As 2022 dawns, every organization will consider how it should plan: first to survive, then to thrive in the rapidly changing circumstances we have seen. We have all witnessed the importance of acting fast, learning quickly and adapting to the new environment.
The importance of purpose
The best organizations have a very clear sense of purpose, understanding exactly why they exist, and that purpose is shared by all employees and the wider stakeholder community. We’ve seen it in how businesses have responded to the pandemic. Those who stuck to their goal did better than those who threw it all away.
If your culture can provide something distinctive in the market, it will be difficult to imitate
A small UK winery responded to the pandemic not by abandoning its marketing strategy, but by doubling down on it. All of their competitors have spent their budgets to reassure people of their Covid precautions and have lost all differentiation.
Find a sustainable competitive advantage
Every business organization seeks a sustainable strategic advantage. It’s one of the hardest things to do, and it doesn’t come easily. Innovation does not last long; inventions, even patented ones, will be copied without counterfeiting fairly quickly; scale is only accessible to a small number of market players.
A lasting strategic advantage comes from something that is genuinely hard to copy. The best way to find this is to look at your company’s culture, because as we all know, culture is the hardest part of an organization to change. If your culture can provide something distinctive in the market, it will be difficult to imitate.
IBM, for example, thinks that its uniqueness in the market comes from its values. This may come as a surprise, as at first glance its market advantage could be assumed to be its technology, research and development, or size. Its values include “dedication to the success of each client”. Living up to that value is tough, but many IBM customers will buy from the company simply because they know the employees will deliver on that promise.
Integrating L&D into the strategy
So how can culture become your competitive advantage? This is where learning and development strategies become part of the strategy of the whole company. Turning the culture of the organization into its strongest asset and hardest thing to emulate will depend on a huge effort to educate everyone and develop them to match your strategic intent as closely as possible.
A culture-based learning and development strategy should therefore be based on the purpose of the organization, as well as the broader strategy.
In addition to the organization’s purpose, the company’s existing strategy should be a key input into the learning and development planning process. For example, if the strategy involves acquisitions, the training plan must be able to cope with a significant number of new employees. Even though the integration is gradual, there will be key elements of the broader business that they will need to understand.
A culture-based learning and development strategy must therefore be based on the purpose of the organization, as well as the broader strategy. It should be clear how it will grow the culture to the point where it will become distinctive in the marketplace and where customers will buy based not on temporary factors (such as price or performance) but on long-term trust.
Do you have strategic goals?
To do this, the objectives of the strategy must be an integral part. There is no point in having a lot of warm words about learning and development. Solid metrics are essential so that the impact of the strategy can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of senior leaders. It can be difficult.
Too many corporate parties tend to provide lists of actions when defining their strategy, as if completing the actions is enough to make a successful strategy. However, if the results of the actions are clearly defined in advance, it becomes a much stronger strategy, as well as more credible.
Goals, of course, should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART). It’s not a new idea, but all too often strategic objectives fail to meet at least one of these criteria. “Being the best employer” is a common strategic goal, which is by no means SMART.
Strategic intent is about making choices about where to focus and where to invest
How to build the strategy?
The temptation is often to use a model. There are a huge number of models on the Internet, but these are worth exactly what they are charged: nothing. The reason for this is that models take all the original thinking out of the process. They promise a strategy just for the effort of fulfilling them.
The hard work in creating strategy is thinking. It’s putting all the pieces of the puzzle together and seeing an image emerge. Consider building a strategy in three phases: Analysis; Intent and actions
The analysis step is a thorough review of all available historical information about the organization and its environment. Think of it as the “rear view mirror”. Next comes the best projection you can make about the future evolution of the market: “the headlights”. Doing this correctly will very often point the way forward for strategy.
Strategic intent is about making choices about where to focus and where to invest. It must involve changes and it must be clear what you will not do, as well as what you will do. This is summarized briefly by a statement of the direction in which the organization will be heading.
Finally, strategic actions are the key undertakings – usually three to five – that support the stated intent and are essential to achieving it. These will, of course, be measurable and contain milestones of progress over the period of the strategy.
Do the thinking yourself
Integrating learning and development plans into a goal-driven strategy is one of the best ways to develop a sustainable competitive advantage that’s hard to imitate. Make sure you have SMART goals and don’t use templates – do the hard thinking that is a prerequisite for any sustainable and successful strategy.