Supporting An Extended Workforce with 70:20:10 (Mark Britz) - Guest Blog


Phil Jackson is a very successful and well-known National Basketball Association (NBA) coach.  He’s won numerous championships with two different teams in an era of free agency (players moving easily after completing contracts). Is he an exceptional coach? Hard to argue. But those who do argue say he had the best players in the NBA on each of those teams, meaning that in many ways he was lucky. However, basketball is a team sport and even building a team containing great players (even the greatest) does not guarantee championships unless those great players work together, communicate, trust, and share. I’d argue the players are critical, but the team systems and the leaders who know how to work with all the moving parts are what win championships.

An extended workforce is very similar. Talented workers come together for brief periods to provide the performance excellence needed to meet or exceed customer expectations in the name of the firm. Traditional approaches to support these workers; i.e. training first, would not only be ineffective and costly but could also be damaging to productivity. A 70-20-10 framework emphasizes a “performance first” approach. It respects that work and workers are fluid and the structures to support organizational performance need to mirror this fluidity, not constrict it by employing ancient approaches from an industrial era.

In my role today, I support the epitome of technical Knowledge Workers (software engineers, programmers, system architects). The workforce is not only extended by time and distance across the US, but also by function and relationship to the organization. Many work closely with others who are on contracts with jobs in one organization but performing work in another. All function together in complex, cross-organizational relationships. The vast majority of employees within the Operations department are hired for short-term contractual work with opportunities to move to another project when their contract ends. They are experts, well versed in their craft, and often come to us with decades of experience and numerous certifications. They need little, if any professional training. Rather, they need to be oriented to our organization, its habits, procedures, and systems.  

To support this complex operation, the decision was made from the onset to support performance with social and informal learning at the center.  Peer-to-peer learning within the workflow was a key focus. The learning function serves more as a facilitator for learning rather than a creator of content or events. For example, working closely with the most senior staff, a mixed team including business analysts, and internal Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and me, we have begun to develop performance support materials and short, expert-led, orientation sessions for the operations staff to draw upon. The organizational learning function guides the experts in the creation of user-generated support materials such as job aids and recordings to construct a robust library of internal assets to support consistency of our model.

Encouraging Communities of Practice (CoPs) is another growing initiative. Research supports that the growth of manager skill is heavily slanted towards informal and social learning as opposed to formal training. In support of this reality, we have employed the Coaching Ourselves model where managers self-selected regular meeting times, dates and conceptual topics that encouraged dialog and sharing of best practices. Initially done in synchronous meetings, these CoPs will have an asynchronous element once we secure a collaborative platform.

The strategy for increasing the use of collaborative tools is one I’ve loosely described here as a “Ground Cover” approach. We aim to identify where collaboration already exists and locate problems where community, collaboration, and sharing would be the solution. The idea is a take on the garden metaphor (seed, feed, and weed), but we look to spread across the landscape by primarily emphasizing these two areas, “where it exists” and “where it’s needed” to encourage cross-pollination and modeling. This strategy helps social media gain a foothold and spread until it covers the whole organization.  No corporate-wide campaigns, no games, no edicts. A start small, think big, move slow approach...like planting and nurturing ground cover.

These three examples reinforce the belief that the Learning function in organizations today, like the coaching efforts of Phil Jackson, must guide from the side. It must respect the talents and time of the workforce by putting more emphasis on connecting people to the content they need. This content can be in the form of tangible resources or ephemeral conversations. Furthermore it must encourage the understanding that performance improvement is not the responsibility of a single department but that each consumer of content must also be a creator and contributor. Great teams excel not because of the efforts of a single individual or leader, but because of a system that recognizes excellence and helps that excellence extend and expand unhindered.

Author 

Mark Britz is currently the head of Learning and Development at Systems Made Simple. Mark has worked in the design and management of learning solutions for organizations such as Aspen Dental, Smarforce (SkillSoft), Pearson Digital Learning and the SUNY Research Foundation. As part of the Workflow Learning initiative he is advancing, Mark promotes the use of collaborative technologies and user-generated content to extend learning and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.