The OL Pivot: Building the Business Case for Better Learning

12 Mar

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF)
Organizational Learning (OL) remains a transactional process within the training function and therefore an overhead cost to the business. In order to dig itself out of this rut, organizational learning (a.k.a. learning design, instructional design, instructional systems design, learning technologies, or training) needs to pivot and build the business case for its value.

Why Are We Here?
While some HR functions seem to align more easily with the LOBs, OL remains in the background. OL processes have been commoditized in large organizations so their value proposition is limited. OL needs to pivot to a business partnership and/or a performance improvement role where learning/training remains one of many potential solutions to an organizational performance issue. OL has become enamored with technology so much so that it has lost sight of its original intent of improving human performance. OL practitioners (OLPs) have concerned themselves with new technologies and more streamlined processes to create more complex learning engagements with little focus on the actual efficacy of the learning outcomes and a link to the original organizational issue.

The Business Case Pivot
This pivot with the business lines in mind actually opens new avenues for OL specialists. This approach assumes the standard situation where instructional design is seen as an overhead process that adds costs to a project. While the value of training is not really in question, the value in more engaging learning design (read: more expensive and longer to develop) is in doubt. So, I’m positing that the first step in digging our way out of the OL specialist trap is to show agile value to the LoBs (Lines of Business) which establishes learning’s seat at the table. When there, learning design can flex a bit more muscle and show what more advanced learning design can do for the workplace. It’s a process and ignoring the rut many learning departments are in currently only makes the implementation of higher-end learning design that much more impossible in the enterprise learning environment.

In order to successfully complete this pivot, OLPs need to do the following things in order to better align themselves with the organizational mission and shift from a transactional cost to a strategic partner with the LOB. These three steps: 1) Learn the business 2) Impact the bottom line 3) Stay simple form a trifecta of pivots which would move OLPs to a much more advantageous position within an organization.

Step One: Learn the Business
Language, terminology, strategic direction, challenges … OLPs need to be conversant in the day-to-day business they are supporting. While it can be a strength of OLPs to apply the science to any learning situation, it is not a strength in the real business world to be seen as an outsider. This is the first pivot necessary and the foundation pivot for the other two. OLPs must cease being seen as expensive training specialists outside the core mission area of an organization. The first step out of this trap is learning the business.

Step Two: Impact the Bottom Line
Focus on performance improvement where training or a learning engagement is only one potential solution. Apply the front end analysis techniques when designing learning to a broader context of a performance problem. OLPs seen as performance specialists will be seen as a value add to the LOB saving them money and solving major issues at the same time. LOB are unconcerned with classical OL techniques or specialized differentiation. They are only concerned about solving issues that inhibit growth, profit, mission support, etc.. Once OLPs know the business and then focus on improving the bottom line, the LOBs will see OLPs as partners creating a much more beneficial relationship for OLPs in the organization and position them more powerfully in decisions that matter. Being seen as “a player” gets OLPs to the table where they can begin addressing issues earlier in the value chain showing bigger impact and more proactive support for the organizational mission. This is a self-feeding success loop OLPs must establish moving from the back-room of the HR department to the management meeting room.

Step Three: Stay Simple
Stop pushing complex learning engagements to the forefront to prove value or expertise and focus more on the simplest approach possible to improve human performance when a LOB needs this as a part of the solution to their problem. “Dumbing down” the learning design usually leads to simpler and clearer instruction at a much lower cost and shorter time-frame for delivery. Quickly deliver the simplest solution possible, measure impact, revise to improve impact, and move on once the LOB is satisfied. The art of OL becomes more artful, more graceful, and actually much more impactful when minimally designed and focused on the problem at hand. The beauty of a light learning engagement cheaply developed and quickly implemented does more for OLPs business case than anything else. OL is a science and well-design learning has its place in any organization. In order to maintain footing as a specialist, OLPs need to take it upon themselves to minimally obstruct the performance of workers while still improving their performance when required. This positions OLPs as an instigator to profit/production rather than an overhead cost center. Staying simple in design and development will further OLPs positioning as a strategic business partner with the LOBs.

In Conclusion
To build the business case for Organizational Learning (OL), a pivot needs to occur shifting from the current technological wizardry to a bottom-line business focus. Organizational Learning Practitioners (OLPs) have lost focus on their original value to organizations. Simply put, the investment in learning was intended to improve performance of the workforce and increase profits. OLPs have become too enamored in their art and stepped away from what the Lines of Business (LoBs) need … high performing workers. This pivot can be attained in three steps: 1) OLPs need to learn the business 2) Remember the bottom-line/deliver results and 3) Stay simple in their OL processes. This three-part pivot will get OL to the executive leadership table and show real results aligned to business needs rather than the whiz-bang of the OL art. For OLPs, the fun is just beginning at this point.  Getting to the table with a track record of verifiable results will enable OLPs to show the full spectrum of learning engagements possible made possible with the investments of the LoBs. OL has to earn that right … not cite studies and demo widgets.

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