Strategic Learning - The Only Real Imperative of Our Times

To thrive and survive in environments of uncertainty it is imperative for organizations to reinvent, adapt, and prepare themselves to manage the difficult truths of the market place. This article attempts to describe how Strategic Learning is a vital element of how we think about the future and what Strategic HR/Learning professionals can expect to see on their plates through 2012/2013, given the macro trends.

Stephen Covey describes the changing world as a turbulent permanent white watered world .The analogy is that of rowing in the earlier days, where the coxswain leading the Team would get Team members to adjust and follow new instructions as the situation or the environment changed. In comparison is the analogy of white water rafting in a turbulent world where the challenges of leading through rough terrains with unforeseen sharp turns can jeopardize an organization’s chances for survival. And the noise of the turbulence is so great that no one can even hear each other to change course!

In this environment of uncertainty, Leaders committed to Strategic Learning can get their organizations to reinvent, adjust, adapt proactively for the purpose of being ahead of the sharp turns and challenges of a turbulent environment.

Today’s competitive environment presents unique challenges to organizations placing a great premium on speed, choice and innovation. These new challenges demand a new kind of Leadership which is not myopic and short term in its orientation.

The need is for Adaptive Leadership- that is adept at sensing the need to change and is able to continuously adapt to the changes in the macro environment

Change is uncomfortable, disruptive and always resisted. Ongoing continuous change is even harder to achieve than one-time change initiatives. Yet building an organization that has the ability to constantly question status-quo is the only way of ensuring a sustainable organization of the future.

  • Organizations need to be competent and make sense of the changing environment to focus on the right things.
  • They need to align and mobilize the entire organization to invest energies in the areas of strategic focus
  • They need to develop the ability of ideating with speed  and do these things continuously- over and over, in a continuous cyclical manner to become competent Strategic Learning Organizations.

While it is common to see T&D departments re label themselves as Learning and Development functions many organizations may miss the opportunity of understanding and exploiting the true value of Strategic Learning. Strategic Learning is learning based on creating and executing break-through strategies .Unlike traditional strategies that produce one-time change, Strategic Learning creates a cycle of continuous adaptation and renewal for organizations.

How does Strategic Learning happen?

a)     Strategic Learning is preceded by a systematic exercise of diagnostic learning that generates insights into customer, competitors, the organization’s realities, industry dynamics and the macro environment.

      b)  Strategic Learning enables organizations to focus through Vision and making Strategic choices

Vision is a word-picture of what the organization aspires to achieve in the future and when organizations define a Vision statement the Vision must be an extension of an organization’s strategic choices. It should stretch and inspire transformational behavior within people. Strategy is finally about making choices and Strategic Learning ensures that choices are based on insights rather than guesswork.

     c) Strategic Learning involves Aligning the Organization for success:

Organizations can fall into the trap by managing things in isolation. When any one element of the business is changed through isolated initiatives such as Six Sigma, MBO, re-engineering and restructuring the organization runs the peril of not getting value from these initiatives if not strategically aligned to other systems and processes.

Several organizations have attempted to reorganize their way to success before becoming serial reorganizers and causing more confusion and frustration in the bargain. For a strategy to be successful, key elements of the business system must reinforce each other in support of the strategy. Success comes not from isolated action but from orchestrating the actions to align meaningfully.

    d) Strategic Learning involves meaningful Execution

This step allows the organization to learn through examining its own actions and re-scanning the environment to modify strategies as may be required.

An organization is not a machine – strategy will finally succeed and enable learning through people, who are focused, skilled and motivated. An organization that makes efforts to communicate its strategic choices with clarity and simplicity has clearly a greater chance of succeeding.

Sometimes it is a capabilities issue in which case, hiring, training, rotating employees for different exposures can help build capabilities for strategy execution. Motivation is a key factor for ensuring successful strategy execution. The evidence clearly shows that high engagement organizations usually outperform those organizations where the engagement is low.

The leadership of change is key here. It involves creating a burning platform for change and communicating constantly to maximize participation and generate short-term wins leading to long-term ones eventually.

 Organization culture is key as any organization’s values and behaviours must directly support its strategy - and work in support of all key elements in the business system enabling the strategy to succeed.

When culture resists strategy, culture wins!

Strategic Learning rests on the belief that the ability to learn and adapt is the only sustainable advantage in today’s turbulent world. Through Strategic Learning an organization can help develop the intellectual capital of its people by providing them vital tools for success in a competitive environment ( includes Training and development).

Given the macro environment and its compulsions through 2012-13, let us take a look at what Strategic HR/ Learning professionals can expect to see on their Strategic Learning Agenda during this Performance Year.

I have attempted listing some mega trends here (Human Capital Trends 2012) and have enumerated the actions for Strategic HR/Learning professionals emanating from these trends:

1)     Growth is the No 1 Job . Growth is at the top of the agendas for CEOs this year and the focus will be emerging markets, Mergers and Acquisitions and innovation. All these top agendas present a wide range of people- related challenges for Strategic HR/ Learning professionals who will need to focus on:

·        Managing talent with growth in mind will require developing a plan for acquiring, developing and retaining the right talent

·        Grooming Business Leaders and managers who can drive growth and innovation globally will be important

·        Being a Coach to Top Management teams and counselling them on Leadership, personal development, communication and organization influence.

·        Building and developing HR/Learning capabilities that are aligned to achieving the company’s growth strategies will be a focus.

2)     Organizations are becoming global corporations and the home country is only one of the many markets they operate in. As organizations move towards globally integrated operating models there will be people issues related to change and talent management.

The Strategic HR/Learning agenda will include:

·        Designing new organizational structure and governance models, new decision frameworks, new approaches to roles and responsibilities rationalizing and consolidating businesses or functions.

·        Managing global talent and developing strategies to provide new skills and talent, creating a pipeline of leadership that can quickly get redeployed to capitalize on global opportunities.

·        Managing a diverse and complex workforce and Leading change.

3)     Developing next generation Leaders to drive future growth- There is a unanimous need felt for a stronger, deeper leadership pipeline across organizations. Cultivating the right mix of personal attributes skills and experience through the right leadership exposures are necessary for grooming Leaders of the future.

The Strategic HR/Learning agenda will include:

·        Aligning Leadership strategy with business strategies and models to ensure the right capabilities are being developed.

·        Getting top leadership to own the development of future leaders and provide visibility and support to develop them.

·        Aligning talent programs such as selection and assessment, development, planning, performance and rewards and succession management so that they are aligned and accelerate the leadership development process.

4)     People is risky business: HR/ Learning Professionals have a key role in managing enterprise wide risk including people-related risks.

The Strategic HR/ Learning Agenda will include:

·        People-related risks will be important including the support organizations will expect from HR to manage these risks effectively.

·        HR organizations must start to embed formal risk management and benchmarking into their organizations, processes and strategies to present a more informed view on people related risks

·        Creating a risk mind-set for everyday HR activities- HR and risk management now need to work together to create a single set of processes that are practical and risk intelligent

5)     Workforce analytics can provide useful insights to manage the macro environment.   Advanced analytics is helping organizations retain top talent, mitigate churn by identifying employees who are potential exit risks through robust Vulnerability analysis programs. Advanced analytics also enable organizations to beef up their leadership pipelines and develop employees most likely to grow into leadership positions.

The Strategic HR/ Learning agenda will therefore include:

·        Workforce planning and analytics to enable improvements in identifying critical workforce segments based on current and future needs of the organization

·        Measuring recruitment effectiveness

·        Workforce performance – analyzing and managing top performers to ensure they are being used effectively.

·        Diversity effectiveness- identifying diversity issues and measuring the effectiveness of Diversity Programs

·        Talent potential and progression – Assessing the effectiveness of development programs by mapping them against actual career progression

·        Conducting exhaustive vulnerability analysis before putting into place individualized retention strategies

6)     Deployment of Social Media @work: Social media and the use of mobile devices are raising the bar on HR service delivery and there are already several organizations using mobile devices with Employee self service options to offer HR services and using Social Media to promote Learning and  create Communities of Practice.

7)     Cloud Computing is changing the way every business operates and HR/ Learning has a key role to play in enabling organizations to adapt to the new service levels and infrastructure needs.

The Strategic HR/ Learning Agenda will therefore include:

·        Change management to be effective in the new cloud environment and make cloud services part of the organization’s DNA while helping users to adjust to technology changes and enhancement.

8)     Effective Sales force management: Companies in frantic pursuit of growth are rapidly shifting their sales focus to emerging markets which are seen as the engines for future revenue and profits.

The Strategic HR/ Learning Agenda will include:

·        Adapting to the new challenges and complexities of talent strategies, organization design, learning, compensation and change management in these markets.

While the megatrends indicate the likely Strategic Agendas, each organization will obviously have their own unique challenges which require a different set of interventions for human capital management. Organizations must not remain focused on creating short-term value for now but invest in continuous processes of adaption and renewal for success in the future.

In the final analysis the sum total of self initiated changes within the organization must exceed the change in the macro environment. Getting organizations to focus on reflection, alignment and execution in a cyclical process of becoming Future Ready is the role of Strategic Learning. If surviving in the future is an imperative then so is Strategic Learning.

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