Learning can outpace market change in growing businesses

Is the out-dated command and control style of management still holding some organisations back? Here Ian Helps looks at the benefits of encouraging employees to think for themselves.

“This project represents my first ever critical self-reflection in eight years of working for [my company]”

This quotation captures the tragic waste of human capital prevalent in many companies today. By encouraging staff to “execute and not think”, companies expect high performance.

What they increasingly get is obedience, low performance and an organisational inability to adapt fast enough.  In this article I would like to demonstrate that there is a better way; one that is in tune with today’s relentlessly changing marketplace.

By critically self-reflecting and immediately applying new insights into business projects for his team, the student quoted above – on one of our Master’s programmes – went on to develop a whole new set of opportunities for both himself and his company.  He was clear that the old pattern of unquestioningly following old habits would not have brought this success and this matches recent research at Harvard Business School and HEC Paris showing that reflective practice increases performance by over 20%.

The Imperative of Disruptive Change

Digitisation and Big Data is reaching ever further into our lives and the services that we buy accelerating the pace of change in any industry it touches; think of Amazon and the traditional bookstores or, more recently, Uber and taxis.

>See also: A lesson in business transformation

A number of our customers operate in the technology and telecommunications B2B markets which are at the forefront of disruptive change: SAP moving its services to the cloud; Sony Mobile as it moves to content-rich offerings and Toshiba Tec moving new service-based document management offerings. They are all choosing a different way to learn because, as more markets move at digital speeds, today’s traditional approaches to learning are not fit for purpose.  

Today’s best practice is often out of date before it can be codified and, when it is trained, it rarely meets the specific market reality of the learners. And, simply going online with training doesn’t solve this basic flaw.  A global head of sales enablement summarised his quandary as “trying to download 300 days worth of information into two days of enablement per quarter.”  And it’s going to get worse.

Developing the Reflective Practitioner

To stay relevant, professionals must develop greater learning agility through thinking and adapting for themselves. By providing an environment which makes the learner think, reflect and challenge their own ways of working they can find new and original answers that can be rapidly deployed to the business front line. The resulting practices work because they have been honed by the people that are using them and, through working collaboratively with their employers, a learning system can be provided based on a number of core principles:

  1. The participant experience drives everything
  2. Follow academically verified best practices for successful adult learning
  3. Provide leading edge, business relevant material that radically challenges students’ existing worldview and triggers them to seek new answers
  4. Students immediately apply the new learnings to a business-relevant project
  5. Use reflective practice and individual, peer to peer coaching and virtual collaboration to encourage real learning
  6. Place this in a formal academic framework that ensures quality standards of education and a goal. (For instance, in our case, Masters degrees in Transforming Sales or Transforming Sales Leadership that provide student ‘pull’).

Tangible Results of Reflective Practice

A student’s journey starts by transforming their ability to think and change and we’ve seen them constantly surprise themselves with the results that stem from their ability to transform their practices and those of their teams. Seeing them re-ignite their passion for learning and watching them become much more agile learners than before is like watching Rocky getting back into shape after years out of the boxing ring. They also become thought leaders for their areas of business as they seek new ideas and information to keep them one step ahead. The benefits for their employers are just as significant as they get to retain their top talent and test their best and brightest; many of whom we’ve seen get promoted off the back of their transformed perspectives.

Paul Devlin is a director of SAP Middle East North Africa (MENA), currently studying for a Masters in Leading Sales Transformation with Consalia and Middlesex University. Taking the time to reflect, Paul concluded that improving the quality of recruitment was the single biggest impact area for the business. He took it upon himself to lead the transformation of recruiting sales people. SAP MENA subsequently recorded its highest performing year ever in 2014 and doubled its rate for converting sales opportunities into contracts.

>Related: How to stop a golden business idea running away from you

Another student on the same Masters course was a sales manager with three team members on performance improvement plans (PIPs) facing imminent redundancy. Sales managers are notorious in finding it hard to turn around PIP situations but, to the student’s delight and surprise, after reflecting and using an Appreciative Inquiry approach of looking at the positives rather than the traditional negative mindset, all three PIP employees were coached to success and are now solid performers.

I firmly believe that this reflective practice approach that focuses on the learning agility of students is a blueprint for learning that can outpace the needs of the market in any profession. And what business can afford to ignore that?

Ian Helps is a director of Consalia, a global sales performance improvement consultancy and a member of Cranfield University’s Practice Advisory Board.

Further reading: 10 free apps every entrepreneur needs

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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