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Skills-led organisational learning

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<>Skills-led organisational learning

Authors: Professor Elena Beleska-Spasova, Professor in International Business and Head of post-experience postgraduate programmes, Henley Business School and Iain Harrison, Senior Manager, EY.

Henley Business School and EY have come together to host a programme of work to examine how increasing skills across the UK economy can drive growth, for the economy, organisations, and individuals.

In this article, Elena and Iain discuss learning-based capabilities and explore how organisations can transform their learning functions to become engines of resilience and value creation in a world of continuous uncertainty and change.

Change has been the intrinsic driver of progress and evolution for millions of years. Heraclitus argued that stability is an illusion and saw the world as “eternal change of/as/is everything”, in essence, “everything flows” (panta rei). What has changed in today’s reality of impermanence is the accelerated speed and improbable nature of that change, challenging organisational capacity for finding adequate solutions. While organisations are trying to identify the skills and competencies critical for their journey to recovery, emerging evidence points to a common denominator in early success stories – organisational dexterity in adaptive learning to quickly sense and size opportunities and recombine its resources for value creation as well as value protection.

Learning-based capabilities – the new ‘holy grail’ of competitiveness

Not long ago, critical competitive advantages belonged to individuals, organisations and nations who knew the most. The speed and impermanence of technology advancements and global environment are shifting the balance of power in favour of the learning economy. Competitive advantages ensuring survival and progress accrue to those who know how to learn the right things, rapidly.

Building learning-based capabilities in times of major disruption, like the current pandemic, can be a powerful tool in unlocking the existing potential in the organisation. Acknowledging that prior knowledge may not be relevant or sufficient removes the inhibition by knowledge (power) centres and encourages confidence in proactive solution finding at all levels of the organisation. Re-framing ‘failures’ as ‘learnings’ removes the fear of being judged and focuses attention towards solving problems. Redefining ‘outliers’ as ‘visionaries’ removes the stigma of not-belonging and leverages diversity as an engine of learning and creativity. The ’learning organisation’ can empower and engage its employees in value creation rather than just direct and manage their performance.

The biggest challenge to building learning-based competencies in the context of homeworking is a lack of social interaction. Humans learn best through experience in a social context where peer-to- peer interaction provides immersive learning. This is particularly true for learning skills and behaviours, as unlike knowledge they are tacit in nature and hence difficult to codify and transfer. Immersive experiential learning is challenging in the virtual world. However, attending meetings, brainstorming sessions, client interactions are now more shareable than ever. Virtual ‘town-hall’, ’fire-chat’ and ‘watercooler’ meetings, are examples of informal events proven to provide the social context that fosters exchange of experiences, learning and collaboration and reinforces the feelings of community and common values and goals.

However, building organisational capacity for a skills-led recovery requires a well-designed agile learning strategy and structure. To better understand what this entails let’s look through the two lenses of learning: content (what to learn), and process (how to learn). Knowledge and learning platforms powered by AI and mobile technology make both internal and external knowledge (content) available on demand and just-in-time. What makes the learning capabilities the holy grail of recovery and competitiveness is the effectiveness of the learning process – how the organisation is set up to motivate, enable and harness learning.

Learning function – the ‘SatNav’ for the road to recovery

When we think about enabling a skills-led recovery there is a risk that we default to old modes of training and learning. For several years there has been discourse on the role of the learning function in developing capability. With the usefulness of knowledge and certain skills having much shorter time-spans than in the past, the need to have agility in when and how we learn is more crucial. As organisations review the need to bring people physically into the workplace together, training will be a key driver. Yet this limited interaction time needs to be used wisely. Too much structure will stifle the opportunity for social interaction that is crucial to tacit learning exchange. Too intensive/demanding learning will put additional pressure on already stretched and stressed resources.

The post-pandemic reboot of the workplace provides an opportunity for corporate learning functions to shift from standardised design and static delivery to dynamic enablement, adding value by helping the employee to know what to learn and how to access knowledge in a timely way. The individual is now, to some extent, in control of both. The role of the leader is changing from teacher to facilitator. And our definition of peer-to-peer learning is evolving to encompass peer groups often spanning five-generations, from tech savvy younger generations to veteran well-networked leaders and mentors.

Knowledge shift – agility through shared ownership

Agility is crucial to the skills-led recovery and this requires a change in how people view the power of knowledge and the responsibility for developing skills. As Steinbeck noted “the quality of owning freezes you for ever into ‘I’ and cuts you off for ever from the ‘we’.” The mindset shift needed to accelerate the learning economy is the spark that takes learning and knowledge as being about ‘me’, to learning and knowledge being about ‘us’, with all employees contributing to content and process. The current pandemic has placed the meaning and power of ‘we’ front and centre like never before. At each level we need to challenge our thinking:

  • -Individual Being a specialist in one area limits individual resilience and utility. Each person needs to be curious and a continual learner, as well as an active contributor to another’s learning. What will motivate, facilitate and recognise an individual’s commitment to learning?
  • -Team Shared responsibility means that no one individual is the expert. Collective capability requires collective pooling of knowledge, learning and adapting to new circumstances. How do we define and assemble teams?
  • -Organisation Continually evolving skills needs agility in organisational learning. Sharing of knowledge as a component of learning must be the norm, and positive behaviours recognised and rewarded. What guides organisational learning, what is its purpose?

Towards new horizons

If necessity is the mother of both learning and invention, there is no bigger learning activator in recent history than the current pandemic. Organisations and their employees are more than ever motivated to learn not just how to deliver their old mandate in a new context but more so in finding new ways of delivery and even new mandates. Organisations’ ability to adapt their ‘know how to’ to ‘learn how to’ would build resilience in keeping their ship afloat and increase their odds of seeing the sun rise over new horizons.

Steinbeck, J. (1939), The Grapes of Wrath, William Heinemann Ltd.

Published 1 July 2020

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