Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Enterprise-Wide Learning, Collaboration, and the Power of Alignment

Globalization used to be a race to create company footprints around the world. Today, those early globalizers are seeking greater integration and alignment – organizing and enabling distributed resources, like talent, to fast-track along a common strategic direction. From the title of this posting, you might think that I’m going talk about enterprise-wide learning management systems, but that’s not the case. Learning management systems are excellent vehicles for delivering consistent enterprise-wide learning, but I want to talk here about something much more fundamental.

Building consistency and alignment

Let me begin by distinguishing between consistency and alignment. Think about geese swimming on a pond. Their individual behaviors are consistent with being geese (we see the same behaviors repeated by geese everywhere), but they are unaligned behaviors. Now think about the same geese in the air, flying in their ‘V’ formation; their individual behaviors are still consistent with being geese, but those individual behaviors are now collectively aligned to achieving a shared purpose – migration to a common destination. Consistency is related to repetition; alignment adds the power of unity and direction.

Looking at training program portfolios offered in many companies, you will find that individual programs promote a consistent approach (e.g., process) to executing a particular skill, like collaborating. When many managers in the company learn and repeat the same process, the company will have established a consistent approach to applying the skill in the manager population. Alignment takes consistency to another level – it connects a skill like collaborating to shared purpose, direction, and strategy. What I’m saying, therefore, is that while many training program portfolios help develop consistency in skills and knowledge they fail to develop the power of alignment.

Taking a holistic view of your training program portfolio

One of the critical skills needed in today’s highly complex business environment is systemic thinking – the ability to understand not just the parts, but also the linkages and relationships between the parts – the ability to connect the dots. Associated with systemic thinking are abilities to synthesize, identify patterns, and understand interactions within the whole system.

The traditional response to a skill development need is to create a program on Systemic Thinking - which is a great first step - but such a program would most likely be, and remain, an autonomous ‘product’ within a training program portfolio. If such a skill is critical to business success, we need to be asking where else in the portfolio could this skill be explored, linked to, and reinforced. We pay a great deal of attention to individual program development in specific areas of knowledge and know-how, but very little to connective knowledge and know-how between programs.

One of the ways toward greater alignment of people resources would be a comprehensive training portfolio review. Look at your portfolio of programs as a whole, and not just the strengths and weaknesses of each one.


First, start by placing every program in the context of your collective vision, mission, values and business strategy. Is the program helping generate alignment power as well as consistency? Does each program make connections to the greater why, as well as the specific what and how?

Second, look at the portfolio as a whole and look for existing connections and contradictions between programs. Yes, I’ve seen individual programs that seem to work against other programs in the portfolio; eliminate the contradictions. Then examine the existing connections between programs, e.g., reinforcement of vision, mission, values, skills, models, tools, strategies, concepts, key messages, and terminology, and ask:

• Do any of these inter-program connections need to be strengthened to deepen alignment?
• Are some connective knowledge threads missing between programs that could strengthen collective alignment?
• Can we add this connective knowledge and know-how without creating too much redundancy in the portfolio?

Factoring in company values and connective language

Reinforcement of company values in a portfolio is particularly important for creating alignment and integration, and so is the issue of creating shared terminology or connective language. So much energy and time is wasted in individuals using the same language across a business, but meaning different things.

Will an enterprise-wide learning management system guarantee people alignment in the business? Not necessarily. Greater consistency should result, but greater alignment power will depend not just on the quality of individual programs, but the vertical connections to business strategy, etc., and the integrative connections across the portfolio.

The bottom line
And so, bottom line, we need to help people see connections, make linkages, and arrive at shared understandings. New social media being introduced into organizations will help people gain connective knowledge in their individual networks, but we must complement this informal connecting of the dots with a more rigorous and systematic approach to alignment in our training portfolios.

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