In a previous blog I covered the results of a case study into eLearning utilization and how the single biggest predictor of whether a person used an eLearning license was whether they thought their manager would smile or frown or be neutral if their staff used eLearning materials during office hours.
Not only did people who thought their managers would smile, use the licenses more and for longer, but they also put in significant amounts of their own time after-hours.
The big disconnect was that managers thought they were smiling but staff didn’t see it the same way.
This has significant implications for both the investment in learning materials and for ongoing professional development on the whole.
In this blog I will cover some of the next steps and what I have found by experience.
The Next Step – Engage the Managers
The obvious remedy is to engage managers and get them to conspicuously engage in their own ongoing professional development, and therefore by example demonstrate not just that they would be likely to smile, but that they were themselves eager participants.
Action, it would seem, might speak louder than words, or what managers believe their words portray.
Two immediate obstacles are likely to present themselves though – firstly, many managers regard themselves not as professional managers, but as SMEs who by virtue of seniority have been burdened with the unwanted baggage of managing other SMEs.
Secondly, even once that hurdle is crossed, the selfsame problem of perception about leaders disposition towards eLearning applies to managers – they are unlikely to take advantage of learning opportunities if they think that their managers do not value ongoing professional development.
This leads to infinite regress all the way to the CEO and beyond.
Before the managers will stick their necks out they need to know that senior executives would approve, and also to see learning behavior exhibited by the senior execs.
It comes down then to whether the senior executives will not only say good things about ongoing professional development, but also model the desired behavior themselves – If managers do not see both forthcoming from the executives, then they are likely to demure on self-development with the simple excuse that they are “too busy”, which is essentially shorthand for “not unless my boss makes it a priority”.
What to Do?
Getting senior executives to participate is the easiest thing, and the most difficult.
If managers ask for it, the execs are likely to wholeheartedly agree that budget needs to be allocated to training, that it should be done during office hours, and that managers have the duty to see that it happens – and they will generally be quite happy to include some choice phrases to this effect in their memos and speeches.
However, they simply won’t do any themselves.
The reason for this seems in many cases to be a mixture of three causes, one familiar, and two new.
- Our old friend, “My boss doesn’t value it”
- “I do my own development and it’s none of your business what that is”
- “I don’t need any”
There are many technological ways to smooth the path, such as putting short audio-summaries of current books on their Blackberry’s or iPhones, printing out the 8-page pdf summaries for them to take on the plane, or subscribing them to business podcasts that deal with their divisional specialization or industry. Recorded interviews with business luminaries or respected leaders can be put on Blackberry or iPhone, as can short video clips from industry analysts. Technology updates on things like SaaS, Cloud Computing, and many other topics can be made available at the touch of a button (or few), and many can be done automatically via RSS feeds or concentrator applications like iTunes.
However, if they do not view it both as part of their duty as custodians of the corporate learning culture, and in their own benefit – and more to the point: that the CEO thinks so, then it is unlikely to happen no matter how technologically enabled it is.
The key would seem to be the CEO then.
The CEO is under constraint and direction of the Board, and they in turn are beholden to the major shareholders who mostly want to know about EBITDA contributions and share-price growth, not training and ongoing professional development.
Likewise, the view of analysts and customers must be considered, and while customers are generally very happy to hear that a supplier keeps their staff well trained (and might be prepared to petition for it), it isn’t going to be very high on either constituency’s list of desired corporate achievements.
The problem then boils down to whether the CEO feels strongly enough about learning to stick their neck out and make it an issue, which they are not likely to do unless it has a good chance of success and has broad support and enthusiastic champions within the rank and file. Sticking out their neck on something that is likely to be a flop and not highly demanded is not a habit that many people acquire on their way to becoming a CEO!
Which brings us back to D’Oh, … or rather, to middle management.
Back to the Middle
Unless the middle management show passion about developing the skills of their staff and are prepared to push the executives on the topic, there will not be the kind of groundswell that would make a CEO likely to take up learning as a cause.
It all boils down to the importance of middle managers and their self-image as professional managers responsible for the well-being and development of their staff, and being prepared to make an issue of learning even though the executives do not seem to be modeling learning behavior (yet).
However, once they take the first step and have the initiative to step forward and be the example first and to drive learning in their own teams, then the door opens for the CEO to step through and for the executives to follow and start modeling the behavior themselves.
Once middle managers take the initiative to view learning and modeling of learning behavior as something for which they must make time, then the rest can follow.
It is the middle manager who can add learning activities to annual staff performance appraisals, and make that part of the criteria for awards, bonuses, and other rewards. It is the middle manager who can regularly ask staff about their progress, and who can align training units to team objectives. It is also the middle manager that most knows precisely what training is needed and which staff members would most benefit (and most deserve) the funding for training materials. They are also the only people who are in a position to allocate time for people to use the training materials, or to present tutorials to other members of the team.
It is again a case of organizational change happening from the middle up and middle down, and a clear illustration of why it is vital that middle managers see themselves as management professionals rather than as SME’s with an unwanted burden of having staff!
To get a culture of learning embedded in an organization and to reap the benefits of a highly-trained and current workforce, my experiences and research lead me to believe that two constituencies are crucial – the passionate activism by middle-managers on behalf of their staff, and a CEO that is prepared to be the sponsor for a learning culture (even if they later delegate it to a prominent CxO or EVP).
If you miss the middle, the ends unravel.
Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.
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