“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times” (Niccolò Machiavelli).

How can Machiavelli’s statement from approximately 500 years ago have so much relevance today, as we onboard our employees and help them navigate the ever-changing, quickly-moving, technology-enabled marketplace? Traditional onboarding programs no longer meet the needs of employees, since those needs often change before we can adapt and rewrite our programs.

This is not just an onboarding story but, rather, a story about navigating the sea of change.

Instilling the ability to navigate change within the organization’s culture should be a key aim of an onboarding program. Yes, it’s vital that employees know how to perform their new role, but acquiring the skills to evolve in response to changing demands and assuming responsibility for their own learning will ensure longer-term success.

That mindset is a change from the traditional view of onboarding programs, which focuses on providing the new hires with information and knowledge. Now, the skills new employees need are understanding how to navigate the organization and knowing where the most current and accurate information is (or who the custodian of that information is).

Considerations: The Work, the Work Environment and the Employee

All work, in every company, has elements that fit within a continuum of stability. We can expect some elements to require skills that will stay the same for a long period of time — for example, using a point-of-sale (POS) system. POS systems are pervasive and will continue to be. However, the ways customers order and pay is changing, which forces employees to continually master constantly evolving technology systems while delivering great customer service. Change in these less stable elements is happening more quickly than ever, so work skills need to develop at a faster pace to keep up.

The work environment and marketplace are also changing. Disruption is happening in every industry. Think about companies like Uber, Amazon and Airbnb, all of which have disrupted, and continue to disrupt, the market. Companies that fail to react or get ahead of the change will flounder or cease to exist. (Think Kmart, Sears and Toys R Us.)

All of this disruption impacts the employee. As companies adapt, they also need to change the work they’re doing. They must try new things, test the marketplace, learn and then adapting to new ways of working as they apply what they learn. As a result, the work changes for the employees, and they are often left guessing what they need to do to be successful.

This position is a difficult one to be in, both for the employees and for the company. Employers must answer two questions:

    • How should we spend our limited learning resources in a way that arms employees for success?
    • How do we set expectations for employees in this sea of change?

Employees also need to answer two questions:

    • How do I fit in?
    • How can I prepare myself for the change that is coming?

Fragmented, Managed and Adaptive States of Learning

Rapid change means that work is fragmented increasingly rapidly. As a result, we can be less certain that the tasks we performed yesterday are right for today. If a company’s onboarding program is based on the business outcomes it expects from their employees today, the program will need regular, rapid refreshing because of the disintegration of and change in these outcomes.

These investments bring order to chaos, and, for a moment, the work, the environment and the employee are aligned for success. This is the managed state that companies desire. The bad news is that the managed state is fleeting and disappears as relentless change creeps in once again, creating fragmentation and chaos.

What about the time between refreshes? How can workers survive when the managed state quickly becomes fragmented and dated? Here is where both the company and the employee need to become adaptive. The company must invest in learning and performance support that is light, nimble, focused and easily accessible.

No one today would wait to go home and search for the answer to a piece of trivia brought up in conversation; instead, we grab our phones and find the answer instantly. The same needs to be true and supported in the workplace. Learning and performance support, at the point of need and with the right context to add value, are key.

Employees who succeed see this sea of change as an ocean of opportunity. They are comfortable with support that is directionally correct, but they know that it is their responsibility to figure out how to achieve the right outcomes.

Now What?

Most companies have an outdated approach when it comes to learning and onboarding. Some tie themselves to onboarding strategies and content that have been around for years and perhaps decades. The content is exhaustive and usually presented in instructor-led or web-based modalities. Changing content is difficult, time-consuming and expensive, and it doesn’t keep up with the pace of change in the workplace.

Some things still need to stay the same. Onboarding needs to put a structure around the work and the workplace. It should articulate expectations of employees clearly and up front. Employees need to understand their role in terms of the outcomes for which they are responsible. And they need to understand that the company will support them as those outcomes evolve.

Some things need to change. During recruiting, interviews, onboarding and ongoing development, the company must set the expectation that an employee’s success will depend on his or her own initiative. Yes, the company can and should provide training and performance support, but employees will need to adapt to change; be comfortable with ambiguity; and take the initiative to continue learning, even when it goes beyond what the company has provided in training. The company needs to provide a safe environment for creativity; reward initiative even when it is not successful; and invest in structures and technologies that can implement new ideas, new learning, and new performance support rapidly.

With this approach, success becomes a shared accountability. Employees accept more responsibility in response to change in the workplace by learning new skills and transitioning to new technologies. They also help define the work and look for new ways to work as the marketplace evolves. As the onslaught of change smacks directly into the company, the company absorbs it and grows stronger because of it.

Successsful onboarding