Queen's University IRC

Building a Learning Organization

An Interview with François Morissette, Queen’s IRC Facilitator
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

November 1, 2006

Françoise Morissette is an Queen’s IRC Facilitator, accredited coach, and Organizational Development consultant. In the following Q & A she discusses how executives who sponsor education for their employees can ensure that valuable knowledge actually gets applied in the workplace.

Do executive sponsors typically get good returns on their educational investments in employees?

A lot depends on the quality of the discussion between the participant and the manager who authorized the training. If the executive is clear about what he or she is trying to accomplish by sending the employee for professional development, and maintains a dialogue – debriefing the person upon his or her return to the workplace, and setting the scene for application and sharing of knowledge – chances are there’s going to be a good return on investment.

In contrast, if someone goes on a course and then no one ever talks about it, nothing much will happen. The quality of the dialogue between sponsor and employee is really the deciding factor.

What are the most common barriers employees face in applying and sharing new knowledge in their workplaces?

One is lack of a plan – no one has thought about the applications for the new knowledge, for example, and the person reverts back to the normal way of life without using what they’ve learned.

A second is a clash with the culture – someone comes back and has great ideas, but the environment is not receptive, or is even against these new ideas.

A third one is overwork. People are burdened; they come back, haven’t been in the office for a week, a crisis erupts, and that’s it – they never move forward with their learnings.

Of these three, the worst and most difficult to overcome is culture. It is almost impossible to deal with, unless the person becomes a missionary within the organization.

However, the other two are linked. The best defence against them is having a plan. That way there’s clarity around next steps for applying or sharing knowledge, and you will do better in dealing with the emergencies. Instead of being controlled by them, you’ll see them as a temporary nuisance along the path, but don’t send you away from your longer-term goal.

How can the sponsoring executive promote the transfer of knowledge from employee to workplace?

Sponsoring executives have three roles to play: to plan before the course; debrief after the course; and coach while the person applies and shares new information.

Can you talk in more detail about these roles, and the steps that need to be followed?

Good organizations have development strategies that pertain to different levels. They might ask first, ‘At the organizational level, what do our employees need to know?’

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., for example, has a full set of leadership competencies it wants all its leaders to have, and as a result has created an organization-wide development strategy for these leaders. People journey through these developmental programs, which include training and other activities, the way you would go up a ladder. When organizations do this it really clarifies ‘What do we want our employees to know?’

Sometimes it is about the core business of the organization and what the competencies are, or other times it is about culture – ‘We want everyone to be change-friendly, so we’ll send everyone to a change program’ for example.

Organization is the first level, and then we have the department, and its specific needs. The purchasing department might want to provide customer service training, for example.

Then there is the individual, person A’s needs versus Person B’s. So perhaps the employee needs to improve at something, or has been thrown into a new role requiring new skills – an HR person moving into an OD role, for example.

In the ideal world, all three levels flow together in a spiral from organizational needs, in to departmental needs, and then individual needs.

Sponsoring managers and participants both need to be clear about what exactly is being pursued on each of these three levels. If you can link the time at Queen’s, for example, to the individuals’ needs, the department’s needs, and the organizational strategy, that’s one step toward getting a good return on the education investment.

So the first step is to link the education to the organizational, departmental and individual needs, and have clarity around this.

My advice is that executive sponsors and employees have discussions before the program to identify on the three levels, ‘What is it we are after?’

Then after the program, the second step is for the authorizing manager and participant to discuss what was learned, whether learning goals were met, how new knowledge can be applied to a particular situation or project, and how learning can be taken further – for example the participant might say ‘This was so good I suggest the whole HR department takes the course.’

The third step is moving into applications for learners, and also for colleagues and others to whom knowledge is to be transferred.

Here, ongoing coaching as the employee is applying the knowledge is needed. Agree on periodical check-ups and continue along that path until the project is complete. Then schedule another meeting to consider how well the learning was integrated, and future needs.

In addition, discussions on who else needs to share knowledge, and vehicles for doing so, are essential.

This need not be a complex process. A few simple steps before and after educational programs will ensure that learning really takes root.

How can sponsoring executives help employees apply new learning at work?

It is important that they draw a line from the training to a project the employee can work on in the organization. It is good to talk about this before the program, and again afterward. That’s because it is not always clear to the authorizing manager and employee what the applications ahead of time. Often, whatever they were thinking early on changes.

What can managers do to help employees share information?

Many organizations have Lunch and Learns, where people return from a course and are expected to share with colleagues. Or participants might write articles for the newsletter, Intranet or use other vehicles within the organization.

As well, some organizations have learning councils so people may share learning on an individual or strategic level. For example, I was recently involved in a project with a hospital, and they’d even struck up a partnership with a university. Often what happens with councils/forums is people start to realize that they need to align their approach to learning in the organization if they want to leverage it.

It is all about alignment, and that’s the overall role of the sponsoring executive: to make the link and ensure learning is aligned to organizational, departmental and individual needs – as well as specific applications in the workplace.

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