Kathryn is the Chief Learning Officer at a fictional manufacturing company called AshCom, located in Minneapolis. Kathryn has been the CLO for more than five years and, with her team, has produced some amazing learning experiences. But things are changing fast. Rebecca is a consultant from MindSpring who has served as an advisor to Kathryn for the last four years. This is their story.
Kathryn and Rebecca finished their first session of the day and then took a thirty minute break. That conversation began with focusing on how CLO Kathryn was upskilling her team. They talked about keeping learning science at the core of every learning experience they created while using innovative technology and creativity to make those experiences pop.
Kathryn knew that her team was struggling. Her team of ten lost one member when AshCom announced a hiring freeze because of a challenging financial situation. Two more were let go after company-wide layoffs were announced. For most of its history, the 7,000-employee manufacturing company had been profitable. Like most businesses, they had a few quarters scattered here and there where the margins were smaller, but those were balanced by some very profitable quarters at regular intervals.
This was new territory for AshCom and for Kathryn. Even prior to the economic challenges, she saw learning performance was declining. Learners’ ratings and engagement was not what it had been only a few years earlier. Kathryn knew she needed to upskill her team and was beginning to plan to do so. The hiring freeze and layoffs immediately made these plans a low priority.
Kathryn often turned to Rebecca when she needed an outsider’s perspective. In her role as lead consultant for MindSpring, Rebecca worked with learning leaders in companies all over the world. She could benchmark what others were doing and rarely encountered a situation she had not seen before.
Conferences are a great way for the team to get away from the office, interact with other learning professionals, and learn new tools and skills.
Rebecca had mentioned some opportunities for Kathryn to upskill her learning team, even though she knew some of them would not be a good fit given AshCom’s financial challenges. For example, conferences were a great way for the team to get away from the office, interact with other learning professionals, and learn new tools and skills, but both women acknowledged that Kathryn would not be able to get approval for all the expenses related to bringing eight people to another state. In addition, Kathryn was not convinced that a conference would enhance the specific skills her team needed most.
In their first conversation that morning, Rebecca described workshops that would be custom designed to the needs of Kathryn’steam. The process began with a discovery session in which team members from MindSpring spent several hours with key members of AshCom’s learning team uncovering their current practices, tools, and processes for building learning experiences. Following discovery, Rebecca and her team would do some analysis and come back to Kathryn with a series of recommendations for how they might move forward to set up a series of workshops. Some sessions would be remote while others, like sessions on extended reality, might be in person.
This was one good option.
Rebecca mentioned two others for upskilling Kathryn’s learning team. The first was coaching.
“I hear coaching and I immediately think of my days as a college athlete,” said Kathryn.
“If I remember correctly,” replied Rebecca, “you played softball for a pretty big school.”
“I did,” said Kathryn. “And some volleyball too. But softball was really my passion.” She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “I miss the simplicity of those days. Maybe it’s selective memory, but I loved those times and really miss that part of my life.”
Rebecca laughed. “I didn’t play sports in college, but there’s a lot I miss about the college experience-– only some of it related to learning.”
“So how does coaching for a corporate learning team work?” asked Kathryn.
“Before we talk about the how,” replied Rebecca, “let’s talk about the why. Back to your sporting days— Why did you need a coach? Why couldn’t the players just figure out what they needed to do? Was your coach really that important to the success of your team?”
“It’s funny that you bring that up,” said Kathryn. “In my first year of college, we all liked our coach, but she wasn’t very successful. She was new to coaching and enthusiastic, but some of the players knew as much as she did. At the end of my first year, the university let her go and brought in an older, more experienced coach. She was a player in her younger days and had been a coach for many years.”
“How did your team do under her?” asked Rebecca.
Great coaches are people who can give simple advice that you need in the moment. They can help you focus on the entire process and see what is going to happen next.
“We won a lot more games,” said Kathryn. “The new coach had pretty much seen every possible situation in softball. She not only had been where we were as players, she knew what was going to happen next. She thought of the game as a system and really understood how we all fit together. I guess she could just figure things out so much faster than we could. She wasn’t thinking only about the next pitch, like we were, she was thinking about the whole game.”
“That’s a great way to describe a coach,” said Rebecca, “and it aligns with what I’m talking about in learning. Great coaches are people who can give simple advice that you need in the moment. They can help you focus on the entire process and see what is going to happen next.”
“That’s basically a description of the relationship between you and me,” said Kathryn. “I usually call you in when I need perspective from someone who has a broader view of the industry than I do.”
“There are a lot of levels to our coaching services,” said Rebecca. “Some of our clients use our coaches to help their learning experience designers or developers get to the next level. That involves more of an ongoing relationship. Others use them for what we call ‘tips and tricks’— quick fixes when learning team members aren’t getting the results they want or need.”
“So more personalized than even the workshops we were discussing,” said Kathryn.
“In some cases, yes,” replied Rebecca. “Some of our coaches work with entire learning teams, some work with individuals. Sometimes one of our coaches will help with a specific project.”
“How do companies decide what kind of coaching they need?” asked Kathryn.
“Much like workshops,” said Rebecca, “we begin with a discovery session. Actually, most of the work we do begins with a discovery session or two. We find that we get a lot further faster if we can all identify the problem we’re trying to solve and agree on a solution. In the majority of cases, discovery saves time and budget and lowers frustration.”
Workshops help your entire team enhance their skills, coaching is for specific people or small teams who are wrestling with a specific problem or project, and fractional services help you fill gaps on your team without hiring full time people.
“Defining the problem before applying the solution makes complete sense,” said Kathryn. “Are these coaches scheduled or available as needed?”
“That depends,” said Rebecca. “Sometimes the coach and the client spend an hour or two per week at a set time with a regular agenda. Other times, the relationship is more ad hoc. The client simply reaches out when they have a challenge or are struggling with something.”
“What kind of coaches are available?” asked Kathryn.
“Everything from instructional design people who are experts in learning science to creative artists to technology experts who can help with things as advanced as extended reality and artificial intelligence,” said Rebecca. “Again, it really depends on the need at the moment.”
“I can see this working well with the workshops we discussed last time,” said Kathryn. “Workshops have given us general information about specific upskilling needs, but coaching can give a person or a team deeper insight into a specific need.”
“You got it,” said Rebecca. “We developed these services so that we can meet the needs of our clients, no matter where those needs arise.”
“I have a quick phone call in a few minutes,” said Kathryn. “It won’t take long, and then I’d like to come back and continue this conversation about upskilling. You mentioned a third option for upskilling that I think you called ‘fractional people.’”
Rebecca chuckled. “I don’t mean people who are fractional. That sounds terrifying! I mean we connect you with people who can provide services to your team as you need them. Think of it this way: workshops help your entire team enhance their skills, coaching is for specific people or small teams who are wrestling with a specific problem or project, and fractional services help you fill gaps on your team without hiring full time people.”
“That’s helpful,” said Kathryn. “Because of layoffs and the hiring freeze, I certainly have gaps, both in the sheer number of hours I need applied to projects, and also in the skills we need to do jobs well.”
“But first,” said Rebecca, “your phone call. I’ll meet you back here in fifteen minutes and we’ll continue our conversation.”
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