The world has changed, and learning leaders face many serious business challenges. Competition is everywhere and aggressive. The global economy that we operate in provides seamless business systems and processes, as well as global connectivity. The explosion of information technology is accelerating, and its various products and processes are converging to create new business processes and capabilities. The decreasing shelf life of existing knowledge drives the need to renew and recast job skills. The difference between learning and access to knowledge is blurring, therefore changing the learning paradigm. Gaining and maintaining key talent is becoming increasingly difficult. By 2007, more than half of the U.S. workforce will be eligible to retire. (Some say as much as 70 percent.) This pending knowledge depletion places an additional urgency on finding solutions. A replacement generation must be rapidly found, developed, trained and sustained.
These serious challenges, coupled with the impact of culture-changing technologies, drive the need to re-invent the corporate learning environment. Learning can no longer be limited to classroom training—or even e-learning and other delivery methods. Integration, speed, reach and real-time connectivity must be built into the learning environment. To create an agile learning environment, training, performance support (expert consulting), distributed learning, continuous learning, communities of practice and knowledge-sharing tools and practices must be integrated by content and by design. Even the way we think about learning must change.
The CLO must be the catalyst of this change and the principle architect of a new paradigm of learning—an agile learning environment. An agile learning environment’s primary goal is to enhance on-the-job performance. It is really about being able to deliver learning at the point of need—before, during and after training. Several fundamental concepts and best practices are key to creating this new learning environment. These underlying concepts—alignment, full-service learning, integration, learning at the point of need and learning partnerships—describe its critical components.
In “The Power of Alignment,” George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky explain that the need to align is about “keeping the main thing, the main thing.” The primary role of a corporate university is not just to train—all activities should contribute to the business goals of the corporation and must be aligned with the senior leadership and their goals and objectives. As a critical first step, chief learning officers must ensure alignment with the business goals of the corporation, as well as have senior leadership support. All courses, offerings, learning modules, consulting practices, workshops or other activities must be able to demonstratively contribute to the corporation’s success. Experience and benchmarking of other successful learning organizations have shown that many CEOs are now taking personal ownership of their corporate learning environments. This ensures that priorities and resources are available to support their corporate universities’ critical learning and development initiatives. Their personal involvement and support greatly increase their chances of success.
Until recently, most training programs took place in the classroom, delivered away from the job, and were one-dimensional, with a set time, place and location. Training in groups was the common format. There were few one-on-one mentoring, coaching, follow-up or other individual-focused methods. Career-long learning and development was primarily an individual’s responsibility. After a formal classroom training intervention, it was left to the individual employee to continue learning. What used to be limited to training is now thought of as a multi-disciplined approach or architecture whose purpose is to provide learning at the point of need. Defense Acquisition University’s (DAU’s) approach to a total learning environment uses a four-dimensional learning construct defined by groups, individuals, skills development and knowledge distribution. (See Figure 1.) By casting this broad net, DAU employed a multi-dimensional perspective and was able to build integration, speed, agility and reach into learning delivery and the organization. From this perspective, DAU was able to transform beyond the classroom into a full-service learning and development enterprise.
All learning and development activities must be thoughtfully and deliberately integrated by the chief learning officer’s overarching learning strategy. A learning strategy that incorporates all aspects of corporate learning not only will rapidly move beyond the classroom, but also will provide employees with more control over their learning opportunities—encompassing, complementing and supplementing formal training with continuous learning activities, performance support (consulting, targeted training and rapid deployment training) and knowledge-sharing activities.
Using a multidimensional approach, courses are integrated into the learning environment and are not separate events. Focusing on performance and the total needs of the workforce, learning should be used to provide core skill sets and competencies, meta-knowledge (how to learn) and the ability to access knowledge around the clock. Performance support provides an additional learning asset to the workforce. To provide this expert consulting service, a high degree of job knowledge and expertise is required from faculty members who can deliver, mentor, coach and share critical best practices on the job and at the point of need. Distributed learning, powered with Web-based technology and learning management systems, now has a worldwide 24×7 reach, including e-learning courses, modules and other technology-based learning activities. Finally, the knowledge-sharing framework adds the critical ingredients of connectivity, on-demand learning and reach-back capability to complete the agile learning environment. (See Figure 2.)
A knowledge-sharing system’s importance to this new learning paradigm cannot be overstated. It provides the connectivity and agility to the learning environment. Its success and utility to the workforce is surprising. It saves time by providing direct access to policies and procedures, lessons learned, evolving practices and the corporate body of knowledge. It also increases productivity by pointing out best practices and lessons learned within the corporation; improves effectiveness by finding and using proven practices and sharing lessons learned across the workforce; accelerates problem solving by improving access to relevant, current, authoritative and validated information sources; leverages expertise and experience by connecting and sharing resources within the corporation to include its suppliers; and enhances professional development by providing access to learning resources and opportunities that help employees grow professionally.
Point of Need
A corporate university’s primary focus should be on job performance, not just training for the sake of training. Courses, lessons, continuous learning modules and knowledge-sharing assets should be functionally and collectively designed and integrated to achieve performance improvement. This requires an end-to-end mindset from all concerned. By looking beyond the objectives of one course or activity to the synergistic results of the total learning environment, programs can be designed that not only add value, but also complement other activities. A new agile learning environment must include real-time access to subject-matter experts, knowledge at the point of need and on-the-job access to all relevant tools. As part of a knowledge-sharing system, learning and development organizations can make smart business templates and new tools, such as search technologies, instantly available to field organizations and their respective communities to focus on the learning-on-demand needs of the workforce.
Learning is a continuum that includes many important aspects in addition to training—such as knowledge sharing, performance support and career-long learning. These cannot just be left to individual employee initiative—they must be a shared responsibility with the learning organization. They must be planned, resourced, managed and thoughtfully deployed. Conceptually, this requires a completely different mindset. The CLO, the learning organization, the training staff and faculty, the employee, the supervisors, the stakeholders and the senior leadership all must become partners in learning. CLOs also can help their business units integrate corporate knowledge assets with local resources to create learning organizations. To support this new learning paradigm, CLOs have to expand their scope of responsibility to include training (classroom, online or hybrid), performance support or expert consulting (on demand), distributed learning to reach larger populations through emerging technology and knowledge sharing of best practices, providing the continuity and connectivity that make an agile learning environment.
The Bottom Line
The real value of an agile learning environment is portrayed in Figure 3. With integration, speed, reach and agility, workforce performance can rapidly grow. Without it, new knowledge will decay quickly after training and cannot easily be renewed.
As we look to the future, learning leaders will continue to extend the speed and reach of learning assets by deploying smart business tools, workflow learning assets and search technologies, and will be even more connected to their workforces. Learning transformation will continue, and corporate universities will play a pivotal role in any envisioned agile learning environment. All learning assets must be designed to reach the extended enterprise: Customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders should all have access. Additionally, with a multidimensional approach and learning strategy, employees, customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders can remain connected through the knowledge-sharing framework. Thus, when thoughtfully deployed, a multidimensional approach provides the right amount of content when and where needed. The integration, real-time access to expertise and knowledge, and ubiquitous connectivity of learning assets set in motion a huge paradigm shift from the traditional classroom environment of the 20th century to the total learning environment of the 21st century.
Frank J. Anderson Jr. is president and CLO of the Defense Acquisition University and was selected as Chief Learning Officer magazine’s CLO of the Year in Fall 2004. Christopher R. Hardy, Ph.D., is a learning architect and strategic planner for the Defense Acquisition University. They can be reached at email@example.com.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Technology