Management Development Redux

My last few posts have been about management and leadership development.  In this post, I thought I would bring some of those ideas together in the form of a process or heuristic for a management development system built around defined business challenges, informal learning approaches with less reliance (or no reliance at all!) on classroom learning.

Here is an alternative management development process then…in just 5 easy steps!…built around authentic learning tasks and supported by informal learning assets and small team action learning sessions.

Step 1:  Define a management/leadership model suited to the organization

Too many senior leadership teams abdicate responsibility for defining coherent roles and expectations for their managers.  Instead, they “buy” a management model in the guise of a training program, rather than defining one consistent with their values, organization design and business goals.

HR and Training enthusiastically taking up the charge and end up buying management programs currently in vogue or that suits their personal vision of leadership.  Also many purchased management programs focus only on the “people” side of a manager’s role and ignore the many other important facets.  I’ve seen many management development programs that are completely at odds with the actual management culture of the organization.    Behavior and performance that gets rewarded and encouraged on the job is not what is taught in development programs.   Not good.

HR and Training have a role in helping the senior team craft a vision and approach for management but they should not be digging it out of the recesses of a commercial management program. Learning and training initiatives should support a coherent model of management not the other way around.  Of course, the model can and should be fluid. Adjustments should be welcome and encouraged as an organization learns and matures over time.

Step 2:  Develop an inventory of management scenarios and business challenges

Using the management model as a guide, create a series of realistic scenarios, cases,  and business challenges  (whatever your term of preference) that will be the core of your management development program.  We know the best management development is built around authentic problems, tasks and opportunities.  Managers also tell us it’s the way they prefer to learn.

Make it your mission to work directly with the managers of the business units you support to understand their day to day challenges, responsibilities, successes and best practices.  Use this inside knowledge to create a progression of challenges from simple to complex, perhaps based on the levels of management in your organization.    The inventory should be highly dynamic and constantly evolving as goals and objectives change.

Challenges can and should have focus on desired competencies and target all of the spheres of responsibilities managers have including business, functional, financial and human. Mangers themselves can start creating challenges and problems scenarios to add to the inventory.

Step 3:  Organize the business challenges into learning paths.

There are a variety of ways the business challenge scenarios could be organized.  By management level, by progression of challenge complexity, by competency or skill area, by management responsibility.   All of the above are possible using simple tagging tools.

The most important thing is to provide an organizing structure for managers to access and use the learning assets.  One of the early failings of social learning environments is the assumption that people will fully manage their own learning in personal learning environments.  Some may, but the majority prefer guidance and a few nudges along the way.

The learning paths are most useful for new managers.  More experienced managers will begin using the business challenges on an as needed basis, which is the way it should be.

Step 4:  Acquire and/or develop a series of learning resources and performance aids to support solving the business challenges

Using the business challenges and problems as a guide, purchase or develop learning assets that contain the key concepts, principles, practices and practices that will help managers solve the full range of business challenges in your inventory.  Use media appropriate to your audience and technical infrastructure including print, digital video, performance guides, e-learning, people (coaches/mentors), job assignments and others.  They are getting easier to find as learning content suppliers are starting to deconstruct their programs into smaller learning assets for use in social media environments.

They can be housed in your organization’s social media suite , Management Community of Practice,  Learning Management System (if you still have one), or in an old-school style learning centre.  Most importantly they must be connected directly to the business challenges managers will be assigned to solve as part of their development.

Learning assets should not be the exclusive purview of the learning function.  Social Learning has taught us that “user-generated” content is both powerful and motivating.  Get managers involved in contributing learning assets.

Learning assets will be used by managers individually and in action learning teams to research and discuss solutions to the business challenges from your inventory.  Assets can be organized into clusters or paths matched to the scenarios. The scenarios are the learning motivators.  The content is only the path to the solution.

Step 5. Assemble action learning teams

The learning assets can and should be used independently to solve the business challenges, but doing so exclusively misses the benefits of social learning.  We’ve learned that small teams of managers working together (face to face or virtually) to solve business challenges is a key success factor in management development.  Action learning has refined a robust approach to small group learning that incorporate the best of informal learning.  Other problem-based and case-based learning models also offer springboards to build management learning teams.  See the links here for a few examples).  I offered an approach using management communities of practice here.

Whichever approach is used the goal is for managers to share their experiences and perspectives together as they solve the business challenges.   Here here is a diagram of how management teams working together can use the business challenges and informal learning assists  to continuously develop.

10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work (part 3)

This post continues the Ten Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work series.   Last post I discussed communities of practice and social media, two strategies focused on collaboration and networks where learning and knowledge are a natural byproduct.  This post shifts focus to how structured problem solving and Action Learning approaches can intimately wed learning with working.   I’ll discuss strategies 6 and 7 from the list.  Each uses problems and work tasks as the subject matter for learning, reflection and behaviour change.

10 STRATEGIES FOR INTEGRATING LEARNING AND WORK

1. Understand the job
2. Link Learning to Business Process
3. Build a performance support system
4. Build a community of Practice
5. Use social media to facilitate informal learning
6. Implement a Continuous Improvement framework
7. Use Action learning
8. Organizational learning Tools
9. Design Jobs for natural learning
10. Bring the job to learning

6. Implement a Continuous Improvement Framework

Continuous Improvement Frameworks seem to come and go in waves  (TQM, Six-Sigma, Lean, process re-design and others).  There are many reasons why these programs endure or fail that are beyond discussion in this post but when they succeed natural learning is a key outcome and success factor.

Continuous Improvement methods (at least those originating in Japan…and most do) are based on the concept of Kaizen.   Kaizen is essentially the discipline of making planned changes to work methods, observing the results, making adjustments and standardizing on the improvements–repeated continuously in a pursuit minimizing errors and improving quality.   When applied to the improvement of work methods it mixes personal learning, productivity and innovation.

Kaizen methodology includes making changes, observing results, then adjusting and standardizing the improvements.  Changing, reflecting on feedback, adjusting behaviour…this is the stuff of personal learning.  When applied to work methods it mixes personal and work based learning to the benefit of both.

Brian Joiner in Fourth Generation Management (an excellent resource on management practices grounded in continuous improvement) identifies learning as both a foundation and important outcome of continuous improvement methods.  He states:

Together with an understanding of the links between quality and productivity and of systems thinking, rapid learning [through continuous improvement] helps to create a foundation for translating theory into effective action.  Rapid Learning is the best survival skill we can grow in our organizations”

Kaizen is essentially the Scientific Method  built into jobs and workflow.  W. Edwards Deming translated the method to the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle that is at the heart of the Toyota system and most Quality approaches since the 1950’s .

The PDCA cycle is as much a natural learning cycle as it is a work improvement methodology.  But it is the “check” step that is the real driver of learning.  It requires a meaningful measurement and feedback system.  Without it improvement is nearly impossible.

Joiner again:

“Performing a check is something few organizations do regularly or well. Instead they execute the plan and do…with an emphasis on DO!…what many people think of as decision making.  By getting conscientious about check, by treating decisions as experiments from which we must learn, we get all the components of PDCA to fall into place.”

Here is a video which I’ve posted before that nicely summarizes the natural learning driven by Kaizen methods.   The presenter Matthew May was a senior consultant to the university of Toyota and his this presentation is based on his book The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.

7. Use Action Learning for management and professional development

Action Learning is essentially the PDCA cycle applied to personal effectiveness.   Personal Kaizen if you will.  It involves teams or individuals learning from experience.   Again the emphasis is on observing results from action and making adjustments.  Action learning is very popular in the UK and is growing in North America for management and professional teams that want to use real work as vehicles to learn more effective practcies.

The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1. A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have reframed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.

You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again.  Action learning works because it integrates learning and work.  It brings immediate meaning and context learning while improving real time performance.

  • Solve Complex Urgent Problems
  • Develop Skilled Leaders
  • Quickly build high performance teams
  • Transform Corporate Culture
  • Create Learning Organizations

This video provides an overview and some examples of Action Learning at work.

Summary

The strategies of Continuous Improvement and Action learning are two sides of the same coin.  Both are based on the natural cycle of acting, observing and reflecting on feedback and adjusting behaviour based on results.  Continuous improvement is focused on improving process and work methods with learning as a byproduct and Action learning is focused on personal learning with business improvement as a byproduct.

Posts in the “10 Strategies for Integrating Learning and Work” series:

Part 1:

  • Strategy 1:  Understand the job
  • Strategy 2:  Link Learning to business process
  • Strategy 3:  Build a performance support system

Part 2:

  • Strategy 4:  Build a community of practice
  • Strategy 5:  Use social media to facilitate informal learning

Part 3:

  • Strategy 6:  Implement a continuous improvement framework
  • Strategy 7:  Use action learning

Part 4:

  • Strategy 8:  Use Organizational Learning practices

Part 5:

  • Strategy 9:  Design jobs for natural learning
  • Strategy 10:  Bring the job to the learning

Learning in Action

In preparation for a presentation I’m doing on how the learning function can introduce more informal learning services to their repertoire, I’ve been exploring methods that build on the Natural Learning cycle that I mentioned in this post. Action Learning is one such method. It is essentially the process of reflective learning while solving real problems.

My personal experience has been helping quality and process improvement teams use variations of the plan-do-study-act cycle to identify and solve process issues. The methods of Action Learning offer a similar facilitated approach to help develop leaders and professionals through the natural learning that occurs while solving real business problems.

The method has many variations but the general process as described by the World Institute for Action Learning is based on six important components. They are:

1.  A Problem (project, challenge, opportunity, issue or task)
The problem should be urgent and significant and should be the responsibility of the team to resolve

2. An Action Learning group or team.
Ideally composed of 4-8 people who examine an organizational problem that has no easily identifiable solution. The group should be diverse in background and experience.

3. A process of insightful questioning and reflection
Action Learning tackles problems through a process of first asking questions to clarify the exact nature of the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action. Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, generate innovative and systems thinking, and enhance learning results.

4. An action taken on the problem
There is no real meaningful or practical learning until action is taken and reflected on. Action Learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it is addressing. If the group makes recommendations only, it loses its energy, creativity and commitment.

5. A commitment to learning
Solving an organizational problem provides immediate, short-term benefits to the company. The greater, longer-term multiplier benefits, however, are the learnings gained by each group member and the group as a whole, as well as how those learnings are applied on a systems-wide basis throughout the organization.

6. An Action Learning coach
The Action Learning coach helps the team members reflect on both what they are learning and how they are solving problems. The coach enables group members to reflect on how they listen, how they may have re-framed the problem, how they give each other feedback, how they are planning and working, and what assumptions may be shaping their beliefs and actions. The Action Leaning coach also helps the team focus on what they are achieving, what they are finding difficult, what processes they are employing, and the implications of these processes.
You can see the how the process builds on the natural cycle of taking action on a problem, observing and monitoring the consequences and impact of the actions, making adjustments and trying again. My own biases lead me using the method for continuously improving business processes and have a results focus, but the method can be used in all areas of organizational life.

Technology can help

The small group nature of the process does not restrict the process to a physical location. Collaborative technologies, e-workspaces or dedicated communities of practice would in fact enhance the process by capturing the emerging practices and making knowledge and reflective processes visible.

Emerging best practices can also be used to build learning simulations for broader training purposes and disseminating learnings across the organization.

Challenge and reward

Learning functions could do worse than hiring or developing Learning Consultants to use the action learning process to work closely with teams, professionals and leaders to solve sticky problems, generate best practices, and build organizational capability. Consultants will need to be effective and respected to earn the trust of the organization. They will be positioned in the middle of real problems, with real constraints and experience real human behaviour. Not for the weak of heart–but the learning and performance benefits will be superior to more easily implemented classroom learning programs.