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Navigating the Challenges of Learning Innovation

It’s no surprise that innovation is a hot topic in the learning space. With new technologies, methodologies, platforms, processes, and players entering the marketplace daily, disruption is everywhere. Learning organizations can’t adequately address these issues with today’s approaches, much less yesterday’s. So innovation has become a necessary element to build into your learning organization in order to move forward strategically.

Research from CLO indicates that staying on top of these trends is a top priority in corporations, but it’s also the initiative learning organizations are least prepared to undertake. So a couple of years ago, GP Strategies developed our own Innovation Kitchen and 5-step Innovation Processes to help our clients to address the complexities and harness the opportunities hidden within the disruption.

Rather than attacking innovation at the point of execution of a mission-critical initiative in your own organization, we recommend forming a separate, ongoing conversation around the elements of innovation. In other words, create a conversation that takes place outside of the pressures, emotion, and immediate needs of a specific initiative—one that nurtures ongoing discovery, explores what is possible based on existing and emerging trends, experiments with tactics and approaches, and builds a knowledge base around what is possible and what your organization can leverage to address any given initiative that may arise.

Even if you can’t form your own Innovation Kitchen staffed with industry experts, you can build a sustainable approach to incorporating innovation into your initiatives that your organization can support at some level, on any budget. Here are some of the challenges to look out for:

  • How are you going to fund your innovation effort? We suggest a right-sized approach. Whether you’re able to assemble a large cross-functional team focused on the mission, hire a couple of dedicated experts, or allocate one person from within who works on it on a part-time basis, you will be better prepared to respond from a place of strength, rather than just reacting to the crisis du jour. It’s not the size of the innovation exploration that matters. In fact, you don’t even have to originate all the innovation yourself, as you can harvest it from other internal initiatives or curate knowledge from outside resources. What matters is that you explore innovative approaches objectively.
  • This is about moving from the art of the possible to the business of the viable. Is your innovation going to yield the needed business results? Will it help you do things better, faster, and/or cheaper? We recommend a rapid prototyping approach. We have prototyped solutions for a few thousand dollars in the space of a few weeks. When you take a time-bound approach, the project doesn’t linger and utilize excess resources. It’s also important to understand that not every idea is going to produce revolutionary results. Sometimes your results will be evolutionary, offering lessons learned or incremental results over time.
  • Buy-in and ability to scale. How do you grow your innovation initiative and get stakeholder buy in? We group these together because the key to innovation initiative success is communication—promoting, publishing, and sharing your progress and conclusions. As your initiative progresses, you want people to know what you’re doing. It begins by letting your entire organization know that the initiative exists, it includes regular progress reports and/or relevant findings, and it climaxes with sharing any execution that results. The more interest you generate and value you demonstrate, the more resources you’ll be able to justify to grow your initiative. And the more positive attention you bring to the initiative, the more stakeholder buy-in you’ll receive.

Innovation seems like a tall order. And it can feel like you’re under the gun—“You’d better be brilliant, or else!” But, it’s really about researching and understanding what is possible so that when the moment comes to architecting a solution, you’ll have one foot in brilliance and another in expertise.

For more information, examples and resources, visit our Innovation Kitchen.

About the Authors

Matt Donovan
Chief Learning & Innovation Officer
Early in life, I found that I had a natural curiosity that not only led to a passion for learning and sharing with others, but it also got me into trouble. Although not a bad kid, I often found overly structured classrooms a challenge. I could be a bit disruptive as I would explore the content and activities in a manner that made sense to me. I found that classes and teachers that nurtured a personalized approach really resonated with me, while those that did not were demotivating and affected my relationship with the content. Too often, the conversation would come to a head where the teacher would ask, “Why can’t you learn it this way?” I would push back with, “Why can’t you teach it in a variety of ways?” The only path for success was when I would deconstruct and reconstruct the lessons in a meaningful way for myself. I would say that this early experience has shaped my career. I have been blessed with a range of opportunities to work with innovative organizations that advocate for the learner, endeavor to deliver relevance, and look to bend technology to further these goals. For example, while working at Unext.com, I had the opportunity to experience over 3,000 hours of “learnability” testing on my blended learning designs. I could see for my own eyes how learners would react to my designs and how they made meaning of it. Learners asked two common questions: Is it relevant to me? Is it authentic? Through observations of and conversations with learners, I began to sharpen my skills and designed for inclusion and relevance rather than control. This lesson has served me well. In our industry, we have become overly focused on the volume and arrangement of content, instead of its value. Not surprising—content is static and easier to define. Value (relevance), on the other hand, is fluid and much harder to describe. The real insight is that you can’t really design relevance; you can only design the environment or systems that promote it. Relevance ultimately is in the eye of the learner—not the designer. So, this is why, when asked for an elevator pitch, I share my passion of being an advocate for the learner and a warrior for relevance.

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