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Aug 2008

What Harvard Business Review can teach us

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Shaping the future of learning

At the airport on the way to my summer vacation I was browsing the bookstores for something to keep me occupied when I came across the latest Harvard Business Review. Two articles on learning caught my eye and somewhat reluctantly I handed over my £15 for the magazine. Before we had even taken off I became engaged in Amy Edmondson’s article on the competitive imperative of learning and by the time we landed in France I was reading the article by Kotter on strategies for managing change and the critical importance of learning. It is fair to say that the book I was supposed to be reading for my book club, Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, didn’t really get a look in during my flight.

There are some great points for learning professionals from these articles. Here’s my summary, so your summer reading can be a little lighter…

The competitive imperative of learning – Amy Edmondson

This article makes the case for enabling people in your organization to learn. Edmondson says that most managers believe that the efficient, timely production of goods or services is the way to deliver customer satisfaction and financial results. She calls it a focus on execution. However, she argues that even a flawless execution cannot guarantee success in today’s economy as the vast influx of new knowledge makes it easy to fall behind.

Somewhat counter intuitively she argues that there is a downside to a focus on getting things done and done right. She argues this “crowds out the experimentation and reflection vital to sustainable success.”

Edmondson argues that to be successful over the long haul you need to focus on execution as learning i.e. an expectation that learning will be built into ongoing management practices. This means “a radically different mind-set, one that focuses not so much on making sure a process is carried out as on helping it evolve.”

Too much focus on execution can mean:

  • Critical information and ideas don’t rise to the top

  • People don’t have enough time to learn

  • You get unhealthy internal competition

  • People become blinded by their current success and view this as evidence they don’t need to change

In order to focus on execution as learning Edmondson argues you need to build a learning infrastructure. She proposes four key steps to achieve this:

  • Best practice guidelines. Seek out best practice from experts, publications and competitors. The goal of the guidelines is not to produce efficiency but to facilitate learning. It is important to recognize that today’s best practices won’t be tomorrow’s. The guidelines increase employee chances of making good decisions.

  • Provide tools that enable employees to collaborate in real time. No matter how much thought goes into planning or processes, knowledge work requires people to make concurrent and collaborative decisions in response to situations. This requires face to face collaboration as well as virtual, encouraging people to meet, share and innovate by suggesting new practices.

  • Collect process data. Invite people to deviate from guidelines providing they record what they do differently and why. Get feedback and data to help identify ways to improve processes and create new best practices.

  • Institute disciplined reflection. This reflection on the data collected often means taking production resources offline which is often seen as lost productivity. However, the only way to achieve and sustain excellence is to insist on such reflection.

The key to Edmondson is to create a learning culture which empowers rather than controls; which focuses on flexibility rather than adherence to process; and which encourages people to learn and suggest new innovative ways to improve quality and lower costs.

As learning professionals, we could do a lot worse than apply these four steps in our own approaches to designing and developing learning.

Choosing Strategies for Change – Kotter & Schlesinger

An equally persuasive case for the importance of learning is made by Kotter & Schlesinger. Their article on strategy starts with a popular quote from Machievalli’s The Prince:

“there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, not more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.”

The authors argue that the pace of change means that organisations need to undertake moderate change at least once a year and major changes every four or five years. However, they also argue that organizational change efforts often run into human resistance which managers do not spend enough time systematically assessing who might resist and strategies for alleviating this resistance. The right strategy must be selected according to the form of resistance but the author’s are of the view that training and support works better than any other approach with change adjustment problems.

The author’s argue that there are four common reasons people resist change:

  • Parochial self-interest, a desire not to lose something they value

  • A misunderstanding of the change and its implications

  • Different assessments, a belief the change does not make sense for the organisation

  • A low tolerance for change, people who fear they will not be able to develop the new skills and behavior required of them

Kotter and Schlesinger propose a number of strategies for overcoming resistance to change and their pros and cons. The five strategies are:

  • Education and communication

  • Participation and involvement

  • Training and support

  • Negotiation and agreement

  • Manipulation and co-option

  • Coercion

Learning professionals may be actively involved in at least two of these change strategies, namely education and communication; and facilitation and support.

Education and Communication

This strategy is designed to overcome resistance when there is misunderstanding of the changes. The communication can take a wide range of forms including small meetings, large meetings, presentations, online communications, reports, mails and much more. In the author’s view this strategy can work well only when there is a degree of trust that already exists. Thus there needs to be significant investment in building this trust.

Training and facilitation

This strategy involves providing training in new skills as well as other forms of support. A common source of resistance to change is fear. The source of this fear is often that people feel they don’t have the skills and experience to cope with the changes planned. This is often overlooked by managers. To help reduce this resistance a well planned training and support initiative can have a significant impact on the success of the change initiative. The author’s argue “no other approach works as well with adjustment problems.”

Whilst it will not be news to many of us that learning has a key role to play in helping organisations to manage change successfully, it is good to see high profile strategic analysts such as Kotter advocating its value.

As learning professionals, are we seeing ourselves as changemakers? What organizational changes can we support?



Shaping the future of learning

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