Managing the Learn Amid the Churn – ATD Links (December 2017)

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Help your learning department weather the test of time and build sustainable value.

ATD Links Article (Dec. 2017) at <>

When Kimberly started as director of her organization’s learning and development department, she reported to one senior vice president. With a staff of four, her main responsibilities were to build a performance-based learning organization in support of strategic goals and talent development. Within a year, partnerships and service agreements were initiated with key business units. Measures of learning’s contribution to job and business results were being identified for select programs. Executive dashboard reports were on the drawing board. Then the company went through reorganization and started a series of downsizing. Within nine months, Kimberly’s job changed three times, and the senior vice president changed twice. Kimberly and her team were being aligned constantly with different lines of business, each with different objectives. “It was like management by chaos,” she says. “We could never get any traction for learning since leaders and their priorities were constantly shifting.”

Gaining traction is a unique challenge in a business landscape characterized by a new “normal” of constant change and churn. How often have you witnessed revolving chairs with CEOs who come or go or moving targets that shift with the latest urgent decree or flavor of the month? All of this makes it difficult for the learning function to effectively align with business priorities when priorities keep shifting. And it becomes increasingly more difficult for learning leaders to show how they contribute to real performance results when performance targets keep moving. In a world of churn, the learning function is especially

To leverage its full potential for adding strategic value, the learning function needs to remain stable, flexible, relevant, and resilient in the face of up and down cycles of budget cuts, reorgs, downsizing, rightsizing, or outsourcing. Here are five high- impact practices that can strengthen the resilience of your learning function and help it to weather the test of time and build sustainable value.

Lead with culture. At Cathay United Bank, a financial services firm headquartered in Taiwan, talent development and a culture of learning play a major role in helping the bank and its 165 branch offices progress toward its mission of becoming the top bank in the Asia Pacific region. Here, learning processes are nimble, customized, and available at the time of need. Employees are responsible for their own development, and learning leaders serve as facilitators rather than gatekeepers of learning. Showing leaders how learning cultures can drive results in terms of attraction, retention, engagement, innovation, and revenue growth strengthens the resiliency and relevance of the learning function.

Develop and distribute leadership. The fastest way for a learning function to mature into one that consistently enables high performance and engagement is through the visible commitment of its leaders. Companies like Google and 3M have found that coordinated, dispersed leadership adds more sustainable value than isolated development actions focused solely on C-suite executives or a select few high potentials. Resilient learning leaders highlight opportunities for a broader constituency of people to be developed and empowered as coaches, change agents, and decision makers in order to increase the speed, dexterity, and adaptability of the organization as a whole.

Build agility and change capability. The U.S. military provides many lessons around how to adjust to a volatile and highly unpredictable external environment. While once bastions of command-and-control, military institutions such as the U.S. Marine Corps are at the forefront of designing modern organizational structures and leadership processes that promote “clock-speed” agility. Since many change initiatives flounder because leaders lack the skills to initiate and sustain change, resilient learning functions leverage leadership development to enable leaders’ agility. This includes providing action-learning opportunities that are contextualized to the respective change roles of senior, mid-, and frontline managers. Companies like Duke Energy also leverage change academies, change networks, change teams, and communities of practice to drive change capability on an enterprise level. Helping organizations survive and thrive amidst constant disruption strengthens the resiliency and long-term value of the learning function.

Drive for results. Resilient, high-performing learning organizations like those at Merck or Marriott have a defined measurement strategy and regularly measure learning’s impact upon business results. Impact measures tend to be highly correlated to the effectiveness and durability of a learning organization, the presence of a learning culture, and market performance. While most learning leaders support the use of strong measurement practices, many fail to maintain relevance and establish sustainability because they focus more on learning than on the performance that results from learning. Resilient learning leaders at companies like LinkedIn and Footlocker have adopted more consistent, credible measures of learning effectiveness by upskilling their teams in the proper use of talent analytics as a value-added, strategic tool to inform and influence executive decision making.

Embrace the art of innovation. It’s tough for learning leaders to drive innovation within the business if the business of learning is stagnant and out of touch with modern needs. Learning leaders must continually renew, reinvent, and innovate their processes and practices to increase participation, engagement, impact, and value. Innovative learning leaders at companies like Adobe and Mindtree embrace forms of learning technology (such as social media tools or mobile platforms), where workers are empowered with tools and resources to manage their own learning. Others use flexible, collaborative learning experiences that promote innovative skills and mindsets.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Some experts say that a sustainable, “hard-wired” learning enterprise—one that is fully embedded in organizational culture— may take several years to achieve. Learning professionals who have succeeded emphasize that it’s not a single accomplishment, but rather an ongoing effort that requires flexibility, resilience, and a long-term line of sight. Use of these five high-impact practices can help you progress and prioritize opportunities for adding near and long-term value. After all, in an uncertain, ambiguous world, the best way to predict the future is to help create it.


“What the Military Can Teach Organizations About Agility,” by David Gillespie MIT Sloan Management Review, November 14, 2017.


Holly Burkett, SPHR, CPT, has more than 20 years’ experience helping diverse, global organizations achieve strategic change impact with workplace learning and talent management initiatives focused on leadership development, succession planning, career development and coaching, and performance improvement. Formerly with Apple, she is now principal of Evaluation Works, a performance consultancy in Davis, California.

She recently wrote the award-winning book “Learning for the Long Run: 7 Practices for Sustaining a Resilient Learning Organization” (ATD Press at <>), authored the “Talent Manager as Change Agents” chapter in ATD’s Talent Management Handbook, and was a contributor to the Human Resource Certification Institute’s (HRCI’s) The Rise of HR: Wisdom From 73 Thought Leaders, an e-book distributed to more than 1.5 million HR professionals around the globe.

Holly holds a doctorate in human capital development, along with a master’s of human resources and organizational development, and is a frequent conference presenter, international facilitator, and writer.