Becoming a Strategic Activist

» Posted by Jeanne Meister  » Posted on 12.03.07

Published July 2005

No one has articulated the link between workforce performance and business strategy better than Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, in his book “The Human Equation.” “Success,” Pfeffer wrote, “comes from implementing strategy, not just from having one.” And where does that implementation capability reside? In “the organization’s people, how they are treated, their skills and competencies, and their efforts on behalf of the organization.”

One huge implication follows: Chief learning officers and other learning executives, being first among the leaders who drive people’s skills and competencies and direct efforts toward the greater good of the business, now can only be effective by becoming “strategic activists.”

Don’t just take my word for it. Consider a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study of 500 C-level executives across 75 countries that surveyed their top strategic priorities. Metrics like “hours of training delivered” do not seem to be keeping them up at night. Instead, what they want is support for business goals like decreasing costs, accelerating time to market, increasing customer satisfaction, implementing process improvements, fostering innovation and globalizing operations. What should you be doing to support these priorities?

  • Focus on timely tracking of strategy: Just knowing this year’s priorities is not enough. According to Rob Campbell, vice president of learning at Cerner Corp., the business has not only higher-level corporate goals, but also a more specific list at any given point. “These are perhaps six to eight specific initiatives that the company is focused on, whether it’s creating a new solution set, or a solution offering for our clients, or changing the way that we execute a certain part of our business, or maybe a large automation and process improvement project. We will go down to these specific initiatives, and make sure that Cerner Virtual University is directly tied to what’s most important to the company.”
  • Support growth and cost efficiency: Companies are reconciling a focus on cost savings with the need to create value. CLOs can address these parallel imperatives by putting in place strong training engines to run the operational side of the learning department, while being more engaged than ever in designing, adapting and implementing new business models in the learning arena. Growth can occur here by identifying unmet needs with current target customers or identifying new customers in your learning value chain.
  • Harvest innovations: A focus on fostering innovation will be key to growth through 2008. As Joe Lemke, CEO of Evovia, a division of French industrial conglomerate Dassault Systemes, noted in an interview with The Economist, “Cutting cost is important, but if you do a really good job managing innovation this will give your organization an order of magnitude of revenue increase over cost savings.” For the CLO, this translates into taking a proactive stance to understand how learning can drive organizational innovation, such as helping the organization to enter new markets abroad or forming alliances with the chief marketing officer to create a consumer education program.
  • Improve speed to market: Improving cycle times is not only critical for the design of new products and technologies, but also for new training that goes along with the product introductions. CLOs need to manage their cycle time in design, development and delivery of new learning programs so these are in synch with the corporate clock.

One last point that underlies any effort to be an effective strategic activist: Be sure to develop strong relationships throughout the business.

Arnie Strebe, the former president of Schwan’s University, who was recently promoted to vice president and general manager of Schwan’s Home Services, a line P&L job with responsibility for $240 million, underscored this need: “CLOs must be crystal clear about what the corporation is trying to accomplish, and then they should only focus their time, money and resources on that.”

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