George A. Wolfe is former vice president of global learning and development at Steelcase University. Shawn E. Merritt is president of SDI Consulting. They spoke with Learning Executives Briefing on the value that the learning organization can bring to the planning and implementation of new technology initiatives in any company.

Learning Executives Briefing: Why do so many technology implementations in organizations fail to produce the intended results?

George Wolfe: Before we get into the why, let me share some statistics that we've uncovered. A 2007 Gartner Inc. study found that 66 percent of all enterprise-wide IT initiatives fail to reach their goal one year after implementation. A year after that, IAG found that the figure was 68 percent. And informal research that Shawn and I have conducted suggests the number is as high as 70 percent. The question becomes: Why does something we are sure is going to work fail in its implementation one year after its launch?

LXB: Why, if all the research shows most of these technology implementations will fail to meet their goals, do organizations repeat the same mistake?

Shawn Merritt: The organization understands it has to spend money on software, and the IT function does a good job of implementation. The question is: How quickly does the organization perform in a way that creates value? It rarely has to do with software or how well IT did its job implementing the software. For the organization to gain value, the technology has to be adopted and integrated into the way work gets done. What we are suggesting is that if you spend a little more time and money (on the desired organizational performance) you will accelerate your return-on-investment. The traditional method of implementing software systems is the organization determines business requirements, IT determines technical requirements, and then they design, build, buy, and then test a solution. Then they think about implementing the solution. What we are saying is there's an opportunity to change the paradigm by having the learning function involved at the beginning. Learning has the experience in large-scale behavioral change implementations. That is what training is all about: changing behavior of individuals and eventually changing the behavior of organizations.

LXB: How does the learning organization create or enable this change?

Merritt: What we suggest is rather than having a plan that jumps from business requirements directly to technical requirements, involve people who understand organizational performance earlier in the process. We can help influence and help illustrate that a technical implementation is not the same as business value. We are not trying to change the behavior of IT. We are trying to change the attitudes of the people who will be using the software. Don't just show up at the end and offer to do training at the tool level. Show up early and help expand the mindset of business leaders that this is about changing performance, not implementing software.

LXB: How do you help convince a reluctant IT organization to follow this model?


Wolfe: One way is to show up with the research that illustrates the problem. Gartner and others are respected organizations in the IT field. If you bring this kind of statistical muscle into the discussion, it at least focuses their attention. Once IT is educated as to what the learning organization can do to make a difference, it becomes a win-win for everyone.

Merritt: To get the return-on-investment, you have to connect the organizational behavior with change. And those two together make the difference. What we are suggesting is that learning people have a lot more knowledge about organizational behavior change than IT does. A quality system, plus adoption equals effectiveness. We are trying to articulate that the learning function has tools and resources regarding adoption that the IT people don't. It plays out as a simple formula.

Wolfe: In a recent T+D article, we wrote about how the learning function can help improve the overall performance of an organization, and that is all we are talking about here. This is another frontier and a way to achieve a win-win for the organization.

LXB: Do changes in the economic environment, as well as speed-of-business pressures, fuel the need for this kind of partnership?

Merritt: This is more important now. Maybe more than ever. Anybody can spend the money. The question is: Did you get a return on your investment? IT measures itself on speed of implementation. We suggest that a partnership with learning can increase the speed and quality of results, because learning can make sure that the technical solution drives the performance that the business requires. When it plays that role, the outcome can be much different.

Wolfe: This scenario can also play out the same way within any function in the enterprise. Learning leaders, who have been on the road to organizational performance improvement for 15 years or more, are probably the best suited to lead these conversations.