Over the years, many clients have asked for our help in creating a “Learning Strategy.” When it comes to strategy, one size does not fit all. Not only do the size, scope and nature of learning strategies vary widely, but the general concept itself is often a bit fuzzy. When thinking about what you want out of a Learning Strategy, a good place to start is to think about what a Strategy is in the first place. Too often, “strategy” is thought of as a big, heavy endeavor without clear boundaries – lots of research and analysis accompanied by thick deliverables and lengthy presentations – at the end of which, the path forward may still be debatable. It doesn’t have to be that way; in fact it shouldn’t be that way.
A strategy, put simply, is nothing more than a plan to accomplish a goal. “We want to do X and our strategy is Y.” This sounds simple enough. But even with this simplified view of “strategy,” some common challenges remain.
The first and most common is that the business goal is often not clearly defined. Much time and energy is often spent on robust strategy development, while the ultimate goal is given limited attention. Not until the goal is clearly articulated, can you define the appropriate amount of investment to be made in the strategy to reach it.
Definition of the goal is further complicated with learning strategies. There is a tendency to want to focus on the “learning” – how will it happen, what’s the best media, who’s the audience – and not enough on the underlying business objective. The goal – if developed well – is rarely about learning. Learning for its own sake is important for schools; but for businesses and other large organizations, learning is a means to an end. If you find that you can’t clearly articulate what that business end is, then you should step back and re-focus.
Once a strategy has been developed, there’s often discussion about its quality. The belief that “we have a good strategy” is often found in places where a great deal of detailed work was done and maybe a thick document was produced with it. There really is only one objective measure of the effectiveness of a strategy though: was it executed and did it accomplish the goal? If the answer is “no” to either of these questions, then the learning strategy – however comprehensive, well-thought out or thoroughly documented – was largely ineffective.
If the strategy didn’t accomplish the goal it was ineffective; that much is self-evident. But, what if it wasn’t fully executed? Some might make the case that a great strategy left unexecuted is still a great strategy. That can be the case. But there are three characteristics of a strategy that can prevent it from ever being acted upon:
1) It didn’t have sufficient support. Someone somewhere didn’t consider it to be the right plan to accomplish the goal. A good strategy has to have appropriate buy-in before it’s rolled out. Even if it will accomplish the goal, if the appropriate stakeholders don’t support it, its potential effectiveness is a moot point. Thinking early on about what hurdles for support exist is a critical step in strategy development.
2) It wasn’t actionable enough. Too many strategies have all the detail and research in the world behind them but lack clarity of action and ease of execution. Don’t just tell them why to do it, show them how. A good strategy is also a very clear plan. Once the support for it exists, it is clear who should do what and when.
3) The organization realized the ROI of the end goal wasn’t high enough. The return of accomplishing the goal wasn’t worth the time and effort it would take to get there. Because learning strategies are often developed without clear business goals, this can be a hidden outcome and is sometimes disguised as characteristic one or two. Eventually, someone will question the direct business value and subsequently the payoff of executing the strategy. If the ties to business outcomes aren’t clear the strategy will be dead on the vine.
A final thing to consider when doing learning strategy work (or any strategy work) is how to determine the appropriate level of time to invest in strategy development. An important function of good management – and good management consulting – is to set direction with imperfect information. It is impossible to have all the necessary information when developing plans and even if it was, the cost of doing so usually outweighs the benefit of the goal toward which you’re working.
For large-scale decisions, such as entering into a new market or developing a new product, it may be worth it to invest in collecting more information up front because the risks and consequences of being wrong make further analysis valuable. But, for most management plans and decisions, we only need enough information to get started down a path that is “notionally correct.” The additional information and decisions can typically be deferred; you’ll simply adapt while you’re executing the plan.
Because new information will arise, new options will be created, and the landscape will change, overinvesting in data gathering and analysis quickly has diminishing returns. In the world of “learning strategy” development, this balance of development time with practical payoff is a very real and important decision. Highly effective managers can optimize the precise amount of time spent in strategy development and planning for the given situation. Gather only as much information as you need, and no more.
The basics of strategy are relatively simple. Ask yourself these questions and you’ll be on the right track:
• What is the goal?
• What’s the nature of the environment and what are the dynamics related to accomplishing that goal?
• What are the resources required, the potential alternatives, the necessary assumptions and the risks to be taken?
• What’s the sequence of activities and actions needed to get there?
In reality, digging through some of these items can be dicey. They often require input from multiple people/parties, which can result in inconsistent or even conflicting information. The “art” of strategy development is a fine balance of clearly defining goals and payoffs; aligning stakeholders; gathering the right amount of information; understanding points of conflicting information; assessing risk; planning with clarity; and ultimately gaining cross-organizational buy-in on the way forward. When done well, the learning strategy will be clear, the plan will be executed and the goal will be achieved.