Jay Cross examines decision making on learning at work, and
gives the lie to some myths about the use of business metrics.
To "earn a seat at the table" where the business managers sit, you
- speak the language of business
- behave like an officer of the corporation
- think like a business person
- act like a business person.
This applies to any corporation, in both the public and private
sectors. It is vital to understand how a business person makes
decisions - and in particular, the weight they give to numbers and
facts when doing so. It is equally vital to understand that
different officers within your corporation will approach decisions
about learning in varying ways depending on their circumstances.
Business is about making sound decisions. Every business decision
is a trade-off. (If there's no trade-off, it's a no-brainer.) An
important corollary: There is no free lunch. List the pros of doing
something and the cons of doing something else. Be aware of what
you're trading off when making a decision. Every trade-off is a
risk. That doesn't mean you should shy away from risk. Quite the
contrary, for no risk means no reward. A decision maker who
disregards risk is a fool, a pauper, or both.
Fortune favors the bold. An astute businessperson seeks the most
lucrative balance of risk and reward. Every business decision is
made with less than perfect information, and every decision entails
taking a risk. Most investment decisions trade off risk and reward.
Every business decision is made with less than perfect information,
and every decision entails taking a risk. Most investment decisions
trade off risk and reward. The way to make sound decisions is to
judge when you have enough information to move ahead and when the
level of risk is acceptable. He who hesitates is lost. Saying "We
don't have enough information" is not an acceptable excuse. If the
timing is wrong, it would be better to say, "The downside is losing
$500,000, and we can't identify the range of probability around
that occurring any finer than 25 to 75 percent."
When you talk about the bottom line, you better know what it is.
Personally, I didn't understand the difference between profit and
revenue until I took a correspondence course in accounting five
years after graduating from college. If you are not fully fluent
with terms like revenue, earnings, cost, cash flow, margin, and
value, take a look at here and get a friend to explain the workings
of the basic business model.
The Environment of Business
Everything is relative, including evidence and hard numbers. An
executive, a manager, a training director, and a worker each have
different but valid ways of evaluating the effectiveness of
People see what they focus on; they don't see what's really there.
An alcoholic sees the liquor stores other people breeze by. A
foodie always remembers whether or not she has eaten at a
particular restaurant. A top executive sees long-term trends; a
factory laborer sees the clock. (Workplace learning professionals
see learners; everyone else sees workers or employees.) Let's walk
in the shoes of different people and see what they notice.
The knowledge worker's objective is to learn what it takes to do
the best she can. The learned worker enjoys the fulfillment of a
job well done, the rewards that go with high performance, and the
accumulation of marketable skills. Today's workers are out for
themselves - not selfishly, but realistically.
Free agents recognize that their careers will last many times
longer than their employer. Our market-driven world forces people
to increase their personal marketability. Incoming workers are more
demanding than previous generations. They have no patience for
irrelevant exercises, be they useless curriculum or teaching what
they already know. Their watchwords are "Don't waste my time" and
"Less is more."
A great industrial worker might be half again as productive as his
middle-of-the road peer. A great knowledge worker can be several
hundred times as productive as his peer. These people need room to
excel. They want their organizations to give them the dots but they
want to connect the dots for themselves. Workers want learning that
is "pull" (they find and use what they feel they need) instead of
"push" (someone else decides the subject matter for them).
The incoming generation of knowledge workers demands opportunities
to learn through their work; otherwise, they will pick up and go
Workplace Learning Professionals
In the industrial age, the worker was told she was not paid to
think. In the knowledge era, workers are paid to think. And they
need to keep current with a buzz of things racing by. Workers
expect to learn things in small chunks. Learning has shifted from
something outside of work to something embedded in work. Stand-up
instruction is giving way to peer learning.
The workplace learning professional's objective is to help his
sponsors achieve their goals. Sponsors? Usually this is the people
with the authority and wherewithal to sign the checks. Training
cannot rate itself; it doesn't own the yardstick. Business managers
set objectives; workplace learning professionals help achieve them.
Proof that training is working is when sponsors believe it is.
Pity the workplace learning professional. There's more and more to
learn. The old training they're accustomed to no longer works well.
They must interpret business needs into learning opportunities. And
even as knowledge workers take responsibility for their own
learning, the workplace learning professional is likely to be held
accountable when learners' performance is underwhelming.
Typical assessment measures - the four or five levels - are at best
pieces of a much larger puzzle. Level Four will always be out of
reach because the instruments of measurement belong to another
level in the organization. The shift from training (we tell you
what to learn) to learning (you decide what to learn) increases the
scope of the director's job from classes, workshops, and tests to
the broad array of networks, communities, meta-learning, and
You live your life as if everything is a miracle or nothing's a
miracle; for the workplace learning professional, the sky's the
limit or the job is untenable. Today's learning manager must gain
control by giving control.
Here are some things one might add to any learning manager's job
- support the informal learning process
- create useful, peer-rated FAQs and knowledge bases
- supplement self-directed learning with mentors and experts
- use smart tech to make it easier for workers to collaborate and
- encourage cross-functional gatherings
- help workers learn how to improve their learning skills
- explicitly teach workers how to learn
- enlist learning coaches to encourage reflection
- calculate life-time value of a learning "customer"
- explain the know-who, know-how framework
- create a supportive organizational culture
- set up a budget for informal learning
- position learning as a growth experience
- conduct a learning culture audit
- add learning and teaching goals to job descriptions
- encourage learning relationships
- support participation in professional communities of practice.
Getting things done is the role of managers. Meeting this quarter's
numbers is the number one priority. "Long-term" means one year.
Great execution merits a great bonus and more rapid promotion.
Execution is judged by relative success in meeting planned
objectives. Common measures are gain in market share, increased
revenue, customer satisfaction, and other business metrics. The
manager does not necessarily care what it takes to hit the numbers.
If people could gain new skills by popping smart pills instead of
training, pharmaceuticals would push training aside. Sometimes the
numbers are even manufactured.
A couple hundred years ago, the factory system kicked off the
industrial revolution. The need for coordinated action led to
working hours, the urban workforce, specialization of jobs, the
quest for efficiency, and the separation of management and workers.
In the west, the educational system adopted German methods of
schooling soldiers to convert feisty farmers and hunters into
obedient factory workers.
Great ideas have a life cycle. They grow from obscurity among
enthusiasts and fanatics to nearly universal acceptance and
eventually to decline, as the world passes them by. Business
managers cling to ROI and conventional training because they are
known entities, not because they are right. These conceptual
blinders retard the pace of progress.
We recently toured a corporate headquarters where staying late at
work was prized by managers. Time on the job was thought to be
correlated with output when the job is tending an assembly line. In
knowledge work, overwork leads to stress and a reduction in
cognitive acumen. It's better to have a team that leaves on time to
exercise than one that is chained to its desks.
Top management is led by what creates value for stakeholders. This
generally involves innovation, staying power, adherence to
corporate values, and sufficient organizational flexibility to keep
ahead of the speed of change. Shareholder confidence along these
dimensions fuels market capitalization. When investors judge that
the firm can innovate, improve, and grow, the value of its shares
increases, as does the take-home pay of the executive.
All learning, informal or formal and anything in-between, should be
evaluated with the same metric: whether people who participate in
it are doing the job. Executives realize that competing
successfully in business requires teams of inspired employees -
mentally equipped to make sound decisions on the fly; able to
execute good ideas in a snap; and proactive when it comes to taking
initiatives and bringing innovation.
Being on the front line dealing with customers, these employees
don't have time to run every idea up the management flagpole.
Leaders want to field a team that's in the game and ahead of the
crowd. They want to pile on innovation that meshes smoothly with
what people already know. They want organizations that make bold
moves and respond to change as if by instinct. The overall goal: an
environment where people learn faster and better than the
Getting there takes more than a lavish investment in training. Time
is frequently more important than money." "We are moving from a
world in which the big eat the small to a world in which the fast
eat the slow," says Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic
Let's look at how senior decisions are really made. The staff has
shopped various projects around, gathered the figures, done due
diligence on suppliers, run the numbers, assessed the impact of
changes in the marketplace, and prepared terse summaries for each
scenario. Six business cases for new investments, bound with a
clear sheet up front, rest in a pile on the coffee table at the
executive vice president's weekend cabin. (This is going on
simultaneously at the CEO's place by the lake, the COO's condo, and
a few other spots.)
A couple of projects are no-brainers; these are so integral to the
organization's mission, giving a go-ahead is a mere formality.
Projects that enter new territory, eLearning for example, warrant
more detailed consideration. If you were to eavesdrop on the
executive's internal thought processes, you'd hear something like
[Inner dialog] "Good Heavens, this effort is going to cost us
$8 million and change. But our people are our hope for the future.
The analysis shows that we're already spending nearly that much on
training. I wonder what Mikey thinks. The ROI is better than
building another fab plant but some of the underlying numbers are
soft. Of course there's no guarantee that the fab plant wouldn't be
another white elephant when it comes on stream in three years.
The breeze is picking up outside. I bet it rains tonight.
Without e-learning, we'll never become an e-business. Some of our
systems are pretty creaky right now and would benefit from
streamlining. We need to shrink cycle times throughout our
organization. This e-learning infrastructure would give Charlie a
platform for broadcasting and reinforcing his message about
transforming our organization.
The Net Discounted Cash Flow is $2 million better than if we
took this on ourselves. And the real problem there is that our IT
staff would be swamped. And this would wait in line behind the
other mission-critical projects they're working on. Keeping up with
eLearning is not a core activity for us; we should outsource as
much of it as we can. I wonder what Charlie thinks. The ballgame
comes on in about 10 minutes. Where do I come out on this one? I'm
optimistic about the potential. It feels right. I'll back it at the
Executive Committee Meeting on Monday. I better call the wife to
let her know I arrived safely. I could use a slug of single malt
Don't believe it? Most senior executives have more faith in gut
feel than numbers. The numbers are input. The decision is broader
than that. Five years ago, an Information Week survey
revealed that "more companies are justifying their ventures not in
terms of ROI, but in terms of strategic goals. Creating or
maintaining a competitive edge was cited most often as the reason
for deploying a business application."
Decision-making at work is as much about what the heart says (based
on experience and values) as the head (dictated by the numbers). To
give yourself a chance to lead on learning in your organization you
need to understand and appeal to both - at all levels.
Jay Cross is a well-known change agent, speaker,