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CIPD Podcast 126 - Learning to learn: a look at today's learning organisations

Date: 06/06/17 | Duration: 00:19:46

In his best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge outlines the concept of the ‘learning organisation’. These organisations would be agile, innovative and highly competitive. They would emphasise continual learning and work from a shared vision for all employees. Senge was certainly ahead of his time and 27 years after publication, organisations are still seeking (and often struggling) to embody these ideas.

In this episode we discuss new research from Towards Maturity into the New Learning Organisation, and we chat to learning professionals from Virgin Media, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British Heart Foundation to find what becoming a learning organisation has meant for them and what steps they’ve taken to put learning at the heart of their business.

View the full podcast transcript

Philippa Lamb: We all talk about learning organisations it’s a phrase you hear everywhere nowadays but can you name the person who came out with not just the tag but the idea that all organisations should be places where learning is embedded in everything they do? MIT’s Peter Senge was the academic behind that thought. It was a radical departure at the time because he wrote his globally famous book, The Fifth Discipline, 27 years ago.

Now we’re recording this podcast that the Learning and Development Show in London. This year’s focus is on building b learning into the core of your organisation and it’s a reworking of Senge’s idea because as it turns out he was so far ahead of his time that even now his philosophy is only just starting to take root in a really major way.

Jonathan Marshall: The idea is to think always about how we’re delivering and designing and creating a learning culture within the organisation. It’s always easy to slip back into the training department mentality and mode of operating and we’re very consciously trying not to do that and we’re trying to think about results.

PL: That was Jonathan Marshall explaining how the Foreign and Commonwealth office is even now trying to put Peter Senge’s ideas to work. We’ll have more from him later and we’ll also hear from Virgin Media and the British Heart Foundation on how they're working to become learning organisations too. Before we get to that though let’s have a quick refresher on Senge’s theories.

Jane Daly: So Peter Senge’s work was all based around a living and breathing organisational system and how that can impact business results.

PL: So he came up with a number of disciplines around the characteristics of what he felt created a learning organisation. Can you just remind us a bit about those?

JD: Yeah of course absolutely and there were five of them at the time. There was systems thinking; personal mastery; mental models; shared vision and team learning.

PL: At heart Senge’s five disciplines were all about achieving three key things. He wanted organisations to foster aspiration; to have reflective conversations and to understand complexity. Now those aims sound smart and sensible to us now but at the time his ideas just didn’t take off.

JD: Senge himself talks about this being visionary at the time and just maybe the world wasn’t quite ready.

PL: So his ideas were well ahead of the time and quite alien and threatening. You can see how they could be quite threatening to the management ideas of the time. But now, very interestingly, you've revisited this and you've come up with characteristics of what you're calling the new learning organisation.

JD: Absolutely we have and what we do specifically is look at what’s working in business, what’s really impacting that bottom line.

PL: Now you have six I think on the list don’t you? Give us the headlines.

JD: We have clarity of purpose; holistic people experience; thriving ecosystem; agile, digitally-enabled infrastructure; continual engagement and intelligent decision making. I think it’s really worth mentioning clarity of purpose because this is the one that intrinsically links everything else.

PL: So an organisation, people are listening to this and thinking, is it like that where I work? How can you take the temperature of your own organisation in that sense?

JD: I think that we need to really think about is learning impacting the bottom line? We put out a paper last year on the C Suite where we looked at what they were saying through all of the thought leadership papers and publications and evidence that is out there spoke to C Suite leaders ourselves. They're really only interested in four critical levers of business. Now they are growth; transformation; profit and productivity. If learning is not spoken about in the boardroom at business level around those four levers then you can say to yourself, ‘Is what we’re doing really working? Is it really impacting the business in the way that it needs to?’

PL: I mentioned Virgin Media at the top of the podcast they're an interesting organisation in this context because last year they pretty well completely reinvented the way they looked at how their people learn while they’re working. Dom Boon from Virgin is going to tell us all about it but I'm going to take him somewhere quieter because as you can probably hear it’s pretty noisy out here in the exhibition hall.

Shall we kick off with just, I mean everyone knows who Virgin Media is but with just a little blurb about what is Virgin Media?

Dom Boon: Sure yeah Virgin Media is in the telecoms, media and technology space offering mobile phones, fixed line telephony, internet broadband and TV services.

PL: Okay and how many people have you got?

DB: We’ve got 13,000 employees in the UK.

PL: Okay, so I was reading about what you've been up to at Virgin and it was fascinating to see, this is really recent, that about three quarters of your training was done face to face.

DB: That sounds right yes [fade out]

PL: Remember Jane Daly’s four critical levers: growth; transformation; profit and productivity? Well one day Dom Boon realised that Virgin’s L&D strategy just wasn’t meshing with them.

[fade in] …and in this big catalogue of courses and then you realised that actually largely people weren't using them.

DB: That's right I think the clunk moment was when we had some consultancy came in and looked at the system, found that we had 3,500 learning items and only 200 were being used on a semi-regular basis. I think that moment was quite sickening actually. It was years of work that had gone into creating all of this content. I think it’s very hard for the learning function to sometimes take a look at itself and admit that we’re failing in certain areas. So it took someone to have a direct conversation with us to realise that.

PL: Very hard to swallow that sort of criticism. But when he immediately overhauled Virgin’s entire learning strategy Dom proved himself to be exactly the sort of impressive learning leader that Jane Daly rates most highly.

JD: L&D professionals really need to think about themselves as mini organisations themselves around these characteristics in order to influence that within their business. The top deck organisations are led by top deck leaders and when we look at the characteristics of them, as I said, these characteristics have come out of the firm evidence of what’s working in business today. What we see is they are L&D leaders that learn, so they want to learn. They want to transform and continually learn. And those are the things that are required for the future.

PL: So back at Virgin Media Dom Boon sat down and rethought the L&D philosophy. When he was finished he'd slimmed it down to four new learning portals one each for sales, services, management and professional and personal skills.

DB: And those portals are really easy to use. People can just get really small bite size chunks of learning ready to help them in their jobs.

PL: Tell me how you announced this to your people and what they made of it and how it’s been going so far.

DB: Well I think people were a little bit sceptical to start with I have to admit. I think people have recollections of the early e-learning, the clunky compliance stuff from ten, 15 years ago that everybody said was the future of learning.

PL: Half an hour in front of the PC and ticking boxes.

DB: Exactly absolutely, so a little bit of scepticism but I think as soon as they’ve seen the content they’ve realised how useful it can be. And I think the best story that I received was from a line manager who had a difficult performance management conversation to have with one of his employees in the afternoon, he went on to the site in the morning, found a few feedback models that he was able then to use in face to face conversation later on in the day. So we’re finding people want training that just in time, just enough, just for me – very different type of learning from years ago.

PL: And people are using Dom's new portals. Four months in and they already have 2,000 users each week. That sounds like point five from Jane’s list of learning organisation commandments, continual learning. And as you’d expect from a digital media company Virgin has what Jane calls an agile, digitally enabled infrastructure – point four on her list. What it means on the ground is that they’re encouraging their retail teams to record short learning clips for their colleagues to use.

DB: They do a one minute recording, it might be how to get people off the street into the store, it might be how to sell a particular Virgin Media bundle. They do it with great charisma and some of the clips are really amusing and they create lots and lots of interest.

PL: There's also an interactive gaming app called Albert.

DB: Every day we send out three true or false questions or multiple choice questions and people can compete against each other, against different teams.

PL: What sort of questions?

DB: Things like what is the period of a standard Virgin Media contract, or what is the fastest speed that broadband can deliver through Virgin Media pipes? That kind of thing.

PL: Is it a virtual win or do they actually get stuff for winning?

DB: They get stuff for winning absolutely. They get the pride of being at the top of the leader board of course but no we've got a range of different prizes, things like iPads and laptops and that kind of thing.

PL: I mean that brings me to a more serious question which is obviously you’re designing stuff which is very specifically aimed at the people you've got, quite rightly, with something like that do you have any expectation that would spread across your entire salesforce or is that always going to be something that's quite niche, possibly quite blokey, and I don’t want to be too gender biased about gaming here, or are you not finding that?

DB: No we’re not finding that at all, no popular with males and females. I think this could go right across all functions, I mean there's no reason why you couldn’t send out three easy quiz questions to an HR function about employment law and try and make that fun.

PL: Good luck with that!

DB: No but I really do see it’s so fun, interactive, easy to use, I think we will really start to see this type of learning spread quickly.

PL: So Virgin’s people like the new approach but how does Dom's strategy play into Jane Daly’s four key levers for the organisation itself – growth, transformation, profit and productivity?

DB: We definitely see higher engagement levels across our retail stores that are embracing digital learning and we do see good performance from the better users of digital learning in our digital network.

PL: And you can correlate that enhanced performance specifically to this can you?

DB: Yeah we can, the stores that are using the most digital learning are delivering the best revenue.

PL: That’s encouraging.

DB: Mm yeah.

PL: Jonathan Marshall is head of learning at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s diplomatic academy. They’re on the same journey to becoming a learning organisation as our other speakers and they’ve just started an experiment. It’s a six month programme designed specifically to build their negotiating skills.

Okay well just for the tape can you tell us, I mean everyone knows what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is but people won't know what the diplomatic academy is.

Jonathan Marshall: Very good point. The diplomatic academy was an initiative by William Hague when he was Foreign Secretary and his vision really was to invest in diplomatic skills. So it sounds like an ivy-covered building in the countryside or an Oxbridge college. It’s not, it’s a small, modest training suite in the corner of the Foreign Office building but it’s very, very global in its remit.

PL: And your role?

JM: I'm head of learning. The idea is to think always about how we’re delivering and designing and creating a learning culture within the organisation. It’s always easy to slip back into the training department mentality and mode of operating. We’re very consciously trying not to do that and we’re trying to think about results. The aim is to get better at doing things.

PL: So tell me about this experiment, it’s about negotiating skills.

JM: Okay so we’ve got the grandfather, grandmother, mother and father of all negotiations coming up in terms of leaving the European Union and all the associated trade agreements after that. So we started planning before that but that was a bit of a boost shall we say to the urgency of needed negotiating skills.

PL: So how is it actually working? What are you doing?

JM: We have gone out and collected 30 people, 30 willing victims, from around the global organisation, so at least ten or 12 of them I think are based overseas. The key feature really is around what we call smart shadowing, what we mean is not, what I would call dumb shadowing is what we’ve all probably done in the past, you trail around after somebody for a day; you look over their shoulder while they do emails; you sit in meetings that are interesting, some that are less interesting; you get under their feet a bit; drink too many cups of coffee and then it’s all over and you learn something, you always learn something but what we wanted to do is have people build their skills by shadowing real negotiation.

PL: So they shadow the entire process from start to finish over time in real time?

JM: We found six mentors who are leading for the UK, literally sitting behind the flag on a negotiation in an international context – I’ll give a couple of examples – we’ve got two mentors sitting in New York in our mission to the United Nations, negotiating, I think one is a mandate for the Darfur peacekeeping operation; one mentors around the migration compact. We’ve got a mentor in Geneva. We’ve got somebody doing cyber security. So it’s a range of…

PL: Serious issues!

JM: Oh and Gibraltar and Cyprus, which are not trivial either.

PL: So these are all major, major negotiations.

JM: Major issues and the idea is that those six mentors have each taken a small group, a subset of the 30 people, so four or five people perhaps and they will meet with them regularly over that period of time, talk to them about how the negotiation’s going, share documents with them, share insights, reflect on what’s happening, perhaps even be challenged by the learning group. So it should be two-way.

PL: Fascinating isn’t it? Smart shadowing clearly fits into Jane’s second learning organisation characteristic, holistic people experience. And even more so in that Jonathan deliberately chose participants who will be in a position to apply what they learn and share their knowledge with colleagues straightaway.

JM: So we want our learning groups collectively as part of their learning, part of their reflection, to create, for example it can be a video interview, it could be a podcast, it could be a list of top tips, it could be a PowerPoint, we’re leaving it up to them, but something that will encapsulate what they’ve learnt and then be used by the rest of the organisation.

PL: Along with the learning tools they develop out of their experiences all those people who've had front row seats at live political negotiations also bring back great stories. So what they’ve learnt spreads like wildfire amongst their colleagues although some of it is a bit unexpected.

JM: Even in literally the first meeting of the cohort we had some fun examples, some real life learning being shared and the one that stuck in my mind was the colleague who talked about negotiating with Iran but actually the most challenging cultural negotiating hurdle being with their colleagues on the same side of the table from a different government department. So understanding the mentality of the Iranian system and the hierarchy of the Iranian system was just a little bit less difficult than understanding the mentality and hierarchy of Department X, I won't name them, a major department of state and that resonated for some people and to some people that was actually quite a new and interesting and disturbing thought, so 360 negotiating.

PL: A couple of years ago the British Heart Foundation set itself the task of become a world class organisation with learning and research at its core. Julie Jones is their head of talent at organisational development. So how did you start, presumably you had to define what you meant by world class organisation?

Julie Jones: We did indeed. We spent quite a lot of time in the fairly collaborative process to do that. So we involved a huge amount of people across the organisation to have those conversations. We did a lot of research with other organisations, we involved a number of people across the British Heart Foundation.

PL: And did they all agree with each other?

JJ: No.

PL: Okay.

JJ: But it was a really useful debate actually and I think having those conversations and having that difference actually meant it was a richer outcome in the end.

PL: So the BHF found clarity about its purpose and values but they also came to realise that the people who worked there didn’t understand what difference that made to them and their role. So they created a new framework of behaviours and they called it Live It, Beat It.

So embedded within that framework you've got behaviours around reinforcing learning?

JJ: Absolutely, so about 60% of our behaviours are linked to learning or development in some way. So whether that's through collaboration with others, learning from others, reviewing projects or reflecting on mistakes and using mistakes as opportunities to learn.

PL: So as someone involved with the organisation or working for the organisation as a volunteer or an employee what has that meant for a person in any role there? What difference has it made?

JJ: It’s made a huge difference. It’s been translated through a number of different ways. So we reintroduced our development and performance reviews and we’ve changed that to be not an annual appraisal but actually a quarterly conversation that they have which also brings into those conversations how you are demonstrating those values, how you are living those behaviours and what else you can do in order to build on that.

PL: Clearly you’re measuring in different areas of all this but across the board have you arrived at a place where you can understand how much difference it’s making?

JJ: To some extent yes we have. We do an engagement survey each year and certain things that we know we were particularly targeting through our behaviours, so for example collaboration was something that was really key for us and we recognised that that really wasn’t happening previously, that has improved significantly. So in our engagement survey it’s increased by about 8% since the last time we measured it.

PL: Happy with that?

JJ: Very happy yes.

PL: Jane Daly told us that having genuine clarity of purpose is probably the key characteristic of a learning organisation. And listening to Julie it is having a measurable impact on engagement at the British Heart Foundation. They hope that will raise organisation performance right across the board.

So going back to where we began this podcast it’s pretty clear that lots of organisations are trying to bring continual learning into their day to day life. So does Jane Daly think that Peter Senge’s ideas will really take flight now?

JD: Absolutely. The evidence has shown me that we are showing those green shoots, it’s there. Let’s remind ourselves in one of the latest PWC reports the C Suite are reporting 77% of them saying that skills are hindering their businesses growth. So skills are always in the top three concerns of the C Suite today. People are ready for this, people want this and they want to learn within business and they want to grow.

PL: Are you getting any sense that this imperative is higher up the agenda now that we are looking ahead to Brexit?

JD: It absolutely is growing in importance, growing in concern and that's why we need a different type of thinking, a different mindset, a shift in what we do as L&D professionals. The time is right to do that because business absolutely need us and leaders need to be leading this as much as L&D professionals.

PL: Next time we’re exploring the Apprenticeship Levy. It’s been highly contentious but it’s here. So how will it operate and could it really revolutionise learning and work? The podcast goes live on the first Tuesday of the month as ever. Join me then.

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