Learning Alert #56: Appreciative Inquiry – The Future of Learning Transfer

As a learning professional, I am frustrated by what seems to be an obsessive focus on training’s shortcomings. I can’t attend a conference or listen to a webcast without hearing about what’s broken in learning and development. Sure, we have lots of opportunities to improve—every function does—but, surely, there is a lot going on in training and development that is positive. So, my question is this: What do we do right? What are strengths on which we can build to produce great results for our organizations and trainees?

Great question! Take learning transfer as an example. Learning transfer is the process of putting learning to work in a way that improves performance. There is no question that in many programs, it is the weak link. But, you could also say that the learning transfer glass is partially full. There are many programs after which learning gets put to work in ways that really do improve results. So, rather than focusing on what is broken in learning transfer, we could explore what is working and start to build on those strengths.

That’s the fundamental rationale for appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is very different than traditional business problem-solving. Instead of always starting with “what’s wrong,” appreciative inquiry assumes that the potential—or capacity—for exceptional performance is already present in every organization; that there are many things already being done well, resulting in outstanding performance. The goal is to learn from and build on these strengths, rather than always looking to “fix problems.” Appreciative inquiry rejects the deficit approach and instead asks the question, how can we do more of what we are really good at to drive performance.

By way of illustration, compare how typical corporate problem-solving and appreciative inquiry would approach the same issue. In their excellent book, “Appreciative Inquiry,” Barrett and Fry frame the example this way: Suppose that you were in a company that was experiencing an employee turnover rate substantially higher than the industry average. The knee-jerk reaction is: “let’s figure out why 15% of our employees are leaving.” Appreciative inquiry would reframe the question as: “let’s find out why 85% of our employees choose to stay, so we can further strengthen those areas with the result that 90% or 95% choose to stay.” (Barrett & Fry, Appreciative Inquiry, Chagrin Falls, OH, Taos Institute, 2005) The first approach leads to a disheartening laundry list of what is broken; appreciative inquiry leads to creative and positive ideas to make those things that are working even better.

In October, I had the privilege of putting these ideas into practice on the topic of learning transfer with a large group of talented learning professionals from many different organizations at Fort Hill’s annual Learning Transfer Summit. We began the session by exploring what we currently are doing well, by having participants tell about a time or program in which learning transfer was outstanding. Using that as a positive platform, we then shifted to creating a future vision three years from now.

Building on the things we are already doing well, we were able to describe an exciting and positive future for our profession. We included the already taken actions and the impact they produce when we are at our best. The following is the future we envisioned through appreciative inquiry; I hope you will agree it is much more energizing than a list of problems to fix. Our thanks to all the LTS attendees who helped create it. Now let’s make it happen!

Vision Generated by Appreciative Inquiry

October 2014 – Much has happened in the three years since we met at the LTS in San Francisco to envision a positive future for learning and development.

Nowadays, learning is co-designed with our internal clients, so that business outcomes are clear and participant’s job relevance obvious. The learners’ perceptions of relevance and utility are tracked routinely, and programs are adjusted whenever a disconnect is detected.

Learning design emphasizes work as the practice field; the learning intervention is conceived as the catalyst that launches our participants onto the “Achievement Highway™.” Specific plans to support learning transfer are now built into all instructional designs. As a result, high levels of learning transfer are consistently achieved, producing competitive advantage; transformational business results are now the norm. Soft skills programs achieve the same levels of transfer and application as technical and compliance training.

The CEO (formerly the CLO of the organization) ensures that all leaders appreciate the strategic importance learning can have, provide support for their employees’ learning, and are active participants in the process. Performance improvement through learning is embraced as a shared responsibility between management and the training department. Demonstrated learning agility is a key criterion for selection as a high-potential employee. Leaders throughout the organization are exemplars of continuous learning and cite the ability to learn and adapt as an important factor in their success. Learning and development professionals have a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion of any new strategy; the CEO requires that every business plan includes a discussion of the new skills and knowledge needed for its execution. Senior business and learning leaders work together to develop an annual learning plan that is closely linked to the business strategy and focused on the highest priority needs and opportunities. Learning and development earned its seat at the table by delivering—and documenting—improved performance in business-relevant measures.

Across the entire enterprise, every participant is expected to deliver visible and valuable improvement as part of the learning process. Credit for completing programs is granted only when competent on-the-job application is apparent. Achievements are documented in a way that can be verified and shared broadly across the organization. Active measurement and evaluation ensure that learning is delivering on its promise, as well as continuously improves. The commitment to delivering and continuously improving business results has transformed the learning function from a cost center to an acknowledged contributor to top- and bottom-line performance.

This future was achieved by learning leaders who were courageous in their execution, who viewed themselves as true strategic partners, and who, as a result, took calculated risks to try new approaches to integrate learning into the business.

Achievement Trophy Image
© 2011 Fort Hill Company. All rights reserved.

The Road Ahead

As we look forward to the New Year, let’s envision the future we want for ourselves and our learning colleagues. Let’s be mindful of what we already do well, and ask—through an appreciative inquiry—how we can use the elements of excellence that already exist in ourselves and our organizations to create the future we want.

To continue your learning, be sure to attend our upcoming complimentary webinar, “Using an Achievement Roadmap™ to Create Valuable Business Results,” on Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 11:00am EST.

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