I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an entrepreneur in the corporate learning space, and it strikes me that there are a lot of similarities between building a business and building a high-impact learning organization. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over my career that you can apply to lead learning effectively in your company.
Define Your Why and Your How
In 2015, my team and I sold a training outsourcing business to Xerox, following which a group of us stepped out to start a collaborative learning technology company. From the outset, we were thoughtful about the culture we were creating. To borrow a concept from Simon Sinek, we were intentional about defining our “why” as something that really mattered to us: creating learning technology that engages learners and impacts their organizations.
We also took time to interview every employee in our “newco” about how they wanted work to be. We discussed the findings as a leadership team and saw how easy it was to align them to our business goals. The result? Our team-sourced “Words We Live By”: fast, awesome, simple, together and audacious. We also built a culture of gratitude and celebration by instituting a “cheers for peers” tradition at our all-staff meetings, where colleagues recognize peers who exemplify those words at work.
What’s the lesson for learning organizations? In order to inspire your organization to follow your lead, you have to define your purpose: Why do you exist, and what impact will you have on your organization? Make sure to talk to your learners and your business stakeholders. Find out what your audience is looking for personally in addition to their business objectives. Make it clear how you will serve your organization and what values and principles you’re championing on behalf of learners. Collaborate to design your learning culture from high-level principles (like our Words We Live By) to the intended behavior change of individual programs. And, take the time to celebrate wins – especially stories of learners applying new skills to achieve business and personal success.
As much as the chattering class of consultants, academics and business journalists talk about disruption, disrupting your business isn’t natural. In our case, we had spent years building industry expertise, a great team, loyal customers and a profitable services business. Exiting that business and betting on our new collaborative learning technology venture was not a sure thing, but we knew that market trends pointed toward more collaborative, engaging and applied digital learning experiences, so we took the plunge.
What’s the lesson for learning organizations? It’s imperative to stay future-focused and keep a vigilant “outside-in” mindset. While you’ve undoubtedly provided offerings that have been effective for your learners in the past, those solutions are not indicative of what your audience needs in the future. In fact, when you become overly invested in the status quo, it is easy to discount or miss the ways you need to change. It’s critical to constantly monitor how significant business changes impact learning needs, how learner demand for your offerings may be changing and what’s happening in the external learning market. Keep in mind that your biggest risk may be moving too slowly – a surefire way to reduce your relevance and impact.
Learn to Innovate
Before we landed customers and gained traction with our collaborative learning platform, we tried lots of ideas for learning technology products. We prototyped custom portals and configurable portals, tools and widgets – and they all failed.
Finally, we took a different approach. We came up with an idea for a build-your-own corporate MOOC that could deliver engaging and applied learning at scale. This time, we organized a small team and tested the value propositions of this offering with people we knew. Through this market validation approach, we found passionate early customers who helped us turn our vision into a reality.
What are the lessons for learning organizations? There are many:
Be prepared to fail. Many times. With cloud technologies and “rentable” subscription models, it’s easy to try out new learning technologies without mortgaging your business. When things don’t work out, ask what didn’t work and why, and consider what you might be able to repurpose for your next idea. Most importantly, don’t be discouraged. Keep at it.
Consider organizing a small team dedicated to new offering innovation. Assign to the team people with diverse skills, experiences, personalities and demographics. Do not create a team that’s comprised of all of the “usual suspects” (e.g., it shouldn’t be your management team).
Learn as much as you can about the problem space you are tackling. Even if you don’t feel like you are an expert, decide that you are going to become one. Whether it relates to the business challenge you are solving for your organization or a new learning technology, build that expertise as you go.
Start by developing compelling value propositions. Focus on the business and performance problems that you believe your solution will solve. Clearly document your ideas, and identify the key questions you want to answer with feedback from your stakeholders. Avoid spending lots of time baking concepts in the lab before seeking input. In the entrepreneurial space, this process means setting up meetings with current clients or other “friendlies” who can give you direct feedback about your concept from a buyer’s perspective. In a learning organization, it means talking to your leadership about the high-stakes training topics needed for business success as well as talking to subject matter experts and learners.
These are just a few of the ways being an entrepreneur aligns with building a great learning organization. Think of your learning organization as a business, apply these concepts, and have fun making an impact and sharing your wisdom with others!