During the height of COVID, fassforward conducted a six-month study into the future of learning. In nearly one hundred conversations, a theme kept repeating — that the scope of learning professionals must move from building learning programs to building a learning culture. Coaching and building a habit of practice and improvement into the organization is an integral part of this learning culture. It’s also the most challenging part of creating a successful Learning Flywheel.℠
If you’ve ridden a bike, you’re familiar with how a flywheel works. At first, the bike is hard to pedal and get up to speed. Once the bike is moving, the laws of physics work in your favor; you can coast, then pedal. Coast, then pedal again. You have momentum.
Metaphorically, the flywheel is a virtuous cycle that propels and anchors the business. Amazon built its business around a growth flywheel. Jeff Bezos first sketched his on the back of a napkin.
The Amazon growth flywheel.
The shift to a remote or hybrid working model is the opportunity for CLOs, CHROs and business leaders alike to shape a learning culture. We believe the key to that is taking a page out of Amazon’s playbook, and creating a Learning Flywheel.℠
While Amazon uses a flywheel to drive growth and innovation, you need a flywheel to drive a learning culture and business transformation. That transformation may be cultural or digital, or both. The CLO's contribution will be the building of business capabilities. A repertoire of new skills and behaviors, both hard and soft, to upskill the organization. As Rich Vincent, VP of Talent Management & Developments at Knotel told us, “companies are going to win or lose based on adaptive capacity generated by learning. Ultimately that capacity to learn and adapt is going to be the only competitive advantage that matters.”¹
Similar to Amazon’s model, a Learning Flywheel℠ is based on four equally important components. The CLO still cares for her traditional role: curating a portfolio of learning assets. But she also dedicates time towards creating demand for formal and informal learning. Deliberate practice is integral, and leaders/coaches reinforce and encourage practice of those new skills. Shaping a learning culture maintains momentum and energy in the flywheel. Finally, The axle upon which the wheel spins, is measurement.
The biggest challenge to creating a Learning Flywheel℠ is that all four aspects need to be firing at once, or the wheel stops turning. Our research confirms that the coaching/practicing component of the flywheel is the most difficult.
We have been discussing the implications of this study with large corporations. In one private webinar with the L&D team of a Fortune 50 organization, we asked about their learning culture, and where their energy is focused.
Their answers were typical. “Building engaging learning programs”, “Delivering measurable business outcomes” and “Getting people motivated and interested in learning.”
At the back of the pack: “Having learners practice and hone their skills.”
The reality is most L&D groups don’t encourage deliberate practice. This essential part of building a skill, or changing a behavior falls into the grey zone of “someone else’s responsibility”. It’s too difficult.
Creating a portfolio of learning assets is at the core of what a CLO does. Putting on a marketing hat and creating demand can be fun and exciting. Working with leadership on shaping a learning culture is intriguing and challenging. However, it’s hard to get excited about the time and effort it takes to make learning stick. “As leaders, we generally have the intellectual capacity to quickly grasp concepts and ideas, which can lead us to mistakenly believe we also know how to execute on them right away. The reality is that we don’t – not until we practice, get feedback, refine our approach, and practice again.”²
When we do not practice and reinforce what we learn, we forget it. “It’s the human condition of forgetting what we’ve learned, and it’s called the ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve’:
First, it is easier to learn something that is meaningful and relevant to the learner.
Second, that we forget, and we forget pretty quickly (that’s the forgetting curve).
And third, relearning is easier than learning for the first time.
Since we forget what we learn pretty quickly, a plan for deliberate practice following the learning program is essential. According to Kate Tonda, Director of Learning and Development at Walmart eCommerce, “you want to get people doing and practicing as fast as possible.”³
Great leaders are great teachers. They are natural coaches. In a Learning Flywheel℠, leaders teach and coach. This active participation is the difference between a “declared” learning culture and a “demonstrated” one.
Many leaders are reluctant coaches. At best, coaching is an add-on to the job description, not a natural extension of it. At worst, “coaching” is a euphemism associated with poor performance. “Sally needs a little coaching” is a precursor to Sally being told that her performance isn’t up to par, and needs improvement.
Leaders themselves are often the most reluctant to learn. “Many leaders believe that intellectual understanding is enough, that all they need to do is read about something or discuss it in order to be able to do it well. But we know that skill development is vital.”⁴
Leaders need to
The most successful learning cultures do not separate coaching from learning. They see one as a continuation of the other. Development of a program starts with the question, “what does this [skill or behavior] look like?” This is the reverse of the usual approach. Usually, a well-designed learning program would have a leader's guide and perhaps a coaching guide, but as an add-on, not a starting point.
We recommend working backward. This starts with L&D working together with business leaders and HR business partners. Their first job is to identify the outcome measures that show a skill or behavior has been mastered. This cannot be a treatise. These metrics must be concise and concrete. From there, the team can build a guide to assist leaders in recognizing mastery and help leaders coach to it. Then, and only then, can they start building the learning curriculum for the program.
The Learning Flywheel℠ prevents learning from being a 'check-the-box' exercise. Instead, the learning event is a trigger, a foundation for skill-building. Deliberate practice hones that skill. Over time, learners become practitioners, working at their craft. The CLO as Chief Experience Officer makes sure that leaders can recognize the skill and coach to it.
At fassforward, we believe that the key to coaching is creating a "thinking partnership". Learning is the foundation that coaching is built upon and any coaching engagement can only be successful if the coachee is willing to learn. Successful learning programs often blend a mix of internal and external coaches. Internal coaches have an intimate understanding of the company, and its unique culture and challenges. They can aid deliberate practice and support building capabilities at scale. External coaches bring an outside, unbiased perspective. They often have a deep understanding of culture and behavioral change, and support not only the coachee, but can move the transformation effort forward.
Effective coaches work both with clients and their key stakeholders to identify areas of development. Usually at the top of the list are “strategic thinking”, “leading people”, “communication”, “leveling up” and “agile mindset”. These areas of development are also at the top of the list of the learning programs for many of our clients.
The problem that large companies face is that they draw on many different external resources for their learning programs and external coaches, without any coordination between those resources. There has never been a better (or easier) time to bring these resources together and demonstrate the agility and coordination that are necessary to have a successful learning culture.
This requires investment in creating a strong and relevant learning curriculum. It requires leaders to be actively engaged, both in learning and in coaching. It requires effective marketing to earn company-wide buy-in. And it requires deliberate practice and coordination with leaders and coaches. This last one is usually the most tricky. But, solve for these four components and you will create a Learning Flywheel℠ and in turn demonstrate (and not just declare) a successful learning culture.
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¹ McMahon, Gavin, et al. “Remote Learning - the “How-to” Guide for Business.” fassforward.p.35
² “Long, Jennifer. “The Importance Of Practice – And Our Reluctance To Do It - Harvard Business Publishing.” Harvard Business Publishing, 27 Apr. 2016.
³ McMahon, Gavin, et al. “Remote Learning - the “How-to” Guide for Business.” fassforward.p.52
⁴ HBR: The Importance of Practice and our Reluctance to Do It