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How Learning Can Help Lead Change

Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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As we look back at 2014, most of us can identify at least one major organization-wide change in our workplace. Scanning business headlines from this past year, it becomes clear that the rate of change across all organizations and sectors is both furious and unpredictable. 

Recognizing this, ATD Research and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) recently embarked on a study of change in organizations and the role of learning leaders as organizational change agents. The end product was the report, Change Agents: The Role of Organizational Learning in Change Management.

Big changes are common

The study focused on significant shifts that affect most or all of an organization, such as structural (for example, mergers or acquisitions), cultural, economic, political, or top leadership changes. The top drivers of change in organizations, according to our survey of 765 business and learning leaders from organizations of all sectors and sizes, were financial:  revenue, growth, the economy, and savings.

Major organizational change initiatives are common yet hard to foresee. Of the organizations represented by survey participants, 61 percent experienced 3 more of more changes in the last year; one in four respondents said the number was twice that. Moreover, just under half of participants reported that the pace of change has become much faster and more unpredictable over the last 5 years.

Organizations aren’t prepared to manage change

Even though change is everywhere, organizations don’t handle it well. A mere 17 percent of respondents rated their organizations as highly effective at managing change. This dismal finding is confirmed by the work of other researchers, including Leonard and Coltea (2013), who found that 70 percent of change initiatives end in failure. 

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Training employees to deal with change

So how can learning leaders ensure that their organizations don’t fall into the trap of repeatedly failing at managing change? 

Learning leaders from organizations that manage change effectively are vocal about the importance of widespread change training. However, only 27 percent of respondents reported that their organizations offer change management training to all employees.

A preliminary step to implementing organization-wide change training, however, might be expanding change training to include all managers. Currently, just 43 percent of organizations offer managers at all levels change management training.

However, change is often unpredictable and complex, and learning functions often face resource and time constraints, so focused training is key. Among the strategies favored by learning leaders at organizations that have achieved success with change management are: focusing employees on mastering a few skills that can be leveraged again and again as new changes arise, and having employees create and practice their own personalized processes for addressing change as it affects them.

The full research report, Change Agents: The Role of Organizational Learning in Change Management, is available for purchase  online . Members have complimentary access to the  whitepaper version of the report. 

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About the Author

Maria Ho is the manager of ATD research services. She serves as ATD's senior research program strategist and designer and provides oversight and direction for all of ATD's internal and external, industry specific, and market research services. Prior to joining ATD, Maria was a public policy researcher, data analyst, and writer at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.

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