By Shyaam Subramanian
The renowned business theorist and academic Chris Argyris argued provocatively that for organisations to thrive and succeed, they need to move from managing people to managing knowledge. This, he said, will lead to real learning and insights that can transform an organisation’s performance radically.
Traditionally, the human resources, or HR, has been entrusted the role of finding the right people for their organisation, holding the mirror on culture and people, acting as a facilitator of people development and organisational design, and managing transitions and exits. More evolved organisations allow for training or learning and development to be orchestrated by the HR with the belief that people and learning go hand in hand. However, it might be time to upgrade the role of HR to the next level, which is to combine the objectives of individual and organisational learning, so real value is created and sustained in these organisations.
This is driven by two underlying factors. First, the need to deepen real learning at individual level. This means people development is no longer defined only as technical skills and functional competencies to deliver against roles and responsibilities, but is more holistic to include self-awareness, a drive for continuous improvement, and the ability to constantly see the connections between one’s actions and the organisational outcomes.
Second, the ethos needed to translate individual learning into organisational learning. This is subtle and complex, and might call for shifts in values and culture, organisational structure and ways of working.
Transforming the organisation
There are three specific shifts needed to make this happen. Taken together, these will transform the role of a Chief Human Resource Officer into a Chief Learning Officer (although many large organisations continue to have these roles separated with or without a direct reporting relationship).
1. Expand and deepen personal visions in people: This sits at the root of a motivated and productive workforce. Typically, employees are assigned roles and responsibilities, given the opportunity to define their goals and set targets, and work to achieve them. While this is critical to set a foundation for clarity and concerted action, it is not adequate to achieve a sustainable state of self-motivation and drive. That requires constant revisiting of the work in hand: Which parts of that motivate individuals and which ones don’t? Where does an individual experience success or failure and why? When does an individual feel inspired to go way beyond expectations? When do people feel they have learnt and grown the most? And when thinking about these questions, what does the person learn about herself, about the organization and the prevalent conditions?
In a survey by Gallup, it was found that only 14% of the employees surveyed strongly agreed that performance reviews inspired them to improve. Several learning-oriented organisations have moved beyond the traditional performance management systems to include these dialogues between managers and their reports or among peers. The challenge lies in acting on the insights, especially the ones that reflect on the wider organization and the leadership.
2. The second shift is an enhanced focus on the “hardware”: One of the constraints of how organisations are structured today is the need for executives to tirelessly foster collaboration. For example, technology, finance and HR need to work hand in hand to enhance an employee experience. Sales, product design and finance (capital allocation) need to keep the end customer satisfaction as the shared objective. Therefore, HR needs to shift focus sideways – what is the quality of training and development that businesses provide? What benchmarks must be set to ensure they meet a certain bar? Do those agendas reinforce organisational norms (like the focus on personal vision in the previous point) or violate them inadvertently? Are the data systems and infrastructure making individual and group learning easy or are they hindering them because of complexity and volume? and so on. This shift might be big for some organisations. The primary objective of HR while wearing this hat is not that of a learning enabler but that of a barrier resolver. In other words, HR is focused on lowering the organisational barriers to individual or collective learning. This would require them to be highly influential within the organization especially when the focus is on aspects that are not in their direct line of authority. This could mean using smart and periodic surveys to gauge barriers and enablers, focus groups across functions and businesses to understand the “state of learning”, devising shared goals of people satisfaction and development with other enabling functions etc.
3. The final shift is intentionally fostering collaborative learning: The two factors that influence most organisations today are the quest for learning and development in young people and the pace of change in business climate externally. The smart solution is to leverage one to address the other. Cross functional projects, setting aside time for organisational work that does not have direct or short-term impact on the team or the function to which people are assigned, and recognising collaborative behavior and wider contribution are some examples. People development processes and conversations could have creative ways to foster collaboration. These could include: a clear and a tangible goal linked to the time spent outside of one’s function; feedback from teams and coworkers with whom the individual is not working everyday but has spent time on specific projects; using these inputs to decide upward mobility or lateral movement; softer recognition mechanisms such as small one-time rewards, which need not be monetary but consistent signals would go a long way; regular forums with executives and business heads for employees in which not just business results but market realities, and on ground people’s experiences are discussed and debated with honesty and intellectual rigour.
This would develop a key competence in people which is important for organisations to stay nimble and market/customer relevant—interdependence. At the surface level, this might conflict with individual competitiveness but in reality, is an evolved form of excellence in one’s ability. Detached interdependence is the ability of people to be proficient and yet open, balance relationships and results, and be in harmony with any team or setting they are a part of. When the number of people with this ability reaches a critical mass, it is easier to question organization’s strategies, values and assumptions, and move swiftly to course correction or growth. In its truest form, this helps manage knowledge the way Argyris envisioned.
The reason this shift will be the hardest for HR is because this way of working will push executives and business heads to sacrifice short-term outcomes for long-term sustainability, loosen control over resources and people (even though they will gain more control over the outcomes), and could even slow down progress in the short-term. None of this is preferable in most organizations especially if they are driven by short-term outcomes that are narrowly defined. Several studies have surfaced this paradox; most executives believe that collaboration is important but only a fraction see their organisations as being effective in collaboration.
In summary, getting committed and capable people to the organisation, training and mentoring them, and managing their performance and development have become foundational. Transforming an organisation would call for organisational learning to thrive every day and that has huge implications for what HR as a function could do through a combination of creative and well-designed policies, processes and organisational norms and culture.
Shyaam Subramanian leads program design, research, strategy and learning at Teach For India.
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