Have You Really, Really Identified Your Learning Champions?

I catch myself, sometimes, misusing the term “stakeholder”—or at least using it in an unnecessarily limiting way. I simply apply the term to those people who hold the purse strings for my initiatives. They receive the bulk of my sales, persuasion and negotiation efforts. And I think of these people as my sponsors, or “learning champions”.

iStock_000008723218SmallThe Oxford Dictionaries definition of “stakeholder” is:

  1. “(In gambling) an independent party with whom each of those who make a wager deposits the money or counters wagered.”
  2. “Denoting a type of organization or system in which all the members or participants are seen as having an interest in its success.”

Interestingly, the first definition does involve money, but the stakeholder is not the person who actually brings the money to the table. In the second definition, the involvement of money is not explicitly stated.

Who are your Learning Champions in the Long Term?

Stakeholder analysis is a well-defined study. Everyone knows that every program has multiple stakeholders. When launching a new eLearning initiative, for instance, stakeholders might include executives, management, staff, partners, resellers, customers, funding organizations (private, public, non-profit), hardware and software suppliers, community members, board of directors, and stockholders, among others. Program Management 101.

So why do I (and others) tend to overlook the entire array of stakeholders when getting program buy-in? It’s not so much that we don’t identify all stakeholders. But once we do, we sometimes forget that their “Power” and “Interest”, or stake, may change over time. We tend to treat stakeholder analysis as a do-it-once and don’t-look-back exercise.

Specifically for learning programs, those people who hold the keys to approving and funding a program are typically not the program’s target learners. With recent trends in empowering learners, improving learner engagement, and increasing learning outcomes, doesn’t it make sense that we should view the learners, rather the approvers or funders, as our program champions?

Power versus Interest

The intent of stakeholder analysis is to identify those key stakeholders who will be the advocates, champions or promoters of your program—the “Players”. One common analysis method involves the Power vs. Interest grid (Making Strategy: Mapping Out Strategic Success by Fran Ackermann and Colin Eden, SAGE Publications, 2001, pp. 231-235, 256.).

The idea is to plot stakeholders’ position on a two-dimensional grid with:

  • Power on the x-axis. Power indicates the ability of a stakeholder to affect what happens, or the outcomes of a strategy.
  • Interest (Stake) on the y-axis. Interest indicates the stakes a stakeholder may have in the situation, or their perceived value on certain outcomes over others.

Stakeholders are assigned a position in one of 4 quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: Low Power, Low Interest—The “Crowd
  • Quadrant 2: High Power, Low Interest—The “Context Setters
  • Quadrant 3: Low Power, High Interest—The “Subjects
  • Quadrant 4: High Power, High Interest—The “Players

Quadrant 4 is the “magic quadrant”, where you will find the Players—the stakeholders who merit the most attention. “Context Setters” and “Subjects” may merit partial attention, especially if your attention succeeds in shifting them to the “Player” quadrant. As Ackermann and Eden say, “Strategic Management is about agreeing on which stakeholders to practically focus energy, cash, effort, emotion.”

Not All Stakeholders are Important All the Time

When initiating a learning program, we tend to see executive management as the “Players” because our focus is to seek buy-in and gain program funding and approval. Once we get this buy-in, we move on to matters related to program design and delivery and do not revisit stakeholder analysis.

But where does the learner, the end user of your learning program, reside on the stakeholder grid? You may have convinced the executive team that your learning program is exactly what the learner needs, but is the learner convinced? How much Interest (Stake) does the learner have in the program? They should have a lot of Interest in it. But do they? And, do they realize how much Power they have in the success of the learning program? Ultimately, you can plan and design the most effective, relevant, robust training program possible, but if the learner does not have High Interest and High Power, or you do not actively move your learner into the Player quadrant, your program will not deliver maximum impact.

The Shifting Landscape of Learning Stakeholders

Coming full circle to the definition of “stakeholders” in learning programs, those with the Power and Interest to approve and fund a learning program are not always the same as those with the Power and Interest to make a learning program successful. Both groups are your champions—but perhaps at different times in the program lifecycle. The stakeholder landscape fluctuates.

A learning program is successful if the learner is able to apply learning on the job and make a measurable impact on the business. Techniques such as learning by doing, learning through failure, discovery-based learning, learner-centric learning and the like are meant to increase ROI while putting the power to learn (or not) in the hands of the learner. Ultimately, the learner has the Power in determining whether learning is successful. Ensure that the learner realizes it.

And it’s up to you, as the learning leader, to ensure that your learner has High Interest in your program. Design and deliver your program so that you raise the stakes for the learner. Tie learning to real-world, measurable outcomes. Make learning fun and engaging. Foster learning communities that improve productivity and knowledge. And use your executive management team to help the learner make the connection between her Interest and Power in the learning program.

Learner success ensures program success. If the learner is not initially in the “Player” quadrant of the Power vs. Interest grid, then dedicate attention towards moving her into that quadrant—before, during, and after training.

Learners as “Players”

If everyone in an organization has an Interest (Stake) in learning, and feels Powerful in their ability to affect learning outcomes, the organization will make advances toward creating a culture of learning. Organizations with a culture of learning tend to be adaptable, dynamic, empowering, have the ability to develop and retain talent, and fulfill our basic human need to understand and participate in our surroundings.

Executive sponsorship in learning programs is huge. Organizational sponsorship is even bigger. Concentrate effort on finding ways to move your learners into the High Power-High Interest quadrant, too, to ensure that your learners are Players.

How do you identify your learning champions? When it comes to your learning programs, what techniques do you use to ensure that your learner is your learning champion, and knows it?

Gauri Reyes is a talent developer and learning leader who's had roles ranging from software management to managing the learning function in organizations. Gauri is Principal Learning Strategist and CEO at Triple Point Advisors and Founder of the YOUth LEAD program. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

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