Building a “House of Corporate Learning”: Why a hardware store is not a good place to look for an architect

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Imagine you had never built a house before. What is the first thing you would do? Go straight to a hardware store and talk to a sales guy? Collect information about single, double and tripple glazed windows? Discuss advantages and disadvantages of a wooden floor in the  kitchen?

Probably not. You would most likely look for a building ground first and then look for a good architect whom you trust and who understands your current and future family needs. And, most important, you would never look for a good architect in a hardware store, right?

Unfortunately, this is what many organizations do when they want to build a “House of Corporate Learning”. At a certain point L&D or academy managers realize that they need to rebuild their academy, or to use a picture: a corporate house of learning. Mostly because they have realized that ‘more of the same’ doesn’t meet their future requirements any more. It’s time to tear the old building down and rebuild it from scratch.

So they go to EdTech, Learntec or some other kind of conference to look for inspirations. But what they find there is (mostly) similar to what you find in a hardware store: Construction materials and tools. However, construction materials and tools are useless if it’s not clear…

  • in what order they will be needed at the construction site and
  • in how far they will contribute to complete the construction and
  • whether they are useful at all
It’s easy to go shopping in a hardware store. But where do you find a good architect?

When I went to the Learntec show in Karlsruhe/Germany in 2015 for the first time, I was well prepared and brought a few project drafts with me. The documents showed our current challenges and how we wanted to build a corporate house of learning, so to say: a global corporate academy.

I showed the draft to more than 20 potential service providers, carefully selected in advance. Most of them looked somewhat puzzled at me, listened to my project plans and then said after a pause: “That is pretty difficult… Why don’t you have a look at our great software and check out its valuable features!”

Others at least replied frankly that they had no consultative approach for such a project – even though everybody showed buzzwords at their booths like 70:20:10 learning, HR & Talent Management, Blended Learning, Learning Engagement etc.

Again (to stay in the picture of constructing a house), these terms stand for tools and construction materials that might be needed during the construction process, but they don’t stand for a master plan.

And this is where many projects fail: Organization invest in tools, but after a while they realize, that many problems remain. It becomes obvious that a tool is only good for one “mounting challenge”, e.g. to drill holes in the walls, to insulate the roof or to communicate with visitors at the front door.

Are you getting the point I am trying to make?

We have probably become used to “going shopping”, to buy tools that promise to solve our problems instantly. But they won’t! First comes the vision – that only humans can create -, then comes the master plan including selection of construction material.

It seems to be more tempting to buy tools than to come up with a good master plan – a “building plan”. A good architect analyzes the building ground, which stands for the organization’s culture, in advance. Or to stay with the Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“Who wants to build high towers, must long remain with the foundation”

(Aristotle, 384-322 B.C.)

There are a few good architects, or let’s better say consultants, out there, but you actually have to become your own architect. The longer you are with your organization and the more departments you know, the better. And if you are new in your organization, talk to at least 30 people for 1-2 hours each until you get a feeling (it’s really more a feeling than a mental thought-construct) about what the building ground of your construction site is like. A good network of companies who are a few years ahead of you will also help to find the right components and steps for your house of learning.

I have also realized that it’s good to stay away from glossy project targets that seem to meet corporate strategies, but that have no real meaning. A typical meaningless target of this kind is: We want to digitize our academy because we follow the belief ‘Digitize or Die.’

If this is the only reason for rebuilding a corporate house of learning it will never ever meet the needs of the target group. Digitization can be part of the toolbox, but it doesn’t describe how to solve painful upskilling or onboarding needs.

During the 35 interviews that I conducted within our global organization I learned about many real pain points that (in a first step) had nothing to do with digitization. And, comforting to know, I got lots of nodding heads from other global training managers:

  • Global product rollouts take too long (up to two years)
  • PowerPoint-training of product management is too technical. It doesn’t meet requirements of sales
  • Training and upskilling need a higher value in our organization. It’s all ‘laisser-faire’ and not linked to HR development.
  • Training material in our intranet is scattered all over and not up-to-date
  • There is no documentation on how to present demo material at customer’s
  • Trainings are too German and too technical
  • Classroom trainings are overloaded
  • You seem to train without any methodology
  • What are your training objectives?
  • Has anybody ever defined what competences new hires should reach after three, six or twelve months?
  • In how far are webinars linked to classroom trainings?
  • A one-day classroom training isn’t enough to trigger behavioral changes
  • Participant’s knowledge level of our basic training is very inhomogeneous

If you followed the slogan “Digitize or Die” without conducting a thorough problem analysis in advance, you could reach your project target without having solved any of your problems. A poorly conceived digitization strategy will lead to the GIGO syndrome: Garbage In – Garbage Out.

A mere focus on digitization leads to the GIGO syndrome:

Garbage In – Garbage Out.

External support and inspiration might help to rebuild a House of Corporate Learning, but if there is no detailed problem analysis in advance, neither you nor an external consultant will ever be able to design a fitting house of learning for your organization.

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