This is the first in a series of articles in which the authors will explore their reflections on the future of learning, given the tumult and chaos of the past few months, and how learning needs to evolve to serve organizations differently.
Organizations that learn well also perform well … do you agree? We both do; if you are learning more skillfully than your competitors, performance and engagement will be differentiated. In this way, corporate learning should be a serious undertaking. We suspect that most Chief Learning Officer readers will agree with this statement, too.
But if this is the case, why do the outputs and results of the learning function so often fall short? Too often, a strategic conversation about learning becomes a tactical discussion about programs and capabilities.
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, learning programs, even virtual ones, are often a form of performance art. We believe — having worked across many industries, geographies and years — that too many organizations around the world have “learning teams” dedicated to creating theater. Their purpose, like all theatrical productions, is to extract the highest possible ratings at the end of a program; to entertain. Learning people have too often become events people, and our stakeholders have grown accustomed to calling us to ask for programs and “edutainment”: We throw great parties, invite sparkling guests and speakers, ensure that participants have a blast … and we’re rewarded for it.
To comment on this reality, we had to consider which of our perspectives to weigh more heavily — James is British (read: understated), and Todd is American-Australian (read: provocative). We decided to let Todd respond to the edutainment reality of corporate learning: “It pisses us off.”
This is our attempt to begin a global conversation about reinventing what learning does for the organization. What happens when learning is approached as a serious, strategic undertaking?
Three needed shifts
Most learning leaders speak with great authority about the 70-20-10 model; we all know that the most powerful learning occurs on the job, not in programs. Yet, decades after the original studies that coined the 70-20-10 moniker, there is little evidence that learning departments are transforming themselves to enable real on-the-job learning. We continually retread the familiar landscape of program design and capability reviews instead of looking at how learning can become integral to ways of working.
We don’t believe that better e-learning or better learning programs are the answer here. We believe what’s called for is a strategy for on-the-job learning. Such a strategy would challenge some of our most fundamental assumptions, but it would also capture the ultimate prize of learning — to achieve differentiated performance and engagement, to visibly shift local behaviors and to position learning as a strategic capability.
Organizations are vibrant jungle gyms of learning. We need to stop focusing on what to teach and how to deliver it, and instead focus on building on-the job learning strategies. In our view, there are three shifts that learning leaders must master to develop a real strategy for on-the-job learning:
- We need a different who (by focusing on teams, not individuals, as the building blocks of learning).
- We need a different where (by focusing less on abstraction and more on application points).
- We need a different when (by focusing learning at the critical inflection points in organizational life instead of sleepy offsites).
Shift No. 1: WHO — shifting from an individual to a team focus
The unit of learning for most organizations is the individual. In most places, learning and talent are inextricably linked; they are viewed as two dimensions of the same problem. Our metrics, reports, measures and interventions are all geared toward the individual. Unfortunately, this thinking limits what learning can do within organizations. When learning is an organizational asset aimed to drive organizational performance, it happens in teams and groups, not merely for individuals.
There is nothing wrong with focusing on the retention and development of individuals, but don’t think that such a focus will yield sizable organizational benefits. As we shift to focus more on teams as the units of learning, some very practical things emerge as fundamental, with varying degrees of complexity and impact.
As a starting point, managers have to develop skill, and be held accountable, as teachers. In their simplest form, can elements of existing programs include, or be taught by, managers? Leader-led learning is incredibly powerful, but for it to be impactful, leaders need to be challenged to teach out of their comfort zone, not merely run through a well-rehearsed slide pack. Conveying content is easy, and it should never be the focus; good leader-led learning creates an environment for a different kind of discussion and quality of listening between participants and their managers. Dialogue is a powerful vehicle of alignment, and when learning programs can build in opportunities for managers to have the right conversations with their people, new ways of engaging emerge.
Moving up the complexity and impact curve, when managers can cultivate skill and expectations to teach their teams, cadence can then be created around the learning that happens in team meetings. Almost all of the traditional programs that Todd’s firm delivers integrate leader-led tools that participants take home with them to teach their teams. The goal of individuals’ development, then, is not merely for themselves, but as pollinators of ideas back in their normal team meetings. “Teaching is learning twice,” said French writer Joseph Joubert; we believe that teaching is one of the most underused levers for leadership. Based on our experience, metrics around this type of learning become a leading indicator of strategy execution, culture and engagement. What better way to shift away from the individual than to have the team leader teach the group?
As comfort with the team as the unit of learning increases, more and more opportunities become clear as a new organizational muscle is built. In one program James led recently, participants were selected not for their individual qualities (most commonly, the high-potential program) but on the basis of the type of commercial opportunity they were attempting to capture. This program then involved subordinates both in understanding the issues at play and working through new ideas and solutions in the context of real opportunities; at its best, learning becomes a commercial driver for teams, not merely a break for an individual. In one global professional services firm, leader-led tools were developed and skills built to allow regional leaders to teach the firm’s new strategy. Anyone who knows professional services firms knows that partners are not particularly good at executing someone else’s ideas. But by approaching the conveyance of the strategy, not through canned presentations but through provocative dialogues in local teams, buy-in and execution skyrocketed.
The first shift, then, is to recognize that our organizing unit of learning has to shift, and we need to develop new tactics to affect real teams doing real work.
Shift No. 2: WHERE — shifting from learning about abstract concepts to learning in application
Learning people tend to be smart, bookish types; we like models, ideas and “shiny new toys.” To build a strategy for learning at work, this approach needs to stop. We have to focus much more on context than content. This is not to say that being smart, well-informed and nimble with cutting-edge research and new concepts is not helpful; you just don’t lead with those things. If shift No. 1 questions the efficacy of the individual and psychology as the starting point of learning, this shift inserts sociology and behavioral economics as skills that every learning team needs. There are two interesting examples of this approach, in practice.
In Todd’s practice, there is a considerable focus on moving away from capabilities (a familiar what of learning) to routines (the social moments when those capabilities show up to make a difference). Let us give you an example of this shift: Almost every organization talks about the importance of collaboration as a capability. Let us be blunt: The last thing any organization needs is a bunch of people collaborating all the time. Collaboration matters at discrete moments in the value chain — at particular moments. The best performers in any organization, and at any particular hierarchical level within that organization, execute collaboration in distinctive ways; they have different routines that enable collaboration. These moments of collaboration need to be identified, codified and replicated around the real work, where they add the most value. When working with teams on collaboration, new academic models can enter the fray, but they are not the primary focus. The primary focus is not on the skill (collaboration); it is about focusing on a critical routine (or moment) of work, and becoming excellent at it. This shifts where teams focus and helps learning become part of team discussions and cadence, and it helps leaders get greater visibility of the real things that they can do day-to-day to affect performance.
James’ approach at Goldman Sachs has leveraged the firm’s client obsession to drive learning. Within the culture and operating realities of Goldman Sachs, “learning” may not be vital, but clients are! GS has recognized this reality and has built learning around clients and client relationships. The format of these client sessions takes different forms, ranging from day-long events for selected clients (“selected” here meaning both the organization and the individual from that institution); multi-day offsite programs for senior executives together with their GS relationship lead; and, on occasion, specific events for clients and their GS counterparts. By building learning around clients and client relationships as the critical application point, several benefits emerge. First, it appeals to GS professionals who value the opportunity to engage in a distinctive, often more personal, dialogue with their clients. Second, the client executives appreciate the opportunity to develop their own thinking, skills and networks — especially those from smaller organizations which might not have such extensive in-house learning expertise. Third, collective thinking around real, big problems driven by the exchange of diverse ideas among and between companies and demographics creates ongoing impact. As with Todd’s example on routines, the context of this learning is more important than the content. The application matters more than the concepts that are taught; by leveraging client relationships into our approach to learning, the appetite for learning from GS leaders increases, and its relevance skyrockets.
Shift No. 3: WHEN — from learning at peaceful breaks to learning in tumult
James (whom Todd teases for being “high-brow”), likes to describe this shift in this way: “We need to shift from learning in parallel to learning in series.” Todd (playing the part of the “country bumpkin”) translates this as: “We need to stop making learning ‘recess’ from work and create structure for learning amid the tumult and chaos of real work.”
For most of us, the recent months of covid-19 have required significant learning and adaptation at the individual, team and organizational levels. The situation demands it. And in steadier times, outside of large-scale societal shocks, there are key moments in the lives of teams and in the value chain where learning happens because, again, the situation demands it. These tumultuous moments can surround a critical handoff between teams, a client pitch or presentation to senior stakeholders, or amid a transition (helping to integrate a new supervisor or accelerating the onboarding of a new joiner). In these moments, learning no longer focuses on the individual picking up some new ideas; rather, it focuses on the collective, social work environments putting those ideas into practice with one another to get results, quickly. Yet we have a bad, legacy habit of turning many of these dynamic, tumultuous moments of learning into static and staid events that leverage outdated traditions or local nuance and idiosyncrasy. Moments like these are huge opportunities for on-the-job learning strategies that teach the organization in ways that get traction and impact performance and culture.
Fortunately, tumult is common in most organizations; the goal of a good on-the-job learning strategy is to identify the highest value points where structure and application can yield discrete social value and team, individual and organizational learning.
Organizational onboarding of experienced hires is an example of a tumultuous moment that is frequently missed for its on-the-job learning potential: A successful, experienced person needs to balance their own expertise with fitting into their new organization. Yet most companies approach onboarding as “organizational socialization” — or, we need to bend the new people into our shape!
At Goldman Sachs, recruiting is seen as a critical activity. Senior leaders are actively involved and the hiring process is famous for the investment of time committed by professionals. James, for example, had 36 interviews before an offer was extended. Yet the onboarding of new hires has traditionally received far less investment. James’ team overhauled the onboarding experience, replacing a conventional event (mostly, a series of talking heads) with a series of peer-based and social exercises designed to create bonds and build culture as well as knowledge. With more experienced hires, his team also introduced sessions to learn from new hires — what do they see at GS, what can they teach the company and what ideas can be shared with their new employer? For a company that is 150 years old, with a strong culture, this infusion of fresh thinking and perspectives is of high value and is an important signal to new hires that fresh thinking is encouraged; their job is not merely to “fit in.” By seizing on this moment and the tumult surrounding it, learning can create structure around these people to help them catalyse learning in their teams, and bring their expertise and insights to the table, quickly.
Learning in tumult can also require learning leaders to study the value chain of their organization and understand where learning can add value. One pharmaceutical client Todd has worked with has turned the FDA approvals process into one of their most powerful and impactful learning events. Historically, these were moments of in-fighting and foot-dragging, as teams were focused on their own bits and pieces (and as influential legal and regulatory gatekeepers sent people packing). Teams with different expertise converge to share inputs on the application and defend their “patch,” with the entire process overseen by a project leader. By redesigning the submission process around learning, and putting a learning lead on the project to accelerate delivery and challenge legacy ways of working, their cycle-time for submissions has increased and collaboration has improved.
Learning in tumult requires grit from learning leaders; most operational leaders will protest that their people are too busy and don’t need to be distracted. Yet, it is in these most critical moments when learning can yield the most value and become a true strategic differentiator.
A strategy for on-the-job learning is not like a child’s game where unicorns and rainbows are superimposed on the real things that people go through everyday. Learning people are not chasing ratings. Instead, they look deeply at the people experience and operating realities of their organization and identify the high-value inflection points where learning can be a competitive advantage. Once these opportunities for real work are identified, they can be codified and made visible, and learning can happen.
Approaching learning in this way requires courage. Most organization leaders are perfectly happy requesting the next tranche of programs; they are familiar with describing things in the abstract and looking for the models that mirror the realities that they see in the day-to-day. A real strategy for on-the-job learning short-circuits translation and forces learning leaders into the fray. It starts with an understanding of the organization, learning and work; it looks at power (formal and informal), and it brings structure and dialogue to the chaos and tumult that people face in their day-to-day realities. An approach to on-the-job learning not only challenges operational leaders and teams, it requires something very different from learning leaders and learning professionals — but we’ll get into that in our next article in this series.