Senior learning professionals are often not real executives — they are glorified training managers. Their job is to respond to the change initiatives presented to them by true executives or line managers and fix the respective people problem. They are handed a budget for the initiative and told to make it all happen yesterday.
The learning profession is not just facing an identity crisis — it is facing a crisis of practice. For the majority of senior learning professionals, the more appropriate title is chief order taker.
A chief order taker (COT) is a noble calling. People filling this role have the dutiful responsibility of ensuring the right people are in the right place and are equipped with the right knowledge at the right time.
When line executives foresee a sea change, making the calculated adjustment necessary, they pick up the phone or send an e-mail to COTs, notifying them that a budget line has been established (let’s say for $500,000) to get the people aligned with the new strategy.
The COTs thank the executives for the budget and promise to get right on it. Line executives then proceed to inform COTs that although the planning for this change event took six months, the people must be aligned with the change in 30 days with minimum time off the job.
Meanwhile, COTs quietly sit in their offices, wishing they could have some role in initiating change instead of just responding to it. They attend meetings with their peers from other organizations where they all loudly protest this treatment from senior leadership.
Nevertheless, year after year, nothing changes. COTs routinely receive orders in need of fulfillment, and they very responsibly take the orders, provide the training and equip people with a minimal budget and a very limited time horizon. Months turn into years and all the while, COTs know they have something of great value to provide the organization, but no pulpit from to get the message out.
The role they play is that of victims. Much like the attempt in the 1990s to strategically reengineer the human resources’ function, the learning and development function stagnates in the quicksand of its own design.
It is time for learning executives to step up to their full stature and claim the role of change initiator rather than change responder. After all, if one believes a company’s greatest organizational asset is its people, then change initiatives must deploy human capital on the front end to enable agility within the organization.
This transformation is centered on value creation. Without it, the senior learning professional’s role is really a COT and, as such, viewed as risk — over time, much of that role will be eliminated.
Value creation arises not by fulfilling orders but by asking questions. As long as senior learning professionals are in order-taking mode, they will have trained the executive exactly how to operate. It is time to stop blaming the C-suite for behavior that is rewarded.
An associate at Hewlett-Packard once said you know you have a “seat at the table” if you are invited to the chief executive’s barbecue. Gaining that status within the executive suite comes only by creating significant value, not by delivering a consumable called training or by fixing the people problem with talent management.
The approach to solving this problem is for learning executives to distance themselves from training, add functions previously connected with human resources such as talent management and, finally, develop complex ROI metrics to indicate a hard-asset impact on the bottom line.
All of these functions are critical to successful organizational learning. Ironically, training itself is one of the strongest tool sets in their arsenal. Distancing themselves from a core competency and absorbing another is not the answer, however.
This is called kingdom building, and it has no place in the mindset of a true learning executive. What determines value is not the size of your learning organization — it is the impact and value creation of learning on your organization’s mission.
Two reasonable solutions on the horizon are well within the learning executive’s grasp today.
The first is moving from a siloed training organization to a fully integrated learning environment (a culture of learning must become the very air that line managers and their respective work units breathe).
Learning executives can take several practical steps to bring about this culture change.
First, get out of the office — by staying in the office, the learning executive is only awaiting the next e-mail or telephone call to which to respond. By getting out of the office and meeting regularly with line managers and other senior executives, the learning executive not only develops relationships but also engages in the dialogue at the front end of change.
Second, engage in peer-to-peer questions: “What changes are you anticipating in the landscape over the next several years for the sales division?” “What is keeping you up at night as you seek to attain your goals this year?” Such simple questions create a level of peer-to-peer partnership that will bring the learning executive up to the initial stages of change instead of being the recipient of downstream orders.
Third, get invited to the strategy sessions of each major work unit within the organization. Once there, participate not only as a representative from learning and development but as an integral part of their business success.
Demonstrate within the initial strategy sessions that learning and development, if deployed correctly, will create shorter cycle times, higher efficiency and effectiveness and, ultimately, will become the silver bullet that will thrust a work unit through the curve of change and help it emerge successfully on the other side.
This partnership approach is all about integrating learning and development on the front end of change management and strategy. It will reposition workforce development from a “fix-it” mentality to a fully developed core change and outcomes competency required for success.
Additionally, the learning executive must become the greatest internal consultant to the organization. This involves changing language and skill sets by moving from training-order fulfillment to a consultative approach.
The next time line managers request that you fulfill a training order, stop them right in their tracks by requesting a face-to-face meeting before you move forward. In short, push back.
Once again, learning executives must get out of the office and go to neutral turf. They likely will suggest a cup of coffee and move into relationship-building mode. During that meeting, they will commit to asking some penetrating questions and listening at least three times as much as speaking. There is a very simple consultative model that is often helpful in establishing both a peer-to-peer and a value creation relationship: objectives, measures and value.
Learning executives might begin by asking line managers about the change initiative’s objectives — they should not begin by asking about objectives for training. That would go back to a training-fulfillment mentality, as it is built on a set of undefined assumptions.
By focusing on the change initiative, the value discussion begins at the bottom-line impact. Training might not be the right tool set to fulfill the goal. Rather, it could be leadership development, talent acquisition, process mapping or even employee engagement strategies (all which can fall within the learning executive’s purview).
The focus for objective setting never should rest on the tool set but on the desired impact of the change. A collaborative and consultative approach will begin to change the frame of the discussion, as well as the ultimate perception of the value proposition a learning executive can develop.
Once the objectives of the change initiative are clarified, the second round of questions is about measurement. How will the measurements of each objective occur? How will one know if they have been achieved? What are the benchmarks for success along the way?
Again, focus is critical. Learning executives tend to focus on measuring the ROI of training. Although this has a strategic position within learning and development, executives sponsoring the change initiative are not interested at that point in a ROI calculation for the tool set itself — they are interested in knowing how measurement toward their objectives will occur and how long it will take to generate the desired value. Learning executive must partner with them to establish these measurements and remain in regular communication with them about their attainment.
Finally, within the framework of that initial discussion, learning executives must drive to a value discussion: “Once these objectives are attained, what is the ultimate value to the organization from successful change?” This facet of the discussion will need to be drilled down to a financial impact. Even if the tool set required is training on the latest software edition, that training can be measured in terms of its impact on performance over time and ultimately workplace savings, unit time and money.
How much cost savings will occur with a successfully engaged change initiative over time? For the purpose of this article, assume the savings is estimated to be $25 million over five years. The intersection of learning and development has a part in that savings.
That is the next question: “By deploying a learning and development strategy within your overall change initiative, how much of that anticipated savings can be attributed to the intersection of learning and development?” Again, for this scenario, assume that once drilled down, the estimated impact of learning and development over time on this new initiative is $1 million, annualized over the five years. The learning executive is now a $5 million partner in the change initiative.
By focusing on a peer-to-peer discussion, getting out of the office and building relationships, the COT begins to transform into a CLO through value creation, which can be attributed in many places throughout the organization. Much of it, though, must be focused on the development of human capital. Machines, technology and software do not create value — people do.
Learning executives have a window of opportunity to step up to their full stature as business executives by assuming a consultative role versus an order-fulfillment role. Taking an objectives-measures-and-value approach within relationship building can be the first step to a cultural change of perception. Learning executives will not only be on the front end of strategic change initiatives by demonstrating value creation, but they also might get that coveted invitation to the CEO’s barbecue next summer.
The dialogue of change is a battle both of perception and practice. Often, the focus is on changing the practice of how learning and development operates without changing the nature of the relationships at the top. Perception is a primeval force with which to be reckoned.