“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Nelson Mandela

In preparation for writing our book, “Accelerated Learning for Breakthrough Results” we interviewed a number of active contributors in the learning field to explore some of the challenges and opportunities they faced w.r.t. Accelerating learning. Some of the contributing organisations were Nedbank, RMB, Investec, Dimension Data, Eskom, AVI, Harmony Gold, Ricoh, Telkom, YUM, Liberty Group, GIBS, etc.

The challenges were numerous. We categorised them into the top 7 most common challenges with a few additional but less common challenges mentioned below.

Challenge #1: Building a learning culture
This was the most common and prioritised challenge from every organisation. Nicolene Hogg from Didata emphasised “That culture is a strategic business enabler and must be owned by business and supported by learning. L&D cannot do it alone.” Most of the interviewees felt that leaders need to build the capacity to become talent and learning champions, realise the value of learning, be great coaches and create learning environments where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes or receive feedback. Nicolene continued by saying: “Organisations and leaders need to embed life-long, continuous learning beliefs and practices into the business (e.g. 70/20/10 approach and After Action Reviews-AARs)”. It is a challenge to find the balance between organisation led learning and learner led learning which requires a certain maturity of both learners and leaders. Gawie Herold from Harmony says: “We need to shift the leaders’ mind-sets of: “not invented here – my business unit is different”, “this is how it’s done here, forget what you have learnt” and people not being released from jobs due to pressure to perform and focus on targets only.“

Challenge #2: Moving learning from the classroom to the job and performance
The bandwidth of executives and managers continues to decrease, as organisations face information overload, fast pace of change, multiple distractions, lean structures and greater global complexity. Angela Donnelly from RMB says: “There is less and less appetite for taking time off for learning away from the job and a greater necessity for on-the-go, just-in-time, relevant, accessible learning options”. Candida from AVI commented: “There is a perception that only 10-15% of what I learn is relevant, so why should I give up the time and catch up my work after hours”. Getting people into the classroom is getting harder and harder. Business is saturated with many programs and continuous change and new challenges, as Dean Retief from Nedbank says: “We need to get learning out of the classroom and into the boardroom.”

Challenge #3: Fast-tracking specific experience and skills
With the business world, technology and products changing so rapidly, the predominant question top of mind is how do we fast-track specific skills and experience within a global context. A key question raised was how do we fast-track experience? I.e. how do we build judgement, decision making and wisdom so that learning can be applied in multiple unique situations and contexts? Another question was how do we develop systems thinking, complexity management and leading in chaos? Context becomes more important than content at senior levels. Another challenge is up-skilling to keep up with changing business models which require new skill-sets such as a move from hardware to software, IT and consulting skills. Brent Nestler from Ricoh says: “We need to catch up with project management, change management and service management to create a uniform experience with global clients. We also need to keep up with global roll-outs of new products, services, pricing models or clients and get these knowledge and skills to the front-line sales and support staff as quickly as possible.”

In addition to the above, we need to get everyone up to speed in their current roles which are evolving all the time e.g. new systems training. With existing leaders, how do we continue to build technical depth while developing leadership capability too? As Dr Andrew Johnson from Eskom says: “technical problems can be easily solved until people are involved”. He says: “We need to look to the future and plan to fill the leadership and technical pipeline in a changing world. We need to accelerate the development of leaders of the future (e.g. engineers, power station managers, business unit managers). How do we prepare young graduates today to become the leaders and change agents for the future and become capacity builders themselves?”

Challenge #4: Learning to shift paradigms and mind-sets
Most of the interviewees mentioned the importance and challenge of designing learning experiences to shift paradigms and mind-sets. Ilk Dunne from RMB says: “We need triggers and hooks to engage people and motivate them to learn.” Many spoke of the leaders needing to believe in the importance of self-leadership as the foundation for all learning and helping people build self-awareness, find purpose and meaning, understand their impact and create a legacy. People are blind to their faults and require learning experiences to help them grow.

Challenge #5: Making learning relevant and valuable
Individualising learning is a big challenge to most organisations. The question is how to position the value of learning for each individual so that they understand the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM). How do we match and target learning opportunities to people and their roles, and not adopt a whitewash approach? We need to make learning relevant and time efficient. How also do we communicate with everyone and inform them what is available in a self-driven learning environment, when people don’t read stuff?

Challenge #6: Alignment of individual values and expectations with the culture
Another complex challenge is how to ensure the learning process assists integration and alignment of individual values and expectations with the organisational culture. This is particularly relevant to the induction of EE candidates so that they stay? How do we build resilience and coping skills with new entrants and talent champion skills with their leaders? This also applies to MBA students who have a reputation for leaving within 18 months of completing their studies. How do we ensure transfer of knowledge from old to new generations through mentoring and avoiding the mind-set of “We got here the hard way, so we don’t want to make it easy for the youngsters”. How to build a “leaving a legacy” mind-set? The challenge works both ways, as organisations are faced with a sense of entitlement and arrogance from some of the younger generations which don’t make it easy for the people transferring the knowledge.

Challenge #7: Increasing adoption rates on technology platforms
At least 5 of the organisations interviewed have started their virtual and social learning platforms. Their challenge was how do we get adoption rates up and actually get people to use the platforms, create content, share knowledge and interact. A culture shift is needed to strategically migrate the organisation to a new way of learning and behaving.

Other Challenges
Other challenges included how to leverage knowledge across functions and levels and how to ensure deeper alignment across senior managers to ensure understanding of decisions and avoid undiscussables. Some companies were struggling with balancing company vs country requirements e.g. people need certification or qualifications on SAQA but the unit standards are not always relevant or current. Companies in shrinking industries e.g. mining were facing development opportunity challenges with limited scope for growth and limited resources. A company with many programs was thinking through the best way to select individuals for accelerated learning programs i.e. Do we ask managers to select (candidates may perceive that they have been selected because “I am lacking”) or do we ask individuals to self-select (what about the one’s that need it but don’t)? We need to ensure fairness and honesty in feedback and clear rationale for learning. Lastly a company ahead of the curve is asking how they can integrate Talent, Transformation and Learning in reporting to show return on investment.

Thanks to all the collaborators for contributing to this insight. If any other organisation is interested in adding to this, please comment on this blog or mail us.