Seeing the Constellations: Thoughts from IMPACT 2009

We just completed our IMPACT® 2009 Research Conference in Florida, which brought together over 300 top HR and L&D leaders from around the world.  One of the things I talked about in my keynote is the real value of industry research, and I wanted to highlight some of this thinking here, through the use of an analogy.

We, as industry analysts, are constantly looking into the heavens.  The Heavenswe gaze upward we see many flashes of light.  These millions of stars are each of you – the business and HR leaders and practitioners who are each working to solve problems.  If you gaze into the heavens you too will see this light.  From far away it looks like a broad glow, with different areas of color, cluster of activity, and areas of deep darkness.  But without a map of the heavens, it is hard to see the patterns.  So you see individual stars, small clusters, and sometimes images.

We see a lot of stars.  In fact, during a single year each of our analysts probably talks with hundreds of companies, and through our surveys and other research tools we actually study tens of thousands of companies, problems, processes, and systems.

Our job, as research analysts, is to show you the constellations.  The maps.  The important patterns.  And in addition to pointing them out to you (through our frameworks, maturity models, and reports), we show you how they apply to the problems you face in your organization.  

Now I know this sounds abstract and a little academic, but at it’s core this is the essence of business research.  And we do so much research now that I thought an analogy like this would be helpful.

Some of the seven “constellations” I pointed out at IMPACT are:

1.  Employee “engagement” is now a business issue, not an HR issue.  Organizations must learn to measure, monitor, and analyze engagement to give them immediate and specific actionable information. Lowes and Booz Allen discussed this in detail.  In the case of Lowes, for example, the company created a special definition of employee engagement which directly correlates to store sales.  By carefully monitoring this engagement measure, and identifying the job roles which contribute to engagement, Lowes can focus its talent investments on two critical roles in their store population.

2.  Corporate learning is not a “set of training programs” but rather a “set of learning environments,” which fit into an organizational learning culture.   If you want to build sustainable, high-impact learning programs you must build a learning architecture, and implement that architecture through a set of environments framed by your corporate learning culture.  Our new learning practices research and enterprise learning framework will help you here.

3.  High performing companies build individuals with deep levels of specialization, not generalists.    When GE studied its highest performing business units in 2007, they found one thing in common:  they each had a leader with 5 or more years of functional experience in that business.  The old management science of “job rotation” is somewhat flawed – it is deep levels of skill which make an organization sustainable.   (Qualcomm, Boeing, Vestas, and BT all talked about this at IMPACT.)

4.  First line managers should be considered nobility.  In any organization, the most important decisions are made at the front line – and often by new managers.   Organizations that are dealing with today’s economy are building leadership development from the “bottom up,” not “top down” – because it is the line leaders that implement change.  Southwest Airlines, Kaiser Permanente, Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Lowes, and ARAMARK leaders all talked about how they’re doing this at IMPACT.

5.  Talent Mobility should be your design point for talent management.  With most mature companies facing aging baby-boomers, layoffs, restructuring, and even growth in some areas – it is mobility that drives performance.  Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Turner Broadcasting all talked about the challenge of talent mobility, and how their “succession management” processes are evolving.  You should consider your retiring experts as part of this talent pool as well – how can you leverage them into your talent and expertise network?  Boeing is doing this today.

6.  You must learn from “we” not “me.”  Your company is a pattern recognition system.  Through the customer facing, internal, and support resources throughout your organization you are seeing and responding to market changes every day.  Without a process of actively sharing knowledge and learning, your L&D organizaton can never keep up.  BT, Sun Microsystems, and The Federal Reserve all showed us how they are using the “wisdom of crowds” in their organizations to rapidly adapt and succeed.  By the way, you can never build enough “training” to keep up, so don’t even try to control it.

7.  Do “less with less.”  Throughout the conference we talked about the fact that reduced budgets are a blessing in disguise.  It is healthy to focus, start over, and rebuild your talent and learning strategies in a consolidated, focused way.   Bristol Myers Squibb, Freeman, and almost every solution provider we spoke with described how they are consolidating their HR and L&D investments and driving even greater impact with fewer programs and fewer people.

So as you gaze up into the stars in the coming weeks, try to find these constellations – I hope they guide you to a successful 2009.