Sally is an experienced production worker, accomplished at the more complex tasks in her job. She’s starting to lose sleep at night as she envisions a bot taking her job. She’s not ready to retire; she’s got a son in high school and a daughter in college. She loves her company and they love her, as do her peers, who are also anxious about the future.
Chuy repairs copper and fiber telecommunications lines. He knows the days this type of communications technology are numbered. Chuy is young, energetic, and motivated. But like Sally, he’s anxious, too. He doesn’t have time to go back to college and it's not in the budget since he’s starting a family.
Freddie is fresh out of college with a sparkling new degree in Cybersecurity. Tons of recruiters have been calling, emailing, and sending messages via LinkedIn. Several big companies are making attractive offers. Freddie is thrilled, but one thing is certain: Opportunity for engaging professional development is top of the list – Freddie wants to continue learning and is looking for a company that provides meaningful self-directed learning resources.
Three true scenarios. And there are more.
Many companies today are finding themselves facing a talent crisis: A lack of qualified individuals to fill needed jobs (especially technical) or too many employees in declining portions of the business, or both. Embarking on a learning and/or skills transformation initiative will address both situations. It’s not easy, but the learning and development organization can play a critical role in successfully executing on these kinds of initiatives.
In 2012 I was tapped to lead a few of AT&T’s employee skills transformation initiatives (part of AT&T’s wholesale transformation called Workforce 2020) with a focus on learning strategies and technologies. The effort, which continues today, involved hundreds of people from the Chairman to first level managers, vendor partners and education and content providers.
This initiative followed a similar one I led a couple of years earlier, a project which involved the implementation and integration of several new and existing learning technologies, the conversion of thousands of hours of leader-led training to eLearning, the implementation of true SCORM (prescriptive learning and shareable content) functionality, and the delivery of hundreds of thousands of hours of training for managers skilling up on a second job role in support of business continuity.
During the years just prior to my departure from AT&T University, I had the thrill of leading multiple cutting-edge learning technology initiatives including the first phases of the personal learning environment, the internal MOOC and microlearning platform, the redesign and expansion of the interactive virtual learning (broadcast video) capabilities, and the wholesale redesign and integration of business analytics and reporting technologies. (At AT&T, it’s often “go big or go home”!)
Whether you are a L&D leader in a small, medium or large business, the successful key for any company-wide initiatives like those above is a singular vision: laser focus on the objective at all levels. Clear vision and crisp, comprehensive communication are the swirl bread slices of a sandwich – from the bottom and the top, vision must be clear and communication must be prolific.
Easier said than done, right? Obviously, lessons are learned along the journey, the recipe gets adjusted, goals tweaked, ingredients are added, but that’s all part of the Agile process. And Agile it must be! What works well for one business segment might not fit right for another. In a company of any size it’s easy for the message to get twisted, or even lost. Here are some high-level best practices gleaned over the years of working large-scale, company-wide, massively impacting initiatives.
- Capture and communicate clear objectives. Take your cue from your stakeholders and make sure you really understand their vision. Document it thoroughly and ensure everyone agrees. It’s easier to adjust at the beginning than un-bake your bread. The meaty ingredient here is the business impact you expect to achieve and how you will measure your success.
- Brainstorm early and often and with many brains. These types of projects are often fraught with unknowns. Perhaps it’s never been done before or never at such a scale. Utilize the Agile project management methodology and ensure people from all areas and levels are engaged in the requirements and design phases. Apply Design Thinking in all phases of the project to ensure that you put the learner first and prioritize the user experience.
- Employ a highly experienced organizational change management consultant or team. No, if you build it they won’t necessarily come. OCM experts know how to start early and ensure that naysayers and cheerleaders alike get the right message. They join themselves tightly to the project management team and ensure stakeholders and key communicators stay in the loop during all phases and at all milestones. In my experience, the success of initiatives at this scale can be crowned or crashed by the presence or absence of good OCM.
- Don’t believe that one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t. As I mentioned earlier, you can expect to tweak things as you go along (not the vision, not the objective, but perhaps the minor “how’s”). You will also likely find that one department, one vendor, one technology or platform, will not meet the need. That’s OK – the goal is to successfully execute the plan, which means to successfully upskill or reskill your employees without a lot of pain, and maybe even with some fun. This is often accomplished by combining one, two or more technologies and strategies (new with existing, new with new or any combination). Perhaps you will need to procure a new platform, or maybe your organization is talent-rich and you can build or upgrade internally. You might contract one or more content providers. The sky’s the limit, and the danger is that the sky is the limit. Consider engaging a learning strategist, technology consultant or analyst to help you select the ingredients.
- Never lose sight of the vision. You documented and validated the objective, brainstormed well, ferreted out your roadmap, engaged the right talent, and have begun to execute. But uh-oh, one or more key stakeholders left the business and they’ve been replaced with those who don’t understand or see the value of the current plan. Or you just got a new CLO who wants to make her mark on the project. Maybe one of your vendors is getting a little feisty or your IT department wants to rule the world. Or you’re now in year two and the budget got slashed. (Heaven forbid you experience the perfect storm of these together, but it happens!) What do you do? Stay strong – don’t compromise! Assuming you are the senior project leader, your responsibility is to stay the course. Unless stakeholders from the C-suite issue an unyielding directive, use everything and everyone at your disposal to tell the story, repeat the vision, communicate the risks and costs of major changes, and when you’ve done all you can to stand, keep standing! If you are forced to compromise the vision, make major changes to your plan, and the project fails (or costs a lot more, or takes a ton more time to implement) you can hold your head high, even though it’s a sucky place to be. Document, document, document. The Agile process is great for ensuring all changes are captured (including the what, when, why, how and who the heck said to). When challenged to compromise the approved plan, here are some things to consider:
- Bring forth your cost-benefit-analysis or ROI calculations and patiently educate new stakeholders.
- If not already part of your plan, consider a proof-of-concept phase to prove out the strategy and gain or regain buy-in.
- Slow down and implement in phases during a longer timeframe.
- Tell, and retell the story. Tell it in pictures. Tell it in media. Tell it in terms of real people and real outcomes. Tell it in terms of real risks and consequences. Use the language of the business and tell it in terms of business impact. Whenever possible use hard data.
To Your Success
The combination of learning and technology strategies that may be used to achieve your company's needs are practically endless. Every business is unique and the specific objectives will vary. Methodologies and technologies are ever-changing, never more so than today. Some of the available learning platform options are flat-out uber-cool.
Regardless of your company’s size, your L&D talent, or the specifics of your project plan, I hope these key lessons and best practices are helpful and get you thinking about what could quite possibly be one of the most exhilarating and satisfying initiatives in your career. Here’s to your success, the success of your company, and the ongoing learning enjoyment of your employees.
If you have any questions about my story or current options for your situation, or just want to chat, don’t hesitate to reach out!
P.S. Sally, Chuy and Freddie
Sally is more convinced than ever that her job will automated within the next few months. She has enrolled in a robotics course offered by a content provider engaged by her company and also an internal leadership development program. Her new role will be managing the future automated line on which she now works.
Chuy just heard from his Supervisor. Their entire organization is being offered training on the future technologies that his company is installing. He’ll be able to complete some of the training during work hours and the rest of it after the kids go to bed and on the weekends. He doesn’t mind – he’s going to keep his job and benefits and gain new skills for the future.
Freddie decided to come to work for your company. The personalized learning platform provides a rich onboarding experience, formal and informal training, self-directed digital learning resources available on any device, and connects Freddie to others who share the same interests and passions. You have an interview with Freddie next week, about an innovative idea regarding virtual reality as part of the learning suite.