Today’s learning landscape – how L&D is supporting democratisation, creativity & innovation, leadership & change

Sue Parr

Guest blogger: Sue Parr, Head of Executive Education at The Open University Business School looks at the business challenges behind the buzzwords.

This content first appeared on HR Magazine, an online HR publication for people-focused, forward-thinking, business leaders who want insight into, and examples of, business-contextualised HR to develop high-performing organisations.

Many managers are recognising that they have to adapt to new ways of working to meet the expectations of their employers and their employees.  New behaviours and ways of working are being driven by changes all around them, but what changes can be supported through developing capability and skillsets?

Complexity: Today’s managers contend with the complexity created by the many different perspectives of a multi- cultural, cross- functional, often geographically dispersed workforce spanning as many as three generations. In fact, there are more generations in our workforce than at any other time as those previously of retirement age extend their working lives.

For example, in areas of manufacturing companies who are increasingly aware of the benefits of sharing best practice and collaborating to drive innovation, in surprising ways, but ultimately to the benefit of all.  Commercial sensitivity is being nuanced and boundaries pushed.

Creativity and innovation: We’re not talking about being good with colour here!  We are talking about turning problems around, not going for same old safe solutions because ‘this is the way we’ve always done it ’. Organisations need their people thinking more broadly.  For managers who had stages 1, 2 and 3 of their career in a technically specific function, creative practice techniques can start to get them thinking more holistically about their whole organisation, the needs of their current market and exploring opportunities in new markets.  Although these tools and techniques can be learnt, but the prospect can be daunting for those who have bought in to a self-image of not ‘being’ creative.

Change: The themes of leadership and change have always been high on the management agenda but the focus of these has changed. As organisations recognise increasingly that what is needed to stay competitive is to be more responsive, agile and comfortable with increasing ambiguity, they are investing in their middle managers. As a result there has been a democratisation of management and responsibility. Where once the focus of executive education was on the most senior of senior teams, today’s companies recognise the need for developing leadership excellence at every level.

Connection not Control: The traditional workplace had a top down structure, hierarchies where orders were given and carried out. As more organisations use project teams spread across locations, remotely connected, the skills of influencing become much more important. Managers need to learn how to influence people to achieve outcomes where they don’t have direct authority or control.

Career Development: As the economy gets back on track the scales are tipping and businesses need to make the effort to retain good people. L&D has a proven track record as a powerful retention tool. Generation Y workers are much more likely to move onto new jobs quickly. Restless for new experiences, employees need to see a development pathway within their organisation or they will be tempted to move on. A structured, embedded talent management programme can help employees visualise their personal growth plan.

But on top of this, the managers on-the-ground, are expected to satisfy this quest for knowledge, development and progression. Coaching is a skill that can meet many of these needs, but how much should, or can, individual managers be ‘expected’ to fulfil this role?

(l&d) Centricity: Increasingly HR departments are embedding elements of leadership in learning and development right from the start of employees’ careers. Advanced organisations are incorporating leadership development and L&D at the centre of their organisational strategy. The leaders of these organisations act as ambassadors for this approach, realising that when L&D becomes a part of the DNA of a company it is much more successful.

We worked with a large UK-based retailer who wanted to change the whole way people accessed L&D and highlighting at every career stage, why it’s important. This cultural shift led to a company-wide holistic approach that supported the company’s strategy and goals.

(bite size) Content There is a definite shift towards a blended learning approach to executive development. Rather than taking people out of their workplace for long periods of time, face-to-face delivery is being supported by shorter chunks of online learning and interaction.

In the past executive education frequently included an online facility – a library of content. However this approach often wasn’t successful.  People simply didn’t use the library.  Now online is used to prepare for, and follow-on from, face-to-face learning.It’s all about making people more responsible for their own development, learning at their own pace and accessing information when they need it.

The virtual academy, or online campus, gives people the opportunity to access the content they need.  This can be particularly helpful for senior managers who are often expected to have achieved “sage status” or business “omniscience”.  The virtual academy provides a safe environment for them to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

Overall, managers are expected to have a much broader repertoire of skills, often earlier in their careers: effective management will require highly developed communication and interpersonal skills, capability building though coaching and mentoring, problem solving through creativity, networking through social media savvy.  The pace of change is heady and the combination of developing hard and soft skills at all levels to enable individuals and organisations to adapt and thrive requires a commitment to professional development for a career-lifetime; both from the employee and the employer.

Innovation or innovators?

David Harrison, Managing Partner of True Potential LLP, The Open University MBA alumnus

Innovation or innovators

Edited transcript of Business Perspectives Video: Innovation or innovators?

“Most of the organisations I see, they train everybody”

“I have observed first hand that it’s about selection. I’m not necessarily a nature versus nurture addict if you like, but if I was, it would be nature. But if you look at any elite organisation in the world, it will probably be down to selection. So if you look at British Special Forces, as an example away from financial services, they don’t train people until they’ve selected them, on a course of selection criteria which rules out just about every human being possible.  The ones that get through, they train them.”

“So what people do is set criteria, some sort of hurdle that most people can’t get over, “therefore they are weak, and let’s train that weakness”. And I don’t. I think I ignore weakness, I work with strengths.  One strength can be innovation that you have within individuals in an organisation, but there will be other individuals who don’t have that as a strength. People then tend to get angry and say “everyone is creative”, “are you saying I’m boring and dull or whatever?”. And if you are in finance, you may say “I wanted to be in finance, boring and dull, I didn’t want to make a mistake and cost everybody millions of pounds”. So there has to be those people, and those people, I believe, are happy doing that job, because they are naturally endowed with the ability to be careful, to be numerate, to do the things which other people may find boring. They probably think that all creative people are glib, they are chaotic, they create a real mess for these people to tidy up.  And I think it’s just recognising in an organisation that there are different people. And I want to separate that form of creativity, that form of real innovation, which may find you in a different market, with a different product and so on and so forth, from what I call the ordinary everyday creativity, which most people have, which can also lead by the way to big leaps, such as improving a process we’ve already got.

So if you look at the organisation we have got, we have got lots of people, they are mostly partners, and I think that helps creativity because essentially what they are doing is,  if they bring something to us, then it is to their advantage as well. The more they do of that, the more shares they are likely to have, the more important they are going to be in terms of value for the organisation.”

Outside of the Box

How might Shakespeare have benefited from a bit of creative coaching? Does the inspiration that drove Picasso towards Cubism have anything in common with Steve Jobs’s decision to launch the iPod? A panel of Open University academics got together to give their take on creativity.

Chaired by writer Sophie Radice

1. What is creativity?

FD: Creativity has to do with thinking laterally, making connections that haven’t been made before, and bringing together aspects of areas that might not naturally fit together so the juxtaposition of ideas or images can produce something new, something different.

DN: Creativity is about play as much as anything else, allowing yourself to perceive anew, so it is about perceptions. It is allowing yourself to dream during the day, to be ostensibly unproductive and to live in uncertainty and mystery. It’s also to do with images and with handling the traffic of those images. If you dream or entertain daydreams then you get a lot of those images and you have to decide which are the ones that you want to stick with. These can often go on to become much bigger than the original thought.

JH: Creativity is about something new but also something apt. The newness doesn’t have to be original but it could be new to that person. In fact, most of what we think of as new builds heavily on what has gone on before. It does include something that is appropriate to the situation and not just any old idea – aptness implies quality in creativity.

DM: Creativity is often about synthesis, so the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate ideas is a rich vein, and the involvement of a range of folk with diverse backgrounds will also help. It is about richness of experience and recognition of emergent patterns. Creativity is also about having a ‘yes, and…’ mentality.

2.  Describe the process of creativity 

JH: The process of creativity can be to do with mental flexibility, because that offers one way of coming up with new ideas. It can be play, but there are some people who are creative through very logical routes, so there are different ways of getting there. Motivation is important too, in terms of the process, as it is much easier to be creative with things you care about, because that gives you the persistence to stand against the norm.

FD: I do think that material conditions are important. Virginia Woolf described it as ‘a room of one’s own’ and I think the material conditions quite often get forgotten when we think of genius, imagination and inspiration. We forget about all those years that people spend in the wilderness pursuing their idée fixe. The compulsion to create is important, but so is having the material resources such as access to libraries, the leisure to visit art galleries, time to write, a dedicated space and being able to create a creative rhythm for yourself.

DN: You look at the psychological models of creativity and process and all of them have common features. There is a research and preparation period, there is a period of cognition prior to consciousness when you can’t articulate the idea – you can’t express it to the world yet – and then there is an incubation period, which is a period of deeper gestation. This is typified by the cliché of the scientist who wakes up with the answer the next morning.

DM: I’d like to emphasise the collective, even serendipitous, nature of creativity. Bouncing ideas around with others… misconstruing them… combining them… polishing them… refining them… always in pursuit of something better. Think about rock ’n’ roll – many bands break up citing ‘creative differences’, yet very few ever achieve the same level of creative success in their subsequent solo careers.

3.  Is creativity the same in every discipline?

JH: I think there are parallels that show up when you look at the work on creativity in different fields. People associate the creative process with the new idea, the dramatic breakthrough.

Yet when we look at studies where people have nominated creative individuals in their field – be it science, business or arts – these people don’t suddenly come up with a bright idea. They spend more time asking the important questions. Fleming looked at thousands of Petri dishes in order to recognise the one that was so significant. He had a sophisticated map of this area in his brain. For exceptional creativity, experience in the area is very important.

DN: There is a danger in talking about creativity as a process, because if you talk about it in this way then it automatically feels repeatable. The more writers you look at, the more you find that their process is not repeatable from writer to writer, or repeatable even by the same writer.

DM: Interestingly, each discipline will likely have its own conventional wisdom regarding the creative process, and yet creativity is often about breaking the rules. Many writers distinguish between ideas within the dominant paradigm and paradigm-disrupting innovation. Pressure is another interesting factor – too much can be unhelpful, but too little is also problematic.

4.   Creativity can come out of suppression and oppression though, can’t it?

FD: There are always people who create under pressure and people who look for outlets – we think of Solzhenitsyn. There is a creative backwards and forwards between freedom and constraints, but if those constraints are too much then that diminishes people’s potential for creativity. You also need a certain flexibility, freedom, licence and permission in playful terms to exercise the creative capacity. For each individual it is not going to be on the same point on that spectrum.

DN: The thing about oppressive regimes is that if individuals are to survive as individuals then they must be creative. Think about Les Enfants du Paradis – a three-hour fi lm made in the middle of the war in occupied Paris. In that film, there’s a silent theatre where speech is not allowed and it is a highly symbolic reference to the German occupation of Paris at the time. And yet they managed, even in those extremely oppressive circumstances, to make the film.

5.   Is there a creative personality type?

JH: Steve Jobs with iPadTraditionally, people thought that only a few people were creative and so companies would try and assess creative ability. The personality type normally associated with creativity is an open non-conformist. They are often interested in the big picture so they spend a lot of time gathering different ideas and that is why they are able to reframe and see things differently. These people may be less good with detail.

Nowadays though, incremental creativity that builds on others’ work is recognised as well.

DM: The idea of the lone creative, surrounded by acolytes, is passé. It takes all sorts, with the big-picture ideas person great at the outset, but tending to lose interest in the later stages. Learning to think outside the box is an asset, but so is exploring the inside of the box; both can lead to creativity.

6.  Can you teach creativity?

DN: Within writing there is a commonly made distinction between art and craft. Art is perhaps that aspect of creativity that comes from a personal sensibility and consciousness, and the craft is to do with moulding the work. It is generally believed that craft can be taught, but can art? Some would say those starting points are impossible to teach. But you can create the conditions that allow a person to reach for them.

FD: I wouldn’t be able to teach creative writing if I didn’t think that what I had to offer in the class would at least facilitate the student’s acquisition of writing skills. If we think about other types of writing – for instance, academic writing or journalistic writing – we are not born knowing how to write like this or how to write a novel.

JH: I don’t think you can teach creativity per se, but you can facilitate different aspects of it. You can help people find their creative direction and dare to follow it. You can teach creative thinking and problem solving, which helps people find their creativity and work with others. An environment where they can actually do that helps, as do processes where you encourage people to look at things different.


This is an edited extract from the creativity roundtable discussion held at the OU with additional input from David Mayle. See OpenMinds for more information

Business Management

Business Management

Ford’s production lines have marked a turning point in human history. Business had to change and whoever did not understand the need for automation and series production was to be crushed by industrialization itself. After nearly 100 years, Skandia marked the official beginning of “the knowledge era”: Leif Edvinson was hired in the early 90’s as a CKO (Chief Knowledge Officer) in order to capitalize intangible assets of the organization. At Skandia’s size, it was obvious that there were a lot of resources wasted and they spent a lot of time “reinventing the wheel” rather than facilitating transfer of expertise, innovation, lessons learned – in a word, knowledge.

Two years ago I began to work on “capitalizing” knowledge in a territory stretching from northern countries to South Africa and from UK to India which made me look with great interest on this topic. I found that knowledge management is perceived…

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