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Learning Needs a Revolution

Learning and development is failing, and the only real remedy is a revolution. Tinkering around the edges is not going to cut it. Not a violent revolution, though the repercussions likely will be challenging.

Learning needs a rethink that leverages technology in ways that align with what we now know about how we really think, work and learn. There are big issues at stake, but they are not without risk and effort. The upside, however, is substantial both for learning units and the organizations they support.

The claim is fairly simple: Learning and development organizations aren’t doing near what they could and should, and what they do, they do badly. Lest this seem a bit alarmist, consider that the 2012 ASTD (now ATD) report “Developing Results: Aligning Learning’s Goals and Outcomes With Business Performance Measures” documented that “less than half of organizations have learning functions that excel at accomplishing the very things they exist to do.” 

Fresher data likely won’t be much different. But to make the case that there is a lot more learning organizations could be doing, let’s look specifically at social and informal learning. In ATD’s 2013 report on informal learning, less than 25 percent had informal learning programs in place. That number likely has grown some, but learning leaders aren’t using available tools fast enough to fuel new ideas and capabilities in organizations.

In today’s increasingly competitive market where companies are able to mimic other organizations’ moves in months, optimal execution is just the cost of entry, and continual innovation is the only sustainable differentiator. Both can be supported by a learning organization that is aware of the potential in new technologies.

Optimal execution means that people are doing the right thing the right way. While courses — online or face-to-face — are one approach, they are costly. Part of the problem with current approaches is that learning designs don’t reflect what’s known about how we learn. Further, the necessary extension to whether learning leads to workplace change or to the bottom line is almost nonexistent.

Radical Roots Help Build Innovative Novartis Leaders

The University of California at Berkeley is not afraid of its defining moments.

In the 1960s, the school was marked by fervor and passionate pleas from students and faculty to question the status quo and seek new ways of thinking. These turbulent roots have matured over the years to yield the Haas Business School, a place where the quest to find new ways lives strong. Innovation is a core value embodied in the executive leadership programs. It helped to attract Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company Novartis. (Editor’s note: The author works at Novaritis.)

For example, Haas developed the Leadership for Scientists program for Novartis. It launched in February 2012 and has hosted
148 Novartis leaders in four groups since its inception. It was designed to run exclusively at the Berkeley campus because the location of Berkeley-Haas is vital to the learning it imparts. At UC Berkeley, executives have abundant resources at their fingertips including faculty — seven Nobel Laureates, four Pulitzer Prize winners and 32 MacArthur Fellows.

Situated on the hills overlooking San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, it is near Silicon Valley, an epicenter of innovation, venture capitalists and business entrepreneurship. It also has close proximity to Asia’s many emerging economies. This environment meshes well with content from program sessions on: managing in a matrix, power and influence, confidence and overconfidence and interpersonal influence and group decision-making.

The Berkeley-Haas innovation-loving culture is also a factor in Novartis development strategy. Dean Richard K. Lyons said the school is passionate about promoting intellectual freedom and embracing liberal-mindedness “in the most positive sense of the word … In our executive leadership programs, of which Novartis has been a partner, we go into the deep stuff,” he said. “For example, what does the word ‘innovation’ really mean? How about services innovation? Can you think about innovation outside of traditional innovation — and how would you frame it and do it?”

To provide the proper framing, the Leadership for Scientists program features Novartis-specific case studies, mentoring, coaching, sessions on networks and career management as well as group experiential exercises “I think of it as a place that gives people a liberty that manifests itself in lots of different ways,” Lyons said. “And for an innovative company like Novartis, this is a quite attractive mindset to instill in its scientists who are evolving into leaders.”

Berkeley-Haas is a unique public business school that remains on the forefront of innovation and cutting-edge thought in many areas. Its radical roots give the school an edge, and the school works to incorporate them as part of its legacy. With this in mind, Novartis and Berkeley-Haas formed a synergistic partnership rooted in a dual perspective on the need to look at life, business and science through an alternative lens.

Others can learn from this example. After all, why do things that have to be done the way they’ve always been done? Challenge the status quo.

Frank Waltmann is head of corporate executive learning at Novartis. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.

And there is a separate category of mechanisms to achieve optimal outcomes that we largely ignore. Generally termed performance support, these approaches put knowledge in the world but not in the head. Whether it’s via checklists, job aids, wizards or other tools, it’s important to distinguish when a persistent skill shift is needed and when learning leaders are just offering arbitrary information.

In addition to improving optimal execution, learning leaders have to consider how to facilitate innovation. What learning mechanisms will develop research, design and exploration skills; facilitate constructive interpersonal interactions; and create a culture where it is safe to experiment and share? This area is largely untapped, yet highly promising.

Further, as the business unit closest to the issue, it makes sense that learning should take responsibility. Currently, we’re seeing operational units as the main source for this kind of strategic contribution to the organization, and that’s not an optimal path, nor will it create a good outcome for learning leaders.

Use the Tools at Hand
Essentially, learning leaders are not leveraging what’s known. Employees are bad at remembering rote information, so putting such material in the world doesn’t make sense. Also, outcomes are better when people work and play well together rather than when they try to soldier on alone in a competitive environment. And when people really do need to learn, they need models and significant contextualized practice, not information dumps and associated knowledge tests. 

Why does this state of affairs still exist? Well, there are many reasons. But the short answer boils down to one element: Learning leaders are measuring the wrong things. We are measuring our efficiency with cost, seat and hours instead of effectiveness. We’re not tying what we do to changes made in the organization, and so we’re not aligned with the business.

This ensures we stay mired in the industrial era instead of capitalizing on the opportunities inherent to the information age. As Bill Cushard, training lead for ServiceRocket, said, “The measures L&D should be using are the quality and productivity of the business unit.” Instead, we’re benchmarking against what others achieve, even though this shows nothing about the effect on our own organizations.

The focus has to move to how we can achieve measurable effect on organizational performance. Companies have started to facilitate innovation through enterprise social networks, driven by operations, sales, IT or other units but often not by the learning organization. The availability of portals and access to self-help via services such as lynda.com or YouTube means there’s less of a role for learning. And while these functional groups may not know best how to make this kind of technology work to develop employees, learning leaders will be forced to go it alone if they don’t take up the opportunity. 

How learning leaders operate depends on their business, their employees, their current status and what is most important for their company strategy now and going forward. As a framework to guide strategy, break the areas out into three major approaches and three major foundations.

Approaches to Learning
The three major approaches are formal learning such as courses, e-learning, performance support; the tools and the portals that host them; and social networks. Learning leaders approach to each has to shift.

They also have to find ways to do more with less, or to leverage the “least assistance principle,” where we do the minimum to help people. It turns out that “what’s the least I can do for you” isn’t a rude response; it’s appropriate for both principled and pragmatic reasons.

On principle, people want the least amount of support to get back to the goals at hand. Seriously. They don’t want a course if a job aid will do, a quick video or a checklist will do. And pragmatically, the less learning leaders have to do, the more they can address resources elsewhere. This approach is liberating and has significant implications.

First, learning leaders can rethink their resource use. A mantra can be “from the network, not our work.” That is, if the answer is in the organizational network, we don’t need to create it; we just need to provide access to it and to point the way. Increasingly, there are situations that are too unique to make it worthwhile to create resources for, and learning leaders are better off connecting people in need with experts who can help.

There are also situations that are so volatile that by the time the resource is created, it’s out of date. Connect people directly to the information source by facilitating engaged communities where people interact with and help one another and work together to meet new problems and needs. Solutions are better if we work together, and learning approaches should reflect that.

Bring in Support
We should use performance support as often as possible to get information out there, certainly before we create a course to try to put it in learners’ heads. The learning team can create these, but ideally they also can come from the network. Similarly, we want curation before creation. If the answer exists, we don’t have to create it. Learners should be able to scan information sources to find answers. Our brains are good at pattern matching and meaning-making, but bad at doing complex calculations and remembering rote information, so align technology to do the tough stuff and leave people with the tasks they want to perform.

Reserve the most expensive resource — courses — for times when several criteria are met: when it is fundamental to business success; when the information is proprietary and doesn’t exist elsewhere; and when it absolutely has to be in the head. When these three criteria are met, make sure learning designs actually reflect what’s known about learning, not the dated learning models that still hamper the industry. For example, we should move from practicing until learners understand to practice until they can’t get it wrong. Further, they shouldn’t be practicing at all unless it’s a critical skill.

Underpinning the three major approaches in the learning leaders’ toolbox — social, performance support and courses — are three concomitant foundations. Companies require an infrastructure that elegantly integrates these foundations. It’s unlikely that it can be done on one platform; it requires a more sophisticated approach, and learning leaders need a strategy to get there from where they are currently. Understanding the elements is a first step, but integrating the threads into a plan is a necessary complement.

The necessary capabilities go beyond making formal learning available in a performance ecosystem where curated and created resources are available in ways that respect how the individual thinks — not how the organization is structured — and teams and communities can communicate and collaborate. While these capabilities may be integrated into a coherent platform at the front end, at the back end leaders should build this environment from best of breed components.

What’s needed is a culture where people can interact in an effective way. In a Miranda organization, where anything leaders say can and will be held against them, they aren’t going to get the contributions that make the difference between surviving and thriving.

Bill Magagna, head of global product education at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, said he’s “challenging the notion that traditional ID, systematic or systemic, can meet the necessary changes, and instead I look for emergent ID.” To this end, he’s looking to the network to source of learning objectives, linking social back to formal.

Ultimately, learning leaders want a continuum of solutions to create a coherent performance ecosystem. The imperative is to get sophisticated about technological opportunities, start treating learning and development as a strategic component of the organization, and leverage those opportunities in a way that aligns with measurable business needs. Do that and the opportunity to spark a revolution and enjoy the same level of organizational success as marketing, sales and IT is at hand.