The Role of a Learning Culture in 2008
We recently completed a major research program which studies the elements of corporate learning which deliver the highest levels of business impact. Our findings were fascinating, providing valuable guidance for anyone in the corporate learning industry.
First, there are two types of solutions provided by corporate learning organizations. The first type, which we call “performance-driven” learning solutions, drive near-term competitive advantage. These programs help the organization with timely, urgent problems.
There are many performance-driven learning solutions in organizations; Consider a major blended learning program to assist sales and service people understand a product rollout, a coaching program to help managers understand how to deal with a business downturn or shift in employee demographics, or an e-learning program to help employees understand how to use a new IT system. These programs drive immediate and measurable impact – and their success is driven by your ability to:
- Clearly diagnose the problem (performance consulting)
- Understand the nature of the audience (needs analysis)
- Build interesting and engaging content (content development)
- Deploy and manage the program effectively (program management)
- Implement new technology where needed (e-learning)
- Measure results and find areas of improvement (measurement).
These six operational skills are critical to success in performance-driven learning, and most L&D professionals (and CLOs) realize that they must continuously work to improve and update their processes and skills in these areas. (Our research found that performance consulting, in fact, is the “highest-value” of these six, by the way.)
But there is also a second, completely different type of solution provided by corporate learning organizations. This value focuses on “long-term” competitive advantage, enabling the company to grow, adapt to change, attract and retain great people, innovate, focus, and meet customer demands. These long term strengths are not developed through “performance-driven” learning, rather they are developed through this second set of strategies, which we call “talent-driven learning” solutions.
Talent-driven learning solutions also take many forms: a multi-tier leadership development program (where almost 25% of corporate L&D dollars go) is the archetypal example of a talent-driven program. A complete sales curriculum (such as Cisco or IBM’s end-to-end sales training program, which takes place over years) is such a program. A corporate wide quality and process improvement program (such as GE’s Six-Sigma, Caterpillar’s new manufacturing process program, and Rockwell Collins process improvement program) is a talent-driven solution.
These programs, as we named them, build talent. They go far beyond the development of skills – they focus on deep-rooted competencies, behaviors, and culture. They must be integrated with career development models and performance management in order to succeed. And they take years to build and mature, demanding a long-term investment.
These talent-driven learning programs provide more intangible benefits (employee flexibility and satisfaction, engagement, innovation, retention), but far greater impact over the long term. In fact, our research found that in 2008 learning organizations are focusing very heavily in this area, driven largely by the tremendous shifts taking place in the demographics of the workforce. The development of talent-driven learning solutions causes stress: you need large capital investments, you must centralize more of your L&D resources, and you must partner far more closely with HR and talent management teams.
Interestingly, as we analyzed the data for our upcoming High Impact Learning Organization research, we found that among more than 40 different dimensions we studied, the single factor which best predicts the business impact of a learning organization is the “learning culture.”
What is a “learning culture?”
Simply explained, we define an organization’s “learning culture” as its ability and willingness to embrace individual and organizational learning as a strategic part of its business strategy. In other words, does your organization focus primarily on “results?” Or does it also embrace the strategy that the organization itself is an organism of people who must continuously develop, grow, and adapt to meet changing market conditions?
There are many ways to measure of the learning culture, and we have come up with a scorecard to help you assess your culture. For example, does your organization have a formal employee development process coupled with the performance management process? Are there formal coaching programs available for managers and leaders to help them learn how to listen and develop employee performance?
At an organizational level, does your organization embrace the idea that many new products and services will fail, and that we will “learn” from these experiences, rather than just punish the underperformers? Are there processes in place for employees to feed back suggestions and improvements? Is the organization porous and always listening to customers for new ideas and changes in the market?
At the highest level, does the organization have a history and experience with change and adaptation as markets change? Can the organization “re-learn” its business when suddenly it faces a major shift which forces it to change the nature of its products, services, and value proposition? Many high technology organizations, for example, are “one-product companies.” They fail to evolve beyond their first successful product. (Remember Informix and Ingres in the database market? People’s Express in the Airline Industry?) Others grow and prosper into powerhouses.
The bottom line is this: a learning culture is built through a symphony of business processes – driven by the executives all the way down the organization. Your role as an L&D professional is to constantly be vigilant about the learning culture, ask questions to help others see its value, and take on the role as cheerleader to continuously improve the learning culture in each and every program. We know that an investment in this area will always pay off.