Three foundational elements--being embedded in the businesses you support, crafting a design strategy that recognizes today's learners, and accountability and transparency in our performance--are critical in today's business environment.
Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer
Farmers Insurance Group
In today's challenging times, delivering solutions that drive meaningful outcomes for our business is imperative. There are many elements that are critical to success, especially when you start to dissect the intricacies of a solid learning design strategy. Two foundational elements have guided my success in the past, and as we look toward the "new normal," a third will guide my future.
Embed yourself in the businesses you support
The first element imperative to delivering solutions that drive meaningful business outcomes is being embedded in the businesses you support. For years we have heard about the value of being aligned with your business partners. I say, take this a step further and be embedded in the business.
Logically, being embedded in your business provides you a needed layer of understanding within that business. This is essential to having an effective discussion on performance improvement, which is critical to delivering a solution that has the potential to drive a meaningful business outcome.
I am not suggesting that you become a subject matter expert in every business. However, when you are called on, it is important that you know enough about the business to ask the right questions to develop an appropriate learning solution. You must have an understanding of what the company is attempting to solve with the requested learning solution.
Getting great clarity about the problem, and how success will be measured, is important to the development of meaningful solutions that positively affect the bottom line of a business. These metrics must be built in consensus with the business. Is the goal a 3 percent improvement in new sales, a 5 percent gain in customer experience, a 4 percent improvement in employee engagement, or a 5 percent reduction in expenses?
Additional performance improvement questions also serve to gain an understanding of why the company has'nt seen the desired results to date--is it really an issue related to skill gaps or does the improvement solution lie in a correction to a system or process or a change in expectation or compensation? In all likelihood, it is a combination of all the above, but asking questions will help you to gain a clear understanding of all the behaviors that will solve the problem, not just address a knowledge or skill gap.
Often the company has predetermined the learning solution when in fact there are other factors at work. A performance improvement discussion will help you to determine those factors you can address through learning and development (L&D). It also will make apparent what the company needs to change internally to deal with the factors needing a fix beyond L&D. This is important because if the solution is largely not a skill or knowledge gap, a learning solution alone will not deliver the desired outcome.
Certainly the business will have some ideas of what needs to change in their employees' behavior to deliver the desired outcomes. However, perceptions often are not correct, so it is important to do the necessary research. If you get these behaviors wrong, your ability to deliver a business outcome not only will be diminished; in all likelihood it won't happen.
Your role is to understand the businesss challenges and to fill gaps in the performance of its employees consistently, not just when they approach you for a formal learning discussion. Find the people in the company who deliver the desired outcome today and then interview them, talk to their managers, and observe them. Dig deep to find out how they behave every day, seeking the three to five behaviors that, when exhibited, will change the game. Understand why more people are'nt behaving that way today. These are all actions that are difficult to complete without connectivity to the business.
If you are not having these types of conversations and engaging in these actions, you are at risk of just taking orders with no understanding of what you are attempting to achieve, what the business expectations are for your efforts, or whether learning is even the right solution. This creates a tough environment in which to deliver strong business outcomes.
None of the above can happen if you havent earned the right to ask the tough questions and engage with the business to discover those behavior changes needed, which are vital to your design strategy and your success. Dont underestimate the value of building the relationship with the business you support, because it is critical to your credibility as a partner.
Here are core questions to help you to determine whether you are embedded in the business.
- Do you have an L&D partner aligned to each business who owns the relationship and the business outcomes from the solutions?
- Do you have shared, agreed-on business outcomes that exist on the performance plan, for both you in learning and the business?
- Are your L&D professionals attending the business staff meetings and networking?
- Do you see yourself as L&D or a partner in the business charged with driving performance?
Craft a design strategy that recognizes todays learner
The second element that is essential to deliver on meaningful solutions is crafting a design strategy that recognizes todays learners.
In 2002, 90 percent of my delivery was instructor-led training and 10 percent was online. Today that number is closer to 46 percent instructor-led and 48 percent online, with 44 percent of these having some form of performance support, social-collaborative, or coaching-mentoring elements included. Going forward, this mix will change dramatically.
The future of learning exists in the workplace, when and where our learners need it. Today the tools are Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or performance support capability that might even include a social network embedded in a company application, smartphone, or tablet. Two years from now the technology will be different, but our learners--digital natives who grew up immersed in digital technology--still will be functioning in this environment.
These Gen Yers wont be content to sit in an all-day class or go online for 40 minutes to gather what in some cases they can get quickly on Twitter, Wikipedia, or from their business associate down the aisle. Nor will they be satisfied with a level of technology in the workplace, and an environment in the workplace, that is less than what they have in their own homes. They are changing the face of the workplace. I am not sure what the future will look like technologically, but Peter Hinssen, author of the The New Normal, suggests we are only halfway through this digital era of change--so we have a long way to go on our journey.
The challenge is managing the rapid pace of technology while teaching a multigenerational workforce. Design strategies composed largely of formal learning arent delivering the important "in the moment" workplace support. Our design model needs significantly better balance, including coaching, mentoring, performance support, and social learning, in addition to the more traditional formal delivery modalities of instructor-led and online training.
As an industry, we have'nt reached this level, but we must get there in quick order or we will become irrelevant in the eyes of our learners. Gone are the days where the learning organization has the answers and all content is top-down. Answers now lie in the wisdom of people worldwide, and our learners need access to them.
So the questions become:
- Are we putting the emphasis where we need to in our design model?
- Is our design strategy focused on the right blend of strategies?
- Is performance support, social learning, and mentoring a last-minute thought or a core part of our design strategy?
- Are we considering immersive modalities?
Learning leaders must create a mind shift in our teams. This is not easily done when some of our designers are multigenerational. However, we are entering a new world where the capabilities of our teams must change.
While the technology will change, the emphasis should be on the behaviors of our learners with this technology. In the future, our job will be as much about creating the environment for learning as it has been historically to be the expert in delivering the content.
Accountability and transparency is a must
The third element necessary to deliver meaningful business outcomes is accountability and transparency in our performance as learning organizations. We must have the courage to fail. This courage begins with transparency in the business outcomes we have agreed to deliver on behalf of our company.
Tangible business results do not develop overnight because they are so reliant on changing the behavior of our learners. Your communication with business partners must begin with early feedback. What are people saying about their experience?
This communication ultimately moves on to early indicators in skill and knowledge. Subsequent to this you can then begin to communicate around delivering those three to five behaviors employees must display. Ensure that there is transparency every step of the way.
In my organization, business units get a quarterly scorecard that reflects all the key learning initiatives that are being tracked for measurable business outcomes. These are reported on using a stoplight chart, with green reflecting those results that are being achieved and red reflecting those that are not. Included are Level 1-4 goals.
The narrative reflects strategy efforts to improve any shortfall and to highlight wins. The scorecard is one front-and-back page delivered electronically to all leaders in the business unit. A similar quarterly consolidated scorecard exists for just the key organizational initiatives and is distributed to all senior leaders, including the CEO.
This transparency represents the courage to fail. It also supports the performance improvement discussions referenced early in the article. Lastly, this transparency is critical to prioritizing your efforts to ensure that you are delivering for the business, which is where this discussion began.
Photograph by Mark Robert Halper