Most people understand the value of an education spanning elementary school, high school, and post-secondary education. General skills applicable to any occupation as well as technical skills geared toward a career in a given field are learned. People also generally recognize that school offers an opportunity to foster creativity and innovation and develop leadership and team-building skills. So why not continue this learning strategy within a company? Imagine the competitive advantage of creating a learning organization that is constantly improving, as we would expect students to do throughout their school years.
Think of the current success rate of major projects such as installing a new CMMS, implementing a Lean-Six Sigma program, launching a new product line, or merging with another company. The failure rate for these initiatives is staggering, hovering at around 35%–65%, depending on which expert is quoted. Ask senior management what went wrong, and they might blame it on planning, leadership, innovation, change management, hiring practices, attitude, or a host of other problems. But perhaps the root cause is the lack of effective strategic learning in a typical organization, which in turn leads to poor idea creation or poor problem-solving, lack of strategic and business planning, and the inability to properly implement change. Moreover, failure to create a learning environment makes it difficult to attract and retain the best human resources, which makes matters worse over time.
Let's delve into what strategic learning is, its benefits, and how to cost-effectively implement it.
What is strategic learning?
Strategic learning continues the lofty goals and objectives of our public education system but transforms and embeds them into an action plan that is measurable and linked to a corporation's strategic goals. Ultimately, strategic learning should translate into more-effective planning and execution of the work we do to strengthen a company’s competitive advantage. For example, how can the maintenance department increase equipment performance and uptime by purchasing a new CMMS?
Strategic learning strengthens a company’s competitive advantage by translating strategic goals into learning objectives, an action plan that includes training and communication, and measurable targets. Organizations can implement strategic learning enterprise-wide or within a given focus area, such as asset management.
What strategic learning is NOT
Strategic learning does not mean just creating an “XYZ Co. University,” as many large corporations do. These learning centers offer numerous courses covering a wide variety of topics and multiple delivery platforms such as in-class and Web-based. Although this is clearly a step in the right direction, strategic learning must go beyond simply offering a plethora of courses. What is critical is tying the learning to a measurable action plan in light of a company’s strategic goals and objectives.
Strategic learning is not limited to simply creating a learning organization whereby an organization embraces a change in attitude and culture through learning. Corporate culture is important, to be sure, for example, to encourage the company to constantly innovate and stay ahead of its competition. However, the approach to strategic learning must be practical, action-oriented, measurable, and cost-effective. Strategic learning will be sustainable if and only if it is results-oriented, in addition to being a method of changing corporate culture and behaviors.
How to implement a strategic learning program
These are the critical steps involved in implementing a strategic learning program:
1. Conduct strategic planning – The first step is to develop strategic goals and objectives for the organization overall and/or an area of focus. For example, if strategic learning is to be applied to the asset management function, devise an asset management strategy complete with goals, objectives, measures, targets, and an action plan, all in light of the overall corporate strategy.
2. Establish measurable learning objectives – Based on the strategy, determine learning objectives as well as measures that define success in meeting these objectives. Think about which skills need to be enhanced or added to successfully implement the strategic plan. If applied to the asset management strategy example, the learning objectives that would complement it might be
a. Build project management capability
b. Develop diagnostic, problem-solving, and root-cause analysis capability for maintainers and operators
c. Determine best practices in creating and managing a comprehensive maintenance program
d. Understand applicable analysis tools
e. Determine how best to use the CMMS to achieve performance targets as outlined in the asset management strategy
3. Tie learning objectives to measures – A key differentiator of this methodology is measuring your success in meeting the learning objectives, and relating it directly to achieving the performance targets outlined in the strategic plan. In following the asset management example, measures defining what success looks like in meeting the sample learning objectives above should be linked to the performance targets central to the asset management strategy. Determine how the learning objectives relate to, say, reducing equipment downtime and the total cost of ownership of assets. This is not always easy to do, but the exercise will certainly force you to prioritize.
4. Develop a learning plan – To address gaps in learning identified above, develop a detailed plan as to who will learn what material, with which training delivery methods, over what timeline, at what cost, using which internal or external resources. The learning plan should integrate or at least reference plans for project management, communications, change management, and risk management.
5. Embed and implement the learning plan – Most likely using a mix of internal and external resources, implement the learning plan and closely monitor whether objectives have been met through a rigorous evaluation process. Learning should be embedded in the projects identified in the strategic action plan. This is no different than the preferred approach to risk management, change management, project management, communications, innovation, and so on. It should be an integral part of how you implement change. This is a critical departure from how most companies handle change management, training, etc. If possible, pilot the learning, and tweak accordingly prior to any extensive rollout.
6. Continuous improvement of the strategic learning program – If the evaluation process reveals learning gaps, you need to determine the best approach for addressing them. A mix of tests, surveys, interviews, observation, and informal meetings are useful tools for evaluating the effectiveness of the learning. In the example above describing the implementation of a new CMMS, if learning is ineffective, there will unquestionably be consequences to the quality of process, system and organizational designs. This may result in selecting the wrong CMMS vendor, and/or increased risk, poor change management, inadequate staffing, poor leadership, and many other potential issues. Thus, ineffective strategic learning can be the single most important cause of project failures, and in the bigger picture, a company’s inability to meet strategic objectives and targets.