In his book “Exponential Organizations; Why new organizations are ten times better, faster and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it),” Salim Ismail defines exponential organizations as “…one whose impact or output is disproportionately large–at least least 10x larger–compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies.” This definition is meant to describe the winning companies of the future as well as some current high performers. If 10x is the target for companies then it must also be the goal for the organizations that support those companies. Organizations such as Learning & Development.
While the products and services delivered by L&D are much discussed, my focus for the last two decades has been on optimizing the internal organizations that enable those products and services. While the tools available have changed dramatically in that time, the same cannot be said for the L&D organization. This is evidenced by the continued challenges faced by L&D. In many cases these are same challenges that were present when Trolley and van Adelsberg were writing Running Training Like a Business in 1997. In an age of disruption and a quest for a 10x advantage, the L&D organization must change and change fast. Three key drivers for successfully navigating this change will be; thinking big and wide, adaptable and curious teams, and a relentless pursuit of speed.
Thinking Big And Wide
At the core of this change is a change of mindset. It is no longer sustainable to think about linear improvement in process and impact. This straight line incrementalism will rapidly fall behind the needs of company looking to achieve the “hockey stick” exponential growth curve. L&D needs to begin challenging itself to achieve game changing results in all areas. Setting goals at these levels is the foundation for forcing new thinking. Getting halfway to a billion dollar goal is still better than achieving a 10 million dollar one.
Targets such as these often cause an organization to look around the room and ask, “How are we going to do that?” Most likely, the answer to that question is not in that room. The requirements of speed and outsized impact force an organization to look outside itself. Cross-domain transfer is an essential skill of tomorrow’s L&D organization. We have already seen the benefits of this cross-domain transfer on the learning product side in gamification, UX, social sharing and more. Cross-pollination on the organizational and process front is also available from other domains such as fast growing startups or the software development process–we just need to look.
Adaptable and Curious Teams
The future of L&D, with its accelerating rate of change and large unknowns, requires a highly adaptable L&D team. This is not only an internal staff versus outsource view. Adaptability must be a key trait in our learning professionals. Flexibility must be built in to all their roles. Teams must be able to form and dissolve as needed. In this new world of business, resources must be able to wear multiple hats as the organization’s needs evolve and demand volume fluctuates. Only an L&D organization resourced both inside and out in this way will have the fresh perspectives, increased agility, and improved results that winning companies require.
Those same speed and impact requirements also demand a strong spirit of curiosity leading to a culture of experimentation. It is no longer sufficient to wait for the perfect or the proven. L&D must become a laboratory, trying countless ideas in order to find the “secret sauce.” Failed experiments must be viewed for what they really are: learning. These learnings no longer stigmatize the “scientist” but instead drive more experiments that are both well-defined and carefully measured. It is only with this change in approach that L&D can hope to keep up with the companies they support.
Speed. Speed. Speed.
We all know the timeless adage, “cheap, good, and fast: you can only pick two.” For over two decades L&D has been forced to focus on the “cheap” dimension, leveraging outsourcing and digitization to drive down the costs of learning. For the last decade we have seen dramatic improvements in “good’ as we incorporate new knowledge drawn from cognitive science, gaming and other domains. The next decade will be the age of “fast.” The saying that time is money has never been more true, and time has never been more expensive.
There are three critical dimensions to the speed of the L&D organization of the future; speed to product, speed to learner, and speed to value. Speed to product is the time from need to solution. Increases on this dimension is required to support our businesses who continue to see compressed cycle times for products, services, and improvement. Speed to learner is the time from solution to learner. Simply having solutions in a catalog does not create value or impact. Getting solutions deployed to those who need them when they need them is essential. Speed to value is the time from learner to impact and value–how quickly a learner can put a new skill to work. In this age of acceleration, only L&D organizations with a deep focus on speed will be able to keep up with business.
Let’s Change The World
As I have written here before, the upskilling of the world’s workforce is of paramount importance. Adapting to this new business environment will be a challenge for many of these people. Preparing them for whatever comes next is the role of tomorrow’s L&D organization. Realigning our workforce, both currently employed and unemployed, with the work our companies need will require a new mindset, new ideas, and new approaches. Is your L&D organization ready for the exponential future?