Does social learning drive business success or vice versa?

In discussion with a peer L&D leader about how to change social/ collaborative learning brings about a power shift in knowledge distribution, I found myself a little surprised by his belief. He was convinced companies should implement social learning so that there is a more balanced level of knowledge in the organisation. That should be the reason for companies to implement social learning. 

I do agree that social/ collaborative learning brings about a power shift, but it will not be the reason why companies would want or have to implement it. Instead, a company will be motivated by speed, cost and relevance as to how new skills are developed. Much like in other parts of the business, where years of operational excellence tweaking has taken place (doing more with fewer resources), also L&D has come to a tipping point where the current mechanism can’t keep up with the daily business demands.

That current mechanism being command & control pushed top-down skill development relies on market predictability. Companies are increasingly finding out that this market predictability is disappearing faster than snow on a hot summer day. The strategic focus years ago was perhaps 5 – 10 years, nowadays some companies are already down to 2 or some even one year. 

Looking at what that means for human capital development: skill change is happening a lot faster. In a presentation of Bror Saxberg in 2017, Bror mentioned that corporations need to make their skill-refresh in 2-year cycles as a result. For a larger company utilising today’s mechanisms that would mean a serious investment, if not disproportionate, in L&D resources to be able to deliver that. With the 5000 employees that I was responsible for, that would mean that I need a team size of about 30 FTE to drive skill development through a traditional top-down, central knowledge distribution approach. No CEO is going to sign-off on that. 

So, as the requirements have shifted so significantly, you need to search for a delivery mechanism that doesn’t create a bottleneck or requires disproportionate resources. Trying to find just a more efficient way of producing content is not going to cut it anymore. A fundamental change is needed. In my case, that was moving towards a platform and ecosystem approach, where L&D became an enabler of the organisation. 

In discussions with CxO’s from other companies and industries, they too found that a platform & ecosystem approach for skill change is the logical choice considering the new market dynamics. With that reasoning, they are entirely on board with the power shift in knowledge distribution. That concretely means that the L&D skills of today are not needed anymore and need to be transformed. With that, also employees need to adapt their mindset to the new status quo this brings upon them.

This challenge that L&D has, also companies have on a top-level. They too need to change the way they are doing business fundamentally. But that entails an equal power shift of letting go of 5-year waterfall planning and accepting the uncertainty of reality. That also means giving up power if you want to use mechanisms like platforms and ecosystems. Who is ready to give up their power for the overall benefit of the company? That is one of the critical challenges digitalisation is brining to every aspect of the business, also L&D. 

Changing delivery mechanisms, or operating models, is only possible if you have a thorough understanding of the challenges the business is facing today and in the coming 18 months. You need to understand how the business model of the company has been evolving and at which speed. You need to respect that change has become the new constant and that, whatever mechanism you develop, it needs to be able to adapt to the unique circumstances. 

An article published in 2015 by Paul Marsden on “The 10 Business Models of Digital Disruption” gives excellent insight into what new mechanisms are disrupting companies. By studying how these business model function, you are laying the foundation of building your own unique business and operating model for your new L&D department.

To get started, view a few videos by Strategyzer on their “Business Model Canvas” approach. It will give you insights on what business models are and how they work. They also speak about business model innovation, something that goes hand-in-hand with the “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and R. Mauborgne. 

If you want to create a new (disruptive) L&D operating model that works for your company, you need to understand and be able to apply the logic of these two approaches.