CLO Magazine, October 2009
by Jay Cross
Last month I conducted several workshops to inject informal and social learning practices into hidebound organizations that were anxious to ramp up to the future. I encouraged them to address the needs of people who had traditionally been left out of the corporate training agenda.
In the old days, corporate training departments focused solely on workers on the payroll. Most of the effort went into getting novices up to speed and grooming fast-trackers as future leaders. Training departments largely overlooked improving the skills of seasoned employees, despite the fact that these were the people whose efforts were paying the bills.
This myopia is the result of looking at training as a cure for cluelessness rather than the route to ever-greater levels of performance. The logic went, “If it’s broken, fix it,” but don’t waste time converting adequate performers into stars. The world’s become too competitive to let this neglect continue.
Any organization that is committed to working smarter needs to assess the impact of helping employees learn at every step in their career cycle. What’s it worth, for example, to offer learning opportunities to potential recruits before they come on board? These “pre-hires” can become familiar with the company before signing on. This cuts costly hiring mistakes that hurt both the organization and the new hire.
Seasoned employees are not going to flock to classes and workshops; they have work to do. But making it easier through collaboration, self-service learning and skill bites helps sharp people become sharper. Making a producer just a little bit more productive yields greater rewards than anything you can do with novices.
Old hands may have known it all in yesterday’s world, but they can only remain productive by keeping up with changes. Furthermore, a company that doesn’t tap its community elders as coaches, mentors and guides is missing an important trick. IBM and other corporations generate leads and harvest insider knowledge by keeping former employees in the community — and, therefore, in the loop.
Increasingly, organizations are sustained by people who are not on the payroll. These are contract workers and individuals called in for a particular project. They are temps, specialists, consultants and service providers. Perhaps they work for an outsource provider.
However, these workers are not exempt from needing to know what’s going on and continuously getting better at what they do. It’s the logic of the supply chain: Since inefficient links get passed along to the customer, companies must optimize the performance of the chain. That means improving the brainpower of everyone who works for the company — not just those who receive paychecks.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, a set of 95 principles for businesses operating in the newly connected workplace, just turned 10 years old. Here’s the clue: Markets are conversations. Doc Searls, co-author of the manifesto, amended that to “markets are relationships.” Exactly. Companies can’t exist in isolation. Value has moved from the nodes to the connections. No business can survive without good ties to a healthy ecosystem.
And that applies to customer relationships as well. Take me, for example. I recently purchased a snazzy video camera. The manual appears to have been written for rocket scientists. The companion Web site is simply a PDF of the manual. Ugh.
Developing an amazing piece of machinery like this camera must cost millions. For just $100,000 more, the company could have set up a discussion site for customers to swap information, opened a customer hot line, hired an English grad student to write a coherent self-study manual, gotten feedback for new product development and provided a list of links to useful sites for new HD video camera owners. And to attract prospective buyers, they could have opened up lessons for all would-be videographers.
If I were greeted with useful resources such as those, I would be much more likely to buy from the same supplier again. As it is now, I have learned nothing from the camera makers, they have learned nothing from me, and we have no relationship at all.
Shouldn’t chief learning officers shoulder the responsibility for learning by everyone in the extended enterprise?