This article was originally published in Learning Solutions Magazine, 6 June 2016
Disruptive business models are providing convenience and value, challenging previously accepted relationships between business and consumers—and even disintermediating services altogether. Learning and development organizations (L&D) could do worse right now than to “help people do what they want to do, better.” But it is probably more likely that we in L&D will be disrupted from outside if we continue providing “solutions” that meet neither the requirements nor the expectations of how businesses and people work today.
Want some examples of disruption? YouTube, Spotify, Uber, and Airbnb disrupted entire industries because they help people to do what they want to do, better. Now, of course these are more in the nature of providing value to individual consumers, whether to entertain or amuse, share videos, listen to music, get around, or conveniently discover and book accommodation when traveling.
What about providing value to business and to other organizations? I will not be the first to tell you that business today is more complex, unpredictable, and fast-paced than before. To this end, for people to thrive and acquire knowledge and know-how at pace, they need the support of faster, more agile, and digitally equipped learning and development.
New businesses disrupt an industry by looking at problems in a different way and challenging long-established norms and practices. The disruptive companies named above have done precisely this, and they have achieved hyper-growth and established themselves as mainstream players. L&D also needs to look at problems in a different way and refocus on more than “learning needs,” “learning solutions,” and “learning outcomes.”
For greater impact, and to remain integral to how the business runs, we need to focus on precisely what people need to do in order to achieve the organization’s strategic goals; and we need to look for where there are currently performance gaps hindering the achievement of operational goals. This requires us to challenge whether a generic presentation skills course or a three-day best-practice leadership development program will do this—or will they simply provide a temporary distraction?
L&D has the opportunity to become the best-connected and most effective department in any organization, although not by delivering programs and launching initiatives. Which brings me to the next level of refocus: to see past the “course” as our default solution.
As high-value as courses and programs seem to L&D (often due to the amount of time and money put into their design and delivery), employees experience them as if they are being scooped up on a production line, with often just one solitary experience of that course. In this case, the value is extremely limited and unlikely to be at all transformative. Although I think it is fair to say we are not transformed in the classroom or with online courses, we are “transformed by [our] efforts to respond to the demands of [our] environment,” which is the very definition of evolution, according to Oxford Dictionaries. If this is the case, then we should be looking for ways to support learning in the workflow by providing online resources that help employees when they face their everyday challenges.
Once we throw off the shackles of the course mindset (as referenced by Charles Jennings), we can focus on activities and outcomes that impact the work itself, embed learning in the workflow, and help employees to grow by doing. This will not be achieved one class at a time, but by having the potential to touch everybody, every day. We can also provide more agile responses to performance problems and opportunities for growth that can impact people today, rather than several months from now when a program has been researched, designed, launched, and finally attended!
So, rather than default to a course, think of how you (on your own or in collaboration with colleagues and experts inside your company) might produce short, targeted online resources that have the power to inspire, show, or tell employees—when they are faced with specific challenges and in their moments of need—and help them to perform better right now. This would look like the best of Google and YouTube but with your organization’s proprietary expertise, knowledge,understanding, and know-how. If this is new to you, let me assure you this is very easy to do and very easy to get started. You can create digital resources—in minutes, with the right tool—that you can immediately share to those who need the support in order to perform. You can also iterate and improve digital resources in real time, meaning that they continually become more useful the more that workers engage with them.
The power in resources is that you can make them contextually relevant to an organization or closely align them to what the business is aiming to achieve. You can use groups of resources to provide detailed maps of what successful people are already doing in an organization, so that others can learn from them.
Here is a simple example of this: You’ve just been promoted to manager (woo-hoo!), and you sit at your desk on day one wanting to know what you should do now. So do you:
a) Google it?
b) Find out what people in comparable situations in your company have done that was successful?
You could Google it, and you will find any number of experts saying, “You need to create a vision,” “You need to start coaching your team,” “You need to manage upward.” All these things are not wrong, but are they useful to you now? Finding out what others in your shoes have successfully done would be a smart thing to do, but finding those people and eliciting their experiences is not likely to be convenient for you or for them, although it would be of great value if you could do it.
An online resource can act like a digital tap on the shoulder of people who have been successful when faced with the same challenge. Each resource can answer a specific question or fulfill a specific need. A series of resources together can provide a learning journey for people who find themselves in unknown territory.
L&D organizations have traditionally been good at delivering courses that pull together key theories and models, which delegates then interpret for application in their own situations. L&D has also had a great deal of experience in providing instruction in formal learning settings. Those are just two of the resource types that you can create or curate and then share in digital formats. Here are all three with descriptions and examples of where and how to use them:
1. Instruct: This is how you do X…
Use when there is one accepted or efficient way of doing something, such as an ITsystems procedure or financial accounting process—e.g., how to request annual leave or how to process your expenses.
2. Inspire: This is how I have done X…
When there is more than one way of achieving an outcome and the approach requires both authentic and confident application in a dynamic setting, then rather than telling people how to do something, it can be hugely powerful for experienced practitioners, employees, and leaders to share their stories and package these up as resources. This could apply to so many different facets of business life: from being a new starter to a new manager, a new mentor, or any kind of specialist, and for sharing stories of progression within an organization, such as “This is how I’ve managed my career,” “This is how I quickly got up to speed after joining the company,” or “This is how I’ve influenced the direction of a project.”
3. Interpret: This is how you could do X…
As a blend of Instruct and Inspire, you can create a resource as a way to interpret commonalities of successful practice and make recommendations to others. This section right here is interpretive because I am sharing the aggregation of my experiences with anecdotes from others, but you may take this advice and create a better way of doing so. For example: “Five top tips for giving feedback,” “How to prepare for a difficult conversation,” or “Three things successful employees know about managing their careers.”
A “resources-first” approach will change the focus and impact of your face-to-face events. Of course, there is huge value in bringing people together, but by providing support (resources) when it is needed (in the workflow), you bring people together to do what they do best and find most valuable: learning from colleagues’ experiences, discussion, debate, challenge, and practice.
It’s important to understand that this is much more about supporting performance within the flow of work itself rather than supplementing learning from social interaction or learning from formal instruction. You may wish to relate this breakdown to the widely discussed “70:20:10” mix. In any case, remember that resources are not so much about “learning” but about “performing.” You can and should incorporate practice and feedback (which are important to learning) into formal learning, perhaps as a follow-up event. You can immediately apply tips and insight gained from resources at the moment of need; this provides practice “for real,” and of course feedback also occurs at that moment. In the case of interpretive resources (item three above), you’re unpackingwhat works in your organization (and that context is critical!) to help influence the way employees think and then act. The context is what makes the resources more valuable and more effective than, for example, magazine articles or generic videos. The power is in providing a set of organizationally relevant resources that employees can access immediately when needed (a mix of interpretive and inspirational), providing a rich tapestry of learning experiences.
You can curate resources as well as create them, bringing the best of the web to employees along with the context of why that curated source is important and useful to them, their work, and to the company at large.
For L&D, digital curation is a mechanism for sharing high-value resources, crafted from contentand know-how that already exists elsewhere (either inside or outside the organization), the power of which comes once you apply the context and relevance for the benefit of the end user.
L&D needs to refocus and re-skill to truly influence performance, provide timely support during transitions, and build capability so that an organization can achieve its strategic priorities.
To adapt, L&D professionals need to disrupt both their own focus and skill set before the disruption comes from elsewhere. We need to think agile, digital, and contextual and take the opportunity to become the best-connected and most effective department in the business.
A resources-first approach—and just enough digital know-how—will mean helping people to do what they want to do, better, and helping them to perform more efficiently and overcome their challenges as they arise. This, in tandem with providing access to the collective knowledge andknow-how from the most successful and expert employees within the organization, can support growth, galvanize culture, and purposefully increase capability.
Imagine what it would be like to potentially influence everybody’s performance, every day, and to become integral to how the business operates and grows, rather than continuing to impact very few employees, far too infrequently, with courses.
David James is Chief Learning Strategist with Looop and a seasoned Talent Management, Learning & OD leader with nearly 20 years of experience in the profession. Most notably, David was Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company’s EMEA region.
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