Thursday, 29 March 2018 01:05

Getting a Seat at the Table

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Transforming the Learning Organization from Order-Takers to Business Partners

By Ronda Feague

"It's just training, it doesn’t take long to create." How many times have you heard that or something similar?

The challenges facing the learning organization when moving from order-taker to business partner are:

>>  Customers often think it is easy  to create training.

>>  Customers may have a pre-determined solution.

>>  The learning organization is often backed into a corner in terms of  development time.

>>  Due to cost constraints, the learning organization must deliver more  with less.

Our internal customers often don’t realize how long good learning design takes. We feed this myth, by continually jumping through hoops to deliver the learning solution in time to support a new software, product or program release, reinforcing that we are just order-takers and not partners in providing the solution. As learning professionals, we know that well designed learning solutions can add value by improving efficiencies, engaging staff, saving money, providing metrics data and showing Return on Investment (ROI) for the business. It is imperative that we build strong relationships and partner with stakeholders, so they understand the type of value we can bring.

HOW DO YOU GET IN THE  DOOR AND GET TO THE TABLE?

To start, you must assess your team’s capabilities, your larger learning team goals and combine that with a deep understanding of your company’s organizational goals and the operational realities of the business. Do you have a defined vision (what you provide) and mission (how you’ll provide it)? If not, you need to spend some time reflecting and building out what that is and making sure your team is onboard. You can’t expect anyone to follow your lead if you don’t know where you are going.

While a strong learning design background and understanding of the business is important it is equally important to build relationships.  According to Peter Block: “The building of authentic relationship as the delivery system for expertise and business knowledge. The result is to make internal clients trusted business partners which results in improved business outcomes for companies and organizations." Building on that philosophy, find your champions and cultivate those relationships. Once you have found them, ask if they see areas where the learning organization can be included.

IDENTIFY PROJECT OBJECTIVES

You’ve been invited to the table, now what? When you meet with stakeholders initially, listen first and then ask questions to help: narrow focus, get the project team on the same page and help you decide which learning solutions, if any, to recommend. Then share how learning can help them achieve their goal. Some questions to ask are:

>>  Who are we impacting (target audience)?

>>  What problem is being solved?

>>  What will success look/feel like (metrics)?

The answers will help you to narrow recommendations and decide if learning is the solution.  Sometimes as you meet with the stakeholder and they answer questions, you may realize that the solution is simpler, maybe a communication or a conversation is all that is needed not a full-blown learning solution.

Tip: Use stakeholders time wisely. Some stakeholders may want to be more actively involved in the process than others. Be proactive; ask them how they would like to be communicated with and how often.

Bonus Tip: Begin with ‘yes.’ Yes can be disarming (assuming it is the truth) that you could build what they are requesting (take their order). But, once you know what they want to accomplish, that may drive the design and you are on your way to ‘partnership.

DESIGN PROPOSAL

Once you have completed analysis, go back to the business with your recommendations for learning solutions. As you put the design proposal together tie in your recommendations to the answers that the stakeholder’s provided and use their language.  Provide reasoning as to why the recommendations landed where they did. Be sure to note how you will track success and when results will be reported back to the business.

For example, we were asked to create a half day in person instructor-led training for a new phone system being installed in five countries over the course of two months.  To save money and time we recommended short, engaging e-lessons to introduce the new system followed by a virtual session with an instructor where learners could ask questions.

Tip: Don’t over engineer solutions.

STATEMENT OF WORK

Once the design proposal is accepted, we follow up with a Statement of Work (SOW). This document has been key in our success, second only to building relationships. This will become the roadmap for the project with the business and should include:

>>  What learning solution will be delivered.

>>  Expectations of the stakeholder and subject matter experts during the feedback cycle.

>>  List any critical items from the stakeholder and promised deliverable dates from them.

>>  Signature lines for stakeholder and learning solution provider.

How many times have you begun work on a project, sent for feedback and the stakeholder wants to add additional items that were not part of the original conversation?  The SOW helps with scope creep. If the business doesn’t provide critical information or feedback as agreed to, you can pull it back out and remind your business partner where you landed prior to starting the project.

Tip: We stopped giving delivery dates and moved to hours for all projects. People latch on to dates and remember them.  They forget when the software development cycle ran late or critical items needed for learning solution design were not delivered on time.

DEMONSTRATE IMPACT

Remember you need to report results back to the business. By building in tracking during the design phase you can track that data at set times and share with the business.  This is where your credibility is built.  Cool, flashy design will only take you so far. You can have cool, flashy plus impact or lower key design with impact, but you cannot under any circumstances have any type of design with negative outcomes or impact.  Sometimes projects miss the mark, better to course correct as soon as a you know the solution is not hitting the mark. Sometimes it can just be a small tweak to set the solution on the right course again. When a solution misses the mark, own it.  Reach out to the business and deliver this information and offer solutions.

Tip: If the learning solution is not making a difference, stop and/or readjust.

PITFALLS

This sounds great on paper, but the reality is that it isn’t easy. You can’t chase fads or make a project fit a tool that you want to try out.  Credibility is at stake, make sure that the solution and tool for delivery match, the solution fits the target and that the learning will make an impact.  Look for innovative solutions and don’t over-engineer.

When approached about a project, it is easy to fall back into the order-taker mentality because it is familiar.  Take a step back, ask the questions and provide thought leadership to arrive at the right solutions.

Keep your eye on your target audience and put yourself into the “shoes of the learner”.  Would you want to use the solution?  Would it engage you, provide you needed information, or is it just checking a box? If you aren’t moving the needle, then why do it?

CONCLUSION

Becoming a trusted business advisor takes time and effort. You must build and maintain relationships. You must also understand the business and how learning can help. Results should take the form of speed, quality, operational efficiency, cost savings, culture/engagement and other performance related outcomes.

As you start experiencing wins with this process, start sharing those with your team and across the organization.  The best feeling is for teams to reach out to the learning organization, not because they have a training need, but because they want to bounce ideas to get your thoughts prior to them moving forward with a project.  This seat at the table feels good.

It took 12 months for us to get to this point, and we continue to hone our story and approach, relationships and outcomes, provide thought leadership and continue to help our stakeholders to start in the “What do they need to know” mode and not jumping to “solution” mode.

Order taking will never go away and, for certain instances, it still makes sense. But for the larger asks, put a process in place. Ask: “What problem are we solving?” “Are the results measurable?” and “Is this the right solution?” The process creates a circle of learning and performance. Success breeds trust, credibility, the ability to make a difference with learners and the business, ensure learning is an active partner of future initiatives.

Celebrate your successes internally with your team.  Apply for industry awards and, as you accept industry acknowledgement, share that internally.  Your team is now viewed as a value add. Not just because you said so, but because others see it too. And remember that the purpose for learning in the context of organizations is to add value to the business.

--Ronda Feague is Director of Instructional Design Strategy & ChoiceU Operations, at Choice Hotels International. Choice Hotels International is a 2017 Learning! 100 award-winner for culture.

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