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Learning’s Role in Innovation

Practices like working out loud, developing community, experimenting and tolerating failure are the path to learning.

learning innovationThe world has changed. Organizations are facing increasing disruptions, more information is available, and new technologies are making it easier and faster to compete.

The ability to plan, prepare and execute is no longer sufficient. Agility and the ability to adapt is imperative. Going forward, optimal execution is only the cost of entry and continual innovation will be the only sustainable differentiator.

This puts a huge emphasis on innovation. As a consequence, the amount of organizational effort is growing. John Kotter, the father of organizational change, in his book “Accelerate” is now calling for a dual operating system structure for organizations to successfully integrate execution and innovation. New concepts like design thinking, big data,  analytics and teaming are being explored as solutions.

Provided that learning and development leaders could and should have a central role in innovation, what is the chief learning officer’s responsibility?

The old model of innovation has been busted. The story used to be the Promethean genius that brings in the new idea and transforms the world. However, research has documented instead that innovation is the product of an environment where ideas can gestate and interact. Innovation comes from creative friction, people interacting over time.

Keith Sawyer’s 2007 book, “Group Genius,” documents how ideas combine in different ways to create new ones. Steven Johnson, in his 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” discusses the role of networks to support innovation, and again the notion of time comes into play. A key concept is the adjacent possible, where exposure to related ideas can yield new opportunities.

In short, innovation is about creating an environment where people can be exposed to different concepts, interact productively, experiment safely and be allowed time to reflect. And this is contrary to much of the working world where interaction is kept to a necessary minimum, time is to be spent on work tasks and mistakes are punished.

Jennifer Magnani, senior director of Sanofi Pasteur Quality Academy, faces a challenge in aligning these two elements. “People think of quality as a constraint that creates an environment where innovation is not possible,” and yet “there’s a continuing demand for more products that are more cost effective,” she said. Even in the most regulated industries, we have to enable opportunities to innovate and change.

One realization is that most of the benefits to business are coming increasingly from so-called knowledge work, work that processes information in productive ways. Our cognitive strengths are pattern-matching and meaning-making, while computers instead excel at performing rote tasks and complex calculations. The organizational focus should be on finding a balance between these two.

It’s been documented that computers can find some solutions that people struggle with, but the converse is also true. Appropriately reconciling roles will be a critical determinant of success.

Another way of looking at innovation is that at its core it’s about learning. When you are problem-solving, researching, trouble-shooting, designing, etc., you don’t know the answer when you begin. Thus, you’re learning. It’s not formal learning, e.g., instruction, it is informal learning, as Jay Cross documented in his 2006 book, “Informal Learning.”

What is L&D’s Role?

There are four core areas that are involved in successfully fostering innovation. A nurturing innovation environment requires explicit skills, ongoing facilitation, leadership and a welcoming culture. Each is a role that learning and development can take on, or at least partner in.

For one, as innovation is about learning, learning and development could and should be in the lead. It helps if there’s a solid understanding of the cognitive science behind learning. Similarly, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of innovation. To take the lead, the learning organization has to not only nominally be related, but also pragmatically have the necessary learning knowledge to hand.

Explicit skills: Learning organizations need to have concrete, baseline practices and processes in place for workforce development. It’s a mistake to assume people possess basic skills. Educational institutions K-12 and higher education do not always develop necessary abilities. Both individual and group skills play a role, including the ability to do independent research, reflect via representation and experimentation, and communicate and collaborate effectively. For example, not everyone is capable of asking a question in a way that others will want to answer, nor providing answers in a way that anyone will listen. Similarly, brainstorming has nuances that, if ignored, can render the exercise relatively useless.

There are a host of such skills, and being explicit about them, and applying full learning support to develop them, is essential. A 70-20-10 approach makes sense here, including not only instruction, but also coaching and opportunities to practice. It’s arguably the best investment an organization can make.

Process facilitation: Developing such skills isn’t sufficient, however. Part of that coaching may be required of the learning and development team. Until the skills have been adequately developed, it’s not going to be a fair assumption that the coaching can be undertaken by developed employees.

Another factor is ongoing facilitation. One of the key factors, with innovation being a socially mediated outcome, is the development of communities around the necessary areas. Community management is an important component, as not just individual coaching is needed, but ongoing maintenance has reliably been demonstrated to be useful.

While such actions could fall under a specific community function, there at least need to be strategic relationships between whatever function takes on the ongoing facilitation so that the actions are in concert with the explicit skills. The point is not to leave it to chance, but to successfully integrate and align the elements with the organizational goals as well as how our brains work.

Culture: Unlike the movie “Field of Dreams,” it’s not a case of, “If you build it, they will come.” Innovation and learning require a learning environment. If such outcomes are predicated on social interaction, then such interaction needs to be happening. And it doesn’t happen in environments where interaction has risks.

Instead, the environment has to be focused on experimentation and learning from mistakes. Charles Jennings, CEO of Duntroon, a consulting firm, recalls that when serving as the CLO for Thomson Reuters, he instituted a budget for innovation. “The goal was to carry out proofs of concept and pilots,” he said. However, this wasn’t without an important ancillary constraint. “We gathered data and reviewed the outcomes.” With this approach, he was able to repeatedly address crushing business problems, but only after a constrained experiment demonstrated a valuable cost-benefit outcome.

The characteristics of a culture where learning can flourish include diversity, openness, reflection and safety. Moving to this new culture is an important task, as is understanding the elements that contribute.

Diversity isn’t just to be tolerated but instead must be valued. Openness to new ideas is critical; a “that’s not how we do it here” mentality will preclude the new ideas that are necessary. Time for reflection can be challenging to argue for, but the outcomes demonstrate that the investment is worthwhile. And it must be safe to contribute; if you work in a “Miranda Organization” (where anything you say can and will be held against you), employees won’t be offering up current progress, providing pointers and sharing valuable ideas.

Here, organizational change can be considered a role for organization development, but again there’s clearly a role for learning and development. Helping individuals understand the elements and adopt the necessary practices is clearly in learning and development’s wheelhouse, and aligning development and coaching to the policies and practices is critical for success.

Leadership: To create a learning culture is clearly a leadership issue. While leadership should support the process — anointing, resourcing and evangelizing it — there’s more to the role. It’s clear that individuals won’t truly believe it is safe to share if they don’t see their leaders sharing, particularly documenting mistakes and the lessons learned.

Sanofi Pasteur Quality Academy combines two of these areas, explicit skills and leadership. “Courses are developed and taught by leaders to encourage and demonstrate how change is an opportunity to make a difference,” Magnani said. The core is structured around two ideas. “People should share, and best ideas come from passion and working collectively.” These two ideas alone can constitute the basis for a change.

Leadership development clearly has to include developing and maintaining a culture. Old style management is being replaced by leadership at every level, and a core role must be the facilitation of innovation. That includes what Dan Pink identified as the necessary new approaches to empowering individuals in his 2009 book “Drive,” giving people purpose, freeing them to pursue the necessary goals and supporting the development of mastery.

In this area, learning and development needs to be united between traditional skill development and leadership development. Again, the silos can be a critical barrier to success. And a level-headed look should be taken at leadership development anyway, as Jeff Pfeffer has indicated in “Leadership BS.”

Getting Innovative

Getting there is no longer the purview of a large-scale organizational change. Most such initiatives have a high failure rate. Instead, as Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao indicate in their 2014 book “Scaling Up Excellence,” the approach should be experimental at first. Then, as results come in to indicate a viable direction in the organization, the model can then be scaled.

Practices like working out loud (also known as “Show Your Work,” as Jane Bozarth’s latest tome suggests), developing community, experimenting and tolerating failure are the path to learning. Collaboration at the project level is a benefit, and at the broader level awareness and sharing are key to facilitating productive engagement.

Silos can be barriers and coordination is necessary. When other functions that aren’t working in alignment with the intended initiatives, barriers can arise. In one instance Jennings brought a member of information technology onboard a learning system installation. “He ended up handling all the IT qualification processes” for them, he recalled. Such strategic liaisons are critical to successful initiatives.

Innovation requires, somewhat circularly, innovation. You must start developing innovation practices and refining them over time, experimenting with approaches. One of the best ways for a CLO to foster innovation is to start internally. Document the results, and scale. The promise is from moving learning as a cost-center or “nice to have” to a central role in organizational success. Innovation is learning and therefore the natural responsibility for a CLO if the broad view is taken.

And you should.

Clark Quinn is the executive director for Quinnovation. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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