An organisation’s approach to learning is a key success factor in its digital transformation efforts, and we are seeing three areas of focus emerging as predictors of maturity: 

  • how an organisation bridges its digital skills and confidence gaps
  • how an organisation encourages people to take responsibility for their own continuous learning
  • how an organisation challenges and supports its senior people to become digital leaders

Earlier this week I gave a talk at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum in London to share some of our experience and observations on the increasingly important link between learning and organisational transformation, and what follows is a summary of my remarks. We are doing more and more work relating to learning programmes aimed at accelerating digital transformation, and although I personally enjoy teaching and coaching, I do not consider myself an expert in learning by any means, so I am very interested in feedback and observations from people more firmly located within the learning field. 

Is the Learning Organisation finally possible?

Management theory of the Twentieth Century was predicated on the notion that a special class of people were able to analyse business dynamics, predict the future based on this special knowledge, and plan their way to victory. This plan could be broken down into a series of atomic processes and workers trained to fulfil them. It was the logic of the factory production line applied to office work, but it more or less worked as long as very little changed during the multi-year planning cycle. Over time, more and more processes were added to cope with exceptions, problems or failures, which meant that the conduct of business became gradually more ossified and bureaucratic, even as organisations became more efficient through process optimisation.  In this way of working, learning was focused on training people to fulfil the process, with occasional additional skills development along the way, but there was little need for most workers to be always learning – in fact, in some cases this increased the risk of staff turnover. From the 1940s onwards, some visionary industrial groups in the UK, USA and Japan experimented with action learning, learning circles and other ideas informed by cybernetics and systems thinking that would later form the basis of the concept of the Learning Organisation that was famously summarised by Peter Senge in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline.  Now, in a time when even hitherto stable industries are struggling to cope with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the digital economy, organisations are trying to become more agile and adaptive, and recognise that the ability to sense and respond to ongoing change is more effective than continuing the ‘predict and plan’ model of the past. To achieve this, intelligence and small-scale decision-making must be distributed to the edges of the organisation, so that each team and function is free to learn and adapt based on customer and market feedback. Central planning will not achieve this.  One of the key shifts that we believe will improve the way organisations operate is from process-centric to service-centric management, where each function of an organisation is defined as a service element of an organisational platform, and the focus of the teams providing the service is on continuous improvement, rather than just process compliance. This means people need to do, think and observe, but also take (or be given back) more responsibility for the outcomes they deliver. Organisations that orchestrate these services into a shared platform, and seek to standardise and automate where possible, connecting and building on lower level services to create high value customer experiences, will find their way towards a more robust and resilient form of efficiency and scale.  This model – a connected organisation in which each service component is evolving and improving based on feedback – is by necessity a learning organisation, both in the sense that it requires people to learn and improve continuously, but also in the sense that the very fabric of the organisation is adaptive and responsive. Some teams focus on building and improving the services that define what the organisation does, which requires a continuous improvement and learning mindset, and other teams combine these services into products, services or experiences for customers, which also requires an agile, learning mindset. And the good news is that the social and digital technology needed to make this happen is readily available and an increasing proportion of the workforce are now using it. 

What is holding us back?

Right now, there is growing interest in the role that learning can play in organisational change, but we are starting from a place where learning is seen as separate to the practice of work, and also something different from more operationally focused knowledge sharing. There are also a range of cultural and other challenges that need to be addressed, such as:

  • Learned helplessness. At home, people seem comfortable to access an app store with thousands of options and learn how to use a variety of apps to share with family, read the news, learn a skill or communicate across distance. But at work, we have created a culture that believes anything more than a single mandated tool for a given task will be too confusing, and any new platform requires traditional training before people can use it. The difference is stark. Even our grandparents do not seem to need Facebook or Skype training, but at work we accept that most conference calls will begin with cheerful incompetence and contain at least one ambient airport noise soundtrack or a heavy breather who doesn’t know about the mute button. 
  • Minimum acceptable digital skills. A decade ago, it was acceptable for employees to regard technology as an optional extra – something new and mysterious that was not really core to their job. Today, we should expect a higher minimum level of digital skills and willingness to learn in every employee, regardless of age or tenure. There is very little work now that is not touched by digital technology, and if somebody cannot use basic work tools, then they cannot do their job. This means we need to update our hiring policies and testing. 
  • A one-size-fits-all approach. Any learning programme, like any transformation programme, that seeks to change everybody equally is destined to either fail or at best to hit the lowest common denominator of impact. As a colleague from a large industrial firm we work with puts it, we need to ‘focus on the willing ones’ and not worry about the reluctant laggards. Over-invest in those who are willing to learn, and you are more likely to stimulate interest and commitment from those who want to emulate their experience; but no amount of investment in somebody unwilling to learn is likely to work. 
  • Lack of agency. There is a certain paternalistic value in organisations encouraging workplace wellness and personal development, but the responsibility for this must rest with the individual. If we start from the admission that most cultural and behavioural problems in the workplace are a product of the management system, then we can avoid blaming employees for cultural issues. If management can work on improving the system, then employees can take more responsibility for their own personal development. 
  • Motivation and incentives. In the world of gaming, you will find video walkthroughs, guides, tips, cheats, maps and a plethora of advice on tools and tactics freely available online within a few days of a game’s release. People help each other and learn from each other, because they are highly motivated to achieve mastery and compete with each other. Learning was until recently obsessed with ‘gamification’ as a rather trivial approach to creating behavioural incentives. This works well in primary education (stickers! house points!), but not so much with adults. When people want to learn, nothing can stop them, as a host of studies in countries where educational provision is poor have shown. But we are lazy, and if we do not need to learn, we will try to wing it. More fluid organisations that reward performance and innovation regardless of job role, and provide opportunities for emerging leadership regardless of positional authority, will create powerful incentives for learning because the rewards are obvious. 

Skills and capability mapping

What do we need to learn, and how to we identify future skills and talent needs? One approach that we have found helpful in complex organisations that have very diverse roles is to start by mapping the organisational capabilities needed to achieve their strategic goals and address market changes such as disruption threats and opportunities. In our work, this is ideally where digital transformation efforts should begin, whether we are looking at optimisation of current practice using digital tools, transforming the way we work based on what the tools make possible, or developing entirely new products, services and business models. We find the best way to get a picture of where the gaps are is to open this conversation up to the workforce, using distributed methods such as chatbot conversations or surveys to develop a common picture of the goals for transformation. For each strategic capability, we look at the software, systems, data, processes and skills that underpin them. This gives us a view of change actions needed to create or boost a required capability, but it also creates a useful picture of what already exists and could be built on or exploited to create new capabilities.  Increasingly, we are extending this to include skills and talent mapping, to identify hotspots that others can learn from, and to make more of the human potential we already have that might be undervalued due to role constraints. You would be amazed how much shadow IT talent exists in tinkerers or power users even among lawyers, accountants and engineers, but it is not always on the formal map.  So this technique can help understand how to recognise and utilise existing talent and identify key skills gaps needed to address future strategic goals. It can also identify gaps (‘we need a data scientist!’) and overlaps (‘hey – every department has hired their own data scientist!’).  But we are not always just looking for individual skills. Some of the most valuable employees in the future will be hybrids of various kinds – a lawyer who can code a smart contract, an accountant who can interrogate data sets using machine learning, or an engineer who can code accurate simulations of a physical design, for example. So we also want to recognise and value interesting combinations of skills either within a single individual or a multi-disciplinary team, and not just continue hiring narrowly defined specialists. One way to help people think about combining skills to create new abilities is the use of skills trees – another lesson drawn from gaming that allows players to develop foundational skills to unlock higher order abilities.  And, of course, some very important skills and personal capabilities are not yet captured in our models. A good example of this is how we select for and hire managers. Right now, many companies are still selecting for the kinds of traditional strengths and competencies that are either already over-emphasised in the current structure or are positively unhelpful in a changing world. We need to do a better job of defining some of the new skills and capabilities that make up a digitally confident, multi-modal leader and use these at the top of the funnel to bring new leadership talent into our organisations. 

Learning within the digital workplace

How we learn is also changing, from a process-centric world of job training to a service-oriented world of continuous learning and improvement in the flow of work. There is much more emphasis on informal, social learning and less need for monolithic Learning Management Systems and centralised content delivery. Learning technology continues to advance, with interest in VR and AI for example, but overall I think we have reached the stage where the basic social, collaboration, content and media technologies are simple enough and available to support much more imaginative learning opportunities than we are currently using them for in most organisations.  Given the investment many organisations have made in digital workplace platforms and tools, a good starting point is to wrap learning around the digital workplace so that we can help employees get up to speed on how these tools can improve their work, get to a higher standard of digital fluency overall and also help the organisation get more out of its existing technology investments.  A toolset like Office 365, or a platform like IBM Connections, Jive or a social intranet already provides enough functionality to create an engaging peer-to-peer informal learning hub at the heart of the digital workplace. Our preferred approach is to create a learning community hosted and curated by volunteer digital guides from across the organisation, who are happy to help share good practice or support colleagues who are less confident with the tools. The content of the hub should focus on use cases and stories supported by how-to guides, rather than very technical support information. The way we like to do this is by creating summary learning journeys that summarise and link out to a variety of internal and external content that has been curated and organised by the digital guides and key digital stakeholders. It is as much an exercise in linking, curating and organising as it is one of creating original content, since there is so much good material available.  Building on the digital guides network, two related techniques that seem to work well are Working Out Loud (WOL) circles, which are a focused form of learning circle that help people develop their personal networks, and reverse mentoring, where guides are paired up with leaders to help develop digital confidence in a relaxed and private setting.  In order to socialise the learning hub, make people aware of it and bring people to it when they need it, we are experimenting with digital concierge chatbots that are available in each Teams space (on O365) or in each Slack team where organisations are using that platform. The concierge bot can answer basic questions and point users to the right learning journey content or connect people with a guide who can help them. In return, the bot asks for feedback and suggestions on capability and skills development.  Where organisations set the bar at the right level for digital skills and encourage people to take ownership of their own personal development, we believe there is less need for formal training and learning around digital workplace tools, but more need for flexible, personal curation and learning tools to help people find and navigate their own path through the available material. Informal, social, peer-to-peer learning is the best approach for bridging digital skills and confidence gaps quickly – and this should be located as close to where the work actually gets done as possible. I would recommend Harold Jarche’s thinking on lifelong learning and personal knowledge mastery.  On the subject of curation, modern real-time collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack are generating a lot of chatter, ideas and insights, and I think we need better tools for capturing some of these and turning them into more permanent learning content, as I described earlier. One prediction is that the concierge bots we think can help people find learning opportunities might also develop new ‘skills’ to become an intelligent search agent that can pro-actively scour the digital workplace for learning content that their owner might find interesting, based on what it knows of their searches and questions. For me, this is the kind of positive relationship we need to aim for between people and bots – not replacing them, but augmenting them and supporting their work in the background. 

Developing digital leaders

Perhaps the most common and obstructive barrier to digital transformation in large organisations today is out-dated management culture and a lack of engagement among senior people with new digitally-supported ways of working. Ignorance of digital tools has been almost a badge of honour in some management teams, and this creates entirely the wrong example when an organisation is trying to get its workforce playing a full role in the digital workforce.  I have seen some very well-designed learning programmes in major firms, but also some leadership development programmes that fail to challenge leaders or to apply lessons to the real-world challenges they face. Two days off-site to learn the basics of Twitter or social marketing might be fun, but are we reaching the stage when most leaders should already know these basics to do their job properly? Perhaps we can set our sights higher and teach not only tool use, but also the new management techniques they enable and the new, simpler structures and practices they can support within their teams. There is a lot of MBA nonsense to be unlearned, and a lot of new methods, thinking and practices to be shared, even around basic topics like agile, continuous improvement and ambidextrous leadership.  Digital guide networks are a great way of identifying and encouraging emerging digital leaders in any organisation, and we are seeing some examples of senior leaders who actively embrace the new world; but helping the middle management layer become more digitally fluent and to adapt their management practices to take advantage of digitally-enabled collaboration, autonomous or agile working is a tougher challenge. This demands very practical in-the-flow leadership learning programmes that people can dip in and out of, but also some more in-depth exploration and support from digital guides and perhaps also dedicated coaches. We cannot expect them to loosen their grip on the levers of hierarchical management until we provide better, workable, understandable alternatives. Longer term, I think it is highly likely that organisations need far fewer managers as they adopt more networked coordination of work and communications, so there will also be a need to re-focus managers on becoming team coaches, connectors or contributors in other areas.  ‘Leading out Loud’ and encouraging senior people to grow their influence by sharing useful information and thoughts with the wider organisation is a change that can be made relatively easily in many cases, but in a very top-down KPI-driven culture of process compliance, it is also important to help them begin implementing agile and autonomous management practices to avoid the risk of a gap opening up between how they behave in public and how they manage in private.  But we also need to go upstream of learning programmes and look at how organisations are defining their leadership skills needs and competence profiles for hiring. At the moment, relatively few management teams have properly updated their requirements and continue to hire leaders who look and sound like them. There is work to do in defining as concretely as possible the new skills, mindsets, behaviours and philosophies the organisation wants to bring in, and then to apply this to leadership development for existing leaders as well. 

Some rough conclusions

  • Understanding the organisational capabilities required and mapping the services, systems and skills that underpin them can help anchor learning needs to strategic priorities 
  • Talent mapping can uncover hidden value that can be amplified, shared and emulated by others 
  • The digital workplace needs a learning hub/community to accelerate change and adoption of new ways of working 
  • A combination of informal, social learning + digital guides + a concierge bot service is a good approach to this
  • We need to focus on overcoming a culture of learned helplessness and spoon-fed training to encourage ongoing personal learning 
  • We should consider setting the bar slightly higher in terms of minimum digital fluency required to work in modern organisations 
  • Leadership development programmes need to set up their game if we are to avoid the behaviour of senior people becoming the biggest barrier to change 
  • In the modern technology-augmented organisation, learning will not be a separate activity, but a daily part of work with occasional focused learning on new specialist skills