A Network Rethink for Learning and Development

By Thomas Handcock

Jun. 13, 2014

As work grows increasingly interdependent and collaborative, important implications for employee performance and development come to light. Against the backdrop of this new, more networked environment looms a big opportunity for learning functions. Namely, learning and development will be better able to harness the collaborative nature of work to drive business value.

But to create an environment that fosters learning that is both effective and directed toward organizational objectives, the function must first redefine how it approaches employee development.

In some organizations, learning is an afterthought, while in others senior leaders are willing to put money and sponsorship behind it. Increased spending levels on leadership development are indicative of this, as more than 90 percent of organizations surveyed by member-based advisory firm Corporate Executive Board Co. in 2013 reported increased or flattened investment levels in leadership development in the past four years, with the trend expected to continue in 2014. (Editor’s note: The author works for CEB).

In most organizations, however, development is ineffective. Despite greater investment, less than 40 percent of leadership development leaders reported in a 2013 CEB survey that leadership development had improved at their organization in the past three years. More broadly, 76 percent said development must better reflect the performance needs of the new work environment.

What’s more, line leaders are even less charitable in their assessment of the function, as less than 1 in 4 view it as critical to achieving business results, according to a 2011 CEB survey on the business impact of learning. This isn’t to say line leaders view development as unimportant. Rather, learning functions are struggling to deliver impact in an increasingly complex work environment.

The new, networked work environment is fundamentally changing what good employee performance looks like, with important consequences for learning.

In many organizations, more than half of employees are effective individual contributors, but only 17 percent are enterprise contributors — employees who also display high levels of network performance — according to a 2012 CEB study. Moreover, CEB analysis shows that organizations that drive enterprise contribution significantly outperform their peers. These firms, the analysis shows, realize twice as much improvement in profitability as those focusing just on individual contributor performance (Figure 1).tm0614feature2fig1

Learning and development plays a crucial role in driving above-average employee performance. And, based on a 2012 CEB study, continuing to refine traditional classroom training won’t deliver more than a 4 percent improvement in employee performance. The new work environment and the importance of network performance requires learning to redefine how it operates.

Fundamentals Matter

The pervasiveness of social media in employees’ personal lives has set an expectation of instant access to information and connectivity. And it’s not just Generation Y. As Fast Company notes, the fastest-growing age group on Twitter is 55 to 64; on Facebook, it’s those aged 45 to 54.

As a result, learning and development functions have seen an explosion of social media and collaboration tools being offered that promise to enable effective learning. Additionally, the emergence of massive open online courses has created a new source of easily accessible learning content.

This kind of environment naturally should push learning functions to reallocate their investments from big training interventions to more ongoing learning activity. Organizations should also aim to create a “culture of continuous learning,” and to do this they are:

Developing bite-sized learning — making learning resources smaller and more consumable.

Betting on technology — deploying enterprise collaboration platforms, mobile-learning and upgraded LMS functionality.

Creating push learning — attempting to push out targeted learning resources to employees “just-in-time.”

On the surface, this approach makes sense. It recognizes the context in which employees are operating and the expectation for constant access to information. Yet when faced with large amounts of complex information, employees still struggle to separate signal from noise. Only 4 in 10 are equipped with the processes and skills to properly navigate and use the large volumes of information and data available, according to a 2011 CEB study.

Simply using bite-size learning resources and diversifying or switching learning channels is insufficient. More important is that organizations don’t lose sight of the fundamentals of effective learning. Concepts like relevance, reflection and application still matter. And how employees engage in learning is far more important than the number of activities they take part in, the number of resources they consume or the channels they use.

To improve effectiveness in the new work environment and create a healthy learning culture, learning and development must equip employees to engage in learning behaviors and work to make those behaviors habitual.

Two important shifts are required to do this:

• Learning and development functions must reallocate some resources and effort away from standard content creation and channel management toward teaching employees how to learn.

• Employees and leaders must take accountability for development — not just their own, but also that of those around them.

A 2009 CEB research report on on-the-job learning shows that less than half of employees effectively learn through their day-to-day work. Similarly, the formal training they receive doesn’t fare well either, as another report also showed learners typically fail to apply half of what they learn in formal programs.

Progressive organizations understand they must improve employees’ learning behaviors. They take advantage of existing forums such as training programs to teach employees valuable learning behaviors, help them identify and plan for learning and application opportunities in work, and provide them with simple learning-focused resources that help them in daily work. Doing this has an immediate benefit to the content of the training course and enables participants to learn more effectively on the job.

Peer coaching is a tool learning leaders can use to start. It can take many forms, but it involves a work-relevant, learning-focused interaction between colleagues. Progressive organizations recognize the value of peer coaching but understand that there are two main barriers to its influence.

First, employees may be experts in their work, but they often lack the ability to effectively learn from and coach others. Second, although employees spend time interacting with one another, those interactions are unlikely to be deliberately learning-focused.

To overcome these barriers, many organizations are creating peer coaching forums structured around a peer coaching protocol. Careful attention is paid to who is in the forum and how they interact with one another. Groups should be composed of individuals who have complementary learning needs and experience, and the group should be guided by learning and development on how to approach problems using constructive questioning techniques that avoid judgment, help uncover the full range of root causes and critically prevent the group from rushing to solutions.

When done correctly, peer coaching circles not only teach employees valuable learning behaviors but also build employees’ ownership of development by reinforcing the idea that learning is more about engagement and discourse and less about the provision and consumption of content.

Application planning and reflection exercises are also opportunities to build learning behaviors for the new work environment. Asking employees to think about the skills they need to learn or the development gaps they have in advance of a training program is relatively normal, but it can also lack the relevance and specificity needed to really help drive learning application.

Instead, organizations can have learners bring real work challenges to training programs. Having them turn to the project at several junctures during the program to consider what is being learned and how it can be used within their work is an approach that not only enhances the relevance of the content but also drives application on the job.

Organizations can further enhance the effect of these techniques by providing employees and managers with simple sets of questions or checklists that can be used at natural junctures within workflows to identify lessons learned and better incorporate their implications into subsequent action steps.

Pushing Ahead

For the function to drive business impact and create a culture of learning, the business must believe in its value. Most managers and employees recognize the importance of talent management and development. According to a 2010 CEB study on engaging managers in employee development, 75 percent of managers view it as a core part of their job.

There is, however, a marked difference between belief in the importance of learning and consistent behavior that drives it forward. As the 2010 study also showed, less than half of managers are effective at developing and coaching their employees, and 68 percent of employees say their co-workers are not effective at engaging in development activities with them on the job.

Given the importance of network performance, talent management should ensure that their performance management approach is focused on driving collaborative behaviors. They should also review role design to identify and remove barriers to network performance behaviors.

Using simple resources to embed the right behaviors is crucial, and organizations should not limit themselves to providing these only to managers. Learning should make sure that employees have a set of resources accessible to help drive peer-based learning and upward feedback. Moreover, organizations should think of coaching and development as being network-centric, not manager-centric.

Enhancing the performance of employees and enabling them to be enterprise contributors can generate substantial gains for organizations. Yet traditional learning and development approaches fail to provide the necessary lift. Therefore, learning functions must redefine their approach to create an environment that fosters business-relevant learning.

Progressive organizations understand that the solution isn’t simply to create new content or to deliver content through newer channels and platforms. Rather, it’s to go back to learning fundamentals and ask, “Do our employees know how to learn, and are they properly enabled to do so?”

This story originally appeared in Workforce's sister publication, Talent Management.

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