Time to update the strategy for the organization’s learning?

Over the past year, there have been several changes that strongly affect how we encourage learning in our organizations. The increasingly complex challenges require that we have a continuously updated strategy for how we encourage learning in the organization.

In two articles I have previously described how we need to establish continuous learning integrated into the work to meet the new challenges.

In this article, I describe how you can develop a strategy to get there. I share my experience of having supported many large companies with their learning strategy.

Why update your organizations learning strategy?

Learning and learning functions (in the future i will use “L&D” – Learning & Development) have recently become at the centre for major changes. Those of us who work with learning have long been able to deliver education as we have always done.

That’s no longer the case.

Let me mention some of the changes that have taken place in the last year alone:

  • Covid has meant a rapid digitisation of learning. As the forecasts now stand, employees will have established completely new digital habits for their learning. Can you fully meet those needs?
  • According to McKinsey, digitalization has taken a leap of faith in many industries in seven years. It is noticeable by the need for new capabilities. According to “Future of Jobs 2020”, the need for reskilling has now increased further. On average, 40% of all employees need more than 6 months of reskilling. Are you ready?
  • HolonIQ predicts that investments in EdTech companies will reach SEK 120 billion this year. This is an increase of 70% compared to last year and 24 times more than in 2010. We live in a formidable explosion of new learning technology. Can you navigate it?
  • Learning has increasingly become a management issue and is crucial to the survival of the company. The gap between companies driven by innovation, learning and speed has widened to other companies. Companies in the upper half invest significantly more in learning and build learning into culture, work and collaboration. Is the management of your organization ready?

An article from boston consulting group highlights the problem. Four out of five CEOs ask questions like:

  • “Why don’t we reskill systematically?”
  • “Why don’t we learn and adapt as quickly as the competition?”
  • “Why don’t we future-proof our employees?”

It is believed that L&D is not up to scratch. The goal should be to develop the organization’s capabilities and not just to deliver courses. In order to succeed, it is considered that L&D needs to be fundamentally redesigned, modernized, broken away from HR and sit in the management team. Just as IT 20 years ago took its place in the management team

I’ve noticed this change myself. Recently, I have talked to two large companies whose managements put the importance of learning faster on the agenda but have not asked for help from L&D. Instead, it has hired its “management office” or external consultants.

It’s just a matter of realizing. Simply delivering courses is no longer good enough. The “business idea” for those responsible for L&D is bigger than that. You are responsible for developing the organization’s capabilities and ensuring that constant learning takes place, at work, in teams, between functions, with the outside world.

There is a long way between delivering courses and constant learning built into the work. To succeed, you need a well-established strategy and a change plan that is constantly updated.

In this article I describe my experiences working with strategy for learning with a number of larger Swedish companies.

What does it mean to develop learning in the organization?

A first question, of course, is what do I mean by learning strategy?

In short, it is the way to move from the current situation (perhaps with a focus on courses) to a future goal where learning is embedded in work and collaboration. It is about new methods for learning, supporting technology, how you work with the employees capability to learn, with leadership and culture and of course how L&D is organized and the roles that will drive change.

The result is a change map showing the initiatives to be driven (see example below).

As I describe below, working on the strategy is not a one-off event but rather a process to continuously understand the outside world, adapt the strategy and gradually develop new capabilities within L&D.

The second important question, of course, is what it means to develop learning in the organization. The simple answer is to change the approach to learning from “participation on course” to “organizational learning and capability”.

We are expanding methods to learn from relying on our own courses to utilizing the world’s knowledge and information. We design the work for continuous improvement and learning and we organize ourselves for maximum collaboration and learning.

Ownership of learning is transferred from L&D to the business and to the employees themselves. The technology is used to accelerate learning at work and the culture encourages employees to drive their own learning.

There are several organizations that research what successful learning organizations do. Some examples are Towards Maturity, CEB/Gartner, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group.

In my work I often use Bersin Deloitte’s research and framework “Learning Maturity Model”. It fits well with my experience and has an educational “staircase” that corresponds to clear steps in the development of organizations.

Effective (digital) learning – A first step is to reach more employees by digitizing training, creating more impact through mixed solutions, measuring and evaluating. Learning is based on the skills required to succeed today and in the future. The responsibility for securing skills is distributed to the business. Many organizations have developeded in this way over the past six months.

Personalised learning – In a second step, you offer a more individual-based learning journey, with relevant content from many more sources than just the company’s LMS, e.g . “online” course library, videos, reports, articles. Data and AI helps to recommend what is relevant to the employee. Training is integrated into the environments the employee works in, e.g. Teams. You better meet the demands of building new capabilities on reskilling.

Continuous learning – Now you focus on the employee’s capability to drive their own learning. You work with a culture that supports and encourages the employee to drive their own learning. You expand your approach to learning from pure education to learning from experiences, from collaboration with others and from knowledge from the outside world. You have employees who are much faster at learning and developing.

Integrated learning – Finally, you build learning into working methods and in the organization. You create a natural learning at work by providing employees with data, feedback and support. You organize to increase learning between colleagues, teams and with the outside world. You are thus building an organization that is faster at responding to change and building new capabilities

You can read more about continuous and integrated learning in my articles on continuous learning “part 1 – learn more from experiences” and ” part2 – learn more from others“.

In a recent study, McKinsey described what the most successful and profitable companies do. These companies (top fifth) have in the last 20 years increased their earnings more than 400% above the average of companies.

What they do coincides with what the companies in the top half of the “Learning Maturity Model” do. Common are flat structures, agile working methods, decentralized and quick decisions and a great focus on learning.

There are many benefits from developing learning in the organization. Some examples:

  • According to ATD and other studies, turnover per employee is 2-3 times higher and profits are 24% higher for those companies that have most developed learning.
  • According to studies from Bersin Deloitte, profit growth is 3 times higher for companies that have the most developed learning.
  • According to other studies from Bersin Deloitte, companies with developed learning have twice the rate of innovation and productivity.

How do you develop a strategy?

I have been working with learning strategy for many years. Some examples of companies that I support are Ericsson, SEB, Scania, Handelsbanken, Sandvik, ICA and others.

Over the years, I have also helped many companies implement their strategy and been able to follow what has worked well and what has worked less well.

In general, it is easy to work too long with research and planning. It is also common to look too much “inside out”, i.e. keep the work within the team and listen too little to other stakeholders.

An example of this is a company I helped for six months with research and work to develop a strategy for learning. I think there were probably 40 people involved. When the strategy was done the manager of education quit and it turned out that there was no mandate from the next rank of managers. The result was a comprehensive report but few changes.

Some things I’ve noticed having been important to succeed are:

  • Work from outside – in – engage employees and stakeholders in conversation about needs and opportunities.
  • Adapt your ambitions – understand your own influence and what management prioritizes early in the work.
  • Work step by step – make a “good enough” plan and test quickly instead of developing a comprehensive perfect plan.
  • Follow up – don’t forget to ask employees and find “real” facts on how things are going. Update frequently.
  • Speed is important – the world around us, management priorities, employee preferences and technology are changing rapidly.
  • Govern with vision – create a powerful and entrenched vision to steer towards rather than detailed plans.

An agile process

As I described above, there are major risks associated with a linear and extensive work. Reality is changing rapidly, whether it’s technology, employee expectations, management priorities or your own influence and mandate.

I therefore recommend an agile way of working as shown below. Insight and understanding precede work to develop a common vision and goal. Identify opportunities that will enable you to achieve the goals and then test iteratively to create experiences and lessons learned before you develop the change map.

I think you can take several laps in this loop. It is better to create change than to create the perfect plan. Initially, many L&D teams do not have the influence to bring about major changes. Then it is better to work on the strategy within the smaller team and implement minor changes. With successful results and increased influence, you bring more stakeholders and aim for major changes.

Change insight

Start by establishing your “why.” Without realizing why a change needs to happen, it is difficult to start work and engage management and employees. The reasons can be many, for example, digitalisation, large skillshifts, changing preferences for learning, new methods and new technologies for learning.

Also, create the insight into the organization’s state when it comes to best-practice for modern continuous learning

Deep understanding

In order to make strategic choices, a deep understanding of the factors that affect future learning is needed. Examples are the organization’s strategy, trends in the outside world, customer behavior, digitalization, employees’ changing expectations, limitations/opportunities in culture, policies, etc.

Also important is your team’s support among key stakeholders, influence in the business, mandates, access to resources and own capability.

First, ensure that you have sufficient understanding by interviewing key stakeholders and reading relevant material, e.g . trends and the organisation’s strategy. At a workshop you discuss the consequences and conclusions for learning in the future.

Vision & Goals

Based on the insights above, it’s time to sketch out a vision. It is a picture of how you want learning to take place in the organization in the future. An example from Ericsson:

I suggest that you create concrete descriptions of what the vision really means for different employees. It is the basis for visualizing the vision and for communication. I usually use so-called “learning stories” which is a description of different employees’ learning during a fictional day in the future.

This type of data is then used in communication to build awareness around the strategy.

With a consensus around the vision, it is also important to create clear and measurable goals, both behaviors and measurable data.

Opportunities

The next step is to identify opportunities that will enable you to achieve the goals. There can be a number of things, such as to learn more from collaboration and knowledge sharing, curate external courses, build support and learning into systems and processes, etc. Below is an example of how a company summarizes the opportunities

Also describe the conditions for coping with the above. Examples are available technology, necessary attitudes and culture or sufficient capabilities of those leading the change. This is where you are currently bottoming out and understand obstacles and “enablers” to achieve the goals.

With living stories about how it will work, you match the value with the employees. In this way, you will learn more about what is needed and appreciated benefit.

Finish by prioritising by balancing opportunities that contribute most to the goals and with the greatest chance of success.

Test and learn

Many of the opportunities you see are basically hypotheses. You don’t know if it’s going to work or not. Therefore, you need to test before you go ahead and propose an implementation.

A test can be simple, such as you show how it will work in a slideshow. You may also be required to make a prototype, e.g . in SharePoint, or let a department work with a method, such as reflection and sharing of lessons learned.

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Evaluate whether the effects will be those you think, such as with user panels, interviews, surveys, etc. The important thing now is to find out the benefits and provide a basis for design.

The last one is especially important. Sometimes I find that many organizations buy half of the agile, to test incrementally, but not the other half, to find out the facts, outside their own circle, and learn.

Change map

One way to document the conclusions is a map of change. It shows the way from the current state to the goal. Given the rapid changes, it is important not to set up too long a time horizon. “This year”, “next year” and “in the long run” are enough.

Here you can also clearly show how your way of offering learning, your methods, depends on the culture of the organization, available technology, your own capability within L&D and other dependencies, such as towards IT and the business.

The image shows an example of a change map.

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Initiatives that are critical and urgent end up in the field of ‘initiative of the year’. “Test & learn” means that you test sharply in the business with pilots.

In order to scale up successful pilots to be implemented more widely, inputs are needed that can be used to initiate projects and initiatives, such as project directives, business case, follow-up strategy and communication plan.

Conduct with a number of workshops

I usually prefer to gather the right stakeholders and carry out the strategy work as a number of workshops. In this way, “sufficient” knowledge is gathered in the room, replacing extensive interview work. It also gives everyone the same picture of conclusions, vision, results, etc. This can also be done as web meetings using “white boards”.

Before each meeting, each participant prepares in the form of reading/watching videos and performs tasks such as to interview or check results with employees.

At the workshop meetings themselves, it is important to be able to spend time processing insights, prioritizing, brainstorming opportunities, planning activities, etc.

The image above is an example of arrangements with meetings and activities in between.

It’s a cyclical process.

Developing a strategy is not a one-off project, a plan that is stuck for 3 years. The outside world, technology, employee habits, management priorities are changing more and more frequently. The goals and the change map need to be updated frequently. “Test and learn” is something you need to work on constantly. This leads to new insights that affects the goals and the change map. I recommend reviewing the change map at least quarterly.

Changing habits, culture and technology for learning takes a long time. The same can apply to your team’s influence in your organization. This applies to management’s prioritization of learning, attitudes in the organization, access to resources, budget and, not least, the team’s capability to drive change.

Therefore, you should start small, involve your team and some important stakeholders. You create a change map that involves small steps, which you have influence over and know you can implement.

When the realization of change is great, management prioritizes and also engages in a change, you can have a greater ambition. Then it is important to involve all stakeholders and employees in working with a strategy for learning. That means a bigger effort.

What’s your strategy?

What’s it like at your place? When was the last time the learning strategy was updated? If I judge organizations that have worked purposefully with a strategy such as Ericsson, Scania, SEB and ICA (and many others of course), they have all come a long way towards a learning organization. In those organisations, L&D also has a good influence and mandate.

If you want to read more about how I can help your organization, I suggest you read about NextMove, my offer to get started with a learning strategy.

Jag heter Johan Skoglöf. På min blogg analyserar och beskriver jag nyheter och företeelser runt lärande organisationer.

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