(This article was written and published in 2015, I am now revisiting the insights as a way of being accountable for what I said and NOT to really say ‘I told you so!’)
An ancient Chinese story, retold by Phil Jackson, coach of the phenomenally successful Chicago Bulls basketball team, defines what really is changing in the training needs of organizations today.
In the 3rd century BC, the Chinese emperor Liu Bang celebrated his consolidation of China with a banquet, where he sat surrounded by his nobles and military and political experts. Since Liu Bang was neither noble by birth nor an expert in military or political affairs, some of the guests asked one of the military experts, Chen Cen, why Liu Bang was the emperor. In a contemporary setting, the question would probably have been: “What added value does Liu Bang bring to the party?”
Chen Cen’s response was to ask the questioner a question in return:
“What determines the strength of a wheel?”
One guest suggested that the strength of the wheel was in its spokes, but Chen Cen countered that two sets of spokes of identical strength did not necessarily make wheels of identical strength. On the contrary, the strength was also affected by the spaces between the spokes, and determining the spaces was the true art of the wheelwright.
Historically, we have seen training play many roles – Inducting new people, on-boarding people for different projects, managing people on performance improvement plans, helping keep the social vibe ‘happy’ in crisis, complacence or casualty, keeping people busy when without work, ensuring that an organization gets it’s ISO audit cleared, flagging or justifying change either before, during or after it, train or even entertrain (entertain – pun intended!) all this while usually playing the emcee to that all important company event where one might get ‘exposure’.
Review this list carefully and you will notice a similarity between the story, the tasks and the spokes of a wheel. Any good organization uses training for the tasks above and there is nothing wrong with that. However, great organizations go beyond this. With time passing by and news of senior HR leaders becoming business leaders and vice versa pouring in, traditional HR is being questioned, altered and challenged. People are writing left-right and center about why the HR person needs to speak business – Even training will transform! Here are top 5 changes that you need to keep up with to stay on the path great organizations take:
A. Future is closer than the past – Learning has been a reflection of the past and is often well understood that way. What the great George Bernard Shaw said as ‘History repeats itself’ is the foundation of such learning. However, this is more untrue today than ever before.
The past success is no guarantee of future success because it’s very nature in the world has changed from replication to disruption. Training is and needs to be changing with it. It needs to be more about what the future could have, than what the past had. More and more great organizations are investing in simulation, gamification and action based experiential learning that could help people prepare for what the uncertain times ahead hold . Workshops like ‘Managing Ambiguity’ are coming up and adaptability is quickly replacing capability as top leadership strength.
Think what would have happened if Tesla decided to learn only from the more established automakers?
(2020 Revisit: Dealing with uncertainly, VUCA and leading transformations have become job families on their own now. It is a mindset and skill widely taught and sought after. Result: Right on the money!)
B. Leadership is not at the top anymore – Yes, the tables have turned, the channels have shortened, organizations have flattened, talent has won the war and consumers are more aware than ever. Today, the leadership credibility added by the CEO is simply not enough. The world is looking for leadership stories all over the company.
How the delivery guy made it special for the birthday boy. How the customer service agent took accountability and personally got the issue resolved before the SLA. How the receptionist waived off the Internet charges for a discomforted guest! Great companies understand this and want their people to learn about both systems and situations simultaneously.
They are working on creating self and situationally aware individual leaders who can measure the pro’s and con’s to take a call in benefit of both the business and the consumer. This does present the business risk or giving too much empowerment down the line, a risk that is now ripe to be taken.
Ever wonder how many people on the Uber team are managing the entire fleet in your city? The answer rhymes with free! i.e. three
(2020 Revisit: Even organizations like McKinsey and Company have built large scale solutions under the banner of A2E (Ability to execute) focusing on fundamental business skills where they teach everyone in the organization, not just the folks at the top! Engagement at the frontline and driving behavioural best practices is all the focus. Result: Right on the money!)
C. Learning is free for those who want to learn – Technology and social media has certainly impacted the literate lifestyle of the urban professional. This is an old story now! It has also influenced the rural farmer and the cave dweller’s lifestyle for good.
This farmer today gets up and tunes in to a special agriculture centric radio show at 5 every morning that tells him what to do today from the expert’s desk. The small time-investor learns to keep a pulse on the market on his android app. The effervescent learner signs up for free online mass courses with professors and content from the worlds top universities.
We are living in an era where the well intentioned can learn better on his own compared to what he can at his local government college. This trend is catching up with companies too with them sponsoring self-initiated learning more than ever. More of them are opening up to the idea of cross skilling, community learning and personalized learning opportunities. This is somewhat responsible for a whole gamut of individuals interested in learning how to think and learning how to learn. Fundamentals are getting clearer and companies are giving the due leverage to its employees who take the first few daring steps in this direction. This kind of training is a little out of hand for any training team but end of the day, if every learner knows what to learn and how to go about it – why would we need a training team?
Even Google is going back to ‘Alphabet’ and fixing it’s abc, you should do something special for those who are willing to learn. Don’t you think?
(2020 Revisit: Even right at this moment you can take a 2 month digital learning course on Udemy for as low as 899 INR and learn from the professors at MIT for free on coursera. You do not get a certificate to post on your linked in but the learning is FREE Result: Right on the money!)
D. Classroom is dying – Frankly, nobody has time to find the best-fit homogeneous set of people to put in a room for two days with a set of unclear achievables that have clear objectives. The matrixed-multi-layered business models of today just do not allow for that to happen.
A lot of organizations are moving away from fulfilling the traditional training man-day mandate to a more sensible learning outcomes measurable. This often means learning can happen anywhere, in much smaller groups, with more meaningful custom content and action learning projects. Teams, training, transition and tradition are all going virtual. With technology behaving better each day, this trend will see steady upswing only.
After all, what could we teach the Wright Brothers (Inventors of the first Airplane) in the classroom?
(2020 Revisit: COVID-19 is the real classroom killer but even without that we had ample proof of digital, self-paced learning options take over. You ask a college student or an early professional today and they will tell how glorious these accolades look to them. Even seasoned professionals must have a recent learning experience. Many platform-based learning options now provide experts, coaches and peer problem solving on demand. That is just in time learning! Result: Right on the money!)
E. Elephants are buying skates – Elephants are the organizations – Large, Heavy, Brute, Slow and caught in their own worlds. And they are out of the jungle and on this highway where speed, agility, timing, adaptability and fuel are need of the hour.
The good news is that the large businesses today acknowledge it and a lot of them are out for buying skates as we speak. It’s a start!
In any organization, training is the driver of learning and at a time when a lot of historical learning is laid waste, this department will be needed to shoulder more weight than ever. In simple terms, training will be everyone’s need and responsibility rather than remaining a mere departmental checkpoint. The sooner an elephant buys this point, the earlier they will have their skates delivered.
(2020 Revisit: AGILE is a way of life now. How organizations organize…well beyond the tech sector. The last 3 clients where I was involved with their Agile transformation were all banks. Result: Right on the money!)
Just imagine, what would happen if Ola, which is doing a great job of teaching professionalism and technology awareness to the people driving their vehicles, stopped training them because the manual wasn’t available? (2020 Revisit: Not sure if I will stand by this based on my personal experience any more, may you have had better!)
The crux of the matter is, great organizations are making training work on the space between the spokes that makes their wheel work better. Other’s are still looking to re-polish the spokes.
Training is changing, only because the learner, the learning, the skill, the organization, the market and the world are changing. The only choice we have is either to get a surfboard and ride the wave or gasp for air in between. Still looking for the X? – Don’t stop because that is just about the only thing that can sustain a momentum the points up-top seem to be building. Would love to hear your thoughts!
By Abhinandan Chatterjee – The Author is an L&D, OD and Leadership Consultant who has worked with over 130 organizations across South Asia and is the author at http://www.abhinandanchatterjee.com. Connect with him on twitter @abhichat99