Learning Sustainability

Coincidentally I entered into the discussion in separate occasions with others on how to sustain the impact of learning interventions.   Whilst achieving 100% learning transfer all the time is not possible, I think the question is more about ‘How to sustain learning impact to a larger extent?’   Among all the ideas we discussed, it seems to me the ARL (Action Reflection Learning) practice is still the key.   (Yet, it is not without implementation challenges)

I may have written some of the following points before.   Allow me to refresh my thought (to myself) by possibly repeating some.

I think ARL, or the practice of ‘Learning whilst Earning’ is the future.  I once was asked a question ‘What do you think the future of leadership development will be?’   Ideas came to my mind and I said:

“I think we will not have any traditional openly-nominated classroom-based workshop.   We will not have a fixed schedule and thick binders for the learners.   We will not do Just-in-Case learning anymore.   In the future, we will do Just-in-Time learning.   Our facilitators will go into business meetings, perhaps those annual strategy planning meetings. We facilitate their real business discussion.   More than that, we will pause the leaders to reflect on their behaviors in the meetings and if necessary we will introduce some concepts or tools for them to use on spot.”

There are a few reasons why this is probably the future:

Learners’ Commitment – There are lot of problems in the Just-in-Case setting.   I become more and more skeptical of ‘prisoner’ type of learners. They are in the learning event because they are asked to.   Everybody suffers – themselves, the fellow learners and the facilitator.   Time is wasted.   However, if the event is a real business meeting, everyone will be much more engaged.   Things are relevant and real.   And if we can introduce tools and concepts to be immediately used in the on-going situations, learning retention is high by definition.

Sponsors’ Commitment – No matter how well one learns in a workshop, learning retention will drop a great deal if he or she is not supported to apply the learning back in the workplace.   And the line managers are the most important factor determining whether there is enough support.   A typical example – one learn the GROW model to coach.   He applies it back to the workplace but is challenged by his line managers on why he asked so many questions instead of just telling.   And the line managers in fact always just tell.   This will kill his learning on coaching skills right away.

On the other hand, if we install learning in a real business setting, the sponsors are likely involved and in fact become learners as well.

Effectiveness Measurement – Learning professionals have been struggling how to measure effectiveness on leadership development initiative.   There is no perfect solution yet.   However, in the Just-in-Case setting, the intervention effort can possibly result in better business result e.g. cost saving / attrition rate, on top of developing leaders.

Cost Pressure – Given the more and more difficult operating environment, learning resources will likely be cut ……. unless we can prove the effectiveness.   When the next financial crisis comes, it is not unlikely that corporations will further either cut down the stand-alone learning department or outsources majority of the work.   It will however be a different proposition if the so-called learning department can facilitate both earning and learning.   I wrote more about this idea in my previous blog post Forget about ‘Training’

Despite the above, the move from traditional practice to ‘Connecting Earning with Learning’ is still a big paradigm shift for most organizations.    Essentially, it is ‘safe’ to run traditional classes.   And there are often stakeholders with vested interest to the traditional practice.

To me, the key outstanding questions are:

  • How to balance the need for consistency in learning across the organization in adopting Just-in-Time learning approach?
  • Should we adopt a higher balance of conformity for more junior learners i.e. less Just-in-Time?   And if so, how much and where to draw the line?
  • What kinds of quality are needed for the facilitators or Team Coaches to be able to conduct Just-in-Time learning?
  • How to build the initial success in order to influence other stakeholders?

Sit on your hands and shut up

I heard a veteran facilitator talking about Open Space earlier this month. Great wisdom. She said that there are 3 necessary conditions to make Open Space work. First, there are burning issues which the participants care collectively. Second, all participants join the event voluntarily. Third, the sponsor (who calls for the event) is really interested what may emerge from the process.

If these are in place, after giving the instruction, the facilitator should just sit on his / her hand and shut up.   It is so true but not exactly easy to do.

To the contrary, an Open Space will surely fail if the participants as a community do not see any burning issue, some (if not all) of them are ‘forced’ to join the event and the sponsor calls for the event just for sake of doing it. For the last point, the worst is that the sponsor in fact has his / her solutions in mind already.

 

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‘Learning’ from Ancient Chinese

IMG_0241Triggered by a discussion with a friend, I would like to write a few posts about Chinese ancient wisdom, and more importantly what it means in corporate learning nowadays.   I believe it would be a good reflection for my own experience in the corporate learning world as well, both in China and outside.

 The first one is the one that I have thought of the most (by 荀子 Xun Zi)

不闻不若闻之,
闻之不若见之,
见之不若知之,
知之不若行之,
学至于行而止矣.

The literal translation is:

Not hearing is not as good as hearing.
Hearing is not as good as seeing.
Seeing is not as good as knowing (intellectually).
Knowing is not as good as doing.
True learning is complete only when we put it in action.

This quote illustrates a great deal on corporate learning:

  • How the industry has changed – The quote highlights the evolution of corporate learning in the past decades.   In the past, when we thought of corporate learning, we tended to have experts standing up and talking for the whole day i.e. teaching.   As visual technology e.g. powerpoint became popular, the experts talk and show picture, video, graph and unfortunately mostly bullet points.   This is from ‘hearing’ to ‘seeing’.  Further, the focus changed from ‘what is sent’ to ‘what is received’.  The learning professionals were transitioning from trainers who tell to facilitators who guide people to discover and make meaning themselves.  This is from ‘seeing’ to ‘knowing’.  

(Whilst this makes sense, I do not find facilitating people to learn common in the corporate learning field, especially in Mainland China. Here is an interesting phenomenon – when you are waiting for your flight in Mainland China, you often find shops selling video with an expert talking loudly and vividly about certain topic.)

  • Action – The last part of the quote i.e. from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’.   In a way, experiential learning activities and business simulation are answers to it.    For example, getting a group of people to compete in a treasure hunt activity and debriefing on what they learn about working in team.   Depending on how the intervention is framed and run, this can be much more effective than traditional teaching in terms of learning transfer.   However, I have experienced how learners just went through the motion in the intervention.   They sort of decide to take it just as a ‘game’.   In the debrief, when asked about say what they learn about team communication, they can produce a laundry list of ‘standard answer’.   People cheer and clap their hands as people present back.   But that’s it…..

To me, a more advanced version of the ‘knowing’ part is Action Learning.   There are different practices in the market under the name of Action Learning.   The one I prefer is called ‘Action Reflection Learning’ or ARL – where guided reflection plays a significant part to learning.   See my previous post athttp://www.ask-nottell.com/?p=751    This practice tackles nicely the ‘realness’ problem mentioned above by always working on real work.   (By real work, I mean the result of those will have real consequence to the learners.)    I particularly like the philosophy of ‘Learning whilst you are Earning’.   Using the ancient Chinese language, it would be something like 行学并行.

  • Kirkpatrick 4-level of evaluation – The quote also illustrates the 4 levels.   The ‘Knowing’ part is like Level 2.    Learners can remember the learning and demonstrate say by passing the test at the end of a learning event.    The ‘put in action’ part is like Level 3.   Learners can put the learning into action in the workplace.   The natural challenge of course to the quote is that it misses the Level 4 i.e. real learning is complete only when the learning intervention creates impact as mentioned by the pre-determined business measurement e.g. revenue, cost, attrition rate.    Yet, this challenge is from the corporate perspective rather than the individual learners.

It is amazing how the ancient Chinese has figured out the above a few thousand years ago already.   But even more interestingly, why such wisdom has not been commonly practised though it has been around for so long?

Co-facilitation

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As I am about to leave my current organisation, someone asks me ‘what have you gained the most from the job?’    I think it is my learning and the learning came mostly from working with my co-facilitators.   Whenever possible, I will choose to work with a co-facilitator.     It is not because of workload.  In fact, the work may become more difficult with a co-facilitator.    For example in working with a new co-facilitator, you need to spend time in advance to prepare together.   And when you two are not aligned,

 

To me, there are other more important reasons why i prefer co-facilitation.

 

  • Feedback – With right contracting, the best feedback comes from your co-facilitator.    He or she is probably the best person in the room who understands the intent and result.   He or she is thus most informed to give you feedback.   In addition, especially in leadership development workshops which are about personal disclosure and are reflective by nature, you will have the atmosphere and time to build reasonably good level of trust with your co-facilitator.   This enables him / her to give you feedback.   So, your co-facilitator has both WILL and SKILL to give you feedback.
  • Pushing the boundary – If learning facilitation is about helping learners push the boundary, I do a better job when I do it with a co-facilitator.   Frankly, I am more ready to challenge the learners knowing that someone is backing me up.
  • Role-model – You learn by simply watching another facilitator in action.   This is especially powerful when you swap with your co-facilitator to run each other’s modules.   You can see how the other facilitates the same thing differently from you did.

 

 

 

Thus, I have to say THANK YOU to the co-facilitators I have worked in the last 2-3 years!    Graham B, Graham H, Hannah, Helena, Simon, Fiona, Tony, Patrick, Sabrina, Trisha, Judith, Leslie, Emma, Winnie, Noel, William, thanks!!    (My apology if I miss any of you)

 

‘Check-In’ in Phone Meetings

A useful post on the HBR Blog – Create Human Connection in a Virtual Teams.

A reflection as I read through it…. on the idea of conducting ‘Check In’ to build human connection in virtual meeting.   It is quite tricky.   When I discussed this idea with leaders, their response is often ‘We do not have enough time for this’.    This brings to 3 points:

  1. Someone shared a question with me before ‘Is it about efficiency or effectiveness?’
  2. There are different ways of Check-In instead of everyone on the call doing a ‘wedding speech’ .   To be exact, there are more efficient ways to do so
  3. Check-In will work only if the leaders themselves believe in it, do it first and do it a few times.   It is bound to be a bit odd the first time.   If we do it just once and then drop it, it will probably ‘prove’ to be not useful.

Action Learning in Action

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I was excited about what I experienced in an internal meeting conducted in India. Basically there were a few leadership development facilitators and operational colleagues discussing with logistic support colleagues on how to improve some operational processes. [Sorry that I cannot tell more about the details] With a few of us being conscious about what is really going on, it turned into an action learning intervention – all worked on the stuff, and at the same time learned about leadership, ways of working, problem solving, etc. At least this is what I perceived. I could not help to share at the end that what happened was a great example of what I believe the future leadership development intervention should be. The beauty of such practice includes:

 

  • Real stuff is being resolved
  • As such, the return on the underlying developmental resources can be objectively measured
  • The common problem of lacking line managers’ support on learning events no longer exists. It is real.
  • People learn effectively with high learning transfer

The question is:

 

How to make it scalable? The facilitator has much more preparation work to do because each intervention can be very different. And we are asking a lot from the facilitator who needs to be resourceful and skillful. Able to intervent just in time with relevant concepts or tools…