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This article was published 21-10-2019

Learning Is Strategic in Organizations

“Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets”, said Leonardo da Vinci. Nowadays, when changes are so fast and so profound that the future is always present, learning is the key to continuity and success.

So, let’s learn about learning. We spoke about it with Anke Baak MSC – Vice President Global Clients, Schouten Global, the European leader in training services, with offices in Netherlands, Germany, Poland and China and with delivery experience in more than 60 countries.

On October 17th, Schouten Global launched Schouten Romania by integrating Focus Plus, a renowned training company with over 12 years of experience on the Romanian market.

What impresses you – in your work and in life?

A lot of things impress me, in work and in life. Actually, I realized that the older I get the more curious I get, and the more I feel that there’s still so much left to learn and to discover. What impresses me in organizations, which is my working ecosystem, is when people walk their talk. It is so easy to speak about efficiency, strategy, or even to speak about how one should behave. But when people actually do it, when they are authentic, and they walk the talk even when the going gets tough – that’s when I am really impressed.

What makes it difficult to walk the talk? And what would be a piece of advice that you would like to give people so that they can overcome whatever obstacles may stand in their way?

Some things make it difficult for people to walk their talk. In organizations, one of those things is hierarchy – for instance, your boss has a different opinion and, even if you don’t think that is the best way for the company to take things forward, you stay silent because you don’t want to offend them or you think speaking up would damage your career.

My advice is for people to focus on what their real values are. Speaking up takes courage, in every culture. Indeed, in some cultures the power distance is bigger than in others – for instance, in the Dutch culture it is quite acceptable to say to your boss that you don’t agree with them and you have a different perspective than they do. But if you lived in China, 50 years ago, this would have ended your career. But if you realize that it is your value to do something or that it is in the greatest interest of your company, then speaking your mind is helpful.

If you work in a team, you can agree on your rules of engagement. Before you start working together you can agree on how you want to collaborate, how you want to communicate. What we sometimes ask in our sessions is: How do we want to be together?

Do you want to stimulate openness, do you want authentic opinions, do you want people to share their vision? If you do, then sharing your opinions should not be perceived as an attack. If it gets tough, then you can just remind one another of the rules of engagement you decided upon in the beginning.

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. How is learning changing?

Learning is also changing very fast. However, in many cases it has not yet changed the way it may need to. For instance, on many occasions we still have a teacher speaking in front of the students, giving them a lot of information. However, we have known for a long time that people learn by doing, by experiencing. And yet, we still teach this way. That is still how my son was taught in high school. But things are changing really fast. Children have knowledge at their fingertips now, with their mobile phones, so they require different learning methods.

When it comes to corporate learning, what we see is that we need to change the way we organize learning.

For instance, there is mobile learning – we need to make sure that the knowledge our employees need is available every time and everywhere, at their fingertips.

We also talk about performance support – if I have something to do and I get stuck, I don’t have to wait for a senior to come and explain, I can just access my support system on my mobile or some other device, where I can find the information I need to get unstuck and continue my work.

We see it with VR – We gave a short demo of the VR tool at the Schouten Romania Launch event. After a face to face learning session, we give learners the VR glasses with the app, so they can repeat and train at home or anywhere. For instance, technicians use VR glasses and are showed how to perform repairs, instead of using repair manuals or classroom training programs.

In order to train people skills, people need to get repeated personalised feedback in a situation that is as close to the real life situation as possible and evokes the same kind of emotional reaction. So VR is a great tool to support that, and thus make this kind of learning more scalable. It also lowers the costs, and it gives people the opportunity to keep practicing.

Astronauts, for instance, can use VR to practice going out in space and performing repairs in very particular conditions. I tried that once, and I actually felt like I was out in space, wearing an astronaut suit, it felt very real. That way, if you practice 20 times on, then when you are up in space, you can do it with your eyes closed. Obviously, the risk involved would be much higher in the past, when they had to practice it in space, for the first time.

So IT is very much needed in this change, but it also takes psychologists and educationalists to collaborate and create that new way of learning, together.

How does one build a learning culture in their organization?

This is on the mind of many HRD people and even CEOs, because we already know that learning is strategic in organizations. The speed at which your employees are learning is a strategic asset. So what can you do to speed that up? A learning culture is at the centre of it. You can have the greatest trainers and the best technology, but if your organization does not have a learning culture, it will all just fall flat.

There are a few things Management and HRD people can do in this respect. The first is to foster the fundamental idea and belief that learning is growing your business. Learning is working – contrary to what some people or leaders still seem to believe when they think that taking the time to attend a training course is taking time off work, which will be left undone and there will be piles of it waiting when the employee gets back from their training. This approach is also not motivating for the learner.

In fact, learning is the most essential thing you can do. And the way to enhance it is not just sending people to take classes and training or delegating the teaching totally to somebody else. Learning needs to be done all the time, everywhere.

So, learning is working, learning is adding business value – that should be on the minds of the senior management and the middle management.

Another important element is that learning opportunities need to be there, in the company, for everyone. Learning should not be available just for the happy few – the high performers, the leaders etc. In reality, everyone is creating for the company, and everyone is creating added value for the customer. Every single employee should be considered for the learning process by the HRD people. Learning opportunities should be there for everyone.

The third element is that you learn from your mistakes. In the past, mistakes were considered to be something awful, and covering them up was the norm. But today, we need to innovate quickly because change happens very quickly. So we need to experiment, and we need to fail fast and fail early, so we can learn from our mistakes and adapt, in order to come to do the right thing as soon as possible!

So senior management should model learning from their mistakes – which is hard. Feeling vulnerable is not easy, because they are used to feeling like the smartest boy in the class or be the person who knows everything. So, we need leaders to say: Hey, I need to learn, too or say I am not the best at this particular aspect. I am the CEO, but there are in this organisation some people who do this better than I do, so I shall give them the floor here.

Also, leaders need to be humble and admit to their mistakes when they make them, share what they have learned from their mistakes and, of course, how they repaired them. Obviously, the ego does get in the way of that, which is why leaders need to also work on their personal development. If senior management does not lead in their own behaviour, what can they expect of the others? Vulnerability takes courage.

The fourth thing is to create learning communities, so people can help one another. We have to learn so much and so fast, that we can’t just wait for a formal trainer or coach to come by and help us. We need to help each other. We need to train and coach each other. This, of course, requires openness and a safe environment – what they call a psychological safe environment, which is something many companies lack. There is a great book on this – An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberate Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan. He created a few principles, after studying some very successful companies. He asked: What are they doing differently. and described what he found in this book.

Given how fast things are changing and evolving, knowledge alone is no longer the differentiator for success – because knowledge can be found everywhere. What makes the difference is what you do with that knowledge and the people skills you have.

We are all learning together, and from each other. And at the root of many of our blind spots or so-called weaknesses there is a golden quality. For instance, one may be perceived as being too bossy or controlling, while at the root of it is merely enthusiasm or drive for excellence. There is a strength underneath many of our weaknesses. At times, all we need to do is use that strength differently. It’s important to accept yourself and not go completely against your natural self.

What is the key to releasing an individual’s potential? How about an organization’s?

The key is finding your ‘north star’, your purpose, the thing that really drives you in life. Because releasing potential sounds great, but it also involves hard work, conquering obstacles and facing fears.

So why should we do that? The answer is simple: because there are things in life that are so important to us that it is worth the trouble. And yes, having a ‘hand on the back” (someone who coaches you in the process), meaningful learning experiences and a supportive team around you can accelerate the process greatly. That is exactly why, at Schouten, we do not merely train skills, but we support people in the journey to find this ‘north star’, too. And we support organisations in creating high performing teams with a great learning culture where those things can be addressed. Furthermore, more and more we find that releasing potential is more about finding and growing one’s strengths than about pointing out and working at weaknesses.

For organisations, it is essentially the same thing: what is the purpose of this organisation? What is our added value, not just to our stakeholders, but to the world? What are, at this moment, our key competences as organisation and how can we leverage those? Having this direction and insight is not just a great motive, but also a great driver to release potential.

We are so global today. How does globality impact organizational development?

Being global forces us to embrace multiple perspectives. If we work with people from other countries, we need to learn to understand other cultures. Diving into another culture is very enriching, as it helps you discover whole new perspectives. Having multiple perspectives is a must in the complex society and world that we live in. This is very important for organizations, if they want to grow and innovate.

Another aspect is that, more and more, we see we are so connected. Everything impacts everything else. What we do and how we do it also impacts the natural environment. This is why we absolutely have to take a bigger perspective. You can no longer be concerned solely with you and your wellbeing – as an individual or as an organisation – and expect that to work out for the best for all.

What has your work taught you about learning?

Learning keeps surprising me – and that’s a good thing. I always find something new to learn. And, more and more, we find that learning is no longer a thing on the side, it is at the core of success, it has become essential for companies and for the human race. Experiments show that even babies and animals, under some circumstances, if they have to choose between food and a new experience that will satisfy their curiosity, they will choose the experience. It’s a very basic need and it helps humankind change and prosper. For instance, I love mountaineering and sometimes I forget to eat because I am always wondering what is around the next corner, and then the next, and the next.

What does leadership need to be most sensitive to, nowadays?

There are a few things leaders need to be sensitive to. The feedback they receive from their team is one thing – because it’s not about them, it’s about the performance of their team.

Also, leaders need to be sensitive to the bigger picture. They need to bring into what they are doing the various perspectives that form the bigger picture. A good way to do that is by asking questions. But this also takes courage, because you then have to be prepared to do something with the answers.

How does one determine their organization’s learning needs?

Most importantly, here are two things: to not only look at today’s learning needs, but also at those of tomorrow; and to involve the main stakeholders. Looking at the first means, again, that one has to think of the company’s mission and strategy. What knowledge and skills are needed to realise this strategy?

We need to look to the future when determining learning needs, not just look at what we need today. Regarding the stakeholders, at Schouten we always involve several in this process: not only HR managers but the business managers – because they know what the business needs – and most importantly the learners themselves. Because when it comes to learning people skills, the more this is aligned with one’s own ambition, the more successful the intervention will be, because the person will be motivated to put in the extra effort.

How does one create the right mix of learning instruments in their organization – tools, methods, services etc.?

Looking at what was said above, again, you start with strategy and learning needs. Furthermore, a company’s culture comes into play. What (learning) culture do we have and what learning culture do we want to have? What tools do we have, and what tools do we need to reach our goals? One way or another, in our view, tools should include:

  • Tools to assess learning and development needs;
  • Learning infrastructure – like IT platforms;
  • Learning content that is available preferably anywhere any time;
  • Learning journeys – including face to face high impact sessions.

When it comes to acquiring people skills, we firmly believe humans always need human interaction.

How do we learn today? What are some latest, most compelling tools and methods we can use? How about future methods – where do you see the industry going?

Today we learn everywhere, anytime. And we want learning to be personalised and impactful. Time is scarce, and we can have all the knowledge at our fingertips when using Google, so why attend a dull class, where 50% of the time content is not of interest to me and I am bored?

So mobile and blended learning are a must. Blended learning, in our case, often means learning journeys – consisting of online, face to face, and on the job learning interventions. Knowledge can be shared online, people skills and behaviour by impactful face to face interventions. Also, Gamification and Immersive Learning are on the rise.

We see that many learning interventions are still very old school, so the industry is in a great transformation at the moment. That is why Schouten is partnering with partners like Crossknowledge (who have great IT learning tools and great content), but also we use, for instance, actors and immersive simulations in face to face training programs to make learning more impactful.

How do you keep your thinking fresh?

I read, I meet different people, I attend congresses, I dive into experiences. I like to enrol into learning programs myself – because you keep your mind fresh if you keep learning new things and it’s also proven that your brain will perform better if you keep on learning. I listen to my team and explore their thinking. And another way is to empty my mind, relax and enjoy nature in order to unload, recalibrate, refresh.

What are some benefits of change and disruption?

Clearly, change and disruption evoke creativity and innovation. And they teach us to be resilient and agile.

What excites you about your industry, today?

Exactly the above: we have to be innovative to keep up with learning needs of organisations and individuals, and support them in creating results that matter.

What are your hopes for Schouten Romania?

I hope that Schouten Romania will be a success. I hope it will help Romanian companies grow their potential, and that it will help our Romanian counterparts grow their business so that we can share our innovation, our knowledge about learning and development, and that they can adapt it to the market here. Every culture is different, and we know that. That’s why we work with local partners, who can take what we have learned and adapt it to their culture. And we learn from them a lot, too.

Published in Carriere Jurnal de leadership by Felicia Luca  on October 21, 2019

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