Beating Expectations


grabWhen it comes to the implementation of Organisational Learning interventions, it is true to say that not every Company will consider SML as an option. The initial response to a proposal to introduce SML (however well the document is drafted) can sometimes produce phrases such as:

  • This feels like a “nice to have” and not a “need to have”
  • This is the soft option
  • What is the point of this?
  • It feels like the “T” groups
  • I can’t see the benefit

I have implemented SML “type” approaches in a number of organisations and have had these responses before, sometimes during, but never after the event. I would like to suggest to those who are looking at SML as a potential option, a number of actions that can be taken to influence the decision for implementation at an early stage.


Why the Reaction?

To set the scene, I would like to go over some old ground, to clarify how/why we can get these reactions. The observations below are from my experience and are my opinion. I have also spoken to a number of people over the years who share these views.

  1. Cultural Need for Results – Most people in the private sector who are considering a major organisational learning intervention are likely to be ultimately responsible to shareholders. PLCs must do what they can to generate shareholder value. Above anything else (in other words beyond the needs of any of the other stakeholders), most PLCs will alter their strategies to ensure a better return for shareholders, when towards the end of the financial year, EPS growth, share price and profitability looks weak. A Company’s well drafted long term strategy , therefore, can be sabotaged by short term needs. As a result, costs get cut, marketing, training, recruitment, investment in R&D etc. etc. are also cut. We all know the model and we all understand and accept it. However, this culture of demanding results often clouds judgement when looking at a more strategic and inclusive learning strategy. The same need to see immediate results, obscures looking at SML in an objective way.
  2. The US Factor – I love America. I have many friends who are American and some of the most inspirational “HR” work has definitely come from the US. Dave Ulrich, Wayne Brockbank and Peter Senge (to name a few) have all had a dramatic effect on the way that HR are perceived within the world of business.In my experience, the majority of US led L&D consultancies, or organisational learning interventions seem to have the following in common:• Fantastic packaging (sometimes masking superficial approaches)
    • Extensive support back-up materials
    • Advocated tools
    • A directive towards a formula
    • Action learning projects

    The US “model” therefore, to solve your problems is often a “one size fits all” and whilst, understanding of individual learning needs is recommended, this knowledge is rarely utilised in the intervention design.

    Trying to persuade a US expert to accept that individuals must own their own learning agenda, is often a near impossible task.

    So, results orientation and prescription formula, sometimes appear to set the scene for the rest of us to follow. Why? Because American Corporations are the biggest, the most successful, and therefore the most influential. The corollary of this is that US “developers” are perceived to be right!! They are the most widely-read, and have worked with the biggest Companies.

  3. Management Expectations – Managers are a big part of the problem! (no surprise there). They are obviously driven towards results. They have goals and targets to meet. More than this, because so many managers don’t think strategically about the business, they cannot put their own learning requirements into a context that is anything other than short term. If a manager has identified that he/she needs to develop their delegation skills, they will look for an easy solution – a training course that covers delegation skills. Instead of understanding their decision making context, their values, beliefs and shortcomings, a formula is produced and an “OTS” (off-the-shelf) solution provided – most Managers therefore never improve their delegation skills. The same can be said of financial understanding (finance for non-financial managers) time management, learning a language etc.The learning approach must be quick, using only a little time so that the box can be ticked.
  4. UK Developers’ Approach – What has happened to it? Where are the real transformational heroes? I think that most people with the great ideas for strategic learning, for real businesses and personal capability development have disappeared. Possibly, in response to 1, 2 and 3 (above), we have given up really trying to add value. Instead we react to circumstances and “roll-over” too easily. Our skills as Organisation Development experts are in some cases in need of repair. It is quite probable that “we” became the victims of our own success in the 1980s. “Multi-initiatives” created a huge loss of credibility. Constant changes in approach that were often led by “HR” often failed to deliver. The requirement for quick tangible results has now forced developers to defer to single, “easy to understand” solutions. The skills gap that has resulted (through lack of real development focus) is evident. How many developers today in Organisations understand the real origins of their craft (behavioural sciences, TA, Gestalt, NLP, Cognitive Psychology etc)? How many developers can facilitate a true inductive learning process? Where have all the good guys gone.In this context, without the proper justification, SML can be seen as a “blast from the past” with no real relevance to real business needs.

So What Can We Do About This?

I think that there are a number of actions that “we” as “HR” or “developers” need to get to grips with quickly:

a) Know how to build the demand for value-adding development/learning solutions

b) Go back to our roots as developers and re-learn the theory and practice of quality development interventionism

c) Use the model to identify business benefits, to make SML business relevant when selling it.

d) Stop looking for “OTS” solutions and start helping organisations to recognise the individual nature of learning

e) Respond to the business need for “action learning” but do it in a learner oriented way

f) Learn how to sell, how to stand your ground and how to influence



I am borrowing here from Wayne Brockbank (University of Michigan) who recently pointed me in the direction of a major study by Bernard Lev of Ernst and Young (1996). In the largest ever research exercise of its type, the Study looked at the “Regression of Earnings Analysis” of business over a period from early 1980 to late 1990. In early 1980, nearly 90% of the value of a business would be determined by EPS growth. Financial people (accountants and advisors) were King – very little else was important. By 1999, timings had changed and more than 50% of a business’ value was said to be based on “intangibles”. This included, for example, the quality of leadership, and an Organisations’ ability to change, openness to learning etc. etc. This shift represents a real emphasis on the need for “HR” to help build people capability.

All developers need to become familiar with this research and the associated business/macro-economic factors, that have shaped this change.

SML, in my view, provides the only model that really can enable an individual and a Company to think strategically about learning, thus developing our ability to make the “intangibles” tangible.


All those who consider themselves as “developers” need to learn (or re-learn) the basis of our trade. It is only with a “good” knowledge of behavioural psychology, the art of facilitation and real business knowledge, that developers can really start to add value to individuals and to the business. Go back to the work of Chris Argyris (Teaching Smart People to Learn), to the Fifth Discipline (Peter Senge) and re-visit the simple behavioural models such as TA (see “TA in Training – Dave Barker) to remind yourself of the value and application of some of this work.


To sell, you need proof. The 5 questions of the learning contract are really valuable here to help identify value in good development work. Question 5 “How will I know I’ve arrived” and Question 5(b) “How will the business know I’ve arrived”, are questions that every single individual who participates in any development activity needs to ask themselves.

Responsibility for identifying business value must lie with the individual (if we accept that we all have different learning needs). Why am I telling you this if you are trying to sell in “SML Solutions” into your business?

By asking this question now, of your colleagues, and relating it to any business L&D process that they might have been involved with in the past, we can start to identify the value of learner centred learning vs. the standard “sheep dip” or “OTS” solutions. We can also start to build evidence to use in the sales pitch.


Stop using “off the shelf” solutions for organisational learning. It is unlikely that they have ever really added value. If you have ever tried to measure the impact, how far did you get on the Kirkpatrick scale? Level 3 at most (checking 3 months after the event to see if learning is embedded) so stop asking consultants to come in and design solutions for you. They will (on the whole) regurgitate their favourite model and say that it has been tailored for you.

Go back to your roots, get “good” at your proper job again and encourage “strategic” learning – stop managing consultants.


The US (and now British) obsession with action-learning, or project delivery based learning as part of a learning intervention, is now almost a requirement. So instead of fighting against it when selling SML, accept it, build in to your programme design an “action learning” component. This will satisfy the business decision makers, provide (if done well) some early results and enable “us” as developers to structure a learning process that has real meaning. To remind you, in Ian’s books (The Wisdom of Strategic Learning) he identifies some of the problems with pure action learning : for example, Ian points out that:

  • Some nominators or participants on action learning programmes were only interested in action (problem solving) and did not support learning.
  • Links into organisational needs varied; at best projects carried out by participants were ‘invented’ projects just to provide something for participants to do.
  • Projects were often imposed on participants and proved poor vehicles for learning.
  • In the absence of any pre-planned learning objectives, learning could be random, haphazard and not meshed with organisational needs

(Cunningham, 1994, McGraw-Hill)

To overcome the business insistence for a project, you could insist that your “SML” solution has learning groups (or sets) and that for the first 2-3 months of the life of the set the members build learning contracts, learn how to support and challenge each other in their learning and develop a real clarity on each others’ learning needs. At the 3 month juncture introduce to them the idea that during the next 3-6 months they are also expected to:

  • Identify a business related piece of work that they can work on together or that will add value to the business.
  • Prepare a sales process, to gain agreement to the “project” from key business stakeholders
  • Ensure that the project has the scope to allow each member to progress some of their individual learning needs (these must be identified before starting)
  • Build in a series of reviews for the project that integrates the project milestones with the learning needs of the group
  • Have an “end point” for the project, which is some months before the formal end of your SML programme, as this will emphasise the separateness of the project from the individual learning programme (but that also recognises the link with the learning needs)

This way the need for action learning/immediate results can be met, whilst sustaining the strategic learning philosophy of the approach.


To sell SML, or any other intervention into the business, “we” as developers need to be able to do it well. We need to be business people who understand the broad business environment as well as our own specific circumstances. In addition, some work with some good behavioural selling models (such as Huthwaites SPIN) can be enormously helpful. ( “We” must never forget to put ourselves in the shoes of our customer and ask, “What’s in it for me”)?

Developers must be outcome focused, learner centred and strategic in their own outlook. Only then can they truly sell solutions, where the real value can be easily recognised at “point of sale”.


Any of us who try to sell SML as a solution today will have to fight very hard. Business short-termism will not accept anything which appears to be a “nice to have”. To ensure that we are in a position to help the business develop into a strategic and long-term entity, we must be so much better, as professionals in everything that we do.

Rob Shorrick