A Decent Proposal

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

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“Customers don’t care about your product.  They care about their problem.”

– every successful entrepreneur I have met

My proposed framework, an adaptation of Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, is anchored by the value proposition.  It is also where I see the many of today’s training organizations fall down.  The inability to define themselves in terms of the value they provide to customers is more than just window dressing.  A value proposition is not simply a catchy slogan but it defined where an organization invests its limited resources to drive maximum value.  A classic example of this was Xerox’s late nineties re-branding from “copier company” to “document company”.  This single word change set off a slew of product innovations that has kept the company relevant for the past decade.

Enhanced performance enabled by learning

My proposed value proposition is carefully worded as well. “Enhanced performance” describes the solution to the problem faced by training’s customers.  Companies don’t need courses, coaching or any of the other products manufactured by training departments.  They need the results these can produce when done right.  Focus on the benefit. It’s the only thing the customer cares about.

“Enabled” reflects the changing role of the training department from the arbiter of the “right way” to one which facilitates, curates and architects knowledge transfer.  Words like “delivering” and “providing” suggest a centralized approach and neglects the importance of the learner’s emerging role as contributor and informal learning.

This value proposition also acts a test.  If an activity doesn’t fall into it is should be out. I understand that performance has many drivers but the push by some towards a generalist approach has left many of the drivers sub-optimized.  “By learning” ensures that the focus is on optimizing the knowledge component of performance.

Now What?

So that is my suggestion for the new training organization’s value proposition.  I like the sound of checking companies for PEL (performance enhancing learning). And I like the role of enabler as it feel more collaborative.  Now comes the fun part, what startups call minimum viable product.  The next step is to build a straw man example so that customers can react to it.  This may take a minute.

What are your thoughts?

I Have Been Framed

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

As I stated in my previous post, I feel the Business Model Canvas developed by Alexander Osterwalder is good place for today’s training organizations to start as they rethink their role and structure. Before I propose the hack let’s get a quick grounding in the tool as it exists for startups.

Business Model Canvas: Quick Primer

With apologies to Osterwalder, who wrote an entire book (which I highly recommend) on this model,  let me quickly break it down for the purpose of the discussion here.  The business model canvas is broken into 9 buckets that can be thought of as 3 bundles anchored by the central value proposition.

Bundle 1: Organization (key resources, activities and partners)

These buckets describe the inputs required to deliver the value proposition

Bundle 2: Customer (relationship, channels and segment)

These buckets describe the who, how and what of the market you are looking to serve.

Bundle 3: Money (cost structure and revenue streams)

These buckets describe the investment and return for the organization.

By starting with a draft value proposition a startup can quickly test it with customers and determine the best way to deliver it.  This allows them to rapidly build a set of assumptions in each bucket that can be tested, refined, validated or changed as the value proposition is honed with customers.  It is this process of customer development, assumption testing and iteration that I feel is a perfect fit for today’s training organizations.  Obviously, this canvas is geared towards external facing startups not internal departments so some modification is needed.

Training Organization Canvas: Hack 1

The first thing we need to do is to recognize that Bundle 3 (money) is a function of the larger organization.  For cost structure it is important to recognize the total costs of learning (TCoL) that the larger enterprise is investing in order to deliver on the value proposition.  Frequently organizations look only at the direct line items related to training (payroll, travel, third-party spend) and fail to capture the investment made in the form of SME time, time away from job, and others.  In one organization I assessed we found that while their training staff to employee ratio reflected an efficient organization the company was investing more than the entire training department’s payroll in SME time alone.

The revenue streams bucket is the aggregation of the all the business results produced by the “products” shipped in support of the value proposition.  I have heard many complain that this metric is “too hard” or “guess work”.  To the former I say “yes it is”, which is exactly why it is worthwhile.  To the latter I would suggest that just as the shift of advertising from traditional to newer media has made this once faith-based activity increasing metrics-driven so will learning.  Data has an increasing role is many aspects of the new training organization and may offer some of the biggest breakthroughs in the coming years.

Training Organization Canvas: Hack 2

Bundle 2 (customer) is an area in much need of an innovative approach.  Today’s training functions are quick to tell you which employee groups they are serving but frequently do not understand why specific groups are not using them.  By forcing the discussion of what type of relationship customer’s want and using an engaging customer development process training can inform its value proposition, optimize its channels and products to drive improved business results for the whole company.  When thinking about the customers of learning one has to remember that in the case of internal learning the customers (participants, managers, executives) pay with their attention and engagement not cash but otherwise the analogy remains.

Training Organization Canvas: Hack 3

Bundle 3 (organization) requires little hacking and brings us back to the Epic Debate question that set this all off.  These buckets force us to build the learning department to meet the requirements defined by the value proposition and the customer bundle.  These buckets ask us to think in term of what needs to be done not how it will be done or who will do it (ie. instructional design is an activity not a role).  It challenges us to ask what new activities, like curation or social media facilitation, not currently encompassed by the training group need to be included based on what our customers will pay for.

The key partners bucket also asks us to re-evaluate what we do in-house versus outsourcing.  When the way in which you accomplish key activities is rapidly changing companies often push the burden of that change on partners rather than taking it on.  This allows companies to more smoothly ride the innovation curve.  A global technology company I consulted with had a goal of turning over a percentage of its engineers every year.  This allowed them to bring in knowledge of current programming technologies.  Use of partners is a much better long-term approach IMHO.

So What’s Next?

All of these bundles represent areas ripe for disruption of today’s model.  Innovation in any one of them could lead to significant improvement. I am eager to dive deeper into each but as I stated at the beginning, these buckets are all anchored to the value proposition so that is where we need to go next.

As always, your comments, suggestions, feedback are eagerly awaited.

Evolution of a Framework

This post originally appeared on the Learning Hacks blog

“Traditional training departments will shrink.”  

This statement wandered across twitter last week as a result of Jane Hart’s, founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologie, tweet regarding the resolution as part of the EPIC debate series.  Anyone who knows me (or has read this blog) will not be surprised to find that I wholeheartedly agree with this notion.  But I believe that the rather than focusing on what is a long overdue realignment of resources away from the traditional, the more interesting question is where those resources will go.

Keeping Score

I have built my share of corporate learning.  But a majority of my time while I was at Forum, and since, has been spent building better training departments. I conducted assessments of the training departments serving global companies in technology, finance and other industries. We looked not solely at what the department was delivering (product) but also the people and processes that built that product (factory).  Our approach at Forum was described in the book “Running Training Like a Business” and was anchored to a framework called the Dynamic Business Scorecard (DBS).

The DBS was developed by Bill Fonvielle (@wfonviel).  Bill was one of the many big brains at Forum.  Bill saw that while the whole world was enamored with the work of Norton and Kaplan on the balanced business scorecard that metrics were best when the dependencies, and implications could be made more visible.  The DBS made diagnosis and communication a more straightforward affair.  People knew how they impacted the overall results and when something went wrong, root cause was easier to determine.

Over the past decade I have been working to build more organizations.  Not just training ones but all types; new lines of business for larger companies, fresh starts for troubled companies and early stage startups.  It is from this last group that I think the framework for building tomorrows learning organizations will come.

Have You Tried This?

I have written in previous posts about the lean methodology for the development of learning solutions.  The approach is an adaptation of the agile software development process that advocates rapid releases and a quick iterative feedback cycle.  The foundational assumption for this approach is that the solution is unknown.  While I feel strongly that this is true when considering the development of learning I also believe it is true for the organizations that do the development today.

I recently wrote a letter to a friend of mine suggesting that leaders in learning were going to be characterized as the experimenters.  Those organizations that try, fail and try some more.  Those that acknowledge, that in this period of rapid change, the best way to serve their company is to embrace a process of rapid releases and a quick iterative feedback cycle.  Not just for the learning but for the learning organization itself.  For this reason, I believe the framework by which we view learning organizations must support this as well.

What Do Customers Know?

The second criteria for a new framework is the need to force training organizations to engage with their customers and make clear to all the assumptions that they are running under. Successful startups quickly realize that the best source for determining a product’s features, uses and value are customers not an internal development team.  By observing, testing and rapidly incorporation companies are able to align their product with the market.  In startup land this is called product/market fit and is the holy grail.  Only once this has been found can a company confidently put its resource towards scaling and seizing the opportunity.

Age Appropriate

The final criteria I propose for a new framework is that it must be consistent with the stage of the organizations it intends to serve.  Despite a long legacy I believe that corporate learning must put itself into startup mode.  When industries stall on the innovation and value creation fronts they are ripe, not for evolution but rather, for disruption.  The training departments serving many of today’s organizations have evolved little over the last decade.  The tools used may have changed but the core activities, assumptions and frameworks have barely budged.

A recent study commissioned by NIIT to revisit the concepts of the decade old book, “Running Training Like a Business”, showed little movement on the core ideas.  Specifically it reported that only 21% of companies survey were “customer driven” and only 29% “measured their success by the success of their customers.  With results like this how can we not say that traditional departments will shrink in the coming years.

Here Comes the Hack

I am not a fan of re-inventing the wheel.  So as a starting point, I will describe over the next few post how I think the Business Model Canvas, developed by Alexander Osterwalder, can be adapted to be a new framework for thinking about a company’s learning organization.

I have been using this canvas in my work with startups for years now.  The canvas is widely accepted by early stage companies as the framework for experimenting their way to product/market fit. To me, the canvas seems to me to be the perfect frame for igniting the important discussions with training’s customers at a time when the unknowns outweigh the knowns.

What are your thoughts on the criteria, and do you think that the time has come for disruption?