The Strategic Ecosystem for the development of Human Capital.
Training must take on a strategic role within organizations to impact business performance and meet people’s expectations. In this publication, you will be able to understand why when we talk about Academy, we are referring to a real corporate ecosystem, and what you need to do to integrate it appropriately into your organizational reality.
The New Environment
“The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb
1.1 The Organizational Humanism for the “NEVER NORMAL”
1.1.1 The Pandemic Shock and the Leverage of Antifragility
How often have we heard about the “VUCA context” in recent years?
The term VUCA was used to describe the economic world through four key factors: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. It represented a fundamentally unpredictable world, made complex by the pervasiveness of technology, global market integration, and ongoing cultural and social changes in people. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the situation, highlighting additional disruptive aspects such as the fragility of companies and the concern, the latter stemming from the realization of having less and less control over events and few reference points for making decisions.
Against this backdrop of anxiety and fragility, organizations are reacting in two opposite ways: the first, which I would call “passive,” tends to maintain a substantial status quo by responding to critical situations occasionally to safeguard their existence. The second approach I would qualify as “active,” is aiming to tackle the existing uncertainty by preparing for change, adaptation, and continuous innovation.
The American essayist and philosopher, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes with an evocative phrase the characteristics an organization should have today: “Being the fire and wishing for the wind.” This analogy, quoted in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” (2012), helps us understand how systems – whether organizations or living beings – survive and thrive in an unpredictable world dominated by chaos. According to Taleb, the key is antifragility, which is the ability of a system to change and improve in the face of external stressors, in order not to protect themselves but to adapt. An antifragile organization, therefore, steps out of its comfort zone with self-awareness and confidence in its resources. It is a system that builds its foundation on continuous learning, where it is necessary to develop the skills that allow it to perform at its best over time and respond promptly to adverse events, emerging stronger and with an increased competitive advantage.
So, how can we make organizations antifragile (or at least strive for antifragility)?
First and foremost, consider learning a strategic and intentional process involving a progressive and constant expansion of one’s capabilities in line with continuous changes in the market and society (lifelong learning applied to the company). This process inevitably entails frequent adaptation in the organization’s key areas, adjustments necessary for introducing best practices into the existing organization, and for creating conditions for each person to play a decisive role in developing their own and others’ abilities.
Considering the described situation, every company should ask itself at this point: What kind of change is needed within organizations? What is the role of learning within this new way of understanding the company?
1.1.2 The Dimensions of Change
The Working Models
The isolation imposed by COVID-19 has quickly and likely irreversibly changed how people work today. The possibility made possible by digital of operating outside the corporate perimeter in so-called smart working has finally challenged the Taylorist work model, paving the way for a “hybrid” working approach.
Let’s look at the phenomenon from the perspective of companies. It is easy to see the opportunities offered by technology to improve the quality of life of their employees while optimizing business costs (first and foremost, rent and the management costs of workplaces). However, if organizations want to seize these opportunities fruitfully, they must face profound change in cultural, organizational, and instrumental terms. With the hybrid model, we are witnessing paradigm shifts in how people are conceived and managed, in addition to other changes related to how the marketplace is approached in a VUCA world.
Alongside linear execution methods (see the waterfall approach), iterative and collaborative methods (Agile) are increasingly gaining ground. People evaluation methods are gradually changing, moving from a “verification of what has been done” focused on the past (MBO – Management By Objectives) to criteria based on continuous feedback aimed at “verifying what and how it has been done” focused on the future (Performance Management). Incentive systems are also undergoing a radical evolution, moving from management through key indicators tied to specific processes (KPI – Key Performance Indicators) to self-determined, shared, and goal-planning methods focused on targets that truly impact the performance of the enterprise as a whole (OKRs – Objectives and Key Results). This unprecedented scenario fits poorly with the “old” working practices of the Industrial Age.
Accountability, autonomy, and flexibility are the elements that, at this point, imply a change in people’s behaviors. The path to the hybrid model requires a shift in managerial style – from exercising control to exercising influence – where trust and sharing are the primary factors. This phenomenon is a challenging evolution because it implies structuring new processes (systems, procedures, modes of communication, establishing schedules and related flexibility, appraisals, and so forth) and adequate training.
Training managers, by learning how to manage and motivate the team remotely. Training individuals, by learning how to self-manage and communicate effectively with the organization’s internal and external stakeholders.
Technology lays the groundwork for change, but people, through company culture, make its actual implementation possible. Company culture refers to the principles, behaviors, and values that unite all employees and collaborators in the same organization. It encompasses a mindset and a leadership style carried forward by the leader, which are shared with all those who collaborate in the enterprise’s success. This concept also includes the vision for the organization’s future, the goals, and how these are achieved.
There are different types of corporate culture; some are shareable because they can stimulate creativity and innovation, others less so because they are more authoritarian in managing people. An organization that aspires to grow is inclusive and acts with a mindset focused on experimentation and continuous learning (growth mindset). For many businesses, this cultural shift implies a significant overall change that is hard to implement, primarily if the existing culture – the traditional kind – has settled over a long period of time.
Regardless of the situation, we activate a paradox when we approach the concept of culture in relation to learning. Culture is a conservative force, striving to make contexts stable and predictable; conversely, learning requires constantly questioning oneself to adapt to changes.
So, how can we reconcile corporate culture with organizational growth?
Given the current epochal period, one path suggested is to converge organizational culture principles with a learning culture, placing the individual at the center of one’s strategy. The traits of a mature organization from the perspective of learning culture can be summarized as follows:
• Growth-oriented leadership;
• Accountability and empowerment of people;
• Focusing on experience;
• Knowledge sharing and collaboration;
• Participatory, continuous, and self-directed learning;
• A culture of experimentation and embracing failure as a growth process;
• Recognition of professionalism and mutual trust;
• Openness to innovation and the propensity to take initiative;
• and digital culture.
Organizations with a learning-oriented cultural framework are inclined to value their people and their uniqueness, getting value in return that exceeds their assigned performance targets. Being a “learning organization” goes far beyond the traditional adoption of employee training; it is about laying the foundation for transforming the enterprise, and radically changing the way work is perceived, viewing the latter as a means for growth and a source of individual satisfaction.
While in the era of the industrial economy, bureaucracies prevailed based on control and were characterized by self-referential communication, in the age of the knowledge economy, models of leadership increasingly emerge that bring the human aspect to the center of business. We are talking about purpose-driven leadership, which places corporate social responsibility alongside economic activities, knowing that this is the only way to make the organization’s existence sustainable over time.
Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders must face extraordinarily complex scenarios and challenges as consumers assess brands not just based on the product but even on their contribution to society. Alongside material needs, new intangible needs arise, the latter rich in meaning; that is why every business should conscientiously define the purpose of its activities to meet the needs of people, whether internal or external to the organization. Paying attention to the personal fulfillment of one’s employees is not a luxury but a necessity, which is also confirmed by psychology. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954) and the “Self-determination theory” developed by Deci and Ryan (2008) explain to us how important it is for all of us:
• Feeling capable of doing things (self-esteem);
• Feeling confidence (trust and ownership);
• Sense of belonging (relationship);
• Feeling safe (security);
• Achieving a purpose with which we agree (self-actualization).
Every individual today needs to be part of a larger project with clear goals and boundary conditions that allow them to self-determine their professional success and self-evaluate along this path. People’s well-being today is built not solely through company benefits but also through organizational contexts that “learn” where autonomy, skills, and relationality are activated together, generating solid intrinsic motivation in individuals. This motivation is then returned to the organization through performance and virtuous behavior.
The COVID-19 emergency has caused one of the most profound crises the modern world has ever faced, with medium- to long-term impacts that are difficult to predict. The noun “crisis” derives from ancient Greek, meaning “choice.” Today, the term has taken on an exclusively negative connotation. In contrast, in the past, it was used to describe an internal conflict that inevitably led to conscious change because it was driven by personal choice. Considering the current crisis, companies today can choose between two options:
a) Preserve by freezing investments in innovative projects while awaiting better times;
b) Innovate and experiment with new ideas, taking advantage of the historical moment to rethink themselves with an “anticipatory” perspective for the new normal.
Recent history has taught us that companies that updated their business models through innovation were also the ones that better faced the emergency phase. Conversely, the more static ones have been disrupted by events; therefore, radical renewal for many of them is no longer postponable. Considering these evidences, we understand how an innovation-driven organizational culture is one of the critical success factors for enterprises.
Only a few decades ago, the performance of virtuous companies was tied to incremental innovations, which were challenging to codify because they were based more on the unique know-how of the inventor than on widespread knowledge in the company. For some time now, the situation has changed: companies have begun to strengthen their propensity for experimentation and develop shared, codifiable, and exportable skills, significantly increasing the likelihood of generating true innovation.
Innovation can thus be considered a process of organizational learning that, if correctly triggered and maintained, can lead to “changing gear.” A process where the involvement of its members in the learning process, the intensity of knowledge exchange, and the connections between different inter-organizational actors prove to be the critical factors for its implementation.
Even today, several organizations are set up according to a traditional hierarchical model, characterized by vertical silo structures in which the chain of command and execution is well-defined, and where there is usually little exchange of information and little sense of community. Organizations structured in this way give the feeling that they are, day by day, increasingly anachronistic. Their dysfunctional elements are visible and are manifested by people through low motivation, cynicism, restlessness, and apathy. These kinds of companies have long since lost much of their operational effectiveness and struggle tremendously to adapt to the new.
For over 30 years, alternative organizational models have been gradually gaining ground. New organizational structures are evolving in a more horizontal, multidisciplinary manner, focusing on collaboration and teamwork. They are inspired by trust and sharing principles, where the organization treats people as mature individuals capable of self-organization and self-determination. Frederic Laloux, in his famous book “Reinventing Organizations” (2014), has well depicted the evolutionary stages of organizations, showing how they have tended to follow the spiritual evolution of humans over time. In essence, he observed that with each significant leap made by human civilization, not only have political, technological, and social innovations appeared, but new organizational models have also emerged. It is as if, at each turning point, human beings acquire a new stage of awareness and begin a new process of transformation aimed at maintaining the context in which they operate efficiently and effectively.
What we recently experienced with the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered another “turning point.” A time when individuals are aware of the need for more authentic relationships and the importance of pursuing a meaningful purpose. In this sense, COVID-19 has accelerated profound inner changes, shifts that, in many cases, require genuine transformation. This transformation should occur in leadership, where leaders must think (cognitive transformation), act (behavioral transformation), and react (emotional transformation) to create an organizational context that combines productivity and personal well-being, where trust is placed on individuals and groups, and responsibility for decisions is agreed upon.
It changes the role and attitude of Management, which gradually shifts from a traditional “command and control” approach to a decision-making model based on “self-organization and adaptation,” which is far more stimulating for people and effective for the enterprise.
The path towards antifragile, human-sized organizational models that prioritize people’s participation and engagement requires a certain mental predisposition, specific preparation, and outstanding professionalism. From the perspective of this new Organizational Humanism, learning plays a crucial role as a facilitator of a transaction aimed at maximizing the contribution of the company management, as well as an enabler of new competencies at all levels necessary for effectively performing future tasks.
Training (the means) and skill development (the goal to strive for) are significant in any changing process. However, it is not feasible to address such complex changes with the mindset, methods, and tools used until recently to train people; training is also affected by a transformative process (learning transformation) caused and influenced by the context just described. In the following chapters, we will discover how the training ecosystem discussed in this book – with which the author has associated the name Academy – is the result of this evolution which takes account of the trends that such a context outlines.
1.2 People management at the 4.0 age
1.2.1 Building a People Strategy with the Human at the Center
Organizations that succeed in this new arena will be the ones that treat their people as “customers,” aware that these individuals constitute the company’s essence. While on the one hand, it is the organization that demands loyalty, a sense of responsibility and commitment, on the other hand, people develop new expectations of the enterprise: transparency, listening, caring for their needs, training, an engaging environment, and the possibility of having an impact (on the enterprise’s results and, why not, on the world).
Several companies have already begun redefining their relationships with their employees, co-designing employee experiences based on their emerging needs. I am not referring to extemporaneous experiences but to experiences purposefully designed to generate motivation and well-being, bearing in mind the people’s differences and peculiarities, to unleash and enhance their strength in a world increasingly impacted by technology. Human resources management is now required to define a new People Strategy, which will guide the company’s transformation in the five areas mentioned above (Company Culture, Working Models, People, Innovation, and Organization) by placing the human factor at the center.
From an HR perspective, the challenge posed by this strategy is to balance the interests of the business and the expectations of people, with the aim of:
• achieving company goals through increased productivity and reduced burdens,
• building a competent, resilient, and proactive workforce,
• and increase the value of Human Capital.
From the people’s perspective, such a strategy should enable:
• the creation of a stimulating and inclusive work environment where people feel somehow “extraordinary”;
• develop one’s abilities to perform assigned tasks at their best and improve employability.
The People Strategy – intended as a corporate strategy aimed at improving the well-being and satisfaction of employees through the enhancement of skills – should not only be configured according to current needs but also be designed to anticipate a partly unknown future. For this reason, it is necessary to shape a culture based on continuous learning and innovation day by day in which an educational ecosystem operates, equipped to be a strategic partner for the organization, for people, and possibly for market players (Customers and Business Partners). One of the goals of this book lies precisely in defining the contours and identifying the winning characteristics of such an educational ecosystem.
1.2.2 Inclusion and diversity management
The company’s population has changed profoundly in recent years, becoming increasingly heterogeneous. Globalization, migratory flows, and the digital revolution have altered the composition of the society in which we live, bringing a different mix of subjects to operate in one environment. From a work perspective, numerous factors differentiate individuals, which can be grouped into three dimensions: internal, external, and organizational (see the diagram below).
Elements of diversity in the company
Freely adapted from Gardenswartz and Rowe’s framework (1995)
If not managed, these differences can become critical issues that negatively affect employee well-being, business performance, and the ability to innovate.
This harmful situation is increasingly common in hierarchical organizations. The dominant culture of the latter tends to flatten individual personalities, and it encourages exclusionary behaviors and language towards specific categories of people (women, individuals over 50, new generations, people with disabilities, foreigners, etc.). And yet, managing differences can provide a great opportunity, a unique moment to capitalize on the wealth that stems from integrating multiple knowledge, experiences, and perspectives.
In an inclusive organizational context, diversity is considered an indispensable resource for the organization’s growth, and as such, it must be governed. Within inclusive organizations, training plays a crucial role in the following:
• raising awareness;
• guiding behaviors;
• valuing differences.
Training on Diversity and Inclusion routines, learning paths dedicated to narrowing the digital skills gap, and reverse mentoring initiatives where distinctive intergenerational skills are brought to bear are just a few examples of inclusiveness where learning produces tangible effects on social cohesion within the company. Of course, more than training is required to implement the D&I process successfully. Indeed, it serves as extraordinary support from a wise leadership that treats people with great humanity and respect for their uniqueness, gaining, in return, dedication, collaboration, and a sense of belonging.
1.2.3 HR Agile: Mindset and Practices for Adapting to the New Environment
Here, it has been repeated many times how important it is for the enterprise to possess the ability to adapt effectively and quickly in the face of unpredictable and disruptive events. This adaptive capacity implies a certain “business agility.” When faced with unfavorable conditions, an Agile business can rethink its strategies, quickly reconfiguring its operational processes and internal structure. Adapting, however, is not a simple process as it systematically involves the entire organization and the people who are part of it. Becoming Agile requires an evolutionary shift, a structural change from the rigid hierarchical models conceived in eras with opposite characteristics to those we are currently experiencing. Disrupting the hierarchical structure entails more flexible and multidisciplinary Talent and Work Management, capable of fostering individual resilience through engagement and learning agility (that is, the ability to acquire new skills thanks to a strong predisposition for change). All this cannot be accomplished without the involvement of the Human Resources department. Indeed, there is no practical way to manage such a profound transformation without adjusting, for example, recruiting criteria, performance management processes, and compensation strategies. Nor is there an effective way to affect the organization’s fate without changing people’s mindsets in the face of the many ongoing changes. Here is where the HR function also transforms, evolving from an administrative to a strategic role.
Dave Ulrich, an American university professor considered one of the leading figures in the global HR world, allows us to focus on the new role for HR with this simple statement.
“HR professionals add value when their work
helps people achieve their goals.”
– Dave Ulrich
In his book “Reinventing the Organization” (2019), Ulrich outlines the fundamental principles underlying the salient principles behind the renewal of the HR function, which can be summarized as follows:
• Do not remain on the sidelines of business dynamics;
• Become service providers for people, helping them achieve their goals;
• Understand business processes to meet the needs and priorities of leaders;
• Courageously drive transformation;
• Understand and master organizational development;
• Act with an Agile mindset.
Acting with an Agile mindset means working by applying a philosophy characterized by precise values (4), principles (12), and an indefinite number of practices (see the Agile Manifesto and other references in the “Bibliography” section for further information).
Among the guiding principles of Agile are the centricity of people, collaboration, self-determination, experimentation, and continuous learning. The Agile mindset is practiced when:
• changes in requirements are embraced;
• products and services are designed according to a systemic logic;
• continuous improvement is sought;
• all stakeholders are involved through co-design, testing, and feedback phases, based on a logic of continuous adaptation.
The Academy model described here was conceived with respect for these guiding elements. This approach was not made merely to follow a trend, but because it is deemed optimal for reconciling the different perspectives of stakeholders, and consistently delivering the highest possible value to end users.
Chapter 1. The New Environment
The first describes the new context in which organizations operate today, in light of recent global changes and events. Understanding this context enables the reader to understand why certain approaches have been chosen in this publication, aimed at managing, valuing, and developing people.
Chapter 2. Developing the Learning Culture
The second part emphasizes corporate culture influences the learning process. The important differences between a knowledge-based culture and a learning-based culture are emphasized. An organization that is “mature” from a learning culture perspective implements a learning model with a very high impact on the organization regarding performance and Human Capital value. In performance terms, the enterprise becomes more “agile” and able to adapt quickly to changing market conditions. In terms of Human Capital, people perform better within an attractive, inclusive, and challenging environment.
Chapter 3. HR e l&D for the development of Human Capital
The third part focuses on capability, correlating competencies with the role and tasks assigned to people. The chapter highlights how training is pivotal in multiple contexts of HR management, such as competency development, talent management, job design, and, more generally, any organizational and operational change process.
Chapter 4. Characteristics of a state-of-the-art Learning Ecosystem
The fourth part introduces the concept of the corporate Academy, an ecosystem in which different groups of individuals live and develop by interacting with each other within a specific environmental context. The chapter presents the roles and distinctive traits of different groups, which may vary depending on the level of the learning culture and the value proposition attributed to that ecosystem. The learning experience is the determining factor in the success of a corporate Academy, and this section of the book discusses techniques and methods for designing such an experience.
Chapter 5. The Academy and its constituent pillars
Part Five is devoted to describing the building blocks of a corporate Academy. Supporting the explanation are examples, diagrams, and diagrams that provide the reader with indications of practical utility, as well as an organic overview of the entire Academy training ecosystem.
Chapter 6. The governance tool of the Corporate Academy
Part six focuses on the corporate Academy governance system, namely the Learning Management System (LMS). The salient features of the software application are discussed, giving examples of particularly technologically and organizationally advanced training realities. Emphasis was placed on describing key processes, managed directly or indirectly by the LMS system, such as skills certification, gamification, Analytics, and measurement of training impacts.
Chapter 7. Academy: from Idea to Activation
The seventh and final part illustrates how to implement an Academy from scratch or radically rethink an existing one-from idea to activation. The reader will become familiar with human-centered methodologies used in highly innovative contexts (such as startup companies) in this chapter. Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Agile practices applied to training ecosystems will then be discussed. The chapter concludes by dwelling on aspects related to communication and change management, i.e., those processes needed to effectively communicate the training offer and to create the conditions for the organizational change introduced by a new Academy to cease to be one and become a new habit.