Despite all the talk about the alignment of strategy and learning, the relationship between the two is not an easy one. Strategic management is usually perceived as the royal discipline of business, a core responsibility of the CEO. Learning, on the other hand, is often perceived as an enabling support function, usually reporting into HR, struggling to get an influential voice in the boardroom. It comes as no surprise that in most companies the two domains are living separate lives — not only structurally, but also culturally, through distinct languages, value systems and relationship networks.
However, this situation is changing. During the past two decades, a new view of strategy has been emerging in response to the increasing limitations of the traditional planning paradigm. The new view defines strategic management not so much in terms of optimizing a company’s position within an existing industry space, but rather as mastering an ongoing creative process of capturing emerging markets. This process is based not only on rational analysis, but also on an intuitive understanding of industry discontinuities and the creativity, guts and operational capability to capitalize on them.
Most importantly, in this new view, strategic management is no longer an activity that is solely confined to top management. Strategy used to be something secret, known only to the selected few, a game of smoke and mirrors. While this has to remain the case to a certain extent, an increasingly important element in the strategy process is leaving the secrecy of smoke-filled rooms. The reasons are obvious: Responsiveness in fast-changing times requires flat hierarchies and empowerment of the organizational periphery. Also, companies can no longer afford long lag times between strategy formulation and execution. Both issues require an earlier and much broader involvement of employees at all levels in all elements of the process.
The new strategy paradigm thus calls for a comprehensive organizational process that unfolds in intense, action-driven dialogues. The practice must shift from a structured, step-by-step planning routine driven by an elite department into a fuzzy, complex and ongoing learning and innovation process that includes the entire organization.
Meanwhile, the strategy function is not the only one whose historical practice is being fundamentally challenged. The new realities are also putting a new and different emphasis on corporate learning as a whole. The traditional classroom paradigm, with its focus on individual skill training and rather mechanistic knowledge transfer, is not an appropriate remedy for mastering this world. In light of the accelerating speed of change; disruptive innovation; shorter life cycles of business models and industry rules; and the increasing importance of knowledge and creativity in the value creation process, corporate learning is also in need of reinvention.
To create the strategic competence to sustain industry leadership — or just mere survival — companies now need comprehensive learning architectures that go way beyond people qualification. Learning needs to foster the ability to continually challenge the rules of the game, transcend existing business models and orchestrate the organization’s stakeholder network in a way that leverages the firm’s core competencies. The value-creation process of the organization needs to be designed as a continuous learning process that fosters ongoing dialogue among stakeholders inside and outside the company, encourages and nurtures communities of practice and orchestrates large-scale organizational change processes.
This view radically redefines the meaning of learning as a merely educational activity. It becomes a critical strategic and organizational process that is instrumental in driving change and innovation.
In this context, we see both practices converging. Contemporary strategic management is, at its core, nothing other than an ongoing learning process. And an effective corporate learning architecture is nothing more than the engine of the strategy process. Sadly, however, for the vast majority of corporations this convergence remains — if anything — a conceptual insight only.
To create agile and strategically competent organizations, both practices need to reframe their identity and their relationship. This won’t happen easily. Reframing identities requires dialogue, reasoning and joint action. It requires designed encounters that both reflect the current shortcomings and explore how to develop new routines of collaboration. It requires a joint learning process. CLOs: Welcome to a new and exciting role.