Building Your Organization’s Learning Innovation Capabilities

By Bucky J. Dodd, Ph.D.
March 10, 2021

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that planning is only as good as an organization’s ability to adapt. The learning and education landscapes have shifted dramatically and technology has planed a critical role in connecting people and enabling learning experiences. While working with many organizations to re-thinking their education and learning programs, I noticed both an interest in capitalizing on the opportunities afforded by learning innovation and emerging technologies, but also a need to look to the future.

The Increasing Importance of Strategy in Learning Innovation

Almost every organization had to incorporate some form of elearning into their landscape almost overnight. Some organizations were better equipped to do this than others. While the future of education and learning may involve many possible scenarios, eLearning will likely remain a core competency for organizations to embrace.

To successfully capitalize on the opportunities afforded by learning technologies, leaders will need to invest first in strategically increasing their organization’s innovation capabilities. The future success of organizations will be less tied to tradition and more to adapting to current and future realities.

Innovation Is More About Strategy Than Technology

In industries where technology plays such an important role, it can be easy for leaders to overemphasize its importance. Any successful innovation or change initiative that shapes learning experiences is grounded in a sound strategy. The process of creating a learning strategy considers a wide array of factors that shape learning experiences such as the audience, goals, risks, resources, processes, value propositions, competition, and need. Developing a strong learning experience strategy will lead to the strategic use of technology.

Editor’s note: What about bad decision-making? Researchers have described some poorly informed technology adoption strategies as the ‘garbage can’ approach. Read more.

Understanding Drivers of Change

Change can be a funny thing. I can recall numerous situations while working on learning strategy and design projects where the working group or decision makers acknowledged the value of an idea, but made an intentional decision to continue down a path that was more familiar. In many of these situations, they end up circling back to the new idea after trying something that didn’t work out. Why is this? What is it about new ideas that can make people so uncomfortable? When we’re proposing changes to how people learn, the resistance can be even greater. In the simplest of terms, a decision to change is ultimately shaped by the tension between managing risk and creating value.

In order to facilitate meaningful change and innovation, we first need to understand what drives change in an organization. This changes over time and can be influenced by a number of factors including leadership vision, fiscal realities, or competition. Understanding why the change is important lies at the heart of understanding drivers of change.

Framework for Organizing and Facilitating Learning Innovations

The foundational goal of innovation is about creating new value for people, organizations, and society. Innovation is more than just change and can be an incredibly complex process.

Learning innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovations, by definition, are new and can be easily misunderstood. New ideas are always being generated and some of those ideas can have a transformative impact on how people learn – if given a chance. A key role of leaders is creating an ecosystem that builds an organization’s innovation capabilities, while allowing promising new ideas a chance to succeed.

When I work with organizations that are seeking to make some type of change in learning experiences, we often begin together by thinking about how ready their organization is for creating, growing, and scaling new approaches. The Learning Innovation Cycle is a framework that can help leaders identify strengths and weakness in their organization’s innovation capabilities and make strategic investments to optimize their innovation potential.

The framework includes four major stages of learning innovations: ideas, experiments, developments, and operations. Each of these phases are connected by a transition that represents the process of moving an innovation from one stage to the next. For example, a team may be able to generate great ideas, but fails to do anything with them.

For leaders, consider opportunities to help your organization build capabilities to support innovations with each of the four phases. This also means ensuring teams are optimized for both early-stage (ideas and experiments) and late-stage (development and operation) innovation. While early-stage innovation is focused on creating and testing ideas, late stage innovations generate the value and returns to support the innovation cycle.

Scenario: New Classroom Video Technologies

Applying the Learning Innovation Cycle as a framework for change and innovation can provide a much-needed roadmap in complex situations. Recognizing where an innovation is at in the cycle can highlight how to best support and grow innovations. For example, many organizations invested a considerable amount of time and money in upgrading classroom and conference technology to enable real-time communications. Using the Learning Innovation Cycle, we might have generated ideas for addressing the need and then implemented a fast and low-cost experiment to see if our ideas have merit. Once demonstrating efficacy, we begin investing additional resources, talent, and time to develop at a larger scale. Once in place, the technology is managed, supported, and maintained. The cycle begins again by identifying opportunities for continuous improvement and innovation.

This brief example shows the flow of the innovation from an idea to a value-generating initiative. The framework also helps to anticipate and identify barriers so they can be addressed in a proactive way.

Concluding Thoughts

When I talk with groups of educators and learning professionals, the term ‘learning innovation’ can sometimes be scary. It conjures up images of chaos, uncertainty, and even fear. As leaders, our goal should be to shape the culture of our organizations to see innovation in a balanced way. It is neither good nor bad, but a tool for personal and organizational growth. Learning experiences are in need of innovation now more than ever. Future successful learning experiences will not only be based on technology, but rather on the capabilities needed to embrace innovation as a central aspect of their future.

Bucky J. Todd, Ph.D. works as the Chief Learning Innovation Officer for LX Studio.