Speaking of effigies (Dayna Bateman/Flickr)

Make a wish

Reda SadkiLearning strategy, Thinking aloud, Writing

Is the CLO really the ‘fifth wheel’ in the organizational strategy wagon? Learning leaders tend to roll their eyes upward in sour-faced agreement about ending up as an after thought – after strategic alignment has been completed everywhere else in the organization, or being considered as a support service to enable and implement rather than a partner. So, what to wish for?

First, I would wish for an organization that is mission-driven. This is what everyone wishes for, of course, so let me try to be specific. The mission should inspire, giving everyone something to strive for, to encourage people and structure to reinvent themselves to face global complexity – with clarity that reinvention is a constant, not a one-off. It would require strong leadership, not command-and-control, but modelling the values and practices of the organization and the acceptance that uncertainty requires calculated risk-taking, now and tomorrow. Such distributed leadership requires a strong, vocal chief executive attuned to the hyper-connected, perception-driven world we live, and can be brought to life only by a talent and learning team that excels at hiring, developing and retaining people who don’t fit traditional profiles, who recognize misfits as potential superheroes. The people function needs to be fast – keep a potential candidate waiting for months, and she’s gone.

So, what does such a profile look like? We all recognize that most of the learning that matters is embedded into work… and then go back to organizing workshops, building online courses, and demanding resources so that people can stop their work, go off and study. Therefore, unless she is a digital native, our L&D misfit cum superhero sidekick may have to unlearn her own vestigial L&D workshop and training culture and its overemphasis on formal training  – and figure out how the lead the organization through that same process. How? Like an anthropologist, she should be able to unpack, read, and decipher the organization’s learning culture, invent new ideas to capture and share informal and tacit learning, and engineer embedded, adaptive systems to institutionalize these ideas. Immerse, observe, and learn to connect the dots between learning culture, strategy, and mission, knowing that culture drives performance.  Through this process, iterate ideas, experiments, and pilots, and do it fast enough and often enough to collapse the distinction between ‘stuff you try’ and operations – stretching the organization’s knowledge performance a little more each time. Think in the yoga of organizational development: stretch and stretch, but accept that you won’t get there the first time. Accept what is ‘good enough’, knowing that you get to try again, and that what is perfect now would not be so tomorrow, anyway. This circles back to leadership for learning – with the learning leader as sidekick, depending on the vision and the will of the chief executive to bring such a vision to life.

The mantra is to maximize efficiency and effectiveness to become a strategic business partner. On efficiency, technology’s economy of effort removes the necessity of distinguishing between internal staff development and the needs of your external audiences (customers). This is key to working frugally with minimal human and financial resources. However, the organization should be skeptical of claims that efficiency or scale trumps effectiveness. Witness the slow agony of the LMS, the massively profitable industry of clunky content containers that require massive investment but depend on transmissive, behaviorist pedagogical models of the past, fail even at the purpose of compliance for which they are designed, and seldom deliver tangible knowledge or performance outcomes.

I believe that it is reasonable to proclaim that in our knowledge-based economy, an organization’s ability to learn is key to both its survival and growth. However, this raises expectations about the relevance of the learning function, its outcomes and return on investment. And yet, even with perfect alignment, we are adding small, single-digit percentage points to performance and business results that, in many contexts, will not be measurable at the time when they matter most, if ever. Here is how Doug Lynch sums it up:

The news isn’t all bad. The theory of human capital development suggests that if we develop people, they will become more productive. The problem is, empirical research suggests between 66 and 80 percent of the variance in performance is not captured by human capital development models. At best, we are able to impact 34 percent of the performance variance. And yet, the space seems to operate like learning is an elixir, curing any ill.

The elixir fallacy results in part from our own legitimate search for relevance, alignment, and results. At the end of the day, you will be asked to “land it”, to demonstrate with fireworks and marching band how learning altered the organization’s DNA and made a difference. But what if that takes time, and looks more like a process of grains of sand washing up on the beach rather than a maelstrom of disruption? What if the part of L&D practice that matters is really, as Karen Watkins calls it, the “little R&D”, the unimpressive, slow-and-gradual process of trying new things, experimenting, getting it wrong and then right…?

So, the last item on my wish list is for an organization that acknowledges that strengthening learning culture requires a mixed methods approach, alternating  between slow, gradual change-over-time that leverages smart technology and pedagogy that can impact everyone in the organization with shock-and-awe leadership and high-potential development, action learning, wicked problem solving, innovation tournaments, and other highly visible acts of disruption to shake up business as usual.

Photo: Speaking of effigies (Dayna Bateman/Flickr).