Performance in the workplace is shaped by individual capabilities, defined roles, knowledge and skills, feedback, and a motivation loop that includes the confidence that performing leads to rewards that are valued.
Connecting learning and doing to business values
It’s a central premise of performance analysis that what the performer does or should be doing must connect to business goals. Start with the end—the business needs—then move to what workers need to be able to do. However, often missing from solutions that involve formal and/or informal learning are links that connect skill acquisition to an understanding of the business relevance of the skills acquired. A worker may understand how the skill helps her on the job but not how it makes her a more valued part of the company.
Indeed, the worker may have little idea of the overarching goals of the business. For example, how many employees in a given workplace actually understand the brand messages of a company? The strategies the company has for staying competitive? Managers may feel that sharing such information creates risks of disclosure—after all, employees leave and even with non-competes, start working for other companies, and this information is valuable. Yet absent an understanding of basic company values and strategies, the worker can feel like a commodity.
Yet assuming that there’s a willingness to be somewhat transparent about company strategies, a willingness to share doesn’t always imply an ability to share. For example, in some organizations, management itself isn’t able to clearly articulate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that the company faces. Companies are often reactive and managers may not feel they have the time to assess the long-term “bigger picture.”
Performance technologists: linking strategies to learning and doing
A performance technologist partners with clients to align performance solutions to business goals. (I’m using “technologist” here not in the sense of one who uses tech tools but to describe someone who applies a systematic approach to the analysis of performance problems.) To do this effectively, the performance technologist has to actually understand the business’ goals —not just where the company is now but where it wants to be. When organizational strategies are vague, sometimes it’s the task of the performance consultant to ask the questions that may drive some clarity. Performance technologists can thus sometimes act as mediators and interpreters of company strategies. In this role, the performance technologist can help the business see itself as “a portfolio of competencies” versus as a “portfolio of businesses” (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990).
What are core competencies?
Prahalad and Hamel (1990) describe three features of core competencies. They…
- Provide access to a variety of markets
- Make a significant contribution to customer values
- Are difficult for competitors to imitate
Core competencies derive from an ability to integrate and make use of the tacit knowledge in the entire organization, not just within communities of practice. Prahalad and Hamel note that “if core competencies are not recognized, individual SBUs [strategic business units ] will pursue only those innovation opportunities that are close at hand…” (p. 89). Thus, identifying and nurturing core competencies can be essential for an organization’s success.
The potential and challenge of enterprise social networks
The power of enterprise informal learning solutions is the potential of connections and the power to reach for what’s not close at hand. Sharing systems afford the ability to efficiently find and share knowledge (when the system is set up with the actual users in mind). However, access to knowledge doesn’t imply use. Like most technically supported solutions, the human factor is what drives success.
A particular challenge in building informal learning solutions in the workplace is the same challenge that faces external social networks: How do we move workers from passive lurking on a shared network of information (which still can be a valuable learning experience) to actual engagement and boundary crossing?
The approach requires a coordinated effort and can include:
- Modeling social sharing behaviors (managers, superior performers, learning and development departments, can all play a role in this)
- Modeling good corporate communications—careful, concise, yet still engaging
- Making the system easy to learn and use and making sure it affords connections across teams as well as within teams (e.g., R&D folk need to have some visibility into what customer service folks are facing)
- Integrating use of the system into an employee’s workflow (e.g., require that project completion include a debriefing that’s shared with others, describing lessons learned as well as successes)
- Rewarding sharing behaviors with meaningful rewards (not necessarily with monetary compensation but certainly with recognition on performance reviews and with talent development and personal feedback)
- Making sure sharing behaviors are not punished (Are superior performers “rewarded” by extra weekend work because they’ve become “go to” resources? Is boundary crossing punished because it violates perceptions of corporate hierarchies?)
- Creating a sense of fun (and no, I do not mean tacking on badges for more posting). For example, management and the L&D department can:
- Provide opportunities to engage in brainstorming challenges and virtual innovation workshops
- Provide opportunities for “competence carriers” to come together and even work together (Prahalad and Hamel, p 91)
- Create white space (aka time) for innovative thinking –even if it’s just once a quarter
Despite a lot of social learning evangelism these days, none of these efforts are easy or afford magical solutions. They require understanding the unique social dynamics in each company and a willingness to proceed with baby steps and continual process improvement. But these are critical efforts so we should be thoughtfully optimistic about the power of social networks. They’re the glue that holds companies together. We just have to work at making them “stickier.”
Prahalad, C.K. and Hamel, G. (1990) The core competence of the corporation, Harvard Business Review, 68 (3), 79–91.