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Mathew Kuruvilla

Role of technology in workplace learning and organization development

Mathew Kuruvilla has spent close to two decades in the field of HR, learning and organization development. He started his career teaching at the University before moving into the corporate world. Apart from working on various aspects of the employee life cycle, he has rich experience areas like designing interventions across levels, designing and implementing organization-wide change initiatives, assessing and implementing learning technology solutions. During the last decade he has been heading organization development functions for large multinational corporations in consulting, IT and Financial services sectors. Currently, Mathew heads HR for the Global Technology, Finance and Risk functions in Deutsche Bank AG, India.  Mathew has post graduate qualifications in Literature, Mass Communication (Central University in Hyderabad) and Business Management (Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta). 
Workplace learning can be more of the informal kind than formal. Do you see a role for technology to be of help here?
Mathew Kuruvilla

Formal and informal learning address the immediate needs of the learner. When there is a demand for a certain output from the learner, he or she is forced to pursue the new learning and incorporate it as part of the expectation the organization/ manager might have from the person. For example, if an employee needs to perform certain task in MS Excel for some deliverable in the workplace, he/she will be motivated (maybe extrinsically) to go after the specific content/experience and learn the required skill to be able to use it effectively. We know from our personal experiences that when we are faced with such a learning need, we intuitively go after the knowledge or resource that can help us build the required knowledge and skill and that's where technology could help in a big way. It is a great “just-in-time” enabler! However, given the mushrooming of all the social media tools, technology based learning methodologies need to adapt and change the overall engagement with the learner – they need to become more informal. Some of the peda/andragogies of the earlier version of technology based learning tools need to be re-engineered. In this new world, learning is becoming more and more intuitive and learning technologies need to be flexible to map to the learner’s intuition.

Do you think social media can facilitate and strengthen informal learning?

As far as social media is concerned, one of the best examples I can think of is the use of technology forums Android , Mac etc, which people turn to expecting a quick clarification of a query or an issue that they are facing. I have seen this in use for a while now, when faced with a technology, OS or platform challenge, they turn to these forums for a quick resolution and they get instant solutions. This type of learning goes viral and according to me this is one of the best ways of informal and intuitive learning approaches. Wonder if we can adapt technology based learning to such intuitive social practices so that learning does not end up being something unique we are doing offline but is a part of our daily activity – like tweeting, blogging etc.  Learning technology designers need to closely carry out an anthropological study of such emerging social practices to enhance the learning process.

Perhaps, that also depends on what we define by ‘learning’. Are there other ways through which organizations can tap the potential of social media for integrating learning with performance and making it an ongoing process? Can you share some examples?

I have seen social media and its use for team performance and team alignment. Ideally speaking, an organization/team could be considered as a community; however, there are deep community dynamics at play which might come in the way of open learning. Let’s look at an example of Performance Multiplier  a performance management tool developed by Accenture and Marcus Buckinham’s organization Facebook idea for developing a tool for managing and monitoring performance and enable learning and development

Using this tool, the manager and employees can set their objectives and their priorities, update on specific tasks that they are performing and the manager can see where they are coming from. It works on the ‘strengths’ approach developed by Marcus Buckingham.

The team can set the priorities and the manager can monitor overall performance, if there are individuals struggling, frustrated, disconnected, it becomes very obvious on the tool and the manager can have individual conversations and encourage them to explore their strengths or provide feedback.

Often, we see organizations embarking on training, more as a ‘diagnostic’ solution to a set of ‘performance issues’.  What are your perceptions of a ‘proactive’ approach to training that can be embedded in the workflow?

Diagnosis, to a large extent cannot remain top-down as it used to happen in the past where we speak to the managers and they tell us what the needs are. It has to be both top-down and bottoms up, so we reach a point where we take into consideration the organizational priorities and individual priorities, while we put together a system that will take care of the learning needs. Research is clearly pointing out that there are preferable modes of learning to ensure greater, longevity of skills, greater utilization etc. Many research based studies state that only 10% of the learning could be delivered through classroom (procedural, conceptual and some part of skill), 70% of the learning has to happen on the job, it has lot to do with definition of job, definition of role, clear understanding of the competencies required/levels of proficiency, tasks to be accomplished and about 20% of learning is supposed to happen through networking, interaction with colleagues, experts. So, the biggest challenge for HR and T&D today is how you define a system or framework which will address the 70% of learning. And a challenge for the employee is to go after the right kind of networking that will facilitate learning and growth and if you notice the earlier paradigm of L&D organizations is slightly shifting from the sole purveyors of learning to enablers who are supporting a self-driven learning process and culture.

Can you give some examples?

Let’s look at organizations like Toyota and the learning systems they implement. At Toyota, learning is closely linked to the operations on a daily basis, unless you do that you cannot have a proactive learning system. For example, they have a measure of some seconds to fix a driver’s seat in a car and a very clear operational limit clearly defined, so there’s a start and a limit, if I miss the target it impacts operations down the line. When I’m not able to perform my job within the organizational parameters and benchmarks, then it could be a function of my skill, my knowledge, or a clear understanding of the processes involved in completing the task. So my supervisor takes me offline and sends me to either a process or skills training. This is an example of how learning is closely tied to that 70%.

But, isn’t this industry specific?

If you were to map it to hospitality industry (or customer services) it could get  difficult to observe and measure, and many times it remains intangible; the lines between skill and attitude blur. So, how do you work on the attitude of a person, either a person has it or doesn’t. I’m not really too sure if you can change a person’s attitude only through training

After spending many years in T&D, I’ve more or less come to believe that training is more like a Band-Aid. It can sensitize you to specific issues, help you understand your development areas, your response to situations etc., but according to me, if you really want to do deep transformational change, it has to be supported by a very strong coaching framework. Training can address knowledge gaps, build sensitivity, it can build some skills (let’s say, negotiation and influencing) but beyond that if I cannot be customer friendly then there’s an issue with me and I need to be moved on and probably be put into a different role where I don’t interface with clients. Training can work up to a point but beyond that it’s the quality of the role definition, right hiring, ongoing manager support in understanding the key deliverables of the role and ongoing feedback etc.

Change is normally perceived as a top-down phenomenon in many organizations. One of the ways to embrace and appreciate change is to update ourselves with new knowledge and skills. This applies to different functions and different roles...what are the key attributes of organizations and people who interpret change as something positive and beneficial to the company?

Organizations which value change, proactively build the capability for change, especially in their senior leadership. Usually it is this top layer which makes strategic decisions for the organizations and its impact is felt in the market and could have potentially long term impact. Organizations will pay special focus on specific change demands an organization faces - its intensity, frequency etc., and proactively builds systems that will enable individual, team and organizational change. These systems will comprise capability (for identifying and driving change adaptability), ways of communicating change and ways/processes for imbibing the change. These organizations will have in built capability for assessing the changing behavioural economic landscape that will drive demand for a particular product (iPhone, Galaxy Note vs Nokia etc.) and have the ability to tone up their supply chain systems to deliver to clients’ needs (especially in industrial segments where change is a constant and driven every quarter e.g., software, electronic gadgets etc.)

We live in an age where change is not a luxury you’ll choose to invest in, but it is the actual environment (oxygen/water) that sustains growth, expansion, market share etc.

We know of organizations that lose the capability to adapt to change and they end up being history. Therefore, learning and development leaders need to focus on working with their leadership on developing this crucial capability and also help build systems that will enable organizations to constantly change and transform,. 

It’s important for organizations to understand holistic aspects of L&D - how different modes of learning and knowledge-sharing can be synchronized for achieving the organizational goals. Could you share some points on how this can be achieved?

Now, this calls for a systemic view of learning in organizations. It may sound theoretical but it separates organizations that figure this out early-on in their journeys and those that plan for the outcomes and stand head and shoulders apart from their competition. Organizations need to start with a clear understanding of the business strategy: what are we in the market place for, what is our USP (cost, quality, product differentiation etc.) then articulate the capability that would help sustain what they are after ( technical excellence, functional depth, sheer raw labour power required to produce volumes, quality focus etc.).

This should be followed up by working on a strategy to recruit the right talent, assess performance and potential (talent), capability, competency (especially in high tech companies) then plan for differentiating your constituencies (graduates, experienced staff, innovators, sales force, managers, senior leadership) and  clearly articulate their specific learning needs.  Unless a systemic design is in place, an organization cannot reap benefits out of its development efforts. The bane of many L&D / T&D teams is to look for “best practices” of other companies or industry peers and replicate practices without tying up the initiatives with the overall purpose of the organization and its sustainable growth plans.

Then, they need to design a comprehensive capability development system  that will provide continuous learning experiences, learning assessments, ability to connect the learning to what gets delivered on the shop floor (this means clear performance metrics that can be tied back to learning), clear identification of critical positions, potential successors, their development, career pathing and modelling, above all each of the managers who will deploy/facilitate the system should not only buy into this system but be able to go out there and deliver it since it cannot be an HR owned process. It is indeed a process owned by them. I know this sounds too idealistic, however, if you study the development DNA of successful organizations, you will see that they have some of these differentiating practices embedded in the core of their business practices and this provides the required competitive edge.

How can HR and T&D work closely to help the organizations realize their business goals?

I think many a times we are not clear about the purpose, of what we are trying to achieve, and any strategy which is built without a “purpose” would just be a bunch of tasks. Being able to understand and define the purpose, and to be able to map that purpose with the business challenges that an organization is facing and defining  the overall strategy- that would really help in a big way. The HR and TD functions have to closely work with the business heads and involve them in the overall strategy and in the execution of the initiatives for greater success.

Many times HR & T&D teams get lost in their own jargon, in initiatives that are close to their hearts or even in replicating industry best practices and thereby lose sight of the core business need. Such initiatives do not stand the test of time/business and they naturally wither away.

Any other point or observation you wish to share?

I believe that there is a need for a definite set of skills that people in OD and T&D need to possess. And there’s no school at this point in time in our country that builds that capability. There are schools that build significant amount of knowledge and expertise in typical organization behaviour topics but no schools that focus on the skills required by T&D or OD professionals.  It would benefit OD professionals to learn how to convert theory into practice - build capability to influence leaders, negotiate agendas, to be able to conduct a deep diagnosis of organizational challenges, manage employee expectations, manage employee communication, take a big picture view of the organization dynamics or implement systemic solutions. People come into the roles and take years to gather those capabilities depending on the ecosystem they get to practice these skills. 

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