These four articles were published in Learning Technologies Magazine October 2013 to January 2014. I am republishing on my blog in reverse order. So this is actually no 2 in the reprint and no 3 as originally printed. Hope it is useful.
Each article is based on a Chapter of my book: “the Learning Challenge” which will be published later this year.
Leader as Facilitator or Enabler
The role of corporate learning, and the role of the learning leader are on a trajectory. This trajectory takes us on a journey from an isolated self-contained, quasi-autonomous learning operation, to one that is fully engaged in the business. It takes us from a course catalogue mentality, to the rich provisioning of a learning environment. A move from separate incidents of learning, to focus on continuous learning processes, and from the obsession with formal, class-based learning, to a balance between what is formal, and what is experiential, and on-the-job. We are moving from large chunks of learning delivered infrequently, to small focused granules delivered at the precise moment of need. This is a huge shift from isolation to incorporation, and from management indifference and polite tolerance, to enthusiastic embrace. Quite a trajectory really!
There is no real alternative. New learning leaders are making a genuine difference to the organisations they work for, and they can explain that difference in tangible business terms that any member of the company can understand clearly. They are no longer providing a diet of enjoyable, gourmet bites of learning, but transforming efficiency and effectiveness of the whole organisation by working on what is needed rather than what is nice to have.
The cause of this is not the slow, inexorable path of technology push, but a revolution in the way that work is organised, and delivered, coupled with the committed and engaged response to those changes from the learning leadership. In a world where agility and ideas, alongside problem-solving and fast learning, count more than plodding adherence to processes inside jobs of almost unbearable routine. Learning becomes not just nice to have, but core to the successful functioning of the organisation as a whole. Learning is work and work is learning.
These changes are so critical that there is really no alternative scenario for corporate learning teams, apart from extinction or a relegation to delivering nothing but compliance. There is already plenty of evidence of companies disengaging from their learning teams because they would not do what was required, or could not do what was necessary.
There is a marked similarity in what makes different learning leaders and learning teams in different organisations successful and those benchmarks are being rapidly established.
Learning leaders are primarily engaged with the organisation they work for. They are propelled them down different pathways depending on the learning needs encountered. Despite this, there are similarities and foci that link them together and offer a perspective and guidance for anybody wanting to learn about how learning is organised in successful organisations.
In essence, there are 10 characteristics that set the new organisation and the new learning leader apart from their colleagues. These 10 characteristics mark out the pathfinders but they also mark out those organisations that are willing and able to embrace the future. And it is not possible to do exceptional work in a mediocre organisation any longer as this will destroy impact. As a consequence, this is not an easy path to follow, but in many ways it is hugely exciting and engaging.
These are the characteristics:
1. Focused, above all, on business impact and willing to be judged on the effectiveness of the impact.
2. In spite of working through budget and staff constraints, they continue to deliver more and more.
3. Always aware of what is going on in horizon one (the day-to-day processes and procedures of the business) they are also aware of horizon three. They spent part of their time thinking about how they can shape their organisation to be effective, not just today, but in three or five years time.
4. They are generally optimistic about the future, and the future of learning. Because they deliver, they influence at the highest level in the organisations.
5. Their results are groundbreaking. This is recognised and celebrated.
6. They have a technology focus rather than the technology fear. They use technology for achieving their aims, not build their aims around the available technology.
7. They are willing to cull outmoded programmes in order to incorporate new ideas and new solutions.
8. They build strong teams and strong networks both within the organisation they work for and in the outside world.
9. They encourage organisation-wide learning by establishing coaching and mentoring cultures.
10. They have moved beyond building courses. They build learning environments and they populate those environments with resources in many shapes and forms. They never forget that learning is a convivial, shared process, which also requires peace and quiet and individual reflection time to make the most of the impact.
What links many of these characteristics is a shift from being a shaper: telling the organisation what it needs; offering menus of activity that can be selected, to a framer: a builder of an environment that adds a learning perspective to organisational change.
Any organisation that wants to extend the role and impact of learning cannot rely simply on a learning team to devise, manage, promote, and deliver this. The responsibility has to shift dramatically so that every manager and ultimately every employee takes responsibility for his or her own learning. Enabling things to happen becomes far more important than managing and controlling those processes.
A key part of this new role, therefore, has to be the ability to act as a facilitator and enabler of the learning process. What this implies is an ability to ask the right questions rather than always supply answers It is a perspective that demands a different approach and a different attitude.
A facilitator therefore:
Does this: tries to understand the nature of the problem. Rather than: assuming everything is a training issue
Does this: asks “how can we help?”. Rather than: “what can we do for you?”
Does this: asks really good questions. Rather than: supplying glib answers
Does this: frames. Rather than: shapes
Does this: coaches the team directly. Rather than: instructs the team
Does this: coaches others indirectly. Rather than: is disengaged from the organisation
Does this: has a number of menthes. Rather than: leaves mentorship to others
Does this: gathers ideas from outside and shares. Rather than: ignores anything outside the company
Does this: is future oriented. Rather than: dwelling on past glory
Does this: focuses on big programs that make an impact. Rather than: dissipates energy in small initiatives
This change does not occur overnight. And it is certainly not something that you either “have” or “don’t have”. The best way of moving forward is to start small and build rather than try to change your operation overnight unless there is a great opportunity to focus and make an impact. Here are five suggestions that I have watched others take forward. You will have to decide which of these resonates and you can take on board yourself.
Approach one: Exploration
Begin a process of consultation with your organisation. Go and talk to people at the highest level that you can gain access try to understand their current issues and begin to frame them, where appropriate, into learning opportunities. You can do the same with your team.
At same time begin to explore internal external environment. What is changing? What is interesting? And where are the opportunities to successfully intervene? From this exploration you will begin to define an agenda and that will allow you to do some things differently and to do different things.
Approach two: Explosion
Intervene in one big area that is keeping your company awake at night. Ask if you can make a contribution to solving a problem and make suggestions for doing this. Create space in order to be out to deliver. Ensure that what you are doing is part of the wider corporate approach but that your contribution is tangible and measurable.
Approach three: Edit
Stop doing something! Stop all discretionary programs in order to focus on bigger more purposeful endeavours. Stop developing and managing programs that can be replaced by MOOCs or open courseware. Flag clearly that things are changing.
Approach four: Engage
Think differently about governance. Set up external boards where the business is given an opportunity to shape what you offer an comment on its effectiveness. Tried to buy in the highest level of support. To do this the meetings need to be infrequent and short but high stakes. a substantial part of your budget could be allocated to these boards to prioritise on what the organisation needs.
Approach five: Export
Hand over delivery of routine, but necessary, programs to the parts of the business that require them. For example, and can run in parts of the business that require those programs. Second your staff into those parts of the business if necessary. Use resources developed elsewhere and incorporate them into your programs. Show that your abiding concern will be with small number of high impact activities. Be proud of the fact that learning is happening everywhere but not necessarily under your direct control.
Pick and choose from the elements and approaches above. They have all worked, and they have all flagged up that something dramatic is about to happen in the learning and development space.