Lessons from 30,000 Feet

From doing the necessary preparation before a journey begins to taking that initial control at the ‘wheel,’ there’s a lot learning leaders can learn from their peers in the sky.

Learning and evaluation is not unlike a critical U.S. Air Force reconnaissance mission. Imagine if the pilots sitting in their cockpits took off only to find the mission commander sent them off in planes without instrumentation panels, radar or radios.

This scenario would never occur. There are stringent operating procedures and preflight preparations conducted before every mission. However, if it were to happen, the pilots would have little chance of succeeding at their jobs, and the mission commander on the ground would not have any eyes in the sky. The team would be unaware of mission-threatening issues, and the entire mission would be “flying blind,” vulnerable to enormous peril. Yet learning leaders regularly allow this scenario to play out in organizations.

To create high-level organizational results, learning leaders must establish and follow standard operating procedures from the start, and build a functioning control center that allows for proper program monitoring and communication.

Preprogram Preparation
When a mission is deemed necessary, the mission commander begins preparations by enforcing standard operating procedures for safe flight preparation and administration. This includes identifying who will serve as the pilot. A pilot would never be allowed to undertake a mission without having completed the proper technical schooling in advance. The mission could end in disaster if the wrong candidate sat in the pilot’s seat.

Likewise, before an organization can achieve success through learning, it must identify the appropriate development participants. For example, if company sales are down, thoughts might first turn to the salespeople. An assessment of the situation could determine that sales managers do not have the skills required to successfully lead their sales teams. Putting anyone other than the sales managers through a learning program could lead to failure, ensuring that development does not contribute to bottom-line business results.

Another preparatory measure is the preflight briefing, during which the mission commander details the mission, timing and required checkpoints, identifying appropriate checklists and procedures. Similarly in learning, before jumping into a formal program, the first task is to clarify the program goal and how it will contribute to organizational outcomes. Identifyspecific leading indicators; these short-term observations and measurements suggest that critical behaviors are on track to create a positive effect on desired results.

For example, area training professionals at The Boeing Co. meet with key business stakeholders to identify leading indicators of business success. “When we train employees who actually perform their jobs better, what positive signs of business outcomes would you expect to see?” said Greg Kreger, learning strategic partner for Boeing. Some of the employee performance and business leading indicators then go into learning and development scorecards.

Next, learning leaders should identify which behaviors will contribute most to targeted outcomes. Many in the learning industry use Kirkpatrick Levels 1-4 (Editor’s note: The authors work for Kirkpatrick Partners). This is typically done with a needs analysis. Learning leaders speak to the target audience and their supervisors to determine what needs to occur on the job to achieve desired outcomes. 

Facilitators must also gain buy-in from the business for roles before, during and after a learning program. John Levock, chief learning officer at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, is leading the intiative’s second year. “A working group of six policy analysts crafted the framework for the program,” he said. “Then, using the initial blueprint, we conducted focus groups with managers and staff at all levels of the agency.”

At the end of the first year, the OMB held additional focus groups and conducted an online survey to evaluate results. Based on the survey results, the organization provided more targeted learning in year two of the program.

Facilitators also must prepare participants, their supervisors and the organization for what will occur during the learning process. They must design a learning program that verifies learners’ knowledge, skill, attitude, confidence and commitment to perform their duties, while simultaneously building a package of job aids, processes and tools that will be used before, during and after the formal learning event.

How to Get Mission-Ready
Once the plan is in place and the program tools have been built, it is time to move forward with the learning.

In the Air Force, preflight preparation involves the pilot and other team members inspecting the aircraft, checking the systems and generally preparing for flight readiness. In the learning industry, facilitators should do similar checks for knowledge and skills exhibited by learning participants. They need to take responsibility for participants’ attitude, confidence and commitment to apply what they learn.

The mission commander would not launch a mission if any aspect of the preflight check was not up to standard. Likewise, if pulse checks with learning participants reveal issues, take the time to address and correct them while participants are still in the classroom.

For example, ask participants prior to a break to post a quick response on a flip chart near the door to this question: “From what we covered, what would you like more information about?” Issues that could affect learners’ performance on the job also should be discussed during the program. If left unresolved, report issues to business unit managers.

More than one pilot has uttered this quote: “Takeoffs are optional; landings are mandatory.” For learning, takeoff occurs upon formal program completion when the learner returns to the workplace. Essentially, now the learner is flying.

During a recon mission, lead pilots have many responsibilities; they ultimately must accomplish the mission. The mission commander and support crew would not consider their jobs complete at this point — neither should learning and development leaders.

Support in Flight, on the Ground
The lead pilot is focused on carrying out the mission according to the plan, and others will help the pilot perform his job effectively. The concept of required drivers comes into play for learning as well. These drivers are the processes and systems that reinforce, monitor, encourage or reward performance of critical behaviors on the job. Tracking this performance increases the likelihood learners will exhibit required behaviors.

In flight, the pilot monitors the skies and the immediate dashboard with a focus on the pilot’s particular duties. The ground control staff monitors a much larger control panel with one eye on the specific details and the other on the broader picture of accomplishing a safe and successful mission. In addition to air and ground control monitoring, other required drivers are dashboard gauges, automated voice prompts and warnings, checklists, technical manuals, the availability of experts on the ground, information from other pilots in the air and personal pilot motivation.

In a business organization, it is equally important to design a package of required drivers to increase the likelihood that learners produce critical behaviors on the job. The package should include learner’s supervisors, managers and colleagues, and anyone or anything else that can help to support them in applying their new knowledge or skills on the job.

Learning leaders should monitor learner’s performance and any small outcomes. Instead of merely gathering and reporting summative data, they can influence performance and results by implementing required drivers, such as reminders, observation and coaching. This also can ward off problems and performance barriers before they negatively affect business outcomes.

Upon Landing
At GE Power and Water’s Distributed Power, sales account managers field performance is carefully monitored, in part using an electronic behavioral assessment tool. When scorecards show targeted new behaviors do not meet standards, learners receive a call from the sales directors who assessed them. Michael Woodard, global learning leader, and his team support the sales managers and the sales directors with coaching and other performance support tools to get performance back on track.

There is no shortcut to monitoring and encouraging application of learning on the job. If learners do not apply what they learned, new on-the-job behaviors will not be sustainable, significant targeted outcomes will not be realized and strategic goals will not be achieved.

Upon landing, senior officers will conduct a debrief with the mission commander to find out if the mission was a success, if anything went wrong and any lessons learned. Similarly, those leading a learning program must prepare to report outcomes to stakeholders. An oral or executive summary should show what was done and the results. Document lessons learned that can be leveraged or improved upon in future missions or  programs.

Flying blind is dangerous in aviation and in the organizations where we work. A good plan before and after learning will set the stage for learners to maximize on-the-job application and subsequent results. Proper execution of that plan will provide quantitative and qualitative data, a chain of evidence stakeholders will believe and value.