Planning and implementing a learning project that achieves its performance objective, takes disciplined thought and equally disciplined action. It’s not enough to focus on addressing a series of bullet-points as learning outcomes. These outcomes need to be understood in performance terms if they are going to be truly meaningful for the organisation making the decision to invest in the project. As funding is limited, choosing to invest in one project now, often means compromising on or deferring another, such as staff learning. Skills development is certainly important, but the reality is that it is seldom a sufficient motivator in business on its own. Learning professionals need to be able to connect the dots between the learning outcomes and the business value achieved by those learning outcomes. They must ultimately contribute to the organisation’s culture and performance.
There are many research reports pointing to the fact that when learning is aligned to business objectives, strong business results follow. Alignment sends a clear message to business that the Learning department is aware of what is important to the rest of the organisation and has positioned itself to contribute to the organisation’s results (Managing Learning Programs, Lisa Downs, 2015). If you are considering this more seriously, key aspects are explored here.
Help set learning projects up for success with these nine key considerations:
1. Align to goals and design for impact
It is not enough to align a learning project to business and executive goals. Learning architects need to be deliberate in the design thereof to ensure it delivers the high impact and relevant learning experience required. It is essential to know what business metrics need to be improved or impacted through the project and then to identify meaningful performance objectives. The results should then drive the selection of the learning content and delivery methods. Understanding the required business impact makes it easier to critically evaluate whether the learning solution being designed or sourced will meet the mark. If a solution or resources exist already, giving thought as to how to best create the right context for the solution may be all that is required. Introducing additional resources, facilitated sessions, action learning projects, or coaching and mentoring into the solution design can elevate the relevance and impact of the solution. Doing something differently just once will not make any real impact. Changes or improvements consistently applied, no matter how small, become sustainable and make the difference to overall performance. The continuous learning solution is a viable resource.
2. Capture Interest and attention
The project needs to capture the interest and attention of the organisation’s stakeholders (senior leaders, the target audience and their managers) from the start. Identifying the performance objectives should already provide the clues as to how to effectively position the project to these stakeholders. It is not a one-size-fits-all exercise because what sponsors and managers want to know will be different to what your target participant would want to know. It is important to take the time to think about how your intended message can be conveyed to best capture the interest and attention of all stakeholders. If it doesn’t seem attractive to management and learners, you will struggle to get them to sign up. While it is possible to rely on compliance to drive the learner intake, this approach is rarely sustainable. If anything, it is likely to yield a cohort of reluctant learners with unsupportive managers. Many of us have had experiences where we’ve been sent to a compulsory program filled with doubt of the value or relevance to us as the learner, only to discover along the way that we really enjoyed it and found it immensely valuable. While it is possible to convince a sceptic through the process this should ideally be the exception rather than the strategy.
A good approach is to give some thought as to how the program could be aspirational to the learners and beneficial for the organisation. The value proposition for both learners and managers is essential and needs to be consistent and appropriate for the organisation and target audience.
Once interest has been captured, keep stakeholders interested in what comes next along the journey from pre-launch through to the project or program close and what the expectations might be of them. This is particularly important for both the learner and their direct manager. It’s not simply the learner we need to prepare for the project but also those that will need to support their learning journey. An unaware or uninterested manager can quickly sabotage even the most excited and motivated learner and fail the project either unintentionally or intentionally. If we can get people to pitch up from Day One, excited about the learning journey ahead, knowing they have the full support of their teams and managers, this ensures a much stronger foundation for both the learning and the project success.
It is most certainly worth taking the time to really understand what it is that learners and their managers and teams hope to get out of participating in the learning program. Build this feedback and craft a series of compelling communications that share this messaging and speak for the project when the project owners are not around to do so. Thinking it through from multiple perspectives also helps ensure the promise is matched if not exceeded by the actual experience.
3. Monitor and ask for feedback from the start
It is important to plan how the project will be monitored and feedback gathered throughout the project life cycle. Even the best planned projects can run into trouble during the execution phase. This is especially important in an online program where there are more potential points for learners to get ‘lost’ and withdraw. A good facilitator can pick up very quickly when things might be going awry in a face-to-face session and can adapt to re-engage the learners and get the program back on track. This is more difficult to detect in an online program, especially if the proper support, monitoring and feedback mechanisms are not in place.
A plan to gather feedback on the program at regular intervals and not simply at the end the project will contribute to the success of the project. Feedback will highlight areas requiring attention and improvement and where possible, quick action will address what isn’t working which can immediately improve the learner experience. The review of adoption and usage statistics early in the project provides a quick way of assessing where the adoption levels lie and indicates where issues might exist. Early follow-up on slow progress and low access numbers provides the opportunity to identify the source of these issues and the opportunity to offer potential solutions. These check-ins are not intended as a disciplinary measure but rather as a feedback mechanism to reinforce the value of the program to the learners and organisation and to identify any barriers or inhibitors.
Above all, feedback should never be taken personally but should be used as a point of critical reflection and used to transform and continuously improve the project and supporting processes. Next practice very often comes from applying a reflective lens whilst reviewing a best practice. It might not be the program that needs to change but the supporting processes and mechanisms or the messaging and communications to ensure all the dots are connected. A review of lessons learnt during a program is not only important for improving the program but can also lead to improved planning and design on future projects as well.
4. Integrate learning into the flow of work and ensure application
The 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report highlights the changing relationship between learning and work. Given the rate of change in our world today, individuals and organisations must be continuously developing if they are to remain relevant. The World Economic Forum Report published in September 2018 stated that more than half (54%) of employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling within the next 3 years to respond to the redesign of jobs. With this increased demand for continuous, lifelong learning, the opportunity exists for learning teams to focus on building robust work-centred learning programs that help people access and consume relevant information which will help them expand their knowledge and upgrade their skills as they work. Technology plays an important role in connecting individuals and teams to focused and convenient learning opportunities that empower people to actively develop throughout their lives.
Learning should align to clear, consistent and personal performance goals of the job and be personally meaningful to ensure it is relevant to the individual, their work (and life) and team environment. Learners push back with capacity concerns if they are not able to connect the dots from what they are learning to their jobs and teams. As teams are becoming more and more important in the delivery of work, it is important that learning provides experiences and content set in the context of a working team. The Deloitte report concludes that organisations have “a responsibility to reinvent learning so that it integrates into the flow of work – and life.” Co-ownership of integrated learning is integral to the success thereof – the responsibility must belong to multiple parties (employees, managers, peers, coaches, trainers, lecturers, learning), all working together to achieve the required performance goals.
5. Work cleverly within budget and resource considerations
It is possible to deliver a high-impact program on a limited budget and in today’s economy, it has become a necessity. The key lies in finding the balance between leveraging existing resources and scaling the project appropriately. One approach that we recommend, is starting with a proof of concept which targets a smaller but still relevant audience group and as a result can be effectively driven to gather data and insights which feed into the business case for the organisation. Securing budget and resources for a project is easier, once there is evidence of the potential value of the project for the organisation. Being intentional with the selection of the participants and making sure they are briefed on their role, will ensure reliable and valuable feedback for the proof of concept. If the majority of an audience is ‘too busy’ to participate, the proof of concept is doomed from the start and success is unlikely.
When we consider the contribution of strong learning cultures on business performance, the typical budget process we face is not supportive of this important performance lever. At budget time, it is difficult if not impossible to forecast for all eventualities that might arise in the year ahead. Very often the budgets that are presented cover existing projects and the opportunity for allocating funds to new projects and initiatives gets slowly whittled away until the following year’s budget leaves little space for innovation. A cautionary thought – if year on year you only have budget for what you currently do, this limits the opportunity of producing a different result.
Organisations could be missing the unique opportunities to improve to innovate, push the boundaries, replace a suddenly obsolete solution, test out new approaches, and equip people differently in their moment of need; thus, compromising their competitive advantage in the marketplace. Waiting for the next budget period could potentially introduce additional risk as the learning to performance value chain becomes protracted or other areas are compromised due to the reprioritising of spending mid-way through the budget period. Bear in mind that a restless millennial workforce is more likely to change jobs if they are not personally fulfilled or seeing a value add such as part-time learning. Is, it not time for Learning and Development budgets to include an allocation for R&D/Innovation to ensure learning keeps pace with what business requires?
Accepting the challenge to explore at least one new learning solution, approach or resource, whether internal or external, can make the difference in both what an organisation and its people do and how they do it, leading to stronger returns.
6. Make it a successful brand exercise
Having gone to the effort of creating or sourcing the perfect learning solution to address critical business issues, make sure it serves as a successful brand exercise for the organisation. Creating a brand for the program helps to give it is own identity with which current and future participants and program coaches can associate. It also serves to differentiate it from myriad solutions with similar outcomes. The competition is not simply internal learning initiatives, but external offerings as well. Internal programs have the power of organisational context over external offerings especially when their identity is effectively reinforced by the organisation’s vision, values and current business drivers. The brand is also the glue that holds together a program delivered utilising external partners and resources or made up of several stages or modules as it connects each individual component with the overarching program strategy and organisational alignment.
7. Work from a foundation of solid methodology
It is easier to innovate and try new things when you work from a foundation built on a solid methodology. Models and frameworks should provide a springboard from which to deliver the projects selected with confidence that is grounded in sound practice. The 70:20:10 Model for Learning and Development provides a great example of this. Originally discovered as a result of research into the key developmental experiences of successful managers, this model has become popular in organisations throughout the world.
The model’s strength lies in the insights it provides into what constitutes an optimal employee development experience and the guidance it provides for the application of learning to performance and results, not the allocation of time to specific activities. Providing an environment conducive to learning is not enough as this tackles the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught. The real ‘magic’ takes place when we are able to shift from learning to development at the right moment to accelerate the learner’s growth process whereby they demonstrate positive improvement in their ability and performance.
8. Have internal champions
The importance of internal champions should not be underestimated as it crosses over and supports many of the factors already discussed and the presence or absence thereof can make or break a project. Internal champions become the promoters within the organisation and industry ready to share, defend and further shape why and how the project benefits the organisation and its members. The champions may be previous participants, program mentors, managers, direct reports or peers of participants who have seen or felt for themselves the impact of the program.
Their stories are powerful as they represent a personal experience and not a hypothesis or marketing pitch. When shared and celebrated, these success stories encourage others to recognise the benefits upfront and fully embrace the opportunity which in turn encourages even greater successes. Internal champions also apply and cascade what they learn to other projects and other areas of the business extending the reach of the project and helping to build and strengthen the learning culture in the organisation.
9. Choose the right partners
The partners chosen for the planning and implementation of the project, whether internal or external, need to share and enable the vision for the project. Without a shared vision, it becomes harder work for the learning project manager to align the various elements which can result in disconnected deliverables. The use of the word ‘partner’ is very deliberate in this sense. It implies the existence or intention for a deeper relationship and understanding and mutual investment into the project from all parties. A warning to learning managers embarking on new projects would be to beware of any team member or vendor that simply wants to deliver their part in isolation of the big picture. It is important to be prepared to engage openly with external partners so that they get a real sense of the challenges that need to be addressed and the culture of the organisation. This will make it easier for them to align their solutions and expectations with the project vision and make appropriate recommendations.
It is certainly not about sharing industrial secrets or airing dirty laundry, it is about being as transparent and authentic in the engagement as possible, providing the projects and its players the best chance at co-creating something that doesn’t only meet expectations but excites and delights at the same time. For a delivery team, a happy client equals a happy life. When the client succeeds, they succeed. And sometimes a fresh perspective on an internal challenge can make all the difference.
Taking the time to think about the preceding factors and how they might apply to a learning project, can greatly increase the likelihood of success. It is important to keep in mind that the factors have been identified through working on multiple projects and through an iterative process of continuous improvement. As such, even starting out with this knowledge, it will still take some time and careful application over several projects to develop your own winning recipe.
Enough agility and courage to make the necessary changes quickly balanced with the patience to see the process through are essential ingredients. Finally, when measuring for impact and value, don’t stop with the expected results, dig a little deeper and look a little further as there may be some unanticipated benefits that contribute significantly to the overall business case.
Downs, Lisa. (© 2015). Managing learning programs. [Books24x7 version] Available from http://common.books24x7.com/toc.aspx?bookid=104321.
King, K. “Moving the Needle: How Skillsoft® Learning Impacts Performance of Individuals and Organizations”. Skillsoft
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