Is lifelong learning coming of age?

At business school many years ago, a professor of mine stated that learning should not cease when we left the MBA campus for the last time. It seemed a fairly logical and obvious point at the time, and at the end of the programme, we all marched off with our newly found commitment to continue our learning journey.

But back in the real world, it was not quite as simple. The pressure of the corporate world, extensive work travel for some and the day-to-day juggle of work-life balance all seemed to conspire to relegate learning to a back seat. Of course, work and life itself are great teachers in their own right, and the learnings from those experiences are priceless. The school of hard knocks as it is often called does sharpen ones senses and the responses to daily challenges in so many ways.

But there seemed to be a missing ingredient. Somehow, the soufflé was rising but not as much as we had expected. Enter the corporate training and skills development programmes. These events provided a good internal forum for the exploration of ideas, the development of technical skills, and the shaping of more productive networking amongst colleagues from many different places. But by their very nature, they tended to be highly structured and corporate centric, and therefore individual needs were not necessarily the focus. Over time, many of these events have focused more on the development of the so-called softer skills, leaving much technical training to be done using online or remote learning tools. These corporate activities especially around the softer skills will continue to play a key role in the development of critical capabilities in organisations such as leadership and collaboration.

Then came the outside development programmes which were run by business schools or leading management institutes. These brought together people from diverse organisations and backgrounds. Learning through the diversity of experience in a safe external environment was a key driver. These programmes provide a re-fresh from the home organisation, and without doubt help develop different ways of thinking and approaching problems and indeed life itself. Putting these learnings into practice back in the workplace or at home can be a challenge.

But the digital world has in recent times added a rich layer of learning on top of all the above activities. The “student of one” is now alive and well, and the digital age now presents an amazing opportunity for individual development at so many levels. In addition to various formal corporate and other structured programmes, people can now gain access online to a vast number of channels for personal development either by way of books and materials or online courses directly.

The internet has changed the game in personal development. I remember being intrigued (and still am now) at the number of personal development books that adorn whole sections of major bookstores. In years gone by, this probably represented a large proportion of what was available, but the difference now is that it is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet provides not only the choice of books, but also the vast array of online courses and other online reference material. This gives the “student of one” a rich selection of choices, but also over time a growing influence on what is supplied to the market.

One of these digital layers that is rapidly growing is around the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Last year, I wrote about the MOOCs just as I was finishing one of the 12 week online history courses via Coursera. The growth of MOOCs has been staggering. As an example, Coursera was formally launched in April 2012, and now boasts some 4 million students, 400 courses and 83 university partners. MOOCs generally are continuing to expand in their current form, but are also exploring different business models both to capture fee income and also to provide a more robust accreditation regime for various courses completed.

My professor from years ago has long retired, but he would sit in awe of the opportunities now available for real lifelong learning. In his day, this concept needed a real effort to do it. Now it is the opposite, and requires a real effort not to be scooped up by learning opportunities in so many areas. These opportunities give us a real chance to affirm the sentiment from writer and futurist Alvin Toffler who said,

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” 

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The relevance of organisation design in the digital era

Organisations go through various phases of re-organising themselves. These events are often heralded as helping to get closer to customers or re-alignment of skills or a strategic re-structuring for the future. Communications teams are usually working overtime in these situations to ensure the right messages are shaped and delivered to the organisation and to the market. These events almost always occur as a new CEO is appointed so that the organisation is shaped in the way the new CEO wants to drive it.

There was a time when the organisation structure represented the way the place actually worked. That is, information and authority were both arranged hierarchically, and the flow of communications up and down the line also followed this pattern. The organisation structure was effectively the way of doing business. Flow of information from customers through to various parts of the business and back again could be slow and tortuous.

But information systems changed all that. As big systems came of age 15 or so years ago, no longer did the vertical flow of information dictate how organisations worked. Indeed, big systems meant that more information was available to more people at multiple levels. As a result, organisations changed so that integrating mechanisms across the business, cross-functional teams and the networking organisation became in vogue. The concept of the customer centric organisation emerged.

But the internet and digital era has taken this to an entirely new level, and the pace of change continues to accelerate. Information can now be accessed ubiquitously and from multiple devices from virtually any location. Organisations have become far more connected both within the formal structure and beyond its boundaries. In turn, this has provided real-time and highly visible information about customer service levels and customer sentiment, and performance measures in many areas including suppliers. This widespread connectivity today means that traditional hierarchy is somewhat superseded in the digital era.

What does this mean for the way that organisations are designed, and how does this impact the re-structuring of businesses in today’s world?

 1. Organisation design is not dead

How the organization is shaped and who reports to whom is still a vital feature of any business. This can have a powerful impact for how customers are engaged by the organisation, how decisions are made, how talent is identified and developed, and how “pay and rations” are managed. Reporting lines also play a key role in developing future leaders and creating growth opportunities through promotion and larger responsibilities.

2. Organisation design competes head-on with people connection

The organization of today operates far more around the connection of people across the business than simply the organization structure. Employees are connected not only within their organization at multiple levels, but also with outside suppliers and stakeholders. Most importantly, employees have far more information than ever before about customer service and delivery issues, and can have visibility of sentiments from customers directly via social media or chat rooms.

3. Organisation design must embrace the agility mantra

Many organisations lament the frequency of re-structuring. Indeed, we often hear the complaint that “here we go again, yet another shifting of the deck chairs”. But in reality, frequent organisation changes provide a re-fresh and new opportunities. Provided they are adding to better customer engagement in some way, directly or indirectly, they should be a regular feature of any organisation. Agility of the organisation to absorb and grow through change is an important feature of success.

Whilst organisation design may not be on quite the pedestal it occupied in years gone by, it remains an important part of the mix in the digital era.

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The Customer CEO imperative

Getting closer to customers and the customer-focused organisation are familiar themes, and have been extensively explored and developed over the years. But execution against these themes has not always been successful, and many stories abound of organisations simply not doing enough in this arena. Indeed, many just do not get what it means to be customer-focused.

But recently, I came across a most compelling book from Chuck Wall called the Customer CEO – how to profit from the power of your customers. This book provides a new dimension on how to look at the customer, and more importantly how organisations can practically manage some the challenges and opportunities. The thinking here is that the customer needs to be considered at the top of the organisation, effectively shaping and driving value, and not the other way around. This is about “customer pull”, not “product push”.

Prior to the information era, the power of the customer was somewhat limited. Organisations were able to present their products to the customer, but in the main they had far more knowledge of the product than the customers to whom they were selling.

Today however, the tables have been turned in the most dramatic fashion. Wall takes us through the massive changes that have occurred and which are continuing at an even faster pace. The customer today has information that is far more ubiquitous than ever imagined – and free. Knowledge gleaned from fellow customers, from colleagues or from friends all mean that the real pressure is back onto organisations to deliver differently. The power is truly with the customer. How do organisations respond in this environment, and what does customer focus really mean are key questions faced by the C-suite today.

In his book, Wall takes us through a fascinating journey of the nine powers or core needs of the customer. He highlights each of these with some really interesting case studies where organisations ranging from fast food to industrial machinery have successfully ensured that the customer is really driving the organisation to deliver value. This is a key point right through his book.

At the end of each chapter on the nine powers, Wall has practical advice on what organisations can do to address these issues, and he also has a short diagnostic tool that can be downloaded.

The nine powers of customers are about the powers of people, rather than the broader market. In this context, Wall highlights a great  quote from Stanley Marcus, the former chairman of retailer Neiman Marcus:

“Consumers are statistics, but customers are people”.

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Are you in the transactions or the solutions business – or both?

For many businesses especially in the business-to-consumer space, the volume of transactions is a key determinant of underlying performance. Whether it be the volume of items sold in a department store, or the number of new loans for a bank, or the number of tickets sold to passengers for an airline, but the common factor is the need for a base load of transactional activity. This is typically the bread and butter of the organisation, and managing these fundamentals underpins its success.

At the other end of the scale are typically business-to-business organisations whose offers are tailored solutions that are unique to each of their customers. Many project based businesses in engineering and consulting for example fit this model.

But transactional businesses can find themselves in the commodity trap. That is, they can do the transactional activity very well, but this may not be enough to be competitive or to maintain margins at a healthy level.

Enter the solutions business, or at least the business that places a strong emphasis on solutions to provide differentiation in the market. Many industries are experiencing a surge in activity around business solutions.

Solutions business in different industries

Take travel agencies as an example. This industry was challenged from the very early days of the internet. Over the past ten years in particular, the traditional lifeblood of the industry, namely sales of airline tickets, shifted heavily online and became commoditized.  Whilst this is still very much the case, we also see a growing emphasis on more of a solutions approach. As the global economy has grown and as the cost of airline travel has fallen dramatically in real terms, key players in the industry are bundling, shaping and delivering broader based offerings or solutions to customers. For instance, specialized tours or packaged adventures are in demand. Their point of difference is in bringing the component parts together easier and cheaper than a customer can do alone, and in different configurations.

Retail is also an interesting case in point. The so-called “big box” retailers in the home improvement segment do much more than sell hammers and nails. They provide solutions to many different facets of their business. For example, they might provide an offer of how to use their products to build a whole new patio or how to landscape the garden. In other words, they are not just selling the component pieces, but they are providing a broader solution to meet a bigger customer need.

Even supermarkets have quietly ventured into this space. Whilst their business is highly transactional, some organisations have leveraged the whole recipe approach including the mix and match of beverages. In other words, the customer can participate in a broader offering than simply the same old shopping list week to week.

Banks, law firms, technology organisations and many firms in the services sector have attempted to re-shape their offers to become more solutions based. The aim is to provide customers greater value and to expand market share.

The challenge of driving harder in solutions

But why is the solutions approach not more prevalent and why don’t we hear of more widespread success stories on this front? Indeed, all organizations profess to seek differentiation in some form, and to provide even better value to their customers. Moving to more of a solutions focus makes intuitive sense and has some very obvious benefits, including customer satisfaction and loyalty.

However, it is not as simple as it sounds, and there are two significant challenges to be addressed.

Brand

Any organization is seen in the eyes if its customers as having a certain brand image and profile. There is a whole science around brand management which we will not be going into here, but suffice to say that moving into a higher value space such as broader solutions can create some real questions in the eyes of customers. Indeed, it can be confusing in their eyes.

For instance, a firm that specialises in the routine preparation of tax statements for individuals and small businesses may struggle to introduce a broader solution around say tax strategy and planning. In the eyes of its clients, its core competency is very much in the transactional business of preparing tax statements. Dealing with tax planning and strategy is a different positioning in the eyes of the customer. This shift can be achieved of course, but there are challenges in how the brand is perceived and therefore how the client base will respond.

Internal management

The other factor is how the internal organization and management of the business is calibrated to accommodate both the transactional and the solutions approach. Things such as culture, performance measures and organization may well be very different.

Using the example of the tax business from above, the skills and capabilities needed to run the transaction side of the business are totally different from running the client strategy and planning side. It is very much a production line focus vs a project focus.  In addition, the performance measures would be very different as well as the type of people needed to undertake the work. In other words, the organisation in this instance would need to take re-shape the way it is structured and managed.

Value to customers is a key driver of strategy. But organisations that have a strong transactional base in their business have a challenge in how they move into more of a solutions approach, and how they can really deliver that expanded value proposition to their customers. Mixing the transactions and the solutions needs some clear thinking on the right business model and how it can be achieved.

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Career development needs an MBA – fact or fiction?

Over the years, I have mentored many people whose opening question was “should I do an MBA?” The real answer to the question is of course “it depends”. But career development is not about fence-sitting. It is about clear thinking and taking some decisive actions, so lets explore this further.

A former IBM colleague in the US Bill Smillie would sometimes interject in a meeting to say “are we asking the right question”. Which is exactly what we should be saying in the case of the MBA question above. Indeed, the MBA choice can only be fully understood if we are sure to explore the right question.

Starting points are different

People approach the MBA issue from many different starting points. Some will have recently completed undergraduate education, and see the MBA as a natural launching point into the world of business. Others may be ten or so years into their careers and see the MBA as an opportunity to re-group and refresh or possibly change direction. Other will approach the issue strongly influenced by the culture of their national business community. For instance, the MBA in the US has long been the popular and in many cases the expected track from college into business careers, whereas the MBA in Europe or Asia has not been as prominent.

The MBA decision is a big one as it may involve significant timeout from an existing career, plus a substantial cost in dollar terms and personal and family commitment.

So notwithstanding the geographic and cultural differences, what are some of the questions to be explored.

1. What can you bring?

The first is about what the person can bring to an MBA programme. Some find this a strange place to begin. What about the nature of a specific course and the reputation of a business school? Yes these are important, but a good MBA is as much about learning from each other as it is about learning from a professor or management guru. You get out of an MBA as much as you put in. What you can bring to the table determines whether you should embark on an MBA in the first place, and indeed which MBA should be undertaken.

A good MBA is about shared learning rather than an experience of being taught. This can be viewed in the context of that wonderful thought from Benjamin Franklin “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

2. How will your specific needs be addressed?

The second is about how the MBA may help the person address his or her needs. Is it about a career change or about career enhancement in specific areas? How does the MBA really address these points, and why? Someone said to me once that they wanted to embark on a MBA to enhance their skills in marketing. I responded by asking why the MBA would help in that regard. We then engaged in a full and frank discussion, not so much about the MBA, but rather about the perceived need to enhance the skills in marketing. We finally agreed that the marketing need could be better addressed through different roles back in their organization. But what we did agree was that the MBA would provide a different set of thinking around business problems. One example might be how marketing can provide a better role in delivering value to the business, and help to re-shape its business model.

A good MBA will provide an excellent set of experiences about the process of solving a problem as distinct from learning specific functional techniques. For example, in statistics, there are plenty of ways of learning how to calculate a standard deviation. But in a MBA context, the point is not how to do the calculation, but rather how to interpret the results in a particular business context, what it means for the business and what decisions need to be considered from the data.

3. How will the MBA make you different?

The third and final key question is to have an understanding of what broader success might look like after the program is completed. This needs to go beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling upon graduation, and monetary opportunities that may arise. It needs to take into account the new capabilities that are acquired, and how people will be different, both personally and in a business sense. This is akin to the personal business case for doing an MBA. What will be different after your significant investment of time and money into the MBA?  Will you be a better person and one with enhanced capability to grow your career both professionally and personally?

So back to the original question, “should I do an MBA?” For many people, the answer is definitely yes, and significant benefit can be gained in many dimensions. For others, it may be a different outcome. But the real point here is not so much a “yes” or “no” position, but rather the level of engagement in a rigorous decision-making and questioning process. Only then will we have the right answer.

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Drinking the fire hose of social media

Over the centuries, some extraordinary landmarks of enduring achievement have punctuated the journey of humanity. Think of the ancient Greeks and their achievements regarding learning and philosophy. The Romans stand out because of their organization and empire building skills as well as infrastructure. The oceanic explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Cook expanded the world way beyond the imagination and perspectives at the time. These and other major achievements not only defined an era, but they also heralded a step change for humanity at that time.

Fast forward fifty or more years from now, and it will be interesting to see how writers describe our place in the sun, especially the 1990s and the 2000s. What will they say and how will they view our achievements? I suspect the internet and the digital world will rank very highly, and will be seen as truly transforming our society. Whether this is viewed with the same aura as the Romans or the Greeks remains to be seen.

But I also suspect that future writers will give social media a special highlight for the era in which we live, both in terms of its impact on individual behaviour, but particularly its impact on society overall.

Social media is frequently lauded for the way it has changed human interaction. Social information and photos on Facebook are often cited as significant and beneficial additions to how we connect with each other. On Twitter, expanded business opportunities through better direct engagement with customers are widely seen as transforming the way organisations do business.

But focusing on what the tools can do is actually missing a broader point, which is that social media has re-defined the way that information and knowledge are shared. Indeed, social media has re-written the rules for knowledge management. Let me explain.

If we wanted information about a topic in days gone by, we would seek it out either from a library or from some organised database of information that was held in some central location.  In essence, we would use a “pull” type system to bring that information to us. This “pull” system has been the foundation of knowledge management over the past several generations.

But social media takes us in the other direction as it provides a very strong “push” model that complements the traditional pull approach. Thanks to technology, the “push” approach is revolutionary because it is instant, global and transparent. Facebook with over 1 billion users worldwide (and growing) enables the push of a huge variety of information to many different individuals, groups and geographies. Twitter generates some 500 million tweets every day, many of which push valuable information to recipients across the globe.

It is this “push” of social media that effectively creates the so-called fire hose of information in all its forms. However, the push of social media is not a one size fits all proposition. It helps to think about this point in three broad buckets as follows:

  • The social push
  • The business push
  • The information and knowledge push.

The social push

This has social interaction as its main objective, and includes the push of photos to friends or details of holidays and so on. It includes messages from celebrities to their social media fans stating for example they have just landed in New York and the weather is cold. I am not sure this is adding significantly to the world bank of knowledge, but the fans probably think it is important. The popularity of this truly social medium has been enormous, and has without doubt been a major underpinning for Facebook.

The business push

Sales, product development, product information and product conversations are the main areas of activity here. Organizations have made great strides in recent years to really tap into the business opportunities that social media provides. This is still an evolving space for many organizations, but we are already seeing the huge uplift in the number of organizations actively engaged in social media with specific business objectives in mind.

The information and knowledge push

Thirty minutes on social media and search engines today can generate an array of information that would be considered impossible even twenty years ago. Information releases that are pushed on social media have become not only prevalent but also extremely popular with users. Leading magazines and journals are now circulating massive amounts of quality information that is readily digestible by readers. This has been helped along by user-friendly consolidation and filtering tools, such as Flipboard for the iPad.

Of course, these three areas above can all revert to a pull model whereby a user can interrogate social media tools to seek and obtain specific pieces of information.

It is hard to guess what writers in fifty years times will pen about our current times. How will the balance of the above be seen and how will the dynamics be played out? For example, how will the blending of the three areas above play out in the future and what will be the balance? One suspects that there may be no definitive answer other than it will be changing constantly.

However, what is clear from the explosive growth of social media is that people are not just talking or conversing about it, but they are getting rapidly engaged in all its forms, both as individuals and also as business and government. Future writers may well say that we have taken to heart the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song “A little less conversation, a little more action please”.

 

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Getting hooked on career development

Not so many years ago, career development was somewhat passive, and was often assumed to happen automatically given solid performance. Much of the conversation around career development was narrow, and often geared towards training. Indeed, training courses were provided to help with skills enhancement, which in turn enabled promotions to occur in a fairly orderly fashion.

But the contemporary work environment, modern technology and the global nature of business has changed all that. More importantly, the expectations about careers have altered dramatically. Generational change has also meant that people are changing jobs (and indeed careers) a number of times across their working life.

Career development is now a multi-dimensional facet of the modern business, and is trumpeted for driving better retention of people and more effective recruitment of talent into the organisation. Company websites and on-campus recruitment campaigns focus heavily on the mantra of career development. An organisation that does not have a good narrative on this issue will struggle in the global war for talent.

But that narrative is not simply a process or a flowchart showing the steps in the promotional cycle of the organisation. In fact, that is only one piece of the puzzle. People in organisations look at career development through multiple lenses, and this makes it challenging for organisations to get the right point of balance and focus.

A practical framework that is both usable and flexible can be expressed as the OPEN principle, namely: Organise, Personal, Explore and Nurture.

Organise

There must be an organized set of activities around career development to provide transparency and clarity for both individuals and organizations. But the point is that it is not one size fits all. For example, training activities need to be very flexible to suit specific requirements of the individual or the job they are expected to undertake. Old models of set training programmes with a “mass market” feel are becoming far less prominent.

Personal

The personal situation, whether it be around family or preferred life style, is so important in the career development context. In recent times, this has been given much greater prominence to accommodate the legitimate choices that people take regarding their personal lives and circumstances. For instance, career choices around overseas or domestic re-location, reduced days per week or flexible work routines are all part of the personal choices that are a key part of career development. This is very much a two-way street, and organizations are increasingly seeing flexibility in this area as vital to retaining key people in the business. The old rigid model of tightly structured careers with less regard to the personal situation is rapidly becoming a relic of the past.

Explore

Today, career development is not only about exploring options, but also being able to blend different options or opportunities. One example is job rotation. Whilst rotation between roles is nothing new, what has changed is the trend for many organizations to proactively help people explore the different options that might be available, including job rotation, job splitting and job sharing, and to use this as a positive motivator.

Nurture

Career development needs to be a real conversation, but also one that is ongoing and enduring. The annual or periodic performance review is not the right place for such a conversation. Rather, ongoing ways of shaping career development often work well if they are once removed for the day-to-day environment. For instance, the use of external mentors is a key approach for many organizations. Or there could be mentors from within the business, but from a different part of the organization. There are several combinations that can work, but the key is to ensure the conversation is enduring and combines the needs and expectations of both the individual and the organization.

Today, we often hear the idea that “your career is your personal responsibility”. This is a quantum shift from the more passive approach to careers in earlier times. It brings with it some complexity, but also some major opportunity for individuals and organisations to strike a win-win position for careers.

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