'Intelligent' L&D

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Written by Jesse Sostrin PhD on 1 April 2014 in Features

Enabling employees to future-proof their skills should be the goal of all organisations, says Jesse Sostrin

Alan Turing, the British mathematician and computer scientist, is widely considered to be the father of artificial intelligence. He was influential in the development of the concepts of ‘algorithm’ and ‘computation’, which, among other contributions, set the trajectory for an anticipated future in which our machines will respond to, and manipulate, their environment, exercise creativity as they assess and solve problems, and adapt their knowledge to advance self-generating cycles of new learning.

Though the full promise of AI remains elusive, each year the threshold gets closer. While computer scientists, roboticists and futurists push hard for their desired technological future, what are we doing in the fields of training, coaching and human performance technology to advance toward a more ‘intelligent’ learning and development?

In the world of work, the greatest technology is not a killer software application or the latest device; it is human capital. Specifically, it is an organisation’s capacity to achieve its intended purpose by leveraging the strength of its workforce and tapping the full measure of its potential. In this hyper-competitive economy, organisations need people with the ability to respond to, and manipulate, their environment, exercise creativity as they interpret and resolve abstract problems, and continuously adapt their knowledge to advance self-generating cycles of new learning.

Forget thinking machines; ‘intelligent’ L&D would deliver self-reinforcing tools that enable individuals to independently reproduce cycles of continuous learning and performance that adapt with the changing environment and produce increasingly valued and relevant results for their teams. These future-proof people will know how to continuously increase their contribution to the organisation through these cycles of on-going learning and performance, where the results of one stage of growth lead seamlessly to the next. Organisations filled with future-proof people will better respond to changing conditions and attain closer alignment between talent and strategy.

Future-Proof – noun/1: learning to see your hidden curriculum of work®, spotting the specific barriers that it produces, and transforming those everyday challenges into opportunities for improved learning and performance; 2: using your continuous learning and performance to stay ahead of the change curve, remain relevant in your career, and craft a meaningful working life.

Trainers, coaches, consultants and mentor-managers – those whose stake in the organisation’s success is defined by their ability to develop others’ potential – can precipitate the capacity to adopt forms of ‘intelligent’ L&D by taking three important steps. It starts with the mandate to expose the often felt, but seldom discussed, hidden side of work.

Expose the hidden curriculum of work

Two factors – the need for continuous learning and performance and the presence of performance barriers – form the hidden curriculum of work. A hidden curriculum exists any time that there are two simultaneous challenges, one visible, clear and understood and the other concealed, ambiguous and undefined.

For example, professional athletes master the fundamentals of their sport and excel at the highest level on the court or field of play, but they still have to learn how to deal with wealth, fame and the many other challenges and distractions that come with professional sports. And, when children enter school, they have to master the educational standards in their curriculum but literacy, numeracy and science lessons do not prepare them for the peer pressure, social dynamics and developmental challenges of youth that they inevitably face. In the same way, there is a hidden curriculum of work that we all encounter.

Much of the tension within the hidden curriculum of work is generated by the fact that – from day one – our job descriptions only tell part of the story about what is required to succeed at work. Not only do they often fail to capture the highest priorities of a given role, the tasks and activities outlined in superficial bullet points mask all of the unexpected challenges of managing change, collaborating with difficult people, navigating confusing workplace politics and the many pitfalls to getting great work done in an environment of shrinking resources and increasing demands.

As individuals fulfil the tasks and activities in their primary job descriptions, they incessantly bump up against their hidden challenges from the ‘job-within-the-job’. Because this double-reality is hidden in plain sight, there is no common language to describe its subtle aftermath and, therefore, it remains largely undiscussable. And, because it is unspeakable, people cannot negotiate support to address it. This is the ferocious cycle that ensues:

  • people are hired and paid to do a job…
  • but they are only given a partial picture of what is needed to succeed at it…
  • so they are on their own to understand the missing part of the picture and to figure out their own path toward success…
  • and while all of this unfolds, they will not be rewarded any differently if they succeed but could still face consequences if they fail to meet the job’s demands.

Considering this impossible dilemma, it is not surprising that 71 per cent of the workforce feels overwhelmed and disengaged1. However, employee engagement is not the problem; it is simply the presenting condition of a deeper issue that stems from a fundamental conflict from this double-reality of work. When pushed into ‘survival mode’ by the structural inequities and competing pressures from these dual roles, proactive and continuous performance improvement such as ‘intelligent’ L&D is out of reach.

What do you think the quality of work is likely to be when people are unable to focus on their top priorities because of unanticipated challenges that flash in and out of the frame? How much time and energy do you think people spend figuring out their own work when the tasks and activities in their job descriptions are unable to keep pace with the relevant challenges and opportunities they face in a constantly-changing environment? To transcend the ugly truth in these questions, every person must discover their ‘job-within-the-job’ to bring focus to the true demands of their work. This includes the vital purpose they play and the value-added contributions they make to the organisation beyond their job description.

Discover the ‘job-within-the-job’

Far too many people discover their ‘job-within-the-job’ through trial and error over time (and they end up with the scars to prove it). A framework of six core questions can be used to flip the known elements of a standard job description in order to see the hidden side of work. The process enables you to pinpoint the vital purpose, value-added contributions and hidden challenges that, when addressed, can unburden you from the baggage of the hidden curriculum of work.

The sequence includes the following questions:

  • what single statement best describes your role? What single statement reveals your vital purpose to the organisation?
  • what tasks and activities absorb most of your time? Which of your contributions have the greatest value to the organisation?
  • what are the common obstacles that prevent your best work? What are the hidden challenges of staying on purpose and delivering your value?

The first half of each question sequence pertains to the superficial expectations of traditional job descriptions. However, the second half probes deeper to reveal (a) your vital purpose (the reason the organisation needs you), (b) your greatest value to the team (what concrete skills and contributions advance the company’s top goals) and (c) your everyday challenges (the often unseen barriers that you must resolve to stay on purpose and deliver your value).

What is possible inside organisations whose employees were empowered to answer these questions and were then given the freedom to organise their work accordingly? The shift could potentially unleash a less defined – but more powerful – range of contributions from genuinely engaged employees who, let’s face it, already have to continuously redefine critical priorities and actions. The difference is that they use the focus and milestones of their ‘job-within-the-job’ to discover ways to contribute more to the team and organisation, while shifting toward ‘intelligent’ L&D that acts as an investment in their own long-term relevance in the world of work. This is the start of the mutual agenda.

Frame the ‘mutual agenda’

In order for ‘intelligent’ L&D to really accelerate, there has to be an effort to reduce the tension from the ‘threats’ and almost adversarial mind-sets that have developed among both employees
and organisations during the global economic downturn.

The reality is that employees in today’s hyper-competitive workplace feel threatened. On a typical day, the threat comes from the double-reality of work (ie dealing with constant change, shifting agendas and constant pressure to do more with less etc). On a bad day, the threat comes from the fear that their jobs could be outsourced or automated and that someone else smarter and hungrier is right behind them. These pressures are compounded by the fact that many organisations have, by and large, abandoned support for individual professional development. While there are some outstanding exceptions to this unfortunate trend, the reality is that most people must chart a course for their own personal growth and career development. This can often lead to a free-agent mentality that creates potentially destructive competition between individual aspirations and organisational needs.

Organisations are also under threat. As the cost of doing business increases and competitive market forces squeeze margins from every angle, the pressure to reduce investments in people – the largest line item on most company budgets – also accelerates. In a self-fulfilling paradox, organisations trim labour costs and cut head count while at the same time – spoiler alert – their search for retainable and committed talent intensifies. The burden of this acute pressure organisations face is then transferred to employees who must elevate their performance even while their jobs are threatened.

The degree to which employees and organisations resolve these distinct, but related, threats sets the trajectory for the company’s bottom-line performance and also for the culture and quality of employees’ working life.

The fact is that individuals and organisations are stuck with each other. You cannot have organisations without employees, and successful employees align their contributions to fulfil the intended purpose of the company. For both to succeed, there must be a clear ‘mutual agenda’, which defines the powerful space where individual goals and desired contributions intersect with team priorities and organisational objectives.

If you are an individual contributor, operating within the mutual agenda will activate your focus, motivation and positive outlook in the short term. In the long term, your value-added contributions will improve your overall performance and open access to choice assignments and increased opportunities for advancement. If you are a manager or senior leader responsible for organisational success, understanding the strategic importance of the mutual agenda and cultivating its boundaries can improve engagement and retention in the short term. In the long term, it will drive bottom-line performance as a virtuous cycle accelerates: engaged and empowered people leveraging tools to ‘go beyond their job descriptions’, contributing directly to the most relevant team priorities and organisational goals, and using the motivation from a compelling mutual agenda to fuel their ‘intelligent’ L&D efforts that make them future-proof over time.

Exposing the hidden curriculum of work, providing resources to discover the ‘job-within-the-job’ and enabling people to contribute their best efforts within the ‘mutual agenda’ can produce one of the most significant competitive advantages of the 21st century: intelligent human capital that thinks for itself, adapts and continuously synchronises its assets with the evolution and changing demands of the dynamic organisation. It is time to put the machines out of work!


1 Blacksmith N, Harter J “Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs” Gallup Wellbeing (28/11/2011)

About the author

Jesse Sostrin PhD is the author of Beyond the Job Description. He writes, speaks, and consults on individual and organisational success.He can be contacted via www.sostrinconsulting.com



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