Learn with Learning Councils
Every project will have its setbacks, and even the greatest change leaders will make mistakes. Don't force an element of the program that doesn't work simply because you are too inflexible to admit your failings. It's a waste of effort and it will ultimately hurt an otherwise successful implementation of the effort.
For example, within the first few months we realized one of the vendors wasn't working out, and Purington fired that individual. Purington had hired this individual to manage the vendor team ”an effort that he was not particularly interested in undertaking. The individual who was eventually fired claimed to have a great deal of project management experience and claimed to be able to oversee all of the vendors , uniting them into a single efficient team. This wasn't the case. The individual didn't have the skills or depth of program-management experience to lead the team.
Instead of looking for someone else, Purington brought the function in house. Each learning consultant was given the responsibility to manage his or her target areas, and we took over as program managers, overseeing all of the projects as they progressed. This added a lot of work for us and for the learning consultants , but in the end we realized that authority needed to come from inside our walls. We had to be the ones to lead the group and determine what would be accomplished. We needed to hold that authority, and so we put on another hat and took responsibility for that aspect of the project. It wasn't what we planned, but we learned that in order to achieve our vision we had to be directly involved in the project management, and we made the necessary changes.
Assuming we could outsource project management wasn't the only misjudgment we made in our strategic plan. We found that there was a big problem with one of our primary initiatives ”the learning councils. Launching the learning councils was one of the first things our team did after our initial implementation. In our effort to refocus the training process on the front end and to tie all learning to the business objectives of the company, we planned to rely on these councils to define the core competencies of the company and alert us to relevant training needs throughout the business units and across functions.
The councils were at the heart of our plan, which was why it was difficult to see them flounder. The learning councils were modeled on the unsanctioned factions we'd found within the functional units during the research phase. In the past, these groups of subject-matter experts met randomly to discuss their training issues and complain about the way training programs were being run. While their output was somewhat ineffective ”focused mostly on griping instead of on accomplishing change ”the idea of targeted groups of employees overseeing the training needs of their people made a great deal of sense.
We had planned to do three versions of the councils ”functional, business unit, and enterprise wide. The functional council would evaluate the needs of all employees performing certain functions ”HR, various engineering groups, and so on. The business units would do the same for their divisions, and the enterprise-wide group, which would have a "global" view of the organization and be able to predict skill and knowledge needs based on products or projects. The enterprise council was going to recommend the kinds of training that would put Rockwell Collins in the forefront of the industry.
We began with the functional and business councils. The vice presidents from across the company nominated members. Chris Butler oversaw charter meetings, put members through training, and helped them to establish their goals ”to define the core competencies of their factions, make training recommendations, and market Project Oasis within their targeted employee populations.
To begin with, a number of the council members were less than thrilled to be nominated. There were at least three other initiatives in action, all of which required a piece of their time; this was just one more commitment that would pull them away from their primary responsibilities. But they agreed. They gamely attended training and were excited about the prospects that Project Oasis offered . The functional councils got off to a smooth start, but the business-unit councils gave us a lot of pushback.
Each learning consultant was assigned to head a learning council, and those leading the business-unit councils were soon frustrated by the lack of response and results within their groups. In several cases, they were getting yelled at by council members. For a while we pushed them harder, assuming that their unwillingness to fulfill their roles was based in skepticism or lack of motivation.
After a while, however, we saw the real problem. The business-unit councils were made up of managers from those units. Unlike the functional-council representatives, who were defining the core competencies of their small niche of expertise, we were asking these managers to define in detail the components of every job title within their group. They couldn't do it. Nobody could! They didn't know the primary components of many of the job tasks in their units, and they didn't have the skills or training to break those jobs down into core competencies. Their roles as leaders did not go deep enough to provide them with intimate knowledge of the daily workings of each role, and the learning consultants saw that it would be unrealistic to try to teach them how to do it.
After several months we realized that it was na ve of us to expect these managers to be able to perform a skill that even people trained in organizational development struggled with. They were in over their heads and were annoyed at being repeatedly pushed to do a task they felt incapable of doing.
The learning consultants asked to redefine the groups' goals, and we, recognizing the error in our plan, agreed. Part of achieving our goals was a willingness to be flexible and change our own plan when necessary. We gave it our best shot and it didn't work out the way we planned, so we changed our view and looked at what we had and what could be salvaged from the experience.
We understood that the managers could not complete the tasks given to them, but we also saw that they provided a valuable service to Project Oasis. In the months since the councils were launched, these council members ”all mid-level managers ”had promoted the new learning process heavily within their own units. They became our internal marketing arm, singing our praises to their peers and encouraging their people to take advantage of the new system.
To maximize their influence and to salvage the effort put into the business-unit councils, we rebranded members as ambassadors of Project Oasis, making promotion of the project to their people their sole job.
The council members and learning consultants breathed a collective sigh of relief. They all wanted to see Project Oasis flourish, and they'd finally been given a role they could succeed in, to become powerful advocates of the learning-organization transformation. The learning consultants asked them to develop formal marketing campaigns for each unit, which included ideas such as attending the vice presidents' staff meetings to talk about Project Oasis, inviting learning consultants in to offer course demos, and promoting coming events.
They sang our praises, walked employees through courses, encouraged their people to use the training, and rewarded employees who availed themselves of the system. They were excited about the new offerings, and that excitement spread. An unintentional grassroots marketing campaign carried our message to the masses. Employees saw that management supported the initiative and were thus more eager to get on board. Executives heard regularly from managers about how excited they were about the changes that the learning and development team was making and how successful the new learning initiative was.
The functional-group learning councils continued to run successfully. Because they were made up of experts in their areas, they had the background and knowledge of the roles to accurately define the components of their jobs. With the guidance of our newly trained learning consultants, they broke those components down into core competencies and tied them to training goals. For most of the functional groups, after two years they achieved their goals and disbanded. However, there are a few engineering groups that continue to meet to this day to assess their constantly evolving training and competency needs.
The enterprise-wide learning council was never launched. Our goal had been to populate it with rotating executives who would oversee the output of the other learning councils and verify the accuracy of their training requests , but it quickly became clear that their function would have been redundant. Instead of pushing executives to participate in another function that would require much effort for little result, we scrapped that piece of the project and saved them the trouble. Because we acknowledged our misjudgments early on and didn't force an initiative just because we'd said we were going to do it, the project actually won esteem from our leaders. They appreciated our willingness to move on, and this allowed the team to focus on the more profitable, more successful elements of the project.
We didn't view the problems with the learning councils as mistakes. In almost every case, our team was going where nobody had gone before. These were uncharted waters. Because we were flexible and willing to change in mid-stride, we made the corrections that were necessary.