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From event to journey: learning governance and innovation

LEO Learning recently held a Discussion Dinner as part of the consultation process around its white paper The New Learning Organisation. In his third and final report from the event by John Helmer, we hear about learning governance and its complex relationship with innovation.

A hand-picked group of learning innovators from world-leading organisations debated issues raised by this white paper under Chatham House rules. Organisations represented included Bimage001P, Credit Suisse, Defence Academy, Defence College of Communication and Information Systems, Home Office, HSBC, Jaguar Land Rover, KPMG, PwC, University of Birmingham, Volkswagen and Xerox.

Part Three: How can we create effective governance structures for this new world?

Following on from parts one and two of our debate, where we discussed the challenges in sustaining and scaling up learning innovation, and looked for best practice examples, this part of the discussion focused on learning governance.

The resulting discussion covered:
• The diverse nature of governance structures
• How you handle the inevitable tension between governance and innovation
• How issues with users and L&D staffing impact on governance

Double-loop learning

Events such as this very often turn out to be exercises in double-loop learning. Which is to say, we initially structured the debate around an assumption that effective learning governance is critical for bringing about change. This was very much the tack our white paper took. But one thing that surprised us was the degree of ambivalence in the room towards governance among certain of our delegates.

A gauntlet seemed to have been thrown earlier in the discussion by the popularity of stealth strategies as a way of driving innovation. A ‘challenge point’ for learning is the sheer number of stakeholders you have to cater to in a governance structure, which is potentially enormous; including pretty much everyone within the organisation and in many cases people outside it as well. This has the potential to slow innovation down, and in some instances crush it all together. So given that in some organisations it seemed scarcely possible to make any sort of innovation without flying completely under the radar, would an explicit governance structure not tend to stifle innovation and change, rather than to promote those things?

Surely this was a counsel of despair. Pockets of successful innovation have been seen, and despite all the difficulties of sustaining and scaling these successes that we had discussed, the examples are there to be built on. But if the membership to top leadership that came out of this discussion were that innovation needs to be a garage, underground activity, and it needs to be done by stealth, then that’s a pretty worrying message to send.

This was the key question that underpinned our discussion in this final part of the debate. And the insights it gave rise to were valuable and sometimes surprising ones.

The diversity of governance structures

When we asked the question, what does good governance look like, the very first response was to emphasize that there is no recipe or formula for a governance structure that would work for any organisation.

‘Culture is extremely important’, said one delegate, who works on outsourcing training for client organisations, ‘You may have some organisations with a top-down structure where a centralised governance can actually work. And you have other organisations where if you try to establish a centralised governance you’ll never get anything done because resistance will be a principle of operation. You first have to understand the culture of the organisation before you start defining a governance structure that will actually work’.

In our white paper we talked about this necessarily bespoke character of governance structures, but it turns out the diversity is greater even than we described. It is not just about what fits the organization in terms of its physical shape and culture – but also, potentially, about the current state of the organisation.

The same delegate gave the example of a client he was working with who needed just a few key things to happen to move forward: ‘as opposed to a centralised governance structure we’re actually building fully autonomous governance structures for each of the initiatives because we’ve found that is the best way to limit the number of stakeholders that are involved and still have effective governance’.

Governance can be a powerful way of effecting change in a particular territory or business unit. Another delegate gave the example of what her organisation did with one of their territories that badly needed to ‘get on the curve’ with learning technology, and get there quickly. Flipping the normal order of how budgets have tended to get allocated in past years, the central command communicated that it would allow the region to design and develop anything they needed using technology, but if they wanted to create a traditional face-to-face classroom-based course, they would have to submit a business case. ‘Boy did we see a change!’.

Impressed as those around the table were by the brilliant simplicity of this move, it was slightly open to the charge of using governance as a rather blunt instrument, unless blended were to have a clear place in the structure. Nobody believes absolutely all training needs can be met by technology-supported learning.

The background to this example was a quest to use governance as a means of achieving consistency and alignment across this delegate’s organization: ‘One of the biggest things I’m struggling with at the moment is the ability to be able to write once, share many – and being able to stop grow-back at a territory level. I think in our organisation we spend an awful lot of money doing exactly the same thing in very slightly different ways’. This delegate was a firm believer in it: ‘I think governance is key to getting anything done’.

What this meant, in practice, paradoxically, was getting ‘a bit more command-and-control’ and giving it bite, in order to bring about change and modernization. So how does this sit with the need to innovate?

Governance and innovation

When theory bumps into experience, and slightly world-weary heads of L&D share their experience of trying to innovate within organisational structures that seem designed to crush attempts at modernization in learning, the contradiction between what organisations say they believe in and how they actually behave is often cited as a trap for the unwary. Corporates and public sector organisations alike can be quite ‘feudal’ in character, below the ‘noise’ of management-speak.

This fuels a need to centralize and get consistency by means of governance, but at the same time contributes to the need for stealth in promoting innovation. Is there a contradiction here? Perhaps not.

‘There are different types of governance,’ as one delegate reiterated; ‘I do a lot by just innovating, putting solutions out there, and letting them grow … Say I need a new technology to help me do that: I can maybe get enough money to pilot something. But if I need that to go mainstream, I have got to have a proper governance structure to introduce that into the organisation.’

What emerged from our discussion, as different delegates shared their experiences of running stealth innovation alongside governance structures, was a diversity of ways in which the two interact (or just co-exist).

• One delegate described how he had often seen real change happening outside the governance structure: ‘somebody comes up with something on an island, everybody likes it and migrates to it, without being governed there’
• Another described how he used the outsourcing of training as a mechanism for change, ‘owning’ the stealth element and making it part of the requirement: innovation was a key part of the tender, the design team was renamed as ‘the innovation team’, and the business was given a clear rationale for the change based around the unsustainability of the previous, traditional training model within the organisation
• Another described an augmented reality initiative that he piloted and presented, only to have it ‘crushed’ – however, someone else outside Training also saw it, took the concept and made it a huge success as a sales tool
• Another suggested that the way to go was to govern the mandated training, but to innovate with the ‘non-mandated stuff’ – and when the time is right, the stealth experiment gets lifted from the non-mandated space into the mandated

Governance is only inimical to innovation, it seems, if you define governance in a narrow way as top-down and inflexible. There are many ways to skin a cat.

We should be wary, however, of getting too stuck in a top-down/bottom up dichotomy when talking about governance, as our academic OD specialist at the table warned. ‘Working with either end of this spectrum will never work, because you know that you have to work with both the institution and the individual … From a research perspective we know the most effective interventions happen at team level, and so I would say target whatever your interventions are at whole team activities – the car industry is certainly one that’s taken that on board … Rather than trying to get management to switch off from workforce, and think about it in hierarchical levels, try and think more laterally … Why not focus on what we know from research has worked for decades?’

And neither is governance a magic bullet that can deal with all the organisational blockers to innovation, such as for instance, the territoriality that innovators often run up against. Seeing that 80% of the millenials in his workforce preferred real-time feedback to annual performance reviews, one of our delegates decided to build them a tool. ‘Perfect. Easy. A couple of weeks, a little bit of budget, you can build a tool geared to everybody so that they can get real-time feedback from anybody in their team at any point in the day. So we start building it. Can you imagine the world of pain ..?’ The conversation with IT went something along these lines:

‘Well, it’s not really your job’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You work in Learning.’
‘I’m just trying to improve this person’s performance.’
‘But you’re about learning objectives, modules, etc. not something like that …’

Govern learning like a brand?

The question was asked whether informal learning actually can be governed – or is just something that needs to mature and grow organically?

An example from a more well-established silo of the enterprise, Marketing, helped to provide some hope that perhaps it can. Brand is similarly elusive in many ways, and also has too many stakeholders. But you can govern it, and in general it is managed ‘incredibly well’ in organisations. ‘People will not muck around with brand: they understand the importance of it, they understand what it means to the DNA of the organization.’

Perhaps learning governance will become easier when learning is equally widely understood in its importance to the organisation.
We are in a situation of change, and the choice for our delegates around the table – a choice that they have made differently, it seemed from the discussion, according to the differing situations and cultures of their various organisations – is how best to effect that change, through evolution or revolution. Either way, it seems, governance has an important role to play.

Bring your own internet

Governance is all about how decisions get made over learning, but our discussion certainly did not ignore the perspective of users: the people who actually do the learning. Changes in employee behavior were identified in our white paper as an important driver of learning transformation, and this surfaced in our discussion over the issue of BYOD.

‘There was a time when the computers you had at work were better than what you had at home – and now it’s the other way round. What we’re seeing is it’s tough to compete in that marketplace. They’ve got tablets and smartphones with really beautifully designed crafted helpful productivity tools which are 69p or nothing at all – and we’re trying to compete with those … It really is about stepping up our game in terms of what we deliver.’

With the advent of 4G this situation becomes even more stark, because employees will potentially be bringing not only better devices and software in with them, but also their own wifi connectivity.

At the same time, it is too easy to make ‘middle-class assumptions’ about how general the spread of, for instance, smartphone technology is within large learner populations. Even when people do own smartphones, have they made the conceptual leap from thinking about their phone as a source of entertainment (e.g. looking at Facebook on the bus) to thinking of it as a learning tool? ‘It’s a huge conceptual leap’.

This discussion easily leads on to the changing expectations of younger incomers to the organisation and millenials in general. This becomes a crunch point for all organisations, and particularly those in defence which ‘bottom-load’ their workforces. Put simply, millenials will reject an organisation that attempts to train them in an old-fashioned ‘talking heads’ style, and offers them out-dated computer equipment running clunky software and non-user-friendly interfaces. In many cases this danger creates a strong business case for transformation.

The relevance of L&D

Equally important is the issue of the skillset of L&D, and whether it is suitable for a transformed learning environment.
Learning now is all about relevance to the person who is learning – ‘the knowledge I need, how I want to access it, when I need it, 24/7’ – and L&D professionals, too, need to be relevant to this agenda. ‘Currently a lot of learning and education professionals are not relevant,’ said one of our delegates; ‘their skills are outdated: they don’t know how to work with the stuff which is around now.’

Learning Governance Cartoon Also, they are required to operate like learning consultants; to be able to engage with the business, provide services, provide advice, assess their internal clients’ needs, provide learning solutions, and so on.

This is a big change for some, becoming ‘savvy learning consultants’. It may be necessary to define what success looks like for a learning consultant at the individual level. Given the target group, according to one of our delegates who has engaged with this exercise, you have to be realistic in your expectations about the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed. Can you teach those things? ‘Well, knowledge you can transfer it, skills you can help develop it, and attitude, no you can’t teach that; but you can enable it changing with the other two things’.

One of our delegates seems to have given up on the target group entirely. ‘We almost exclusively hire people who are not learning professionals now, because you have to decondition them to such a great extent’. His last hire was somebody from a social media / marketing background, and increasingly he is looking at people working in digital: ‘they know intuitively what gets results. And while you might think that’s bad, and it is, because you’d like to systematise and quantify it and so on, that’s still a lot better having someone who’s passionate about delivering results and has got some experience with digital than someone who thinks it’s all about driving learning outcomes and transfer of knowledge. It just gets in the way.’

This is an extreme position perhaps, but a further sign of the how much the landscape may need to change for L&D as we move towards the new learning organisation.