Spending on corporate learning, particularly leadership development, continues to increase at a staggering pace. According to one piece of research, spending on frontline leadership development alone increased by over 310% in a three-year period. Despite the amount they invest in corporate learning, organizations continue to struggle to connect these programs with the day-to-day work of strategy execution.
Learning departments are frequently part of the problem. Like many parts of large organizations, they are captive to a rich and debilitating status quo. They aspire to teach abstract concepts to their employees, such as “agility,” “collaboration,” and “coaching.” But to enable strategy execution, learning departments need to reorient from what they’re trying to teach to where these things show up in the work.
Organizations need to retool learning, changing it from an obsession on individually focused and content-driven events to learning that is deeply contextual, social, and embedded into real work. Learning needs to be built into how power really works within organizations, organized around peer power, functional power, and hierarchical power.
Learning with Peers Happens Through Routines
People work in context with others. They create social norms, they dictate the unspoken standards, they define whom to collaborate with and whom to avoid, and they decide how much risk to take. All of this is done in “tribes” of employees, beyond the purview of head office. We need learning departments brave enough to move toward social learning through the routines of these tribes and away from the hegemony of abstract competencies and capabilities.
In one pharmaceutical R&D company, we identified three critical populations that needed to change to enable the execution of the organization’s strategy. Each group had its own tribal norms with its own routines. Until we got into the details of their real work, and helped them recast their very distinct, idiosyncratic local routines, change initiatives and strategic priorities died painful, silent deaths in hundreds of disconnected ways within these groups. But once their understanding of their work and roles was recast around the three to four vital routines per role, performance improved.
In these local contexts, people work out of habit. The best organizations have begun recasting how they understand performance, switching from a decidedly individualistic and psychological lens to a much more social, behavioral lens. In many of these organizations, critical populations are identified that enable or inhibit the execution of strategy. We then identify the routines that differentiate the best performers in these populations. Routines are the regular social events that occur that can be seen to differentiate the best performers from average ones in any discrete population within an organization. Competencies tend to cluster in routines. Learning needs to recast its approach by focusing deeply on this context, and not by teaching new content and abstraction.
Learning in Business Functions Happens Through Processes
We think of learning as something that requires academic expertise and new models, but organizations teach all the time. One of the strongest mechanisms for teaching in any organizations surrounds how functions wield power. Now, all functions are not created equal when it comes to power. Organizational learning needs to identify the most powerful functions within their organization and build learning into the functional practices at the points where it will yield real impact.
In one organization, the new leader of the audit function (which was almost universally feared and loathed) decided he wanted to cultivate a more proactive learning footprint in the function’s engagement with the business. The audit process and outputs were retooled away from “catching people out” and toward “identifying and spreading best practices.” Because this approach affected the way the auditors executed their work, the on-the-ground impact and the effectiveness of the audit team improved dramatically. Rather than being the “death squad” that the organization feared, they became the “pollinators” that sought out and spread great ideas.
Historically, the arrival of an audit team at a site was preceded by the “hiding of bodies” and the alignment of key messages by the site team, to present a united, protected front. The shifts in the processes and approach of the audit team completely shifted this footing. By wielding its power differently, the audit function created a powerful platform for the entire organization to learn, day-to-day.
Every organization has functions that wield a disproportionate amount of power — the typical suspects are finance, procurement, and audit. These functions, due to their power over local teams, can be incredibly effective agents to teach the organization. Instead of owning programs and abstracted learning initiatives that most people in the organization treat as recess from work, the most effective learning organizations collaborate with these powerful functions to integrate organizational learning into their processes and practices.
Learning Among Leaders Happens Through Dialogue
Your leaders teach every day; they’re just not aware they are teaching. Leaders wield power in organizations, but that power often involves perpetuating the status quo. If left to their own devices, they will present whatever strategy material was given to them, ask if there are questions, and move on to the things that really matter. This approach doesn’t help organizations make improvements in strategy execution.
In a number of organizations, we’ve focused intensely on enabling leader-led learning. To be clear, our approaches are not your parents’ “leader-led learning” of 65 PowerPoint slides covered in 60 minutes. Most people in organizations need to be woken up and provoked to share fresh stories and ideas in the context of their real work. One of the keys is building leaders that provoke the right dialogue.
In one large-scale transformation project in Australasia, our team worked with the top 400 leaders of a financial services company, in intact teams, to help leaders translate their insights around strategy back to the day-to-day realities of their team through a series of strategically designed “provocative dialogues.” The focus of these sessions was not on content; it was on helping the leader connect differently with their teams and allowing the team to share their insights about what was really happening. New content was in these sessions, but it was camouflaged — it was just part of tackling and looking at real challenges, together, in new ways. The leaders were not allowed to “revert to type,” as they were held accountable, by a facilitator, for engaging their teams with openness, curiosity, and vulnerability.
The impact was striking. Rather than getting hung up on interesting models, teams actually engaged around the ways they worked and what they could do differently. Leaders received valuable feedback about their impact on the system and how they needed to change their day-to-day practices to realize the strategy. The impact on the normal operating patterns of these teams, and their collective impact on the organization, led to significant improvements in change agility and performance of the organization very quickly. The sessions were dubbed, by the leaders, “funky team meetings.”
People are trapped in organizations, and they learn from the status quo, every day. They react to power in isolated bubbles with familiar populations around known problems. Organizations need to shift from focusing on the traditional content-driven approach of corporate learning to focusing on the context of learning in organizations. People are smart — if you give them the right bread crumbs, they’ll find the right way. It is the job of corporate learning to lay out and enable the right bread crumbs.
About the Author
Todd Warner is the founder of Like Minds Advisory, a consultancy of veteran executives and practitioners who work with organizations to think differently about execution and the human side of performance.