The shift toward skills-based jobs is part of a workforce evolution that demands organizations take a fresh look at the traditional “apprenticeship” model to improve worker performance. For centuries, the apprenticeship model enabled individuals to learn a trade or skill under the supervision of a master who shaped individual behavior to achieve the desired results. Today, formal apprenticeships for skills-based jobs are in a few professions such as student teaching and residency programs for future doctors. Reasons for the apprenticeship model’s demise include the inefficiencies of providing one-on-one tutelage in a dispersed workforce, complex organizational structures, outsourced and rotating partners and, of course, changes in technology. Yet a recent McKinsey study showed 45 percent of workers in developed nations now require interaction to do their jobs, and this number is rising rapidly.
The study concluded that management’s role is “to foster connectivity, remove barriers, facilitate learning and provide new tools that help workers collaborate and learn” so their behavior delivers on the business strategy. Leaders are asking CLOs to take a fresh look at how to affect individual behaviors for competitive advantage.
One response that is proving effective is a contemporary version of the apprenticeship model, referred to as a High-Performance Learning Network (HPLN). Most successful people say there were two or three individuals in their lives — those masters — who made a difference in their careers. The HPLN facilitates this process with the combined infrastructure and designed interventions that enable individuals to find and interact with those people who can influence their behavior and make a difference.
Exploring Learning Networks
Learning networks are often referred to as social networks, knowledge networks, communities of practice and virtual communities of practice. True learning networks incorporate many of these related network concepts, and they also capture and measure the value of the interactions. A true learning network also can have one or more of the following characteristics:
Learning networks can be deployed with varied levels of complexity, depending on the desired business results. Here are a few examples of learning networks in action.
Collaboration Network: Enables collaboration among geographically dispersed groups, allowing members to address shared business interests or projects. The very nature of collaboration suggests learning takes place, but often as a by-product rather than as a defined or designed activity. The performance measures generally are focused at the organizational level.
Learning Network: Includes all the elements of a collaboration network, plus formal and informal learning goals as part of the overall performance intervention. Objectives are aligned with the business strategy, and for the most part, performance is measured at the organizational level, not at the individual level.
High Performance Learning Network: Incorporates the elements of collaboration and learning networks within a highly structured context. Learning and development strategies are aligned closely with the broader business strategies. Informal interactions, formal interventions and knowledge sharing are merged to affect individual behavior, which is measured at both the individual and organizational levels.
All these networks enable interactions that deliver value to organizations. The competitive advantage comes from the degree to which the individual interactions can be leveraged for the benefit of the organization, rather than remaining with the individuals involved. The high-performance learning network provides a systems view of all potential interventions, enabling the CLO to target the defined business outcomes at the outset and enable workers to receive the right interventions at the right time.
Avoiding the Technology Fear Factor
Technology is clearly mission-critical to an HPLN, but selecting the right mix for your work environment can be a daunting task — there are so many new tools and applications, it’s tempting to get carried away with their potential before truly understanding the business issue.
Dr. Bill Bruck, founder and general manager of Q2Learning, said, “Technology is the bedrock on which a community stands. Get it wrong, and the community is dead in the water. Also, don’t look to technology to save a community that isn’t based on sound principles.”
Elliott Masie, head of the Masie Center think tank, said his learning consortium members are showing increasing interest in learning networking tools.
“Discussions often start with technology probably because these tools get our creative juices flowing,” Masie said. “But more often than not, the catalyst is strategic. Common objectives for collaboration and learning network tools are, one, to improve quality and productivity by quickly accessing SMEs and, two, sharing best practices. Ultimately, companies would like to see the learning network so ingrained that people use it to do their daily work.”
Consortium members also are interested in how to leverage tools outside the learning space, he said.
“For instance, members are asking how the capabilities in social networking tools such as IM, Facebook and Match.com can be applied for professional, performance and productivity purposes,” Masie said. “They also want to explore the potential for leveraging conferencing tools such as IntroNetworks and Leverage Software to help large, distributed workforces find peers and experts with whom they want to learn, share knowledge and collaborate.”
There is no magic bullet or “best” technology, however. Your choices depend on the business drivers, performance objectives and, unfortunately, integration issues.
The most important concerns when selecting technology are ease of use, accessibility and reliability, compatibility with the underlying infrastructure, contribution to the breadth and scope of interactions and consistency with the environment. Consider leveraging tools your organization already uses: Ask yourself how discussion boards, collaboration forums, chat, blogs, wikis, instant messaging, simulations, iPods and even e-mail can help you achieve the desired performance. How can integrating knowledge bases, online libraries and document stores contribute to the network’s performance?
If your organization is like most, you will discover program elements residing in independent systems across the enterprise, not just in the learning and personnel functions. In an ideal world, IT would willingly develop an integration engine to connect the systems’ relevant elements. Because none of us probably will witness that development, remember that people were gathering and integrating data long before the use of technology.
HPLN Success Factors
It might seem obvious, but if you remember that learning networks are about people, you are halfway home.
“Successful collaboration and learning require people to develop strong social ties within the community,” Bruck said. “This social interaction, whether face to face or virtual, is what helps shape the behavior desired by the organization. This behavior doesn’t happen by chance — it requires a structured process, stated purpose, well-defined roles and clear WIFMs (what’s in it for me) for that behavior to deliver the stated performance.”
Considerations for creating any effective learning network, particularly an HPLN include: Structured Process: Develop processes from the perspective of how people want to interact and work together, not necessarily the way they do. Providing guidelines helps sustain the community, deliver on performance metrics and ensure the process can be replicated.
Purpose: Learning networks that do not add value have no purpose. It is not enough for the community to post its reason to exist on its home page — the members also must have a common understanding and buy-in. Aligning network objectives with the business strategy will clarify performance measures and show members how they are contributing to the organization’s success.
Community Leadership: The network leader keeps the community alive and on target.
Sponsorship: Communities that have at least a management sponsor generally thrive. The sponsor should reflect the community’s purpose (the head a business-related function, for example) and be responsible for championing the community’s value to leadership.
Recognition: WIFMs are required for the organization and the individuals.
Culture: People will not build relationships or collaborate if they sense leadership does not support this behavior, regardless of how good the program.
If you are unsure about your culture’s readiness, consider creating a pilot learning network. Create an environment in which community members feel safe enough to contribute and recognize that they are giving and receiving value. When the community is well-planned and managed, the behaviors that make the community successful might spill over into other areas and contribute to a cultural shift in your organization.
Large budgets and staff are not critical for creating effective learning networks across the organization. When workers are motivated to reach beyond the status quo and have ways to increase their effectiveness, they naturally will reach out to others.
The more structured your learning network model, the greater the individual contribution to business performance.
Mike Hamilton is the Americas’ chief learning and development officer for Ernst & Young. He has served in a variety of client service and management roles within Ernst & Young, but he is best-noted for his long-term commitment to the growth and success of Ernst & Young’s professionals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.