In need of increased cross-departmental collaboration and improved student services, one higher education institution adopted a learning and development advisory board to champion organizational change.
At an undergraduate art college in a large U.S. city, the financial services department tells a student that she cannot continue to attend class until she fulfills her latest payment. After the student misses two classes, the instructor calls to inquire about her absenteeism, only to discover that financial services instructed her not to attend because of her outstanding bill.
The student, now very frustrated, wants to withdraw from the school. When the admissions department receives her paperwork, administrators blame education because another student is leaving, and thus enrollment numbers will drop. In its defense, education points the finger at financial services for not allowing the student to attend class. Conflict erupts, and tempers between departments flare.
This situation presented significant challenges to the college's learning and development (L&D) department in the form of communication issues, dysfunctional silos, and cross-departmental barriers hindering change. Each department's lack of knowledge about how the others functioned fostered confusion and enmity throughout the entire administration. The impact on students—the customers—was significant because they often faced great difficulty navigating commonplace snags (such as financial aid and class schedule problems) inherent in the operation of a post-secondary learning institution.
Through interviews and observation, the L&D department determined that an organization-wide change initiative might increase communication and collaboration within the administration, provide better service to students, and improve relations among departments.
The L&D department realized that obtaining the focused support of respected, knowledgeable insiders would be essential to the program's success. Research unearthed an idea presented in Daniel Tobin's 1998 article, "Using a Human Resources Development Advisory Board as a Strategic Tool."
Tobin recommends that an advisory board comprise representatives from key business units, each with significant knowledge, influence, and drive to assist the L&D department to be an effective business partner. The department adopted and then adapted that concept to suit the situation. Creating and using an L&D advisory board called for selecting the right department candidates, enabling their development as leaders in the new role, and deploying them as advocates and change agents to implement the initiative.
Selection. The first consideration in the selection process involved choosing the appropriate organizational level that the board members should represent, recognizing that the highest ranked person in the department is not necessarily the best for the role. The chosen candidates included individuals who were respected by and had influence with their peers—both people in positions that reported to them and those at the senior level in the department. These criteria allowed each department's change champion to exert influence both up and down the hierarchy.
Another requirement for advisory board members was a commitment to organizational performance improvement—not necessarily being comfortable with the status quo—as was demonstration of solid leadership skills within their own functional areas.
Development. Presenting the group with a vision of a better future was the first step in the process of developing the advisory board members to be effective leaders and change agents. The L&D department told a story that painted the picture of an organization in which all departments work toward a common set of goals and support one another's efforts. Having bought into this vision, advisory board members helped others to see how alignment of individual, team, and organizational goals could build strength and increase engagement within individual departments and across the entire enterprise.
The L&D department presented the challenges the organization faced, solicited members' ideas for solutions, and leveraged the board's energy and expertise to implement the ideas. The more members began contributing to the realization of the advisory board's goals and the organization's improvement, the more engaged and effective they became as change champions.
Deployment. As the board moved forward with the change initiative, the group met monthly to develop a strategy and action plans. Educating colleagues and building interest at all levels of the organization to align siloed departments was the critical first task. It was a formidable challenge. Most people do not relish the idea of any change, let alone large-scale organizational change. At this stage board members began putting their influencing and leadership skills to use, sharing the vision, and demonstrating to their constituencies the rewards to be reaped—both individually and at the team level.
The program that launched the initiative was dubbed IDA (inter-departmental awareness). Advisory board members served as leaders in their departments, responsible for assembling a team to develop and perform a skit about the department's major responsibilities and the challenges employees faced while performing those functions. For example, the financial services team demonstrated how the myriad regulatory guidelines and overwhelmed (sometimes antagonistic) parents of perspective students could make their jobs difficult. In this leadership role, board members cultivated support for the initiative and shared expectations with their teams, helping all employees to understand the value of their contribution to the change process.
The second phase of the endeavor involved creating what the board chose to call the "culture of cooperation." During a series of brainstorming workshops—in which 97 percent of all administrative staff participated—cross-functional groups of 10 to 12 participants identified what they believed were barriers to effective collaboration and communication, determined the underlying causes, chose three of these barriers, and developed solutions to minimize or eliminate them. Following the workshops, the advisory board aggregated the results and recommended some initial projects to begin establishing and promoting the culture.
Once the organization initiated the change, the board continued meeting monthly to assist with development and implementation of the projects that resulted from the workshops. The board's ongoing involvement enabled members to reinforce and sustain the current initiative and to cultivate a support network of "true believers," thus increasing the advisory board's capacity to lead and champion future initiatives.
Lessons learned and results
With support and direction from the L&D advisory board, the organization successfully launched a major development initiative. Employee response to the awareness and brainstorming sessions was overwhelmingly positive, including this comment from the assistant dean of education: "During my five years here, this is the best and most productive training we have ever had."
Specific program outcomes follow.
- The organization created an intranet devoted to information sharing and communication, and included a directory of employees and their primary functions to help students link to the appropriate administrative resources.
- Videos of the inter-departmental awareness sessions will be used in the future as an onboarding tool.
- Improvements developed by staff members during the cross-functional brainstorming workshops included better communication among departments about student enrollment and financial status, and improved building signage.
- The organization established an employee recognition program.
Creating an L&D advisory board resulted in rich learning opportunities for all involved.
Some key lessons follow.
- Maintaining a high level of engagement with the change process can be difficult for board members as they balance their primary job responsibilities with the demands of their advisory board roles. Regular meetings to stay connected and a flexible approach from all involved are needed to maintain momentum.
- Documenting the group's activities and sharing progress toward the initiative's goals motivates members and builds grassroots support.
- Maintaining patience is paramount. Organizational change is difficult, and it takes time. Keep these lessons in mind to help people stay focused and positive when rough spots come, as they inevitably will.
One small result proved the change initiative's positive organizational impact: The staff directory on the new intranet ensured that a student would be directed to the person who could resolve her issue immediately. Using the power of influence brought to bear by the intrepid members of the advisory board, the L&D department had a significant and beneficial impact on the organization and, ultimately, the students.