Driving Development with Dynamic Learning Networks

A dynamic learning network is fluid and built on the systematic relationship or association between communities of people, content, knowledge, experiences, and personal or business needs.

By Stacey Harris, VP, Research, Brandon Hall Group

A shift is taking place in our world. Do you feel it? A perfect intersection has taken place—between economic drivers, workforce demographics, and the technology evolution. Together, these three factors are creating an environment where businesses, government entities, and even nonprofit organizations must adapt to new models for achieving success. One of the most important alterations we face is the necessity to change how we educate and develop our workforces. Download Graphic 1 (Forces Driving a Change in Learning and Development Approaches) below.

In Brandon Hall Group’s annual Business Focus ’13 survey published in January, more than 80 percent of respondent organizations said one of their top business priorities included growth initiatives, such as gaining market share, innovation, or launching new products and services. So organizations are assessing new learning models in an attempt to better manage the information flow and change employee performance expectations.

Social learning, knowledge sharing, and relationship building are at the center of these new approaches. Many organizations quickly are realizing that simply implementing new learning methods inside separate programs or courses isn’t enough to sustain the long-term change required for this market shift. They must scale these traditionally individual learning approaches to large employee communities.

Brandon Hall Group has observed successful organizations create expanded learning environments, specifically ones that include an infrastructure to transform the learning approach into a valuable business tool. A critical element of these expanded learning environments is a dynamic learning network that provides structure to relationship building, knowledge sharing, and collaboration.

The Business Focus ’13 report shares insights gathered from the lessons gained by four unique organizations—Humana, URS, Monsanto, and UnitedHealth Group—as they built the foundations for implementing learning environments that included dynamic learning networks. Download Graphic 2 (chart of the four organizations) below.

Connecting Business Strategies to Learning Strategies

Developing an effective learning strategy and annual plan continues to rank as one of the top learning priorities year over year for almost one-third of organizations. Monsanto, experiencing more than 20 percent annual growth over the last five years, found that one of its biggest challenges was retaining and developing top talent amid the constant growth. “We couldn’t reach and develop our talent quickly enough. So we needed other ways to connect our people and develop their job proficiencies,” the Learning and Development lead at Monsanto told us. The company is located in 70 different countries with more than 22,000 employees; last year, its international business surpassed U.S. business. “Keeping everyone connected, developed, and engaged is a major factor in our success,” the L&D leader said.

Monsanto’s leadership is clear that its growth is tightly connected to its people strategy. The people strategy focuses on improving employee engagement and ensuring retention. The organization’s positive employee engagement index was already well over 80 percent, but the company leadership challenged the organization to move the needle to 90 percent. A cornerstone of that effort was the rebranding and rollout of the “Synapse” knowledge-sharing and company-wide mentoring and coaching platform with the tagline, “Connect, Collaborate, and Grow.”

URS is an organization that has grown rapidly through acquisitions. URS saw the oncoming challenge of knowledge loss and retirement of critical skills in the industry as a major business concern. URS’ early investment in creating a culture of connecting business incentives to development has paid multiple dividends for the company today. Based on comments from Construction Industry Institute, URS is one of the only companies in the association that already has a plan, program, incentives, and structured tools in place for the knowledge drain crisis. As the head of HR for the division stated, “the more we invest, the more we get out of it.”

UnitedHealth Group’s CEO supports work that emphasizes the concept that “we are all better together—in how we work, share knowledge, and serve our customers.” With more than 114,000 employees, this is a major undertaking and required clear language and expectations. This was accomplished three years ago by focusing on implementing a values-based culture. These values are integrity, compassion, relationships, innovation and performance. In the last three years, the values have been integrated into everything from the creation of culture ambassadors to deep integration with performance and coaching programs. They drive how UnitedHealth Group is expected to get work accomplished and serve its clients.

Facing similar challenges, Humana, found that much of its work was based on relationships. Yet, retention metrics and feedback from Millennial intern programs showed that the company was not helping people build relationships, and, in some cases, the existing learning environment and manual mentoring programs were making it difficult to share the information that needed to spread across the organization.

Key recommendations for change came from a special summer intern project that was tasked with investigating and presenting a plan for better Millennial acquisition and retention strategies. The final analysis showed that the investment in a better approach to helping employees create relationships, collaborate, and share knowledge would pay off quickly and far beyond Millennial hiring strategies. The Talent and Learning function was asked to lead the effort on these improvements, including implementing a dynamic learning network for knowledge sharing, collaboration, and mentoring.

Connecting Competencies and Business Needs

Competencies are generally at the center of a solid learning approach. The challenge is that most organizations focus on connecting competencies primarily to courses. All of the organizations in our research had healthy and well-developed course catalogs supported by their learning functions. Yet, all of these organizations struggled with the perception that they needed to do more in employee development. They needed something that would support collaboration, facilitate knowledge sharing, and accelerate the ability to access a coach or mentor.

All four organizations chose to invest in a platform they felt would meet those needs, a platform that would create a dynamic learning network. A dynamic learning network is one that is fluid and built based on relationships. Not simple human relationships, but the systematic relationship or association between communities of people, content, knowledge, experiences, and personal or business needs. A learning network that allows an organization to capture these details and dynamically match needs with content, people, and communities creates an environment that allows an organization to quickly adapt to changing market shifts. Download Graphic 3 (Dynamic Learning Network) below.

Key elements in this type of environment are tools that provide people and communities the opportunity to assess their skills, experience, and knowledge—and identify strengths and weaknesses.

Humana hadn’t been able to create this dynamic learning environment within its existing systems and tools. The director of Talent Management and Development stated, “What we found was that most learning management systems were designed for tracking formal training. And so when we thought about getting people to learn through other people, the learning management system wasn’t the right solution.” Humana was also a heavy internal user of Socialcast as a social connection tool (it labeled it “Buzz”). But the Buzz platform was informal and wouldn’t let learning leaders capture and track the development outcomes. What the company found was a middle ground in Triple Creek’s River platform, which allowed Humana to create a dynamic learning network based on competencies and people, not courses or job roles. “They (Triple Creek) helped us move our thinking from the one-to-one mentoring concept, to one-to-many relationships. When we saw that was a possibility, we said, ‘this is more than just mentoring. This is creating communities where you can learn from many people,’” the Humana TM director said.

All of the organizations in the research study felt their dynamic learning networks were successful, but still were in the early stages of enterprise support. Organizations such as Monsanto, UnitedHealth Group, and URS had been leveraging the mentoring and coaching tools for several years with smaller communities, and recently chose to re-energize the programs with new branding, marketing, and resources. Today, each of the four organizations has anywhere between 10 percent to 35 percent of its overall launch populations actively engaging in interactions within the dynamic learning network, ranging from populations of a few thousand to almost 10,000. This means that employees have filled out their full profile, matched development opportunities, and are actively engaging in some level of conversation. Additionally, all of the organizations are seeing 2 percent to 5 percent increases in monthly participation. Due to the continued success of the programs, all of the organizations were on the road to expanding the reach—particularly to new business units or to international communities.

Stacey Harris is vice president of Research and Advisory Services for Brandon Hall Group, a research and analyst group serving the performance improvement industry, with more than 10,000 clients globally. Brandon Hall Group has an extensive repository of thought leadership research and expertise in its primary research portfolios—Learning and Development, Talent Management, Sales Effectiveness, Marketing Impact, and Executive Management. At the core of its offerings is a Membership Program that combines research, benchmarking, and unlimited access to data and analysts. Members have access to research and connections that help them make the right decisions about people, processes, and systems, coalesced with analyst advisory services tailored to help put the research into daily action. For more information, visit http://go.brandonhall.com/homeand http://go.brandonhall.com/membership_TM

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