Today’s organizations exist in a rapidly changing environment where disruptive technologies, economic turmoil, and the winds of political change have put a premium on the organizations ability to rapidly react to a changing environment and meet evolving organizal challenges. This is leading to an even greater emphasis on the value organizations put on their human capital. Companies that can get a great idea from the person who spawned it to the market with little organizational friction are winning. So are companies that are able to be leaner and react to the market more rapidly, locally or more economically. Given this reality it is important that organizations take a proactive approach to the development of their human capital. I think there is wide acceptance now that one of the roles senior leader play is in mentoring there staffs and fostering a general understanding that a key component of leadership is increasing the performance of their personnel. This mandate should be broader than simply one on one time in the office. Real development requires a more comprehensive and holistic approach. This means looking both at programs that support professional development within a chosen career path but also more general tracks that may address productivity, communication, leadership, or other general skills that play a role in real performance. Even in organizations that place a high value on professional education many do not put enough value on these general skills. Investing in these general skills within your organization ensures that the professional training you invest in is leveraged to its maximum value. Also too often these general skills are assumed, but take a look around your working environment. Is a lack of organization a problem for someone you work with? Do you have people you wish had a few more “soft skills” to couple with there analytical skills. These are bottle necks that need to be overcome if the organization is to get all of the benefit it should from its people. In the end it requires a mix to drive results.
As organizations work to develop the right mix and maximize the value of their educational programs it is important to think about how to drive results from their development programs. The question is how do you develop the right organizational approach to foster a culture of learning and innovation. I believe the first key step is to ensure that you are thinking about these two key concepts correctly. First with regard to learning, organizations should clearly identify the objectives. Learning in the organizational performance context should mean identifying problems, issues and obstacles and working to solve them by developing a deeper understanding, finding solutions through individual research or identifying formal educational options that lead to solutions. Learning should also be tied to retaining the information that comes in via these mechanisms leveraging it to increase performance. Successful organizations should be fostering a learning culture where professional development occurs via employee to employee knowledge transfer, mentoring, and individual problem solving. Seen from the lens of the desired organizational outcome learning needs occur both broadly across the range of developmental areas that lead to increased performance and performed in a way that leads to retention, use and ultimately performance.
So why all the focus on learning? We opened with the idea that one of the critical advantages that modern organizations are looking to foster is a culture of innovation. I believe that developing the learning organization is a critical key to developing an environment that is conducive to innovation. I also believe that too often innovation gets reserved for executives trying to drive capital “I” type “Innovation.” In order to truly drive performance I think innovation comes needs to come in two flavors, big “I” innovation that is driven by ecexutives, subject matter experts, and other people whose general job description includes driving organizational perofrmance and transformation and little “i” innovation which is the daily things people at every rung of the organization do to perform a little better personally, or on a smaller scale. To really be effective organizations may need to make big “I” innovative changes but they also need to foster a culture where every tier of the organization little “i” innovates every day. Some great advances that have led to real bottom line performance have happened on assembly lines because people were paying attention, confronted with a problem and empowered to facilitate change. With a rise in the number of people who are considered knowledge workers, the increasing use of automation and economies of scale the rippling effect of little “i” innovation and empowerment can be enormous for an organization.
The problem for most organizations is threefold in achieving increased performance through their education and professional development programs:
First, many organizations that could benefit from an increased ability to facilitate change by empowering daily little “i” and big “I” innovation simply have not changed their culture to support either one. Innovative cultures are dependent on creating channels for communication, investing in professional development developing an ability to internalize change. I think the first two of these are fairly obvious but the last one may require a bit more explanation. Having the ability to adapt and transform means having an organizational commitment to internalizing and making common practice changes in the culture, direction or operational aspects of the organization. Implementing a best practice process is more often hamstrung by an inability on the part of an organization to implement a new process rather than an inability to learn about or understand that best practice. Essentially any education, training, mentoring or other learning capabilities your organizations gain are useless without developing the organizational ability to internalize opportunities that flow from them and put them into action.
Second, education and professional development programs need to be well thought out and done in a manner that drives results. This seems obvious but think about your last training seminar or professional development class. Whether it was a four day bootcamp leading to a certification or a full blown university class – has it changed the way you work? If not is the reason because you didn’t get to apply it close enough to the educational opportunity to cement the new working pattern or understanding you gained into your execution? As leaders I think that you have to assume that if you want to gain the benefit of the professional development you are putting forward for your people you need to assume some lower level of performance not just during the time while the person is in training, but also when they return as they begin to exercise and build new skills and understanding into their routine. If you treat their professional development efforts like a vacation and let work stack up on their desk and then expect them to hustle through what they missed while they were gone you can almost guarantee that the new skills you sent them to get aren’t likely to get used very rapidly. Give people time to implement and internalize what they have learned. If you need to get to the results part of their training faster you may be better suited to follow the professional development activity with mentoring, workshops that place the learning into the context of your workplace environment or consulting services that enable you to bootstrap your way into the results you are looking to achieve by placing the expertise on staff as you ramp towards internalizing the educational benefits.
Finally, look at your unique requirements and build toward your specific outcomes. Establish curriculums that fit the generally required skills and abilities of the various roles in your organization and then adapt as needed to meet specific opportunities or to address specific deficiencies. Make sure that you talk to the people coming back from classes and other educational opportunities to make sure that not only did they get the certificate or attend the class, but that they felt they got value. Their is an enormous difference between even highly regimented certification oriented classes that are supposed to be tied to a very strict curriculum. If you find a great instructor make sure you request that instructor going forward. I’ve advocated a few times in this article to invest in professional development. Now I’m telling you to make sure you maximize those dollars. If you have a great experience make sure you get that person, organization or class again. Particularly if you are taking training that is intended to help you lead organizational change or transformation make sure that you aren’t just book smart. Follow training with a workshop where and an expert can help you use your new found skills and apply them to your organizational problems. This is one of the greatest ways to ensure that you get full value for your training dollars. There is nothing that will help you retain and internalize concepts like applying them to your problems. Also, consider mentoring as an option in this area. Too often we go to training and come back invigorated and ready to apply it to change the world. Unfortunately once we get back to our desks we hit some small snag or bump up against a hurdle in our real word problem that wasn’t clearly illustrated in class. Having a mentor available that can help you apply the concept may be the key to getting you over the hurdle and unlocking the benefit you were hoping for when you left for class.
I think if you follow these steps you can begin to unlock the the incredible untapped potential that resides in so many organizations. The most successful organizations will find ways to get more from their human capital in order to become the more adaptable, foster innovation and maximize the ability to get great ideas from whiteboard to implementation. I also cannot say enough about focusing on little “i” innovation. Getting people at every level of the organization to believe in and focus on making what they do a little bit more efficient or effective will change organizational performance. Senior leadership needs to identify the areas of focus for professional development, provide the opportunities to develop professionally and finally create an environment where that development can lead to organizational change.
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