Are you ready to lead a different kind of learning?

Different kind of learning

Few people would question HR’s role as champion and keeper of learning and development within the organization. Training programs and learning initiatives have traditionally been in HR’s wheelhouse and have focused exclusively on the people within the organization—an arrangement that made sense and was, for the most part, effective. But this familiar view of learning is being shaken as a result of a much broader reshaping of organizations themselves.

Our most recent offering in Deloitte’s Perspectives on Innovation series, Institutional innovation: Creating smarter organizations to scale learning, discusses this fundamental shift. It looks at how the very rationale for why institutions exist is changing. Even today, most companies are driven by a rationale of “scalable efficiency,” where success comes from the ability to drive down costs by concentrating economic activities within the organization’s own four walls. Given the changes occurring in our global economy, companies will need to adopt a different rationale, “scalable learning,” where success is defined not just by size, but by the ability to harness scale to learn more rapidly in order to keep up with a rapidly changing environment. By accelerating learning, organizations can accelerate performance improvement. And rather than simply innovating at the product or process level, a much more powerful level of innovation—institutional innovation—becomes possible as participants explore all the implications of adopting a very different rationale.

One of the key enablers of scalable learning is to expand the organization’s knowledge potential beyond the talent within its four walls—it goes back to Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy’s famous comment, “No matter how many smart people there are within your firm, remember that there are far more smart people outside your firm.” So, learning becomes a matter of figuring out how to get more people inside connecting with people outside in ways that can help all participants learn faster —a puzzle that adds a new dimension to HR’s role as a driver of learning and development, if not completely reframing that role. Learning is no longer just about training programs, but about enabling day-to-day interactions, in the workplace and across institutions with business partners, customers, suppliers, and others, where the focus is on creating and sharing knowledge to accelerate learning, rather than on buying or selling.

If institutional success or failure in the future is going to depend on how well the organization learns, organizations have a lot to figure out. What type of workplace design would help people learn faster? What practices would help them learn faster? How do you measure whether people are learning faster? While achieving institutional innovation isn’t on any function’s list of mandates yet, these questions alone make a strong case for HR to own the effort.

As an HR leader, how would you even get started? Here are some ideas:

  • Build the case. Senior management must be in alignment that institutional innovation is an important priority if not an imperative. There may need to be some foundation-building to develop a shared understanding of why this is emerging as a major new form of innovation and what the implications are (sharing the Institutional innovation study can help here). You may need to overcome the mind-set that learning is something done on the side, if you have time and money and after the “real work” is done. The message to drive home is that figuring out how to improve performance more rapidly is the real work—and it can only be accomplished through learning.
  • Focus on meaningful metrics. When we talk about learning in this context, the first thing I tell executives is not to think of it as “training programs,” but rather as performance improvement in the business. What performance metrics are going to make the biggest difference to your company over the next five years? Now, how can you drive improvement in those metrics through learning? Who in the organization is involved in those metrics, and how can we help them come together more effectively to identify new ways to reach higher levels of performance?
  • Use small wins to gain momentum. It may be best to pilot early efforts on what we call “edges” of the business, not where your core profitability is today or where most of your people are. It’s these kinds of new-growth periphery areas, where you’re just starting out, that can be most in need of connecting to learn from other people. And they can help you identify what participants outside your own company you should be connecting with in order to learn faster. Because the pilot program is on the edge, it helps to reduce resistance and risk, but still allows you to build interest and enthusiasm from early performance wins, leading to more credibility, conviction, and comfort to extend efforts to more core parts of the business.

John Hagel John Hagel III has nearly 30 years’ experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur, and has helped companies improve their performance by effectively applying information technology to reshape business strategies. John currently serves as co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge, which conducts original research and develops substantive points of view for new corporate growth.

6 thoughts on “Are you ready to lead a different kind of learning?

  1. Interesting perspective. I had never thought of HR as a driver of learning and development. Instead, most HR folks in the large enterprises I’ve worked for have typically been focused on the communication and enforcement of policies and the protection of the organization … “this is the way we do things here” and “you can’t do that”.

    In my role as researcher or scientist in some of these organizations, I have often found that innovation involves fighting against HR (and legal (and marketing)), since innovation – in my experience – always entails risk, and HR (and legal (and marketing)) has been – in my experience – inherently risk-averse.

    Training programs tend to focus on things that have already been figured out, and it seems increasingly that innovation requires figuring out how to figure out what you need to figure out.

    The prescriptions in this article represent some pretty tall orders for HR to do some refiguring.

  2. Joe – I agree that this is a major stretch relative to the way most HR departments operate today but I believe it is a significant opportunity for executives in this function to re-define their roles in the corporation. If they step up to this opportunity, they can help the leadership team of the company to see the need to think very differently about the people within their organization and to create platforms that will help all employees achieve more of their full potential. In the process, they can help to create a significant competitive advantage in markets that are being shaped by mounting performance pressure.

  3. John,

    Thought provoking post and resonates with our recent experience in Maryland (Maryland Association of CPAs) with a forum of public company finance & accounting officers. They identified learning and talent development of their finance teams as their # 1 issue and specifically cited a need for innovation and insight as competencies to develop. They asked for our help in forming a collaboration structure whereby they can connect people inside their organizations with others across other public companies and beyond.

    Which seems to be spot on with your basic premise and the founding purpose of our organization (in 1901) – connecting CPAs to each other to learn and improve their Profession. The group then asked for us to help them facilitate this group and a collaboration was born.

    I plan to use your three ideas to help solidify and expand this collaboration and you would be pleased to know that the next meeting will include the HR/Learning professionals to have this conversation. I will use this post as a conversation starter.

    Which brings me back to an obvious, but often overlooked resource for HR and companies. That is professional associations, like ours. We exist and have core competencies in collaboration and facilitation and are all about connecting professionals across companies, whether it be committees or chapters or events, these are all ripe for innovation and learning. They are also places for “planned serendipity” which you talk about in your book, “The Power of Pull”. I would encourage HR departments to encourage membership with participation in professional associations a way to jump start “outside” connections, provided they have a way of bringing back that knowledge (we try to help our “groups” by capturing output and sharing back (see slide deck in this post

    An IBM 2012 Global CEO Study identified collaboration as the # 1 skill needed for the future and your post seems to confirm this with the notion of collaboration outside your organization can help you increase your rate of learning. Thanks for an inspiring post.

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