Updated: Bob Reinheimer is currently at Bob Reinheimer & Company.
Melting boundaries and building networks within organizations are important ways to encourage the kind of flexibility that’s required as the business and cultural environment becomes increasingly global, said Bob Reinheimer, an executive director of Duke Corporate Education.
Duke CE recently completed “Learning & Development in 2011: A Focus on the Future,” which is a study of global changes in business and in leadership education. Researchers interviewed 142 senior learning and development professionals in major companies around the world to better understand how the financial crisis had and would affect corporate education and learning.
Reinheimer is a former associate dean and professor of the practice of management at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Prior to coming to Duke, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and was on the faculty of the University of Virginia and the FBI Academy.
He spoke with Faith & Leadership about global changes in business and in leadership education -- and why the Third World may be the source of a new generation of leaders. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the business of Duke Corporate Education?
In effect, we help organizations align their human assets with their other assets to drive marketplace performance. We are not strategy consultants; we are strategy implementation consultants. Once a company understands what it wants to achieve in the marketplace, we add to the execution of the strategy. We help them think about the missing pieces. We also provide the education people need to deliver against their new responsibilities.
Q: What was the impetus behind your new study, “Learning and Development in 2011: A Focus on the Future”?
In 2008 to 2009, we were hearing from our clients that their world was changing dramatically. We wanted to better understand what was going on, how it happened, and what it would be like once the dust settled.
The economic downturn is one driver of the change. A significant number of our clients were finding that their ability to invest in people, invest in learning, invest in a lot of things, was dramatically diminished by diminished economic results. That one was sort of obvious. But what was less obvious is we also saw an awful lot of companies that were deciding not to allow people to travel. Part of it was economic and part was fear of pandemic and contamination.
Because our clients were forced to look for more efficient ways of distributing information and aligning people, they went back to technology as a solution.
The learning and development community had kind of walked away from technology because it just hadn’t met their needs. It wasn’t dependable; it wasn’t engaging enough. When these same people went back and took a fresh look in 2008, they found that technology had improved so dramatically that now all of a sudden it was a viable solution for some of the things that learning and development professionals do.
The perfect storm of the economic downturn, travel bans and improvements in technology caused a shift in how learning and development professionals think about reaching people.
Q: In the study, you talk about changing mindsets rather than skill sets. What does that mean?
Old models of learning and development fall short in preparing people to deal with a rapidly changing world. Senior leaders have to react to the realities of the world in new and agile ways. It is a fundamental mindset shift.
A study respondent from South Africa presented a hypothesis. She and her colleagues posit that the leaders of the future will be found among people who grew up in Third World countries. These individuals are used to ambiguous, rapidly changing, chaotic circumstances. That experience gives them a mindset advantage over Westerners who grew up in more fortunate circumstances.
They’ve developed the mindset by growing up in that environment. So it’s beyond competencies and it’s beyond skills. It’s shifting to a way of perceiving and a way of fundamentally reacting as a human being to an environment that is dramatically different, and that’s new.
Q: The expectations seem to have flipped. Rather than expecting stability, leaders need to anticipate disruption as a norm.
The new reality is a dynamic, chaotic world. It’s not something we can put our heads down and outlast. We’ve got to strategize businesses that can succeed against that environment. The ability to do that basic business strategizing and implementing against a chaotic environment is a whole new realm for those of us who try to help leaders succeed.
Q: How do you help leaders change their mindsets?
Changing the mindset is a years- to decades-long experience. We try to jump-start the process. We give our participants tools to more rapidly recognize what’s around them and integrate that new reality.
Rather than learning to do business in China from a classroom in Minnesota, for example, our participants go to China. The day they land, we put them out in the streets on bicycles. They immerse themselves in a different market reality. With facilitation and coaching, we improve their ability to rapidly scan, make sense of and integrate new experiences into their thinking.
We took a company to China that wanted to sell medical equipment in a Chinese market. I took teams of seven, put them in vans, and gave each one a symptom: You’ve got a cold. You’ve got an upset stomach. You’ve got a headache. We sent them into the streets to find Eastern medicine remedies for their symptoms. They began to understand a different psychology about healing present in that environment. There’s no substitute for experience.
Q: How are the study respondents thinking about globalization?
They’re thinking about it more urgently. The financial crisis alerted us to how globally interconnected financial systems have become. New voices, new constituencies are joining the search for what it means to have effective global institutions. Everybody has seen the downside of globalization. There’s a real interest in accelerating the upside.
Q: How do you train people to appreciate the global nature of the business world or the interconnectedness of the world in general?
It’s a very complicated problem. First, we help people understand megatrends, what is likely to happen in the next 50 years demographically, technologically and economically. If people get a sense of the big forces at work, they may be able to respond more effectively.
Next, we help people recognize and respond to weak signals. In an environment as complicated as the global environment, how do you figure out what’s important? The signals are weaker than they used to be. They are not as easily discerned.
Q: In the study you mention focusing on capabilities rather than competencies. What’s the difference?
Capability resides within an organization or a team. Competency resides within an individual. Both describe something the entity can do, the individual or the group, but a lot of human resource professionals become preoccupied with competency models. In the worst cases, those competency models have little to do with what drives the business. The models don’t speak to how the employees need to perform.
Capabilities bridge the gap between individual competencies or skill sets and what an organization is trying to do. If you understand your strategy, the next step is to figure out what capabilities your organization has to develop to deliver that strategy.
I’m amazed at how rare it is to run into an executive who is thoughtful about what his or her organization needs to be able to do to deliver results. Executives love to tell you about the new results: “We’re going to become No. 1 in this, we’re going to grow in these ways, and we’re going to enter these markets.” But the how are you going to do it never seems to get as much attention. Forcing them to think about capabilities forces them to think about the how that drives their abilities.
Q: There is one finding that focuses on individuals -- the growing importance of targeting educational investment on high performers and the next generation of leaders.
Organizations have decided that they need to really target their learning and development resources toward those individuals who are going to have the likely greatest effect on the business. So the choice is made to use some mechanism to identify a subset of employees who are high potentials, or key talent -- there’s a variety phrases.
And there’s a focus now on investing in those high-potential, key-talent individuals, because we can clearly see them building bench strength for senior leadership roles.
There are an awful lot of companies who see real problems with succession planning. And so what this whole finding emphasizes is that companies are now very conscious of succession planning. That means you’ve got to identify who your key talent is. That means you’ve got to invest in accelerating their development.
Now, there’s always been something like this going on, but it has become more urgent because, for demographic reasons primarily, an awful lot of companies are seeing future vacancies in their senior management ranks. And so the talent pipeline has become a more urgent issue.
Q: Do you mean baby boomers retiring?
Yes. A pervasive finding from this study is that the requirement that learning and development professionals explain the value that they create is stronger than ever. But executives don’t want voodoo calculations of return on investment. They want answers to two questions: Are we developing the capabilities we need to execute our future strategies? And do we see that the talent we need to fill future management positions is being developed in an accelerated and strategic manner?
Q: Your study shows that people need education that is closer to their work environment. Why is that?
People talk about the power of creating an environment where learning happens coincidentally with doing the work. That kind of learning environment is immediately relevant; pragmatic applications are obvious.
Learning at work is powerful, impactful and efficient. Learning outside of work is costly and inefficient and less impactful. You have to take people off the job and often send them somewhere. Now, virtual means will allow you to avoid the travel, but they’re still probably concentrating on some learning experience that’s external in some way to doing the work.
So, whether you send them away or send them to a virtual experience, you’ve taken them away from the work and you’ve got to worry about whether or not that training experience is going to be relevant, impactful, insightful, useful and so forth.
For a long time people gave lip service to making a real learning environment. But the travel bans and budget cuts forced us to take it seriously and figure out how to do it.
Q: How does that really happen?
We studied how medical professionals learn at the bedside. That was analogous to financial services and other professions that are analytic. In medical shows, you’ve seen the intern and resident conferring at the bedside. You’ve seen groups of interns huddled around the resident talking through a problem. We found a number of habits and routines that could be built into the way an organization works.
There’s no bedside in accounting, but there is a client. There’s no grand round, but there is a mobilization meeting. These routines make learning and working almost synonymous. You’ve got to be intentional about building them into the workplace. Once you do, the power of the workplace as a learning environment is greatly increased.
Q: Is there a specific example, say in accounting, of a learning practice that could be embedded in a workweek?
When an assurance team reviews a client accounting matter, we encourage the more experienced team members to use a behavioral pattern called “teach, don’t tell.”
Say that a junior member says, “I don’t understand this regulation and how to apply it.” Rather than saying what it means, the senior member uses the Socratic method and asks a series of questions that lead the less-experienced learner to think out loud about what [the regulation] could mean and how it could apply. The experience is two or three minutes long, but it solves the problem and it makes learning and work synonymous.
It builds incredible rapport within the team; people don’t have to worry about getting caught not knowing something. They can bring it out on the table and everybody gets an opportunity to learn.
The notion that we’re going to learn from and with each other is a mindset shift. If you can get a group of people to make that shift, it transforms their effectiveness and brings joy to a job. So -- teach, don’t tell.
Q: What were other important findings of the study?
Something like 80 percent of the leadership and development professionals in our study identified melting boundaries as an important topic for global leaders. People’s sentiment was that the only way to deal with the complex problems businesses face is to draw on the totality of available resources.
You’ve got to get rid of the boundaries that prevent you from drawing on the brains, the hearts and the hands of all of the people working in the organization. What can you add to a leader’s mindset and toolkit that will help him or her melt boundaries? Designing education for melting boundaries is a fascinating leadership challenge and opportunity.
Q: How do you train people to melt boundaries while operating within organizational hierarchies?
You can build networks that penetrate boundaries. It is about building your network of connections to people in other parts of the organization.
“Collaboration” is a buzzword, but very few people know what it means behaviorally. It has to do with how you think about solving problems. Who you invite to meetings. How you frame issues. There are a number of mindset and behavioral issues around collaboration that are very teachable and have a big impact.
Another thing we’re trying to do is help people look at the less obvious but more impermeable boundaries, such as generational and intellectual. The scientific mindset vs. the economic mindset vs. the accounting mindset and so forth.
I actually think that the disciplinary approach that universities have in organizing their curriculum creates an extraordinary set of wired-in boundaries about ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. So we have to kind of dismantle the tyranny created by the major.
Again, it comes to perception, scanning and reading weak signals to see boundaries that people have never discerned are there.
We all make the grand, egocentric assumption that other people are like us. When you run into somebody who doesn’t get it and you get frustrated and angry, those are the kinds of things that really can be destructive to productivity and relationships. They come from the fact that you’re wired very differently, intellectually, emotionally, whatever it may be. And those kinds of boundaries, if you don’t acknowledge them and begin to work with them, really become set in stone.
Q: It sounds like your first order of business might not be changing the organizational chart, but rather making human-to-human, team-to-team connections that can break down boundaries in reality. If they still exist on paper, it doesn’t really matter.
Exactly. There are a lot of companies making a lot of money and a lot of businesses that are preoccupied with changing what’s on paper; restructuring happens all the time. Most of the time, it never solves anything. For me, it’s a much more human equation than it is an organizational-structure equation.