HomeFuture of WorkBusiness TransformationDave Ulrich: Creating business value through learning innovations in a disruptive workplace

Dave Ulrich: Creating business value through learning innovations in a disruptive workplace

  • 5 Min Read

Value is much less about what is done and more about the impact of what is done. Individuals build on their strengths to strengthen others; leader’s real power is about empowering others, and organisational culture is less about internal values and more about how those values deliver value to others. Dave Ulrich gives his insight into disruptive workplaces lending themselves to learning innovation.

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As such an organization’s learning agenda is less about what is taught and more about the impact of what is taught. In today’s volatile, changing, uncertain business world, learning matters more than ever. The outcome of learning is to access ideas with impact, to discover innovative and fresh approaches to emerging opportunities and to ensure that change happens.

In the following figure, which cell is the best to be in…? Obviously, cell 1 (we do the right thing well), but which is the worst? Not so obvious, but it is cell 2. We do the wrong thing, well. In a world of rapid change, the right thing becomes the wrong thing, but if we do it well we want to continue to do it. This is why learning matter so much. It keeps us doing the right things, well!

Figure 1: 

What we do (right or wrong thing) and how well we do it (well or poorly)

What we do
Right thing Wrong thing
How well we do it? Well 1 2
Poorly 3 4


So how does a learning agenda keep organizations and individual on track? We think learning has to respond to 3 questions:

WHY: Why do investments in learning create more value?

WHAT: What are some of the emerging learning investments?

HOW: How can learning be more effective?

The answers to these three questions highlight 10 trends in learning that deliver value to those who participate in learning events, business organizations that sponsor learning, customers who seek new and innovative products and services, and investors who seek higher returns for their investment.

WHY:  Why do investments in learning create more value?

  1. Understand the emerging context of work. Learning does not occur in a vacuum. The business context requires learning about the social, technical, economic, political, environmental, and demographic trends that shape business. Appreciating and anticipating these trends enables a response to them. These trends set the stage for any learning even.
  2. Recognize what value creation means and see learning as a source of organizational value. Learning is NOT about what is taught, but the value it creates for those who are taught. So L&D professionals should carefully identify the key stakeholders of learning (participants, organizations, customers, investors) and tailor learning experiences to deliver value to those stakeholders. For each learning experience (e.g., teaching module, coaching, job assignment), we ask L&D specialists to ask “so that” which links the activity to the value it creates.

WHAT:  What are some of the emerging learning investments?

  1. Where learning occurs? We have found that 50% of learning occurs through on the job experience (job assignments, projects, coaching, mentoring); 30% of learning occurs through education experiences where participants are guests of the learning not tourists; and 20% of learning occurs through experiences outside of work (parenting, volunteer groups, life experience). L&D professionals can access a mix of learning settings.
  2. Who attends and who teaches? Who attends training determines who gets value. Formal learning experiences can be attended by the individual participant, but also a team, customers, and investors. Who delivers training impacts how it is received. Delivery may be self taught (e.g., through technology), by experts (e.g., faculty), line managers, or external stakeholders (e.g., customers or investors). L&D specialists who get the mix of who attends and who teaches increase learning impact.
  3. What is learned? Learning outcomes can be individual focused (how I improve?) or organizationally focused (how do we improve?). We have found that organizationally focused learning (e.g., improve the culture, capabilities, or systems) has 4 times the impact on business results than individual-focused learning (e.g., improve my personal skills). L&D specialists who mix personal learning with project learning have the most impact.
  4. How learning occurs? There is an evolution of learning pedagogy from presentations to case studies of other companies to facilitated discussions to action learning to learning solutions.  Ultimately, learning solutions starts with the challenges a learner faces and offers the learner insights on how to respond. L&D specialists need to focus less on what they know and more on what their audience needs to know to improve.
  5. How to transfer learning to work? Transferring learning ideas across a boundary (from class room to work place) is always demanding. But to create sustainable learning, L&D specialists need to focus on transfer of knowledge skills from one setting to another.

HOW:  How can learning be more effective?

  1. Leverage technology. In today’s world, technology enables learning. But the trap is to not just use technology as an efficiency learning tool (e.g., on line learning), but to use technology to create learning communities where learners share insights and experiences.  Social learning networks move beyond classroom to work settings.
  2. Create accountability. L&D specialists are architects who build blueprints for learning. Line managers are the contractors who build a house and have responsibility to make learning happen. But the ultimate accountability for learning rests with the individual employee who is the resident of the house. L&D specialists should continually encourage personal agency and accountability for learning.
  3. Measure learning. Without measurement, learning outcomes are dreams not realities. But the right measures are not about activity (who or how many attended), but ultimately about business impact.  Learning experiences create value for others and measures should reflect that value.


Change happens. 

Learning creates value by helping individuals and organizations anticipate and respond to change.  By responding to the 3 questions (why, what, and how) with the 10 learning innovations, L&D specialists ensure that they learn as much or faster than those they work with (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Summary of 3 questions and 10 learning trends

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