DEVELOPING A LEARNING NETWORK (HOW YOUR VP GETS SO SMART)

How do leading Vice Presidents of Human Resources get “so smart”? As the head of HR at San Francisco State University, I am privileged to get to meet the best VPs from the best Silicon Valley high tech firms. Two years ago, we began a program focused on identifying “Why do HR top executives know so much more than the average HR person?”

Is it their educational background, their IQ or their access to “better” sources of information?  Whether we talked to HP, Apple, Intel, Sun Micro, Quantum, or Netscape the answers varied little. When we asked them “How do you learn?” Almost universally, they said, “Great question!” But it was the commonality of their answers and their ways of learning that surprised us the most. 

Who Are Speed Learners (aka Continuous Learning Individuals)

VP’s of HR from high-tech firms pretty much learn the same way as bank VP’s. They talk the same language, share the same concerns, and learn the same way. The major difference between VP’s is the speed in which they learn. 

A select few learn at the “speed of change.” They (HP, Sun Micro, Quantum, DFS inc. and Intel (Intel once had a R&D department within HR) to name a few) are run by “Continuous learning Individuals” (CLI’s)  who use learning as the competitive advantage to lead their businesses. 

CLI’s learn about potential HR problems before they occur. This might seem strange but the reason they can pull this off is that they learn primarily from business sources. Business and Industry sources talk about business problems before they appear in most HR journals. By identifying business problems early, they can then focus their efforts on learning how HR can help solve them. 

How Speed Learners…Learn!

Primary sources: The best of the best use personal learning networks and business publications as their primary learning sources.

Learning Network – A learning network is a small group (4 – 10) of professional that answer questions, benchmark, share learning sources and act as “pre-testers” for new ideas. They provide instant feedback and learning’s.

Business Information Sources – When CLI’s read they read business and Industry publications as their primary source. Several VP’s said they never read HR publications while many others only read selected articles provided by their staff.

What they read. Some frequently mentioned examples include:

  • Industry publications specific to their industry
  • General Business Magazines and newspapers
  • The Economist/ Business Week
  • Fortune/ Forbes/ or Barons
  • Financial times/ WSJ and their local paper’s news and business section
  • Miscellaneous – Conference Board Publications and Fast Company were also frequently mentioned sources as well as “anything available on an airplane”
  • Business Week Best Selling Book List – Almost all noted that they had read / scanned all of the popular books (ex. Built to Last, Reengineering, Dilbert etc.)
  • Industry and Business Conferences – Almost all went to their industry specific conferences, but none mentioned regularly going to traditional HR conferences (although they did “send” people to them).
  • Consultants – Consultants from national firms were also cited as occasional sources of learning.

What they don’t use – only one mentioned reading Academic journals

What Is A Learning Network (Learning Net)

A learning network is a group of individuals that exchange information and ideas in real time. Normally it consists of 4 – 10 individuals with a passion for learning. You can formalize the group as a “learning organization” or keep them as a relatively informal network of friends. Most learning networks have few rules, but some have specific guidelines to keep the group focused.

Information can be exchanged through e-mail, fax, telephone, in person or a combination of approaches. Information that might be exchanged include best practices, problems, articles and other learning’s. There are two basic types of Learning Net’s (LN’s) face to face where the parties actually meet and “virtual” ones where all communication is done from a distance (although combinations are possible). Some networks have a “topic of the month” as well as spontaneous exchanges on topics as they arise. Most meet on a regular schedule at least once a month while some have “one way” opportunities where you call a sub-set of the group and ask them about their solutions, information sources or fax/ e-mail them copies of articles and your “work” and ask them to comment. 

Members are usually invited using set criteria. Members who fail to actively participate or who violate the rules are asked to leave. Learning Nets are not the same as chat rooms and listservers where topics are not focused, where anyone can join and only “surface” information is usually exchanged.

How Does A Learning Network Work?

Face to face networks – When it’s a face-to-face meeting it’s generally it’s in a “show and tell” format where everyone brings a copy of “how they do it” and comparisons and suggestions are exchanged. On occasion, a speaker is invited to share information or lead the discussion. Occasionally research or “homework” is assigned for the next meeting.

Virtual Learning Networks – There are three basic types: e-mail, fax, and telephone. In the first two types a problem, article or proposal is sent to the group for comment. Ideas and criticisms are given and the results are summarized and sent to all (or all who participated). Telephone groups use conference calls and hold roundtable discussions.

What Are Some Of The Possible Activities Of A Learning Net?

There are a variety activities that groups might have try. They might include:

  • Article exchange
  • Book reviews
  • Hot topic surveys
  • Benchmarking for best practices
  • Information on experts, mentors, consultants 
  • Career issues and job openings
  • Identify great companies and great HR departments.
  • Test your ideas for projects, programs and solutions
  • Help others learn by commenting, criticizing and improving on their work
  • Exchange buzzwords and information sources
  • Get opinions on “what if” scenarios
  • Share your learnings
  • Compare your practices with other companies / industries
  • Suggestions of how to improve / seek criticism to avoid “blind spots”
  • Predictions / forecasts of the future
  • Suggestions on how to manage / act differently as a result of your learning
  • Developing a learning plan
  • Real time / instant feedback
  • On-line mentoring advice
  • Test the value of information you have received

Advantages Of Learning Nets

  • Small enough to get individual attention
  • Focused on a limited range of topics
  • Small size / invitation only “forces” members to maintain a equitable level of participation
  • Use of technology minimizes the need for face to face meetings

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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