Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Birth of a Salesman: Selling Learning to Solve Business Issues.

Birth of a Salesman: Selling Learning to Solve Business Issues

Perceptions about the learning function may be learning professionals' greatest frustration, but changing those perceptions is one of the most promising opportunities for impact. Moving learning to business-partner status requires an investment in yourself.

How many times have you seen the potential for a critical integrated learning solution overlooked until the deployment of a new operating process, a systems implementation or the launch of a new product or service - or worse yet, totally ignored until something goes wrong?

Learning need not be forced to limp in and turn lemons into lemonade, though. It should move beyond the role of a firefighter dousing the flames of poor planning and circumstance to the more proactive role of a building inspector to help make sure the house doesn't catch fire in the first place. To assume this role, however, learning leaders must sell the value of development programs.

Selling has several connotations. If you find yourself selling learning to a line-of-business head, promoting a packaged solution that fits in your current budget or asking for precious budget dollars and finding apathy or limited excitement, you likely are too late and have missed the opportunity.

Selling your solution is about selling yourself and your team's ability to execute - to build trusting relationships based on previous initiatives' success and indisputable data. Selling is about business partnering, not pushing your solution.

This requires a continual cycle of developing the relationship and educating decision makers about learning potential and performance. This kind of selling is key to building the kind of institutional trust and relationships that will be required to win support for learning's up-front involvement in the next critical endeavor that will require collaborative initiative.

It's important to remember that relationships are earned, and if organizational perceptions about learning's role are not taken seriously or shaped by creative and innovative solutions, they can remain a serious drag, damper and de-motivator to the entire learning enterprise.

Consider the sales process: It is not your one-size-fits-all idea in a box that should be accepted by any prospective customer you pitch it to. It is determining the business issue, drivers, potential of the solution, how the solution comes together, investment in dollars, satisfaction with the executed solution and return on investment. If you have been attempting the first with limited success, let's discuss how we get to the latter.

Rolling Up Learning's Sleeves

Given the demands on our time these days, it's easy for any learning professional to get mired in an unceasing cycle of process meetings in the learning organization. But this unfortunately comes at the expense of not moving our learning organizations forward to become better business partners - easily said, but not easily achieved.

Relationships with line of business leaders are never static. They either are gaining momentum and moving forward, or they're moving backward. If a business leader does not know your group, then you do not know your customer.

That's why knowing your business, building critical relationships, understanding how decisions are made and why they are made are so important. If you bring creative solutions and new ideas to shape the overall business, you can reshape perceptions about learning and add value to your organization.

In sales, there are "high-value questions." In the learning leader's situation, some of these may include:

a) What are the perils and challenges between our current state and our goals?

b) What does success look like?

c) What does failure look like?

d) Does a performance solution need to be part of the overall solution, and why?

e) Which performance indicators will inform the business about its early progress?

f) Which piece(s) of the implementation plan might require us to stay closely connected moving forward?

OK, so you have asked the questions. Now what? From here, it becomes similar to a learning analysis. You understand the problem, but do you understand the gap, the challenge? Would the decision maker agree with you? How does your approach distinctly map to the needs and fulfill the gaps? Can it be demonstrated? Is it logical and simple, or convoluted? Can you explain it in less than a minute? And the big question: Can you prove that you can execute the solution?

Once key decision makers understand the big-picture impact of the learning enterprise, they're far more likely to forge a relationship through which they can discuss the tools or capabilities the learning organization can bring to help solve the issue or increase the business' overall chances of attaining its desired objective.

Practical Advice on What Works

Sonserae Toles, director of the U.S.-based Learning Campus for Siemens, a global leader in industry, energy and health care, said there are two things any learning leader can do to help advance effective corporate learning.

First is to look at where your key clients reside structurally within the organization and to become well-versed in their specific body of knowledge to establish credibility and increase the chances of a more meaningful engagement. Learning professionals who already have expertise on a particular business line usually have a much greater chance of being perceived as a trusted partner than those who do not.

A second, albeit underutilized tactic is to reach out to the communicators supporting the lines of business. "That communications person can be an extremely valuable resource. He or she knows what's happening within the organization, what the trends are and what other parts of the organization support the operations. Don't underestimate their role," Toles said.

Building relationships with other support services within the organization not only gives learning key allies in selling itself across the organization, but also puts learning closer to the business operations that drive results on a more regular basis.

Sheri A. Lamoureux, human resources executive for Energy East Corp., a super-regional energy services and delivery company based in the northeastern United States, said earning the support of the company's senior vice president and chief administrative officer, in addition to its human resources team, has been key to building the business case for enterprise-wide learning.

That was critical, she said, because for some time, the company wasn't managing or tracking the kind of training its employees got from external sources, so it wasn't really in tune with how learning was impacting its business. Had that situation continued, the organization might never have recognized - from either a business or succession-planning perspective - how important its learning objectives were to achieving its goals in the short and long term.

Before it could renew its impact, learning had to enlist the support of human resources and senior management by creating evaluation tools to measure the success of training and demonstrate a direct impact on financial performance, Lamoureux said. It also had to win the backing of skeptical business managers who had gone so long without significant employee development support that they wondered why their future performance hinged in any way on learning.

"The leadership of the organization is the most important component of this to be successful," she said.

Beyond that level of organizational sponsorship, the Energy East learning team had to not only understand its internal clients' business but also be capable of selling the benefits of engagement with learning in their language. That's the wellspring of trust between business managers and learning professionals.

"It's being able to deliver on what you say you're going to deliver on and showing them the results and doing it in the timeline you promised," Lamoureux said. "It's really as basic as that - and developing those relationships where they understand that you fully understand the business drivers and that you have the business acumen and can gain the trust and credibility. It's focusing on results."

Those organizational assets were evident in the execution of a workforce respect program that the learning team expected would drive an increase in employee complaints in the short term, but in the long run would actually create a more equitable working environment for employees. The learning team delivered the program, acknowledged both the pain and gain, but in the end, demonstrated not only a decrease in complaints but also a broader slate of benefits to the company.

Lamoureux said the practice of simply talking to business partners and being open to their suggestions and also being flexible and open-minded in terms of learning solutions can effectively demonstrate the kind of reciprocity required for meaningful partnerships.

It's also important for learning professionals to understand relationships are one-half of a critical success formula for selling learning and earning the trust of decision makers and business partners.

"Relationships can go a long way, but quite often we need to show the business rationale for what we're doing and how we're moving forward," Lamoureux said.

Successfully selling learning across the enterprise requires one to define the business case, gain consensus about it, execute the work and then measure and reflect the impact to build trust and win support for the next collaborative initiative with a line of business.

"There's both a trust and a data piece to that," Lamoureux explained. "Business partners can really only convince themselves. If you show them data and show them facts, it's hard to argue with that. And if it's coming from trusted source, that can seal the deal."

In summary, if you want to sell learning, you'd better know your customers, understand their pain and map valid solutions that have proven that they can solve that pain. Demonstrating the capabilities and relevance of yourself and your team as opposed to merely promoting an off- the-shelf solution will help you close that sale.

Anthony A. D'Agostino and Joseph Daniel McCool
[About the Authors: Anthony A. D'Agostino is a vice president and principal in the learning practice of ACS. Joseph Daniel McCool is an author and an online columnist for BusinessWeek.]

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