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Experiential learning makes for a successful transformation

Digital transformation is a real buzzword. But what exactly is it? It’s different for everyone. In IT organizations, the term seems to have been translated into the equally fashionable term “agile transformation”. Digital transformation has thus created the need to adopt new ways of working, like agile, DevOps, and lean. The latest in this line is ITIL4 – a method for service organizations to become agile. Employers send their staff back for training, but beware: even with a certificate in your pocket you are far from ready to actually change!

According to the Boston Consulting Group, 70 percent of digital transformation efforts fail because insufficient attention is paid to people. In fact, they say that deploying high-caliber talent is a critical success factor in any transformation. Many employees do not have the skills required to start, sustain and improve an agile transformation. The expertise and experience needed for a transformation are often underestimated. What should each employee be able to do to make a digital transformation successful? They should have at least the following five skills:

  • The ability to work in teams, and collaborate with other teams and business stakeholders
  • The ability to critically analyze their own work and optimize it
  • The ability to prioritize the workload based on business value
  • The ability to solve problems
  • The ability to use tools to complete work quickly and deliver high quality

These are things that can in part be learned in traditional training courses, but the greatest and most sustainable effect is achieved when these skills are developed – and reflected on – on the job. We call this “experiential learning”. After all, acquired skills can then be applied and learned at any time of the day. Business simulations are a teaching format that is well suited to practicing these skills in a safe learning environment. They involve experimentation, mistakes are allowed to be made and participants can prepare themselves for their real-life work situations.

“What you learn on a training course is less likely to be applied than what you learn on the job.”

Opportunities experiential learning provides

Training in new ways of working like agile and DevOps is not enough. New terms like “mindset change” and “culture change” pop up. The need to break down silos and develop effective communication and collaboration skills – so-called soft skills – is becoming urgent. And these skills are in fact the most difficult to develop. In experiential learning, these aspects are developed step by step by doing and are then gradually embedded in the new behavior of employees.

The way training courses are designed and implemented means that there’s not always a return on investment. There are two possible solutions to this problem:

  • Bring together everyone from across the value chain in a training course. We often train people in silos. Software developers take Agile or DevOps training courses, IT operations people take ITIL training courses, managers and process people take Lean training courses. Then they come back to the office and try to convince the other silos to adopt their new way of working. This leads to the reinforcement of an “Us vs. Them” siloed culture. This process is exacerbated by a lack of the communication and collaboration skills mentioned above.
  • Focus training on problem-solving. Many training courses focus on getting a certificate. But, in intake interviews, how much focus is there on the problem that has to be solved? This problem and its solution can easily provide the agenda and focus of the training course. This is also when the first point (train the value chain) comes into play.

What doesn’t work is imposing a new way of working from the top down. Course participants often lack buy-in and commitment. They have little understanding of what they will get out of the training and no understanding of what they should ‘do’ after it. This is an issue that simulations can help resolve by allowing participants to experience together with the new way of working and to investigate what added value it can deliver. Then they can together set an agenda for the training course. In this way, you can create better buy-in.

Transformation is not the same as the implementation

Transformation is a journey – usually, a long one – that consists of a series of small changes over time. After all, people need to get used to a different way of working, one that is new and has never been applied in their context. All frameworks, therefore, rely on an approach that comprises continuous learning, experimentation, feedback, and improvement. So, by definition, these are core competencies, top to bottom and end to end. And yet too little attention is paid to learning these skills and expertise.

During a simulation, participants are given the opportunity to experience a complete transformation from the old way of thinking and doing things to the new one. This allows them to experience what happens to employees in an organization and how to deal with it.

Managers often struggle with the leadership role in a transformation. For example, they think that training is not necessary for them. That’s true (sometimes), but it doesn’t mean they can’t play an active role in training programs. Think about the value of learning together, practicing one’s new role, leading by example, and learning to lead an organization undergoing change. You can promote this by also giving managers and team leaders a role when composing the teams that will participate in the simulations. This makes them part of the solution and enables them to practice their own role in the transformation. It also sends a signal to the organization: management is doing it too.

Serious learning intervention

A business simulation is a dynamic, interactive, classroom (or online) workshop. Participants take on both business and IT roles in a simulated environment. They are faced with a realistic workload, changed plans, new priorities and security requirements, and much more input that puts pressure on the teams. Teams are challenged to solve the issues using the available knowledge and skills. The strength of simulations is that the dynamics are realistic and closely resemble the reality of the participants.

A simulation that takes place immediately after a traditional training session allows the theory learned to be applied immediately in a realistic exercise. This makes learning theory more fun and more educational. Participants can experiment in simulations and experience the effect of applying the theory. This allows them to learn from choices that are made because the effect is immediately visible. Everyone goes home full of knowledge and ideas about how to apply what they have learned in their own work situation.

Transformation is a long journey, made up of many (sometimes small) steps. This makes continuous learning and improvement an important principle that underpins every transformation. This continuous improvement cycle lies at the heart of all simulations. Just like in real life, things don’t go right immediately in simulations and several rounds are needed to learn from them. By reflecting and identifying areas for improvement after each round, the collaboration continues to improve. This increases the result of the training.

Intake

A simulation should always be preceded by an intake in which the learning objectives, problems, and points for attention are examined. These aspects can then be focused on in the simulation. This method can be used at different times and with different target groups. It’s important for experiencing and experimentation to be aimed at achieving objectives that are based on what the organization needs. This allows you to closely intertwine the learning process with daily practice. Participants receive immediate feedback on learning outcomes in a setting that resembles their own work situation, allowing them to immediately try out and apply new skills and knowledge.

“In a simulation, employees immediately enjoy the rewards of a success experience.”

Moreover, people get the chance to turn their new skills into successful experiences right away. If participants apply what they have learned immediately and are rewarded with positive experiences, they will also start applying their newly acquired knowledge and skills consistently. For this reason, there is also a good conclusion to the simulation: a discussion about what has been discovered, what can be applied immediately – both personally and by the organization – and what must happen to facilitate all this. During this process, the participants need to think about both the hard aspects (applying the frameworks and theory) and the softer skills: communication and collaboration, creating safety, trust, and open feedback culture. Personal actions can become part of a personal learning and development plan.

All this does not mean that simulations are the instant solution to everything. But they are a powerful part of the solution and therefore must be embedded in the learning approach. Managers need to ensure that time and effort, as well as support, practice, feedback, and coaching, are used to translate what is learned into daily practice. This is essential: without this deliberate approach, you’ll have a fun day of games, but it’ll end there.

published at AGconnect.nl, written by Claudine Koers and Jan Schilt (both working at Quint)

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