hand on the Throttle
A special advantage of being agile in a midsized or large organization is the amount of talent available on which to build a rapid development capability. Sun’s notable use of technology to source knowledge bites within the organization, especially toward ends that are inherently short-lived — e.g., product knowledge or customer information — is a great example. Effective for temporal insights, it also sets the stage for how to source development of longer-life development or to power more strategic road maps.
Learning leaders are product owners who own metrics that align with their business partners. They take accountability not for releases, but for impact on an ongoing basis. This is not only measurement in the sense of a single program’s goals, but also ownership of the speed with which critical results are delivered across varied initiatives and attempts. It’s do-or-die time for learners and the teams who serve them. This is running the business of learning as a business — sourcing development, delivery and modality based on extensive testing to create a desired result. Many organizations are using broader sourcing within the company to achieve velocity, but few are fully embracing a business mandate for speed and innovation as authentic entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, adaptability is about knowing oneself — boundaries, capabilities and pitfalls. Self-awareness allows one to find success in the world through more effective trial and error. Individuals do it quickly and constantly as they continue to discover themselves and others. Organizations aren’t that different, except they frequently make gross miscalculations on the flexibility and rarely assume the same level of personal accountability.
Business strategies change. The best ones rapidly iterate within a larger vision of the future and dance with the company in lockstep. L&D can and must coordinate with those strategies by developing a market-oriented business of learning that aligns with those priorities just as any other function does. Doing so effectively will require a mind shift established on awareness, analytics and velocity — a sustainable and rapidly evolving approach to a known opportunity. Know, leverage what’s known, and become learning entrepreneurs.