• Learning

Designing the Smart Organization

"As a transformational business practice learning has to leave the classroom and become a core element of the business process…”

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Leaders or leadership? Organization or self? There is a general move away from focusing on developing individuals as a means of improving leadership skills in an organization – and looking at the whole system of the organization, and how the organizational design is crucial to establishing an environment where knowledge can be generated, shared and deployed effectively to improve performance.

Roland Deiser’s book tackles this need head-on. Deiser is a European based in Southern California who has built his career around creating strategic learning environments in large corporations, having been founding  Dean of Daimler’s Corporate University when the companymerged with Chrysler in 1998. He then went on to set-up the European Corporate Learning Forum, a network of some 70 large and global corporations with a base in Europe, that get together to discuss their strategic learning challenges form an organizational perspective.

It is from this background and access to major global firms that Deiser argues  that corporate learning need not be just an accessorised ‘add-on’ to assure the right skill base, boost engagement and retention of high-potentials and senior leaders and improve  productivity and process; designed well, it –is a powerful and indispensable  tool for building sustainable strategic competence into the DNA of the firm.

In his introduction Deiser explains:

“The primary reason for the ongoing marginalization of learning is that the debate about the value and contribution of learning is driven by a restrictive understanding of the practice, one that has its roots in a ‘school-based’ approach to qualification and training…. As a transformational business practice learning has to leave the classroom and become a core element of the business process…” He observes that “classrooms are actually pretty dysfunctional learning contexts… the learning challenge for the 21st century is much greater: How can entire corporations, industries, even societies learn to be more strategically competent systems, so that they will ultimately survive in balance within their relevant ecosystem?”

In what Deiser calls ‘The Corporate Learning Imperative’ he identifies five forces that drive the need for learning in organizations:

• The massive disruption of the business context
• The rise of the knowledge-based organization
• A competence-based view of strategy
• The growing importance of the periphery of the organization
• The transformation from self-contained hierarchical organizations to ‘flat’ and globally-networked co-creation clusters

These drivers create his ‘imperative’ to develop organizational capabilities to cope with these new realities and so enable the exploitation of disruptive change. The essential message is that in order to both survive and profit from the ambiguity, complexity and speed of change occurring today only an innovative environment where ideas are encouraged and knowledge gets transferred from the periphery to the centre – and vice versa – will suffice.

Deiser believes that the traditional siting of learning and development in the HR function gives it inadequate authority to affect the organizational design changes required. ‘What is required are creative strategic learning interventions that not only shape the texture of their own corporation but have the potential to include and shape the external stakeholder universe as well’ claims Deiser. This requires a repositioning of learning as a cross- functional metastructure that serves as a trusted advisor to the CEO.  He continues ‘Learning needs to create spaces of strategic discourse among stakeholders inside and outside the organization; it needs to ‘teach’ horizontal leadership…. In short, corporate learning has to become an organizational architect that helps anchor system capabilities in a way that makes corporations not only economically successful but also ethically responsible…’

Attractively, Deiser’s radical agenda is described in only five chapters of 80 pages highlighting the fact that most business books core message is normally over-explained. He then illustrates his thinking by ten case studies drawn from major corporations such as Siemens (their top executive leadership learning), ABB (how a corporate learning initiative reinvented an ailing business), BASF (designing customer centricity for multiple market segments), the US Army (transformation through an informal leadership network) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (Ulysses  - developing country sabbaticals for senior execs).

In this book Deiser grasps the key  issues facing learning and development today – and provides both an insight and process for effective change and illustrates how these can be and have been implemented in globally recognisable organizations. Although published in 2009 his ideas and observations remain hugely pertinent today.

Further Information:

European Corporate Learning Forum (ECLF)


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