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Seven Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Learning Organization

Failing to avoid these mistakes may lead to high volatility in your learning organization, namely irregular funding, changes to the CLO function and inconsistent learning programs.

April 16, 2012
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Whether you’ve built a learning organization from the ground up or were promoted to the position, as chief learning officer you’re called to serve the company by fostering a culture of learning at every turn. Since all business demands continual adaption to changing tides in the economic environment, a learning organization itself needs to preserve its function as the tiller of the company, because it’s surprisingly easy to drift off course. Let’s look at some common mistakes that can trip up CLOs and, by extension, have hurt the entire learning enterprise.

Mistake No. 1: Failing to Make the Transition From Tactical to Strategic Thinking

If you’re promoted to the position of CLO or learning director, realize that you’re responsible for strategy now. CLOs are at risk to fail if they are not able to move away from their former tactical mindset. A director’s job description is vastly different from that of an operational manager — so start acting like a director. You’re not responsible for training people anymore. Rather, you have a strategic role, first and foremost. You should be focused on strategy, relationship building within the organization, managing your managers, resource allocation and performance.

Mistake No. 2: Getting Your Program Funding at the Last Minute

Building a successful corporate learning function is much like building a house. Before you start, there needs to be a discussion with the bank about financing. Too often, those in corporate learning discuss learning projects — sometimes for months — before obtaining solid financial backing from upper management. This is putting the cart before the horse. Who is going to pay for this new program? And if funding doesn’t come through, you’ve just wasted a lot of time in meetings and planning with nothing to show for it.

Before you get started, discuss how the program will be funded with your financial backers. You’ll need funding during the program design, an understanding about how this learning gain will pay for the program and funding going forward. Many believe it is enough to just think and talk and work on a great idea without getting “the bank” involved early. This is a grave mistake and often the overlooked component in failed projects.

Mistake No. 3: Doing Everything Yourself

The principle of subsidiarity is the idea that the central authority should only perform those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The same holds true of your learning organization. In a decentralized organization, everything that can be done better by a decentralized function should be done by the decentralized function. Everything that can be done better by the centralized function, the centralized function should do. Be clear about what your organization can and should do and what it shouldn’t do. Too often, leaders waste energy, recycle discussions and misalign in this area.

Mistake No. 4: Being Weak

CLOs need to be strong people who can stand the heat, because they will certainly be under a lot of pressure. The CLO needs to be resilient, tough and protective. He or she is in fact a first line buffer to issues that could at some point affect the entire learning organization. However, always put content first. Your product should speak clearly for you as CLO. Also, at this level in an organization, the CLO has a role that is both political and functional. You’re called on to be astute and to build influence through relationships and results.

Mistake No. 5: Being a Bureaucrat

To be blunt, don’t become a bureaucrat within your own organization. Too much bureaucracy kills learning functions and hinders entrepreneurial spirit. Make it a goal to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy as much as possible. Of course, we all have to comply 100 percent with company standards and practices. But getting things done is essential. You have to produce something. Don’t waste your resources on unnecessary reports, meetings, evaluations and processes. Analysis should be done quickly and clearly.

Mistake No. 6: Embracing Flavor-of-the-Year Programming

Avoid a teaching strategy that follows the flash-in-the-pan trends. Big organizations sometimes cater to fads, feeding a beast that may not need feeding. Be careful when a hot new learning program comes your way. You’ll need long-term strategic programs in the learning portfolio to really make an impact. A portfolio should be composed of flexible programs that can be changed and adjusted to meet real business needs and core programs that address issues for the long term. A balanced mix builds and contributes to a leadership culture in the company.

Mistake No. 7: Focusing on E-Learning for Executive Development

In these tough economic times, people and organizations are focusing more and more on e-learning as a solution. Sure, it’s an acceptable teaching tool for certain jobs and responsibilities. However, it’s an inappropriate, ineffective approach for high-level management development. Instead, to deal with restricted budgets, CLOs should focus on trimming fat in their catalog offerings and enroll their executives in the most effective development programs.

Do Your Best to Avoid the Pitfalls

By avoiding these seven mistakes, you can stay focused on creating and maintaining a successful learning organization built for the future — one that is well-respected and effective. Failing to avoid these mistakes may lead to high volatility in your learning organization, namely irregular funding, changes to the CLO function and inconsistent learning programs. You will miss the mark of building a strong, replicable, branded learning organization within your company.

Remember, learning is an ongoing process. Everyone makes mistakes, but we can learn from them. Make the right moves and you stand a much greater chance of reaching your goals and those of the learning organization you are so fortunate to lead.

Frank Waltmann is head of corporate learning at Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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