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Digital Transformation That Sticks: Creating a Capabilities Ecosystem for Effective Learning

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Organizations in every industry rely on the skills and abilities of people to drive their success. The need to onboard, retrain and upskill people is nothing new, but widespread digital transformation efforts have exposed gaps in many traditional training models. While instructional design (ID) can help businesses address these gaps by creating customized in-house learning solutions, these often don't get at the core of the challenges. The best approaches to transformation go beyond traditional workforce training and leverage principles across disciplines—including instructional design, organizational change management, psychology, product management and technology—to create capabilities ecosystems. 

Like any ecosystem, a capabilities ecosystem consists of both individuals and their environment, drawing on human, technological and organizational approaches to learning. To take advantage of a capabilities ecosystem, companies must identify the underlying causes of business problems that hinder transformation and growth. In a capabilities-ecosystem approach, stakeholders and advisors critically examine business drivers and talk to leaders in several areas before they recommend a learning strategy that can tackle an organization’s real issues. They then accompany the business on its transformation journey, guiding and supporting its people as they learn and evolve into new ways of working.

Without this holistic approach, companies may fall back on a “learn as you go” strategy that ultimately hinders their transformation. Consider the following scenario:

Company A is moving its data assets to the cloud to improve security and use new cloud-based analysis tools. This change dramatically increases the need for standardization and alignment across the organization. Previously, each branch office maintained independent reporting systems, siloed and highly domain specific. Getting everyone up to speed will require employees to learn and develop new skills.

The company’s executives decide to leverage widely available, low-cost online training materials that focus on cloud technologies. They identify target areas for learning, especially around industry standards and best practices for cloud systems and tools. They also create policies that encourage employees to use a variety of free learning materials to upskill themselves.

However, only a fraction of employees completes a significant portion of the materials. Worse, this inconsistent learning experience exacerbates the disconnects and uneven expectations that were already present across the company.

Pushback against the adoption of new technologies intensifies. Ultimately, the pace of the entire cloud migration project is jeopardized. 

This is a relatively common situation, changes within an organization are often difficult. But some businesses do succeed at navigating even the most radical digital transformations. Unfortunately, Company A isn’t one of them. They begin implementing a technology shift without preparing their workforce to use and manage important new tools. Every gap in understanding is high stakes, negatively affecting Company A’s customers and threatening Company A’s reputation for reliability. 

An ineffective transformation strategy also prevents Company A from reaching its goal on technology alignment. When the new workflow and procedures are not well established, Company A requires all its resources to settle the chaos. Achieving the goal of harmonizing business processes across the company branches becomes practically impossible. This lack of strategy prevents Company A from planning and executing further optimal, strategic steps.

An upfront investment in creating capabilities ecosystems could have helped Company A avoid this trap. Consider this alternative scenario:

Like Company A, Company B is undergoing a dramatic transformation and needs to align people around a new set of technologies. However, rather than relying on a loose collection of free or low-cost outside trainings, Company B works with a vendor to build its own learning ecosystem using a holistic approach—leveraging principles of organizational change management and instructional design. Content is aligned with Company B’s overall corporate strategy, tailored to employees’ specific needs and coordinated across the organization. The ecosystem designers work with Company B’s executives to identify both critical technical knowledge and “soft” skills, and to define success for both learners and the business.

Employees are enrolled in several learning pathways, each customized to participants’ backgrounds, level of advancement and professional role. Expert-led sessions support each pathway, including one with coaching elements for key leadership roles. The program incorporates tools and analytics that measure learning activities against metrics, like employee participation, demonstrated skill improvement and long-term effectiveness.

To further support growth for employees and the company, in-house Centers of Excellence are created. Ecosystem designers work with internal experts to develop and promote standardized resources, competency matrices, growth plans, assessments and, most importantly, buy-in from important stakeholders at every step of the process. Organization-wide events and communication channels encourage everyone to learn from peers, share knowledge and feedback, raise questions and find answers. The people at Company B feel empowered to identify areas for improvement and suggest new ways to solve unaddressed problems. 

Company B is successful because they implement a capabilities-ecosystem approach. Focused learning solutions aligned to business strategies mean that new knowledge is put into practice more quickly, and employees receive timely and continuous support. As a result, their confidence in using new tools rapidly grows. The far-reaching advantages of this holistic approach are also apparent, as illustrated by Centers of Excellence and new communication channels at Company B, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and dissemination of lessons learned across the organization faster. Company B increases its resilience to new changes and becomes more open to new technology and business advancements in the market. Because they can adapt to changes more quickly, they improve their alignment with the needs of their existing customers and become a more attractive option for new ones.

Like any organization, digitally enabled businesses rely on people to do their best work. By creating capabilities ecosystems, companies put their people first, supporting their growth and empowering them to overcome challenges. Organizational change management and instructional design are at the heart of this approach, providing a solid foundation in research-based strategies and best practices for aligning business goals with employee needs. The ecosystem approach builds on and expands the advantages of both by incorporating business philosophies and addressing mindset, motivation and culture. Ultimately, this helps companies become the most agile and resilient versions of themselves so they can adapt and stay competitive.

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