September 29, 2023

Burgers and Basics

Author: aysha-ashley-househ
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Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief at Chief Learning Officer magazine.
Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief at Chief Learning Officer magazine.

Let me set the record straight for those still in doubt: Hamburgers are not made of ham.

We live in a politically divided time when fake news and alternative facts have regrettably become a common part of the lexicon. But on that basic culinary fact we should be able to agree.

Yet even that kind of common knowledge isn’t always common. It’s a useful reminder for chief learning officers as another year begins.

There will undoubtedly be many new developments in education technology this year, emerging applications and exciting methodologies that engage learners and provide powerful potential opportunities for development. Technology is advancing at a dizzying pace that is exhilarating to watch. Access to the world’s entire collection of knowledge and expertise is at the tips of our fingers and learning organizations will march ever forward with new initiatives and programs.

That is the way it should be. Experimentation and innovation are the currency of the learning economy. Those who are able to learn better and faster are the ones who will rise. For CLOs, failure to launch new approaches and refine old ones is a personal and professional failure.

Yet amid the pressure to continually innovate, it’s important not to lose sight of the basics.

I’m not talking about using agile development techniques to design a course or evaluating the success of a program on the Kirkpatrick scale. It goes without saying that successful learning organizations should excel at the fundamentals of workforce education.

I’m talking about a different set of basics: building good relationships and continually checking your assumptions. Which brings me back to the hamburger.

A few weeks back, we had a breakthrough with my 6-year-old son. A vegetarian by practice if not principle, he avoided any kind of meat like it was a T-Rex on his tail. The sight of a chicken nugget heading for his plate would send him shrieking into the other room. Getting his growing brain a regular source of protein was a daily struggle. All that changed on Taco Tuesday of that week.

We added a little ground beef to his heretofore cheese-only taco and sure enough, he liked it. Like many an eager parent, I took it a step too far. When I suggested he could try a hamburger next, he shot me a look. “I might like beef but I’m not going to eat ham,” he said.

It was a great reminder to check my assumptions. It is called a hamburger after all. Identifying that small misunderstanding may just end up saving us from years of dinnertime aggravation.

As a chief learning officer, you may think you’ve checked all the boxes. You’ve done a thorough needs analysis, combed through all the relevant performance data, meticulously surveyed the state of current skills and aligned with critical business priorities. But a small misunderstanding can torpedo all that effort.

Even in the best-funded learning organizations where workforce development is central to business, chief learning officers have limited power to mandate compliance or compel people to participate in learning. Hard power is scarce. There’s always a more urgent task and a higher priority for busy executives and frontline workers alike.

The ability to influence others is the chief learning officer’s secret weapon. You have to work through others and channel their energies, passions and interests. The best do it so well that it seems effortless. But like a duck serenely floating in a pond, beneath the surface they are continually paddling.

They talk regularly to top leaders and worker bees alike. In many cases, they will actually do the job alongside them. Those learning leaders invest time and sweat to understand where workers struggle so when it comes time to solve a problem those workers know the learning leader has their best interests at heart.

Most important, they tell you the truth. They see you’re working with them rather than through them. And because you’ve listened and invested time and energy in them and their challenges, they’ll give you an honest answer when the time comes. They’ll let you know that they didn’t know a hamburger wasn’t made of ham.

When it comes to relationships, it’s hard to have a beef with that.

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