In recent years, many organizations have carved out a role for the chief learning officer, who charts the path for learning and organizational development. What often differentiates this C-level position from that of training directors is a role in corporate performance and the added responsibility to change behavior that can affect the company’s bottom line. What distinguishes an effective CLO may be the ability to generate change that stands the test of time. For change to become ingrained in the practices and values of the company, the CLO must be passionate and bold enough to stimulate the change—and then be patient and methodical enough to motivate employees to adopt it.
Major corporations are caught up in a vortex of change. Airlines, automobile manufacturers, financial services and health care organizations are especially struggling to adapt to new practices, employee engagement and customer demands. Learning leaders in these organizations face a significant challenge to modify behaviors of leaders and employees across the board.
Beyond the Obvious
CLOs are often adept at generating goals and objectives to ensure that learning is aligned with business needs. The more challenging aspect of the CLO’s role may be the daunting and elusive requirement to be sure that the essential capabilities are reflected in changed behavior and performance that are inherently adopted and become the norm. This is not an easy task. “Some organizations have learned to live with the way they do things. You hear things like, ‘It’s always been that way,’ and ‘That’s the way we do it.’ People become numb to the pain and loose the opportunity to make leaps in change,” said Jim Brolley, director of organizational learning and development for Harley-Davidson.
Leaders often tinker with learning strategy to help the organization acquire the requisite workforce capabilities. Alternative education and training design and methodologies can be explored to efficiently deliver experiences that motivate employees to learn what they need to know to perform effectively. There is a constant dialogue about metrics to measure the effectiveness of learning. Many organizations talk about the need to determine whether or not learning has produced behavioral change and performance results. Yet, evaluation is mostly event-based and short-term. Corporate leaders naturally gravitate to these more concrete and measurable results. The popular model for evaluating training introduced by Donald Kirkpatrick sets expectations that Level 4 measures business results. However, the complexity of gathering information to make the link between learning and real business results often prevents organizations from reaching this level of evaluation.
The Purpose of Learning: To Change Behavior
The ultimate goal of effective learning is to change the way people think, perform or act. The generation of new knowledge or information resulting from learning activities is just one step in the change process that includes:
- Recognizing the change in behavior that is needed: Become more innovative.
- Defining the current state: Internal focus and risk adverse.
- Determining the desired change: More ideas and innovative products.
- Learning new capabilities: Creativity, process and recognition.
- Practicing new behavior and adapting: Compete and experiment.
- Measuring success: Number of productive new ideas and the response to them.
- Reinforcing and rewarding: Promote and recognize.
- Making it the norm: Spirit and the desire to innovate.
Incorporating Change: Making It Stick
Going from the way you did something to the new way you will do something is actually the state of change. Acquiring new knowledge to operate in that future state is learning. The true test of change occurs when the new behavior is adopted and performed readily and willingly as the norm. “I have always thought that since learning and development works at all levels, we have a wonderful view to see things as they are in full living color and three-dimensional,” Brolley said. “If a learning leader can see these opportunities and gather enough data to paint a compelling picture with executive leadership, great things can happen. They are invited to the executive table to help with change and business results.”
How employees take that learning and adapt to it is key. The natural tendency of humans is to gravitate toward a comfort zone where we experience mastery. Change is recognized as “incorporated” when:
- The change is no longer viewed as different, but becomes a practice.
- The behavior is no longer new or uncomfortable, but becomes habitual.
- Desired behaviors become part of policy and practice.
- Learning-generated behaviors are modeled across the organization.
- The act of learning, or trying something new and different, becomes accepted.
- Rewards and recognition acknowledge the new behavior.
- The risk associated with change—abandoning the way things were done before—is tolerated and safe.
- Change is rewarded at the point of adoption.
We tend to reward the pinnacle of performance, where getting an “A” reflects mastery. However, think about rewarding the act of change when a new behavior is undertaken but not yet mastered.
A Call to Action
There are no instruction guides for CLOs. They are challenged to be original and discover how to best incorporate change in their organization, given culture, organization, urgency and history. Organizations like E&J Gallo Winery have undertaken well-orchestrated change initiatives and surfaced ideas that shake up tradition, such as:
- Value learning—not just teaching—so the plan is not only for training production.
- Strive for Level 4 evaluation of learning by coaching, checking the work metrics and interviewing co-workers.
- Generate a lifelong learning policy that makes it easy and desirable to learn.
- Create a supportive and dynamic culture that invites change.
- Hire learning team members and third-party development providers who are dramatic and innovative.
- Think and work fast, and master the ability to find patterns in situations and behaviors.
- Eliminate ineffective learning, as suggested in “The One Thing You Need to Know,” by Marcus Buckingham. Sustained success depends on your ability to cut out those activities or people that pull you off your working life’s path. Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it. In the corporate context, cut out those activities that diminish the importance of learning
- Integrate purely academic views of learning into a larger plan with research and development plans that tap into the research of third parties, consortia and universities.
- Create a change lifeline or help desk that personalizes, sustains and navigates reality. Coach, coach and coach.
In “The Heart of Change,” John Kotter and Dan Cohen define the eight steps to change success: Increase urgency, build the guiding team, get the vision right, communicate for buy-in, empower action, create the short-term wins, don’t let up and make the change stick. The last step is the tough one. “Tradition is a powerful force,” Kotter and Cohen write. Their observations point out a few warnings that inhibit a successful change:
- Change can be fragile.
- Change is often held in place solely by a guiding team, a central player in a team, a compensation system, an organizational structure and initial enthusiasm over results created by the changes, or even less.
- Gravity takes over.
- Change diminishes culture: the values, feelings and sense of how we should act.
- Change undermines fragile cultures and never allows roots to grow.
- Employee turnover delays change.
For successful change, consider the temperament of those who surround you, offer the right promotion processes, which promote those who really reflect the new norms and makes them influential to strengthen the norms, and recognize when employees act without really thinking about it—behavior with roots. “Culture comes last, not first,” Kotter and Cohen warn.
The challenge to change is by no means easy, but the outcome can be significant. “The World Is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman conveys a strong message that we “will have to work harder, run faster and become smarter to make sure we get our share. But let us not underestimate our strengths for innovation that could explode from the flat world when we really do connect all the knowledge centers together. … The most important attribute you can have is creative imagination—the ability to be the first on your block to figure out how all these enabling tools can be put together in new and exciting ways to create products, communities, opportunities and profits.”
Just Do It!
CLOs who want to make change stick must take action—not just think about it. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan recognize the importance of change outcomes in “Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right.” They wrote, “The more change your organization can handle, the more freedom you have in adjusting your business model. … A successful initiative teaches an organization how to unite in action, helps people face down the fear of failure, gives people confidence to take on challenges.”
In the 2004 survey of learning leaders by Chief Learning Officer magazine on the future roles of CLOs, results pointed to proven impact on business performance, innovation in learning and links to corporate strategy, as some of the most frequently cited critical issues and desirable competencies. The underlying message is that the work of the learning officer begins and ends with learning that improves performance.
Coaching: Making Change Stick
The purpose of coaching is to help people personalize change. It has become a popular development technique that organizations have used, especially for executives. Yet the purpose of coaching transcends the entire organization. A good coach provides a mirror to reflect personal actions and the objective guidance often needed to change behavior. The coaching sequence to generate change, explained by Terry Bacon and Karen Spear in “Adaptive Coaching,” includes “awareness, urgency, decision, problem solving, commitment, reinforcement and change.” Bacon wrote, “Coaching can help reach the broad range of stakeholders who are usually present in the workplace environment and come with their own agendas and predisposition toward change. When coaching is well integrated, the organization becomes a living learning organism. Lessons learned drive continuous improvement, but more importantly, people become more open to sharing ideas, reflecting on the efficacy of their actions and processes, and adapting to their environment as it changes. For this to happen, however, coaching cannot be a Band-Aid applied to those in need of help. It must be an active and vital part of everyone’s ongoing development—from the CEO and members of the board to the administrative assistants and mail clerks.”
It is important to understand the current state of mind of the people who are targets of change. In some respects, coaching provides learning moments that reinforce change at the right time for these individuals and groups. “Lots of organizations abdicate development to the employees’ responsibility to do it themselves, which can cause both unguided change and inertia,” one CLO reflected. The goal is to help people develop, sometimes in spite of themselves.
Change Takes Time
Incorporated change, like a good wine, needs time to age properly. Mastery of new ideas and practices is reflected in the discretionary behavior of people. The true measure of successful change is when the behaviors go deeper than the surface. Overloaded lives in today’s world can make it difficult to sort out and adopt changes on more than the margin. Change is like a tree: The fruit it bears is important—not just the foliage. It requires time, acclimation, pollination, cultivation, an occasional pruning, protection from bad weather and fertilization. The quality of the fruit is based on the care during the transformation process. Successful change is really that kind of transformation—one that is cultivated and nurtured by good learning leaders.
Maryann Billington is the senior vice president for executive education at Lore International Institute. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.