Speed Kills (in a good way)

Learning organizations must get faster on three key dimensions.

Today’s business world is moving faster than ever. Speed has long been a challenge for Learning & Development organizations. With companies changing strategies, modifying business models and releasing new products designed to improve customer value at a rapid pace, the speed with which L&D must operate is increasingly challenged. In Running Training Like a Business, opportunities to increase the speed of the organization’s response was addressed in two ways: the implementation of the Relationship Manager was designed to place L&D closer to the business thereby shortening the communication cycle. The book also highlighted the need or process improvement to deliver increase efficiencies and reduction of cycle time.

I Feel The Need.  The Need For…

Both of these make a L&D organization faster but this is no longer enough. Because execution, not ideas, are the competitive advantage for early-stage companies, startups look at three dimensions of speed. First, there is speed to product. This is the amount of time it takes from the identification of need to the release of a solution. Second, there is speed to user. How quickly can your product reach the audience that needs it. Third, there is speed to value. This represents how quickly a user receives value from the product. In order to keep pace with today’s businesses, Learning & Development must focus on and continually improve on all three. In future blog posts we will discuss in more detail the techniques that L&D organizations can use to increase speed across all dimensions. For the purposes of this post, we will attempt to define what is slowing us down and keeping us from “running training at the speed of business.”

The two main components of “speed to product” are needs identification and product development. Needs identification is too frequently the result of an inbound request. In best cases this is discovered through weekly, but more likely monthly, meetings between a relationship manager and their business counterpart. In most cases this is still an “order taking” process with little discussion. The announcement of a new product or the reaction to certain business metrics can be drivers of this new need. This information, often known much earlier by the business leader, makes the window for product development even narrower.

Much of product development in L&D still thinks in terms of “course” and follows the traditional linear instructional design process methodology This places a huge requirement on upfront needs assessment, translation of business objectives to learning objectives and learner definition, things startups call “knowns”. Getting to the known takes time and it is time that most businesses no longer have.

Startups drive to increase “speed to user”. How can they get more people to experience the product? The mind-set of training needs to change from manufacturer to marketer. One look at attendance data will show you that the most attended trainings are frequently mandated, not sold, to their audience. Assuming that the learning is solving for a real problem, getting users to recognize and “buy” the solution quickly is critical. Running Training Like a Business means L&D must become marketers and packagers of a truly performance-inducing product. Like Gatorade for corporate athletes.

The last dimension of speed is “speed to value”. While this dimension is greatly impacted by the other two, by keeping it front of mind, it can also help to inform both product and user positioning. Startups, specifically apps, frequently focus on what they call onboarding. In the startup world this means getting a user up and running. Similarly, learning can think of this as getting a user up and running with the new skills. Why is this critical? The average app loses 77% of its active users within the first 3 days post install. This attrition can be mitigated by delivering value quickly to users. The same is true for L&D.

In part due to L&D’s “course” mentality, value is often determined at a macro level rather than a micro level. This delays user perceived value and often causes attrition of the new learnings use. A sales program that promises a higher close-ratio in an industry with a longer sales cycle may push the value out too far to drive stickiness of the new skill. Combined with the ever-shrinking half-life of skills speed to value is an important dimension.

Speed touches every part of business and L&D is no exception. What are you doing to drive speed in your organization?

The New Role of the CLO

In 1991, when Jack Welch made Steve Kerr GE’s, and possibly the world’s first, Chief Learning Officer the business world and the world of learning looked very different. A quarter of a century later it is time to take a fresh look at the position and the key roles it plays in ensuring that learning is running at maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Once again, we will take our cue from the world of fast growing disruptors.  There are three primary roles for a founder/CEO of one of these organizations.  First, they are tasked with keeping the vision and focus on the customer value proposition.  Second, they must attract and retain the best talent for the team. Finally, they have to keep money in the bank (investment). We believe that these same roles must be the focus of the new CLO.

Role 1: Keeper of the Vision and Value Proposition 

For our purpose, we see vision as a longer term, change the world flag.  For example, Uber’s could be “world’s largest logistics company”. By contrast the value proposition has a more near-term focus.  In this case Uber’s could be “making it easy for people to get from point A to point B.  The key is that the value proposition earns you the right to progress towards the vision.  How are we helping today? How is that advancing us towards where we want to be tomorrow?

Both are the vision and the value proposition are critical. Clarity on these two flags makes it clear to all why decisions are made and how priorities get set.  They also provide a roadmap to mark progress against.  Finally focusing on both “making our sales training the best in the industry” and “helping our salespeople close more deals’ shows a commitment to delivering unmistakable value by showing not telling.

Role 2: Talent

There are three parts to the CLO’s role with talent; building the team, deciding who to hire and managing them. The first role requires the CLO to recruit with enthusiasm for the vision, the value proposition and the opportunity to work with other “A” players. But who are you recruiting? In the book, we presented the “Camel Diagram” as a way of focusing resources on high value-added activities in the learning supply chain. For all activities, the CLO must ensure the highest level of professionalism.  This standard and the vetting required is not just for those solutions that are being bought from providers, it must also apply to the CLO’s internal team.

In building this team, CLO’s need to ensure they are hiring two types of people. The first are “Swiss army knives”. These are multiple position players but not “do a little of everything” people.  These are people that have the ability to add deep value in a variety of situations.  These are connectors, coordinators and team players that have the awareness to know what is needed, how to do it or where to get it. The second role is the specialist.  These members should be expert in key high value adding activities that provides competitive advantage to the organization. Undifferentiated expertise can be almost always bought; as needed, at higher quality, for lower cost.

Management of this A-team is not about telling them what to do but rather the CLO must identify the goal and allowing the team to experiment and discover solutions. A mix of empowerment, support and development is crucial.  The CLO must focus on resource management, ensuring that the team is deployed to best deliver the value proposition and achieve its longer-term vision.

A CLO that recruits, builds and manages their team in this way benefits is multiple ways. Enthusiasm creates engaged “co-owners” of the vision and value proposition. Multi-faceted talent allows for highly flexible teams making resourcing easier. And building a culture of problem solvers not solution builders drives innovation from all directions.

Role 3: Keep Money in the Bank

For CLO’s money in the bank means looking at your budget as an investment in your organization’s ability to deliver a return not a savings account to be drawn upon. And your investors are the business executives that control directly or indirectly where the company’s investment dollars should be placed. There are many places that investment can be made and a CLO must be able to show that the investment is best placed with them based on returns not goodwill. CLO’s must be able to clearly pitch for both funding and support.  And beyond the periodic pitch CLO’s must keep their investors informed throughout the year.  These communications should, among other things, demonstrate progress, highlight challenges, and showcase new learnings that will help improve the path forward.

A CLO who can enthusiastically pitch rapidly develops a new relationship with their investors. Communications such as those described above enroll and engages executives differently.  Changing the executive’s perspective and moving the discussion from one of cost to investment. Done properly and consistently it also focuses the discussion not on activity but on value and return.

How do you see your role as CLO?

Here Is Something To Talk About

It has been almost 20 years since Running Training Like a Business was published.  Since the book launched, we have worked with corporate learning organizations around the world.  And now almost two decades later its principles are still a frequent topic at conferences and in conversations, drawing new learning and development professionals into the tale of delivering unmistakable value. At its heart, the message of the book is as essential today as it was when it was released. Add to this the multitude of changes to the environment that the businesses they serve are undergoing and the need for their continued evolution is even more acute.  It is these changes in the business environment, both dramatic and subtle, that were the catalyst for revisiting this important industry touchstone.

Transformation is today’s mandate for both businesses and the learning organizations that serve them.  Learning organizations have much to learn from the companies that are transforming the world around us. While the principles of Running Training Like A Business remain highly relevant, it is the definition of what a “business” is, that has changed over the past decade.  Since the publication of the book the world has changed.  The internet, still young and novel in the 90’s, has exploded.  The advent of social media and the resulting disruption of industries from publishing to space travel have put every company on notice.  In today’s business landscape, traits like speed, innovation and agility are paramount.  So if this is the new reality for today’s businesses then what it means to successfully run training like a business has changed as well. Adopting the mindset of a startup is the first step to successfully running training like a 2.0 business.

L&D = Learning & Disruption

Existing businesses are increasingly looking towards the disruptors for lesson, tools and techniques.  These disruptors are familiar names like Netflix, Amazon, Tesla and Uber.  One thing that these disruptors, and many more like them, all have in common is that they were once startups.  Eric Ries, the founder of the Lean Startup movement and author of the book “Lean Startup” defines a startup as any enterprise where the “unknowns” are greater than the “knowns”.  By this definition, today’s learning organizations are most definitely startups.

It Starts With Three

Three critical keys to any startup’s success are working at speed, evidence based execution and accepting failure.  Speed in not about expending more resources to get to the finish line sooner.  Rather it is about starting quickly and iterating fast. The oft quoted advice that “perfect is the enemy of good,” is an important operating principle for successful startups.  Too often L&D is concerned with providing the perfect learning experience. The tradeoff is either a longer time frame or building the experience on a set of potentially faulty assumptions.   Delivering good value quickly and rapidly iterating towards improvement must be the goal.

But what to base the iterations on? The second key to success in a 2.0 world is what Running Training Like a Business called “measuring your success based on your customers’ success.” When the book was released the industry was wrestling and largely failing with macro measures targeting the impact of complete programs and this situation still exists.  In startup mode, L&D must use quantified measures to shorten the feedback cycle and guide the iterations.  This means micro measurements on all aspects of the experience from problem validation to user feedback. These metrics allow L&D to quickly replace assumptions with facts.

The final key is an operational mindset and often a significant cultural shift.  Failure in many organizations is a seen as weakness.  Startups have adopted a different point of view. Failure is nothing more than an evidence based correction to an assumption.  Better to know sooner rather than later. Too often L&D’s limited resources are misspent.  As Peter Drucker has been quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It is from this perspective that failure becomes a virtue.

Startups are constantly seeking to improve the tools and techniques they use to drive success. The startup community is also known for its transparency with founders openly sharing the results of new experiences, both good and bad.  As a community of L&D practitioners we can learn much from startups and from each other as we adapt to business 2.0.

Our Premise

In the upcoming weeks, we will be releasing a series of posts describing some of the ideas we have for translating successful startup techniques to corporate Learning & Development. In the spirit of startups this is not about having things perfect. This is about getting started, iterating quickly and collaborating. We hope that you will join the discussion and add your thoughts and ideas so that our whole community can better deliver unmistakable value in the world of business 2.0

It’s Time For Something New

We’ve been talking about this for years. Why is it that after two decades, Learning and Development is still struggling to deliver unmistakable value? Some things have changed. Technology, just emerging when the original book came out is now at the core of the learning organization. The tools for practitioners have improved. Yet the same problems that stirred the need for the for the book continue to challenge Learning and Development organizations around the globe. Recent research by Bersin by Deloitte indicates that, while employee development has never been as important, faith of the organization in the L&D function to deliver value has also never been so low

Another thing that has changed are the organizations that L&D serves. Companies of all sizes, once comfortable in their place in the market, have been disrupted. Innovation, once a source of competitive advantage, is now a business requirement. With all these changes to the business, how has L&D evolved? Most would say not very much. The use of outsourcing, controversial at the time of the book, is fortunately now a widely accepted solution for many functions of L&D. Thanks to the migration to digital learning, measurement data, formerly difficult to collect beyond “smile sheets”, is now readily available. But in many ways L&D hasn’t changed at all. As stated by Bersin, business leaders and employees often cite little or no value coming from the learning organization.  An organization that is arguably more important today than ever.

With this as our backdrop, we might consider that running training like a business today could mean running training like a startup. We hope you will join us in exploring and discussing the best practices of startups and how they can serve learning organizations to deliver the unmistakable value that we all seek. We thank you in advance or your comments feedback and ideas.

Ed and J.