Strategy for Learning Leaders

Many otherwise savvy learning leaders stumble over strategy.

Tough times require tough decisions about learning resources. Yet, many learning units lack a strategy. Without it, how do you decide what to do?

Most learning people do not do strategy. We do transactions. We schedule classes. We build programs. We track compliance. Order taking and delivery has been tolerated in good times, but these are not good times.

While the financial crisis adds urgency, strategy is nothing new to learning leaders. “Allison, they want me to sync my strategy to the larger organizational strategy. Can you help?” An old friend howled in voice mail: “My new senior VP said we must cut costs immediately. She wants me to use strategy to cope with hard decisions.”

A chief learning officer sent an e-mail: “I asked my learning managers to report about their strategy. One wants to make podcasts; another is eager to revamp the learning portal. I’m not against their ideas, but they aren’t strategy. Right?”

Right. Many otherwise savvy learning leaders stumble over strategy.

Strategy Defined
Strategy tells everybody who you are and what you intend to accomplish. Michael Porter, an expert on the topic, said strategy is a defining position that delivers competitive advantage.

Sun Tzu spoke about strategy in the fifth century B.C.: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu, who could be viewed as one of the first known learning executives, was challenged by the King of Wu to prove himself by training his 360 concubines. While Sun Tzu’s existence is questioned by historians, the importance of shared purpose is not — not for the development of concubines and not for us in our endeavors.

Here is a typical attempt at strategy: 50 percent of our training will move to the Web by the end of the year. While it has measurability, it is not a strategy. It is a tactic for achieving a strategy that probably involves delivering lessons closer to work or providing more accessible programs for an increasingly mobile workforce. Strategy and tactics are not the same.

Why Seek Strategy?
Should we add a person who specializes in evaluation? What about podcasts to enhance sales training? How do we respond to an executive seeking three increasingly unpleasant budget scenarios, at minus 8, 12 and 15 percent?

There is no way to decide without strategy. With a nod to Sun Tzu, how do you separate meaning from noise without articulated direction?

There are three reasons for establishing a strategy:

1. A great strategy synchronizes the learning organization with the enterprise. Ingersoll Rand’s Rita Smith invites leaders from across the organization into scheduled, purposeful and visible conversations. Terry Bickham, national leader for learning and development services at Deloitte, also welcomes executives into decisions about company strategies.

“We held learning strategy summits with both high-performing employees and key executives to help them understand what leading-edge talent development looked like, compared that to how we currently fared, and then agreed on where we wanted to be in the near future,” Bickham said. “We then had champions in leadership who supported the strategy all along its journey to the Board of Directors for approval. I think learning executives too often short cut the strategy-creation process by not letting their clients play a primary role in developing it.”

2. A great strategy defines the unit. When asked if she thought her learning organization required a strategy, Laura Handrick, vice president for innovation at The Maids International, said, “You bet! How else do we convey our priorities to the rest of the organization for input, feedback and alignment?” Strategy also clarifies priorities for those expected to act on it. A chief learning officer can discern what to protect and what to expose. Instructional designers can select the development experiences most likely to enable them to contribute.

3. A great strategy offers a promise that can be examined. A chief learning officer in a financial services company put it this way: “Look at where we are in my industry at the end of 2008. We are being asked to justify our budgets, cut costs and do more with fewer resources. No kidding. When I speak to executives, they are not interested in tactics. Why do I need 38 people? Naming courses or pointing to podcasts won’t cut it. They want to know my strategy and how it will align with the enterprise. They want to hear how I will make sure that we are adding value and how we will measure and report.”

How Do You Find Strategy?
After a briefing, an executive acknowledged that she would like her organization to have a strategy, but resisted all that might be involved in generating one, wondering whether it’s a top-down or bottom-up effort.

She gets to decide. The process boils down to who will be involved and with how much gusto their opinions will be sought and incorporated. San Diego State University’s Frank Nguyen and James Frazee described three models for finding strategy: authoritative, consultative and consensual.

The authoritative approach yields strategy that springs from the leader. The process is speedy, but can be perceived as rash by those who must act on it. Here is what an authoritative process might look like. The CLO, working with three direct reports and an outside consultant, sets about articulating strategy for the organization:

1. They examine internal strategy documents, looking at what the enterprise is promising.

2. The consultant leads the group in readings and discussions about best practices and competitive strategy options. Together, they attend a conference to look at emerging trends in learning, performance and technology.

3. They examine internal strengths, seeking to build on what they do exceptionally well.

4. They review descriptions of competitive pressures and opportunities in their business.

5. They meet to generate a strategy that will propel the group forward through contributions to clients and customers. At that meeting, they determine how best to communicate this strategy.

The CLO took less than three weeks to settle on this strategy.

At the other extreme is a consensus process, benefitted and burdened by painstaking interactions with constituencies.

The learning executive director (LED), working with five managers, creates a list of key groups and individuals important to the strategy process. There are 14 groups, including learning delivery, requirements and development, plus supplier, client and customer units. The LED is committed to maximum involvement. She then works with two managers to:

1. Welcome everyone to a virtual classroom session to define strategy, examine related internal documents and explain the process to come.

2. Review existing organizational strategy statements.

3. Meet with groups to solicit their views on a proper strategy for the organization

4. Use a shared Web site to present what she is learning as she tours the 14 groups and to solicit comments on the associated blog.

5. Hold open office hours to discuss strategy with interested parties.

6. Throughout, three training managers review the literature and best practices.

7. The LED and managers meet to see what has been learned through the focus group meetings and literature review and to create alternative strategy scenarios.

8. These alternatives are then posted online with an online survey that solicits opinions on the value, resonance and risk associated with these options.

9. The LED and her managers review results and create a strategy based on the feedback.

10. The LED meets with key executives to share the strategy and process, assuring alignment. They prepare to roll out this strategy at a major event.

This effort was completed in 13 weeks.

Balance between speed and participation characterizes the consultative model. A brand new talent and development leader (TADL) seeks strategy to guide decisions, given many good ideas and few resources.

1. TADL reviews related internal documents, focusing on the larger organizational strategy, results and evaluations of past efforts by his or her learning organization.

2. TADL meets with each group in the learning enterprise to talk about its strengths, focusing on documented successes.

3. TADL works with an external consultant to discuss promising strategies in other organizations and how those organizations executed on their strategies.

4. TADL and the consultant create a document that explains why a strategy is valuable and what makes for a good strategy, highlighting three strategy options appropriate to the organization.

5. TADL distributes that document and seeks suggestions and prioritization.

6. TADL then invites interested parties to meetings to discuss the options.

7. TADL and consultant, based on interactions and feedback, refine options and select one. TADL brings it forward at an all-hands meeting. The question: Given this strategy, how would your program and choices be different next year?

This effort was completed in six weeks.

Which approach is right for your organization? John Kotter and Leonard Schlesinger, in a Harvard Business Review article, said that the amount of involvement depends on how quickly you must move, how much resistance you anticipate and how much trust and influence you enjoy.

Where Do You Find Strategy?
Leaders look in two directions for inspiration: inside and outside.

It is natural for organizations to seek their strategies in their strengths. Two familiar ideas provide examples: appreciative inquiry and core competence. In her book The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Hammond wrote, “Appreciative inquiry suggests that we look for what works in an organization. The tangible result of the inquiry process is a series of statements that describe where the organization wants to be, based on the high moments of where they have been. Because the statements are grounded in real experience and history, people know how to repeat their success.”

C. K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel also favor finding strategy inside, in the core competencies shared by people and units in an organization. Their influential Harvard Business Review article made a case for strategy derived from existing exceptional expertise. Examples include Sony, which found its strategy in miniaturization, or Honda, whose deep expertise in engines led it to lawn mowers and motorcycles.

On the other hand, Porter pressed leaders to look outside for strategy. BP’s Lord John Browne is an example of attention to context. In 1997, he directed BP corporate strategy beyond petroleum because he perceived increasing demand and dwindling natural resources.

How far outside should the learning unit look for strategy? Not far, at least not to begin with. The learning organization should align with the enterprise. Consider Sony’s internal learning unit. Sony’s commitment to small mobile devices should influence its learning unit to deliver similarly.

Select a strategy that is finely tuned to the enterprise, making it impractical for an outsider to compete. The new U.S. administration promised a military strategy that is more dependent on soft power. How will military training respond and advance the new strategy?

Porter would say we must extend beyond comfort zones. How might technology bring lessons, messages and support where they need to be? How can business acumen shape a strategy that delivers cost leadership or unusually efficient processes?

There is a tug between those who prefer to find their strategies outside and those who would rather look inside the organization. Here is what I remember of such an interaction:

Caleb: I was thinking that a strategy for us might be developing 21st-century skills through partnerships. My people will resonate to that because we do a good job there today.

Allison: But will that strategy differentiate your unit? Will it help you decide what programs to advance? Will it push you to think about things in new ways, to establish a position that sets you apart and is seen as strikingly valuable?

Caleb: Developing 21st-century skills through partnerships, it’s a good fit for us.

Allison: Too good a fit, I fear — too close to what you already do. Fit matters, of course. Another consideration is stretch. Would that strategy stretch your group? Would it press you to tackle challenges in superior ways? Would an impartial source see your group as appreciably better than others at partnerships for the 21st century? Caleb, you described a dire budget situation. If you must choose between fit and stretch, and you do want to weigh both, your strategy should come significantly from extending beyond the familiar.

What Is Good Strategy?
Dana and Jim Robinson, in the new edition of their book Performance Consulting, dive into strategy. They described what makes a good one:

• The focus is broad, on a distinguishing direction for the entire enterprise or unit.

• It is long-term in view, not focused on this quarter or next month.

• It is linked to one or more business goals or to a pressing need in the organization.

• It is solution‐neutral in its early stages. It is not about classrooms, the Web or instructors, not at first.

• It requires many tactics to implement. Isolated solutions do not yield strategic results.

But there is even more to a good strategy:

• It speaks to what we will do and also admits to what we will not do.

• It is cognizant of the world outside, including the structure of the industry, customer needs and competitive forces.

• It is cognizant of current strengths, without allowing the familiar to limit possibilities.

• It comes from hard and comparative questions about whether those strengths do, in fact, distinguish people and groups in the organization.

• It is understandable beyond the “in” group.

• It is measurable.

• It is difficult to copy or supplant.

• It enables decision making about what to do now and next.

• It inspires.

After the Hard Part Comes the Hard Part
Fast forward. You have arrived at a strategy. But hold the ovations.

“There is a significant delta between strategy and execution,” said Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of global talent management and development for MasterCard Worldwide. “And research tells us that most strategies fail. If this is true, it is because those who are expected to execute the strategy do not understand it or feel disconnected from it.

“And if they do not understand it or embrace it, it is because those who have hatched the strategy have failed to take a brief respite from basking in the glow of their own brilliance to deign to talk about what it will take to plan, execute and sustain what the strategy purports to accomplish with those who are tasked with making the brilliant idea a reality.”

How do you move from words to actions?

Listen up. Those who do not favor the strategy will pick up on the risks associated with it. Are we aligned with the organization or off on our own toot? Is our technology platform ready for what we will ask of it? Are our instructors ready? How will our people learn about our culture if we move online?

You should also worry if your strategy is greeted with whoops and cheers. When a strategy is applauded by all, it is probably too general, too familiar or too comprehensive. I saw one that had endless bullet points and included many worthy ideas, from diversity to accessibility to speed to customer focus. Everyone praised it and then ignored it, since it embraced everything and required no hard choices.

Speak up. A good strategy statement is short and sweet. It raises questions that must be answered through a strategy communication, perhaps conveyed through conversation, presentation, memo, briefing, white paper, video or podcasts.

• How will people behave differently now? More of what? Less of what? What stays the same?

• What will customers experience?

• What methods were used to find this strategy?

• How does it reflect business acumen?

• Why is this strategy for us? For these times? How does it align with organizational priorities?

• How will it be resourced and measured?

Stand up. Strategy often fails because leaders do not stand up for it. How will you demonstrate commitment to the strategy? Conferences, T-shirts and posters are nice, but not sufficient. Better are the decisions that require bravery. A learning leader could make painful decisions about reductions in force with strategy in mind. Another could fund new programs if he or she is keeping with the strategy. Yet a third could alter performance measures to reflect the strategy.

Follow up. Create a list of indicators that would satisfy you and stakeholders that the strategy is succeeding. Hold people accountable for the indicators. Hold meetings to talk about it. Make heroes of those who act on it. Post an anonymous online survey that solicits views about the effort. Welcome others into a social network focused on it. What differences are seen? Do they matter? Measure and improve, and then do it again. If the learning executive does little with the strategy, it will contribute cynicism, not value.

Linda van der Loo, managing executive of people effectiveness technologies for The LR Group in South Africa, uses conversations about strategy to concentrate her clients’ attention. She talks to them about American Olympian Michael Phelps.

“Did he possess a strategy in order to win eight gold medals in the pool at Beijing?” she asked. “I am sure he did — not only a strategy but also a deep, detailed plan of how he was going to achieve his dream.”

In hard times, learning leaders will be called upon to make agonizing choices and deliver prized results. That will require pulling together and moving as one toward somewhere that matters, toward strategy. Do you have one?