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ATD Blog

Three Simple Implications for Building Relevant Learning Functions

Published Tue Jul 03 2012


Across all industries, today’s CEO’s face three unprecedented challenges: 

  • Market speed.  The competitor we face might not have existed last month.  The brand boneyards are full of products by companies like Kodak, Research in Motion and HP.  There are no barriers to entry and the lead we held yesterday is fleeting.

  • Transparency.  There are no secrets.  I can price-check instantly against your competitors on my smartphone.  The code to a proprietary product, once strictly guarded, is not only available, but willingly published by the owner.  Take application software such as Mozilla and Moodle, and operating systems including Linux; this has extended to science (the Human Genome project), softdrinks (OpenCola), and beer (Brewtopia). And bundled with the benefits comes danger. A few strategic tweets or a YouTube by a disgruntled employee can unravel a brand.  Ask the CEO of Domino’s.

  • Global interdependency. Greece sneezes, the EU gets pneumonia.  Birthrates have declined in the EU, Japan, Russia to the degree that they cannot sustain themselves without immigration.  Lately, Yahoo!’s position is flagging in the US, but it remains the choice for sports fans across the globe.  If the US won’t approve a drug, we seek approval in Germany.  Our monetary forecasts have to take into account global complexities that historically impacted us at glacial speeds.

These are new challenges.  We cannot apply the old tools in the same way.  Those of us who manage the learning function must ask a fundamental question:  how do we help our CEO’s address these issues? 


Here are three simple implications for building relevant learning functions in this new world:

  • Reskill.  We can’t take time to regroup, train, and deploy a new skill set and behavior.  We need new methods to help our people shift and develop as they perform.  We should take advantage of ubiquitous knowledge, the ability to exchange ideas rapidly and glean what’s available publicly and privately.  Our focus needs to be how to mine these sources of information. The Library of Congress started capturing all Tweets at the dawn of Twitter not knowing how they would use it.  But they archived it knowing historians, anthropologists and sociologists will use it in their work.     

  • Scale.  An organization’s ability to scale presents two issues:  1) who do we reach? And 2) how do we do it?  Let’s start with who.  We don’t need the whole organization to “get it;” we need the critical mass – the early adopters and mid-tier of the organization will carry the others along.  Concerning the “how” -- clearly social media is the closest hammer to grab.  But physical beings need face-to-face interaction to form relationships and convey knowledge.  Howard Schultz shut down Starbucks to reskill his workforce.  It’s rarely practical to shut down an entire company, but we can get the message to the critical mass. 

  • Replicate.  To play globally, quickly, organizations must replicate the best of what they do from geography to geography.  Excellence requires structure.  Apple stores grow their Geniuses on the floor, but they have clear standards for content mastery.  Research confirms that structure delivers results.  Wharton studies show that high-performing acquired companies encoded their knowledge within a learning structure to create value post acquisition. 

The issues facing our organizations:  speed, transparency and interdependency, impact the way we manage learning as well.  We must adapt or be left behind.

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