I recently picked up the very brilliant The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a colourful investigation into the origins of our favourite Disney characters. Written by two of the nine animators who made Walt Disney into a household name, it very aptly demonstrates what a visionary Disney was – and not just in the field of animation.
Way back in 1923, when performance appraisals, 360 feedback, and employee evaluations weren’t established (and certainly weren’t Googleable), this guy was blazing a performance management trail that leaves many modern businesses in the dust. It’s an approach that took his fledgling studio from two employees to over 1000 in only sixteen years¹. Let’s take a look at exactly how he did it.
“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” – Walt Disney
Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a huge amount of research published on the topic of employee alignment. We now know that employees who are aligned with organisational goals and objectives have higher engagement and job satisfaction, while their employers enjoy significant advantages over competitors². Disney was way ahead of us, using three key practices to actively aligning his workers:
Leading by Example
Disney had a firm creative vision, and he made sure his animators shared it. In story meetings he would act out the scenes, demonstrating the gestures and attitudes he wanted to see in the final cartoon. It’s a philosophy the Disney Company maintain today, and leaders are expected to behave according to their values and vision, which must align with organisational values³.
Team Effort and Ownership
‘Everyone has to contribute, or they become laborers.” – Walt Disney
Disney believed that each person connected to a film had to feel that they were vital to its success. As such, he involved everyone in the collaboration and evaluation process throughout production.
To get his team excited about an upcoming production, Disney would bring in a well-known artist to create unique drawings or paintings long before any actual story work began.
2. Transparency and Collaboration
When animation was in its infancy, skills gaps were commonplace. Studios did not share techniques, and it was difficult for beginners to learn the skills and tricks other animators had already discovered, even within their own studios.
Disney turned this model on its head. He insisted on an open atmosphere and encouraged each artist to share their views and discoveries. The studio effectively created a mentoring program which, by pooling insight from newbies and experienced professionals, allowed Disney animators to remain at the cutting-edge of their field.
Believing that good ideas came from everyone⁴, Disney did away with the concept of seniority. All the animators worked together in one large room to encourage discussions and problem solving. It wasn’t until 2012 that knowledge management (the process of transforming individual knowledge into organisational knowledge) was proven to contribute positively to organisational performance. At the same time, we also discovered that a collaborative culture enhances the benefits of knowledge management⁵, something Walt Disney had recognised nearly nine decades before.
With the power to increase engagement, encourage development, enhance alignment and reduce turnover, recognition is critical to talent management (check out my article on recognition programs for a re-cap). Disney knew this only too well and made sure to praise great work – calling everyone together to discuss a drawing he particularly liked.
Recognition still plays a pivotal role at The Disney Company – Florida’s Walt Disney World alone boasts 180 different employee recognition programs. One of the most coveted at the park is the Spirit of Fred Award. Named for a long-term employee who made his way up the ranks by exemplifying Disney values, Fred makes the awards himself, which include The Lifetime Fred Award and the annual Spirit of Fred Awards⁶.
4. Frequent Feedback and Training
Quality was everything to Disney, but so was skill. If an animation was clumsy or poorly staged, he wouldn’t delegate the work to an animator with more proficiency. Instead, he would pair the original artist with a more experienced teammate to provide guidance.
Despite this focus on mentoring and on-the-job training, by the 1960s, Disney’s studio was suffering from a skills gap. His original nine animators – trained in 1929 at the Chouinard Institute – were starting to retire, and those coming up lacked the technical expertise to take their place. He needed a new approach to training, and his long-term association with Chouinard provided it.
Disney’s vision for a specialist college led to the incorporation of CalArts (a merger between Chouinard and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music) in 1961. There, students studied animation under the tutelage of his nine retired animators, and the company cherry-picked the best graduates⁷. It’s an approach we see more and more of in China and India, where companies sponsor existing colleges or create their own to guarantee the graduates and skill sets they need⁸.
To Sum Up…
One word crops up over and over again when investigating The Disney Company’s people management processes; genuine. Disney genuinely cared about his business, his worker, and his product. His understanding of alignment and company values ensure his attitudes to training, recognition, and collaboration are still at the heart of the company today.
¹Disney Institute. Undated. Leadership excellence.Disney Institute
²Gottschlag and Zollo, 2007. Interest alignment and competitive advantage. Academy of Management Review. 32 (2). pp. 418-437.
³James, 2014. Leadership lessons from Walt Disney: how to inspire your workforce.Disney Institute.
⁴Jones, 2013. Leadership lessons from Walt Disney: building relationships.Disney Institute.
⁵Rasula, et al., 2012. The impact of knowledge management on organisational performance. Economic and Business Review. 14 (2). pp. 147-168.
⁶BH Engagement, undated. Exploring employee incentives. Black Hawk Engagement.
⁷Wikipedia, undated. California Institute of the Arts. Wikipedia
⁸Capelli, 2014. How Disney solved its skills-gap problem. Human Resource Executive Online.
Part II: The Role of a Manager
Those of you who caught Part I of this article (I’d recommend taking a moment to check it out if you missed it) will know that workplace disruption is killing alignment. With more generations working than ever before and huge skill gaps between them, aligning employees with organisational goals is no easy task. So, how do leaders overcome the obstacles, galvanise their staff and promote operational success?
Purpose + Expectation = Alignment
My recent article on work and happiness discussed a leader’s role in aligning employees with organisational purpose. Purpose is a critical element of alignment, true, but complete alignment requires excellent communication of both purpose and expectations.
Whatever obstacle you’re battling, clearly communicating expectations has the power to overcome it — providing you understand that expectations are a two-way street. Organisations are entitled to make demands on their employees; just as individuals have needs they expect their employers to meet.
The Importance of Alignment
Misaligned employees are bad for business. Characterised by low job satisfaction and productivity, high turnover rates and absenteeism, a misaligned workforce can mean the difference between profitability and failure.
A 1990s study of the then emerging firms in Silicon Valley defined four models of employee management in the tech industry. Traditional, manager-led companies that hired for current skills operated the Factory Model. The Commitment Model described peer controlled organisations that hired for cultural fit and love of the job. The Engineering Model (most common in Silicon Valley) was also peer controlled and relied on passionate employees but hired based on skills. The most idealistic, Star Model companies hired passionate employees for their potential, rather than current skills¹.
Years down the line, it was the organisations that operated the Star and Commitment Models that were most profitable, successfully completing initial public stock offerings ahead of the others¹. These are the teams that hired for potential and passion, aligning committed employees with organisational goals and encouraging them to develop skills and grow with the company.
1. Setting Expectations
Communicating an organisation’s strategic objectives isn’t enough to facilitate individual alignment². Individuals must understand what actions are needed to realise organisational goals, and managers need to set expectations that align with the bigger picture and provide clear direction.
To my mind, the most important form of expectation are values. These are the shared beliefs that people within your organisation hold. A group united by values will achieve far more than one that’s fractious and disagreeable. Indeed, employers who base hiring decisions on how well candidates align with existing values typically increase employee satisfaction by 50%, reducing the rate of voluntary turnover in the process³.
Performance metrics, including SMART Goals, KPIs and OKRs, all provide direction for employees. As do role descriptions, responsibilities, competencies and behavioural values. Each of these detail actions required at an individual level and are critical to aligning employees with operational success — providing they complement organisational goals and individuals understand their role in the bigger picture.
That’s not to say that expectations are a cure-all. Alignment is a continual process, and you can’t ‘set and forget’ expectations. Leaders must provide feedback on how well employees are meeting their objectives, helping individuals identify areas where they can improve their performance and establishing new expectations as the organisational strategy develops.
The most successful organisations integrate long-term objectives with more flexible, short-term goals. They recognise that their expectations for employees will change, as will the expectations of their staff. One of the best ways to ensure staff stay aligned is through regular one-to-one check-ins. These provide leaders and team members with the opportunity to voice their needs and expectations.
Embedding organisational goals in performance metrics won’t improve alignment. Employees need to understand strategic goals and how their actions complement them⁴. There’s evidence to suggest that knowledge of organisational strategy has a greater impact on alignment than being included in the decision making process⁵.
Expectations are a two-way street. Leaders who take the time to understand and meet the needs of individuals enhance their confidence, job satisfaction and productivity.
A recent study found (not surprisingly) that expectation for progression in graduates was correlated with job satisfaction, and that graduates would move employers to see their expectations for progression met⁷. Regular one-to-one meetings and conversations that provide staff with the opportunity to discuss and evaluate how realistic their expectations are enhance job satisfaction and staff retention.
These days, onboarding has to happen quickly. We simply don’t have the luxury of waiting a year for individuals to grow into a role — some will already be looking for their next employer by that point.
It’s up to us as leaders to integrate new hires quickly into a team; boosting alignment, engagement and job satisfaction in the process. This is why our onboarding product automates not only forms like tax declarations but also ‘true’ onboarding activities, speeding up learning and team social integration to maximise productivity.
4. The Millennial Question
Generation Y consistently scores lower than any other for engagement, satisfaction and commitment (they have some pretty high turnover intentions as well)⁸. Their motivations are at odds with how conventional approaches say new employees should think and act.
In fact, the only place Millennial attitudes align with other generations is education and training⁸.
Anyone who read my article on the topic will know I don’t advocate shaking up the workplace purely for the Millennial crew — changes need to accommodate everyone.
We are aware that the generation gap is affecting alignment. Leaders must recognise that individuals have different needs, and generalisations about age groups are just that, generalisations. They do, however, form a starting point for a conversation with a team member about their needs. And that’s a conversation we should all be working to facilitate.
To Sum Up…
Leaders that encourage a culture of ongoing performance are best placed to optimise alignment. They promote higher levels of engagement, job satisfaction and productivity at the individual level and, because these initiatives are tailored to the personal needs of team members, they successfully combat obstacles including the generation gap, lifestyle and job dissatisfaction.
¹Hannan et al., 1996. Inertia and change in the early years: employment relations in young, high technology firms. Cornell University.
²Boswell et al., 2006. Aligning employees through line of sight. Cornell University.
³Bradshaw, 2012. Putting value alignment to work to drive positive organisational outcomes. DeGarmo Group.
⁴Ayers. 2015. Aligning individual and organisational performance: goal alignment in federal government agency performance appraisals. Public Personnel Management. 44 (2). pp. 169-191. Abstract available from: Sage Publications.
⁵Van Reil et al., 2009. Stimulating strategically aligned behaviour among employees. Journal of Management Studies. 46 (7). pp. 1197-1226.
⁶Mazzei and Ravanazzi. 2011. Manager employee communication during a crisis: the missing link. Corporate Communications.
⁷Williamson and Mundy. 2010. Graduate radiographers’ expectations for role development – the potential impact of misalignment of expectation and valence on staff retention and service provision. Radiography. 16 (1). pp. 40-47.
⁸Solnet et al., 2012. Generation Y employees: an examination of work attitude differences. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship. 17 (3). pp. 36.
Part I: Understanding the Obstacles
Today’s working environment is an entirely different beast to any that’s gone before. We have more generations in the workforce and a greater focus on life choices, travel and experience. Personal status is no longer determined by job role, and it’s vogue to hate work.
Add to that our (relatively) recent economic woes and the uncertainty of the job market, and it’s little wonder alignment is a thorn in the side of leaders up and down the country. So, what are the alignment challenges facing leaders, and how can we overcome them?
1. Mind The Generation Gap
For the first time in history, we have multiple generations in the workforce. Millennials are working alongside Generation X’s and more than a few hierarchical Baby Boomers, many nearing retirement age. In this one-size-fits-one environment, any approach to alignment must consider the motivations and needs of each of these groups.
These guys are work oriented. They are motivated by wealth and rank, define success by hours logged, and believe in working their way up the corporate ladder. Baby Boomers are committed to their organisation and often serve long tenures in one company2. Most significantly for business, they actively avoid confrontation and will often prioritise process over results3.
In direct contrast to the generation above them, Xs favour a ‘hands off’ management approach. Technologically literate, this group have an aversion to risk, can be sceptical of management and are happy to consider lateral progression over the traditional ‘upwards’ promotion².
Caught between progressive Millennials and traditional Baby Boomers, Gen X is a useful workforce intermediary. Baby Boomers labelled them ‘slackers’, in reality, they are the pioneers of the work-life balance4. Most telling of all, their flexibility and excellent communication skills mean that both Baby Boomers and Millennials consider this group the best at generating revenue and managing teams1.
Now the dominant generation in the workforce1, Millennials boast technical skills that surpass either of the generations before them. They distrust bureaucracy, hop willingly between jobs, and will sacrifice income for a better work-life balance2. Digital natives, they expect instant access to learning and information — a point of contention between this group and Baby Boomers, who respect the traditional, ‘top-down’ distribution of information1.
2. Everyone Hates Work, Right?
We’ve seen a huge change in social attitudes to the workplace over the last 30 years. Women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, more and more Australians are working from home, and a whopping 38% of Millennials work freelance. But that isn’t the only change.
TV shows regularly depict the soul-crushing tedium of the 9-5 (think Simpsons and The Office), while the internet is littered with ‘Happy Friday’ memes designed to reinforce the monotony of working life. Pop culture has painted such a negative view of work that it’s now commonplace to hate your job. With the world telling us to live for the weekend and endure the week, leaders are facing an uphill struggle to convince employees they have an essential role to play in a rewarding environment.
3. Money, Money, Money
Independent and relatively wealthy, Generation Xs can afford to pursue career changes. They are flexible enough to think laterally, and will likely avoid or leave roles they don’t enjoy. At the other end of the scale, Millennials are less financially secure and display a greater level of flexibility, with many freelancing alongside their day jobs. Unlike Baby Boomers, both generations are less financially reliant on a single employer, and require more than simply a paycheque to commit long-term.
This, coupled with the disruption introduced by innovative technologies and the turbulence of the financial market, has served to decrease the average employee tenure6. Workers no longer commit entire careers to one organisation, and many will hold roles in multiple industries before they retire7. A reaction to boom and bust cycles, and the resulting redundancies, mergers and acquisitions, these behaviours mean that alignment strategies must be robust enough to handle staff turnover while addressing underlying issues surrounding engagement and productivity.
4. You’re How Old?!
Baby Boomers were hit hardest by the recession, experiencing the most redundancies, pay cuts and investment losses. The resulting financial insecurity will mean many continue to work long after retirement age5.
While a longer tenure benefits employers — we retain essential skills and knowledge — it poses a significant threat to engagement. Working beyond retirement can result in an (understandable) negativity towards work. As the workplace becomes more Millennial orientated, and the first Generation Zs make an appearance, ensuring Baby Boomers feel included and valued will present one of the biggest challenges for alignment.
To Sum Up…
Aligning every worker to a broader organisational purpose offers advantages across the board. But alignment is a target that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hit, with workplace disruption making aligning employees to organisational goals more challenging than ever. Luckily, we have the answers to meeting these challenges in Part II. Stay tuned!
1Bursch. 2014. Managing the multigenerational workplace. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
2Dowd-Higgins. 2013. How to play together in the multi-generational sandbox at work. Huffington Post.
3Murphy. 2007. Leading a Multigenerational Workforce. AARP.
4American Management Association. 2014. Leading the four generations at work.
5Laham. 2015. Peace, love and no retirement in sight: why so many baby boomers must keep working.Huffington Post.
6Bidwell. 2013. What happened to long-term employment? The role of worker power and environmental turbulence in explaining declines in worker tenure. Organization Science
7PWC. 2014. Millennials at work: reshaping the workplace. PWC.
There’s a lot of people who aren’t happy at work. Aon Hewitt says it’s 39% of people. According to Gallup a whopping 70% of Americans aren’t engaged in their jobs. That’s a staggering number of people no matter which statistic you look at. I’m using engagement data, but it’s not a massive jump to assume that people who aren’t engaged aren’t particularly happy at work. So why aren’t people happy at work and should we even care? I believe we should and we’ve been looking at it the wrong way all along. We’ve been focussed on engagement and that has turned out to be a failure. We should be looking for something more fundamental and that is happiness. That sounds hippy but stick with me, it’s grounded in science and backed up by recent research.
The stories of Ben and the Queensland Air Museum
To start understanding why let’s take a look at two contrasting examples. The first is a person I worked with a number of years ago, let’s call him Ben to protect his anonymity. Ben viewed work as a daily grind. He wanted to get ahead for a couple of reasons but mainly so he could say goodbye to work at a young age and do the things he “really wanted to do”. The other way of describing this is retirement. In Ben’s words he “was working the system”. Most of us would know a number of people like Ben.
Contrast Ben with a completely different picture. The Caloundra Air Museum in Queensland Australia is staffed by a wonderful group of volunteers who are all retired. The volunteers each work three full days a week or more. This raises the question, why would people who are retired spend days every week working? Some may come to the quick conclusion that volunteer work is cushy and isn’t real work. Talk to anyone that volunteers and you’ll quickly find this conclusion is wrong. In my own experience volunteering at a community meals organisation I learnt that it was very much real work. I liked my fellow volunteers and enjoyed the two years I spent doing this on a Saturday evening meal time, but it wasn’t a utopian experience. It was rewarding but it was work.
Human beings are innately social and that brings with it a whole bunch of baggage, not the least of which is gossip and politics. The sort of communication difficulties any group experiences also occur in volunteer organisations. This means volunteer workplaces are like almost every other workplace, it’s work coupled with the need to get along socially and communicate effectively. So why do “retired” volunteers like those at the Queensland Air Museum do it? Answering this question will illuminate what’s wrong with engagement initiatives in the workplace and why we need to focus on happiness instead.
At this point we need to understand what happiness is. According to Wikipedia it’s a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. While that may be true it still doesn’t explain what happiness really is. As unromantic as it sounds, at the biological level happiness is really a set of biochemical reactions in the brain involving neurotransmitters like serotonin. That’s why people with depression are prescribed drugs to help manage their brain chemistry.
Each person’s biochemistry creates a set level of happiness and range within which it can reach. Unfair as this may sound this means some people are naturally more happy than others. Things that impact a person’s happiness like sharing a joke or going to a concert may temporarily lift the brain chemistry and create happiness, but after the event the chemistry will return to baseline levels. Understanding this is the key to why many engagement initiatives don’t work.
Temporary versus Lasting Happiness
So what creates lasting happiness? The answer for most people would include family and friends. The current popular narrative would also include travel. Having as many different experiences as you can is thought to be a good thing. But as much as I like travel myself it can only temporarily impact happiness. There is also no sensation that you can have travelling that you can’t have in other ways. Travel is a consumption activity and that means it can only produce sensations during the act of consumption. Put another way, travel only makes you happy while you are travelling. Of course for many people travel is an escape precisely because they are not happy.
Very few people would list work as something that can create happiness. Is it possible though that work can move the happy scale in a lasting way? Let’s look at what the science says.
The Golden Triangle of Happiness
In 2015 Deakin University published research into what makes us happy. According to the research ‘the golden triangle of happiness’ is strong personal relationships, financial control and sense of purpose. The research notes that “no one element is sufficient in isolation”. Luckily work provides all three of these elements. It provides many people with a sense of purpose (more on this later) and it definitely provides financial control over your life. Most people also form one or two lifelong friendships at work.
Psychologists have long held that success makes people happy. In the workplace this was translated as meaning that happiness was derived from successful events like promotion, successful attainment of a goal or financial success. However in more recent years research has shown that happiness often precedes success. This is an important finding because it means that happy people perform at a higher level and as a result are more successful financially.
Negativity Surrounding Working
The link between work and happiness may be a surprising one for many. But why is that? These two quotes from Wikipedia provide us with a clue:
“Workplace happiness has been skewed by popular culture. There are negative images of work in contemporary media, such as the television show The Simpsons.”
“Children and adults have been encouraged to emphasize the negative and downplay the idea that jobs can actually contribute to happiness. Instead, people are prone to thinking that work only leads to unhappiness.”
In short, work has been given a bum wrap. But further research paints a different and highly compelling picture. A joint team from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of North Carolina discovered that a higher sense of purpose leads to greater health outcomes. Conversely pleasure seeking or consumption based happiness, like the transitory examples I mentioned earlier in the article, resulted in poorer health outcomes. Researchers from Mt. Sinai St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, New York similarly found that “possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular events”.
Having a Purpose
A higher sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily mean something that would “put a dent in the universe” to use an expression of Steve Jobs. It includes the simple timeless principles of a goal greater than yourself or being of service to others. Indeed the research describes it as such. For many people, work provides them with a sense of purpose and it’s one of the primary ways they will be of service to others. Having a higher sense of purpose disables envy or the need to compare.
If you’re a reader of my blog you’ll know I’ve written quite a bit about engagement lately. The science we’ve looked at helps us understand why many engagement initiatives aren’t producing the returns they were promising. Any initiative that focuses on some form of consumption, pleasure seeking or in the moment activities is likely to be counterproductive. This is why we need to shift the focus from engagement to happiness. But this needs to be done with a proper understanding of what happiness is and what creates it.
The science also helps us understand the answer to why retired people would volunteer to work at the Queensland Air Museum. Doing something in the service of others, with others and for a purpose greater than themselves makes them happier people. Contrast this to Ben who said he was “working the system”. Rather than achieve the happiness he is looking for, the science shows he may be doing himself a disservice and risking poorer health in the process. Does that mean people shouldn’t learn new skills and advance their career. Of course not.
You Can’t Manufacture Happiness
From a practical perspective what does this mean for us as leaders? The first step is to avoid any engagement initiatives that require us to manufacture fun. The research clearly tells us these can be counterproductive. Rather, each of the tools for creating a happy environment are based on what the research tells us makes people happy. The good news is that the tools aren’t new. They are simply leadership fundamentals.
It starts with purpose. Senior leadership needs to communicate the very reason why the organisation exists. It’s surprising how often this isn’t done. If people don’t understand why the organisation exists then they are simply coming to work to earn a pay packet. But when we communicate purpose and remind people of it regularly, people then have a reason greater than themselves and can understand how they can be of service to others.
The Importance of Alignment
Once the organisation’s purpose has been established, each person then needs to understand the purpose and expectations for their role. In my experience many people receive a job description, but don’t understand why they do what they do and how it aligns with the organisation’s purpose. This is important because the research tells us people with a purpose are happier and that happiness precedes success. Often team members can get caught up on the hamster wheel of daily process, emails and interruptions. It’s easy in these circumstances for people to lose sight of what their role is meant to do and the importance of that to the group’s success.
To cooperate people need shared beliefs and an understanding of the way to do things. These are commonly referred to as “values” and leaders need to live, breathe and communicate them. Imagine one team member who values quality and another who values getting things done as quickly as possible. It’s easy to see in this circumstance that this will create disharmony. This is why values need to be part of the recruiting process and everyday organisation life. It helps people align themselves to each other and be able to work together on a shared understanding.
The Leader’s Role in Creating Alignment
One of the most critical parts of a leader’s role is to ensure people are constantly aligned. This includes keeping people working towards the vision of the future and helping to resolve roadblocks and issues that occur. It also includes the tough conversations that need to happen occasionally to resolve performance problems and interpersonal issues. If the leader doesn’t have these, the whole team pays by being dragged down into a poor state. A monthly one on one is a useful tool for doing this because it allows a two way conversation and understanding to develop.
For a leader all of this can be summarised as communicating purpose, expectations and keeping people aligned to it and to each other. Yet happiness isn’t the responsibility of the leader. One of the unintended outcomes of the focus on employee engagement has been to miscommunicate to people that their happiness at work is the organisation’s responsibility. When you think about it there is no such thing as an organisation, there is only the people within it. So which person is responsible? Of course there is no one person responsible. Each person needs to take responsibility for their own happiness. This means understanding the reason behind why their role exists and finding happiness in the provision of that service to others. Rather than seeking to climb the ladder as fast as we can, we need to choose our workplaces carefully based on a match between what we value and what the organisation values. If we can do that, we are more likely to be working with people who believe in similar things and who enjoy what they do on a day to day basis.
Naturally there are limits. Happiness in this article shouldn’t be taken to mean some sort of utopian joyessness. The reality of coming to work on a Monday morning after a relaxing weekend will still be there. Ups and downs will always occur. But there’s an important message for our own wellbeing in understanding why the volunteers choose to work at the Queensland Air Museum.
Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Onboarding, Performance and Learning software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy.
I’m sure more than a few of you read the recent MIT Sloan Management Review article. Since its publication in September, this iteration of a common-sense approach to corporate learning has grabbed a lot of attention. The piece emphasises the importance of aligning learning with corporate strategy, and calls into question those companies focusing on learning and development methods – rather than the knowledge they transfer.
At Cognology, we’ve always championed this approach. Our learning management system integrates seamlessly with our performance management system and wider performance tools for one simple reason; aligning learning and development (L&D) with corporate strategy drives organisational success.
The importance of alignment
Corporate strategy charts the course for a company that knows what it’s there for, and what it wants to achieve. The link between learning and corporate strategy should be obvious. It’s a concept that has become increasingly relevant, at least in part due to a response to the changes in technology innovating the field of L&D (a subject I discussed recently in this post).
Now with a huge variety of cutting-edge learning approaches, linking them with corporate strategy helps ensure businesses achieve corporate outcomes, through increasing available skills and capability in areas of strategic importance.
Alignment means you can, and should, use corporate strategy to influence learning investment. Providing the team with learning designed to facilitate a specific, profitable or behavioural outcome is common sense. It validates both the time and financial investment the learning program necessitates, gives employees a sense of ownership, and shines a spotlight on your people’s importance to organisational success.
If you read my last post you will know how I feel about promoting brilliance in individuals. People drive organisational growth – providing they have the right set of skills. Aligning learning with strategy ensures that you can target learning outcomes with the potential to facilitate meaningful outcomes.
The benefits of alignment
1. Highlighting corporate strategy
‘Corporate strategy’ is far from an exact term. It can refer to long-term goals, short-term objectives, considered milestones or vague plans.
Aligning strategy with learning brings it into sharp focus. If you are going to invest time developing skills that promote one goal, that goal must be immovable. It has to offer quantifiable benefits in some form or another. And it must be identified and locked-in far enough in advance to implement learning strategies that support it.
When learning outcomes become integrated into corporate strategy, it makes it difficult to avoid scrutinising that strategy. It brings each goal to the attention of numerous individuals, requires objectives to be thoroughly researched and justified before their implementation, and commits multiple resources to achieving one clearly defined outcome.
2. Finding more useful ways to measure L&D
The ‘method versus content’ argument doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the importance of delivery. If learning forms an integral part of your corporate strategy, any weaknesses will have a negative impact on growth and profitability.
A 2014 report by Deloitte found that, when assessing learning through online courses, social, mobile or advanced media, at least 60% of executives considered their organisation’s efforts ‘weak’.
New technologies, online assessments and a move towards gamification and ranking provide metrics on individual performance, but they give us little feedback on its value to the wider organisation.
The good news is that, by aligning learning with corporate strategy, you can effectively measure the learning function. If people can contribute to strategic goals, the connection between learning and application of that learning in the workplace stands a much stronger chance of becoming clear to everyone. That’s the time to review and strengthen strategy.
3. Identify current and future challenges
Thanks to alignment, anticipating challenges and assessing current weaknesses is no longer the sole province of corporate strategy. A good learning program takes into account the capability analysis of the organisation (based on current capability and delivery) and where that capability needs to progress to, based on the needs of the corporate strategy. Knowing where you stand today and how you’re tackling current challenges is one thing, but you also need a plan for anticipating future challenges. A close look at corporate strategy and regular scanning of the wider commercial environment will give great insights into what skills and capabilities your business will need in the future.
If businesses are going to achieve their strategic targets, L&D programs need to anticipate and identify future challenges associated with hitting those targets, and to make sure staff have the resources and training to overcome them.
4. Improve ROI
Learning represents a significant financial investment for plenty of businesses. There’s always been pressure to qualify the ROI for L&D spend but, without benchmarks, it’s difficult to calculate.
When it comes to increasing ROI, alignment is an approach that the multinational reinsurer Swiss Re has proved works. The organisation’s key talent development plan, overhauled in 2011, operates across all management levels. Participants submit a range of learning initiatives to the CEO, who chooses those with greatest strategic value for implementation. Focusing on areas of strategic importance streamlines the entire learning process. Since the implementation of this new approach, nearly three-quarters of staff make use of new skills within a week of training, and 94% cite training as a worthwhile investment for their employer.
5. Increase employee engagement
Organisations that treat learning as a box-ticking exercise rarely get any real value from it. The skills imparted are either too broad to offer a strategic benefit, or have such little relevance to individuals that they view it as a waste of time.
On the other hand, when organisations encourage employees to take on skills essential to business growth, they’ll often notice a sense of ownership over the outcome. A recent article suggested that retention and engagement is now the second biggest concern for business leaders, and I’ve blogged about this recently too. Targeted learning that’s of real use to both the business and the individual increases their engagement, and encourages long-term commitment.
To sum up…
Corporate strategy sets a vision or direction for an organisation. When learning is aligned with corporate goals, L&D programs support the organisation to deliver capabilities and skills needed for current challenges and the hurdles of the future.
When looking at L&D in the context of business strategy, you automatically target learning budgets at areas of strategic importance. As managers and leaders in business today, we’ve really got to ask ourselves “If our L&D program isn’t aligned with strategy, why not, and at what cost?”
Organisations that integrate L&D KPIs with senior management are 13x more likely to report profit increases. HR Review