The Importance of Building a Learning Strategy
Developing an organizational learning strategy before you create a learning experience can make all the difference in team motivation, engagement and retention. In this interview, Washington, D.C. Department of Health Chief Learning Officer Dr. Adaora Otiji shares the steps to take to be successful and accomplish your organizational goals.
Show notes: Adaora Otiji shared the benefits of creating an organizational learning strategy and outlines the process including these tips:
- Think of your learning strategy as a story with a beginning, middle and end. Tell your story and back it up with evidence to prove why the strategy is important.
- By putting a learning strategy in place, it sets a mutual understanding and commitment to creating the best space and expectations for development of an organization.
- A solid learning strategy not only provides a roadmap for the training department, it helps get buy in from the C-Suite and sets expectations for learners.
- Don’t forget to identify key actions in your learning strategy as it helps establish timelines.
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Susan Cort: [00:00:00] A learning and development strategy helps align an organization's business goals with team member needs and skills. But what's the value and how do you get started?
Adaora Otiji: I think oftentimes we approach the idea of creating a strategy as this easy thing and the reality is that it takes a lot of iteration, a lot of time, a lot of listening, a lot of conversations and that's even before you start putting pen to paper. And so really having a very clear mindset and setting clear expectations around what that process is going to look like is probably one of the most important things.
Susan Cort: Listen to our guest, Adora Otigi, Chief Learning Officer at the Washington, D. C. Department of Health, as she provides a guide for creating a learning strategy to drive results. Next, on Powered by Learning.
Announcer: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d’Vinci Interactive. d’Vinci’s approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use [00:01:00] proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that empower learners to improve quality and boost performance. Learn more at dvinci.com.
Susan Cort: Joining us today are d’Vinci President Mason Scuderi and our guest, Dr. Adaora Otiji, Chief Learning Officer for the Washington D. C. Department of Health and the President of the Metro D. C. Chapter of ATD. Thank you for joining us, Adaora.
Mason Scuderi: Welcome, Adaora.
Adaora Otiji: Thanks so much. I'm so excited to be here to talk to you today.
Susan Cort: Adaora, before we get started with some of the topics we wanted to cover today, just share a little bit about your background and, and your journey getting to the position where you are today.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah. Um, so I have spent my entire career in public service really starting out in AmeriCorps decades ago. And it really put me on this path of being focused on servant leadership and trying to make our organizations that are in the public sector focus or work as well as what happens in the private sector. Um, so that has really driven the work that I've done, very [00:02:00] focused on people development. People are the core of organizations and it's really what I've built my entire career around getting to know people, helping them to function better, uh, so that organizations function at their highest.
Susan Cort: Well, we're glad to have you with us today and to learn a little bit more about the importance of learning strategy.
Adaora Otiji: Excited to talk to you about it.
Mason Scuderi: Absolutely. So to kick things off, Adaora, what do you think are some of the basics about organizational learning strategy that we should keep in mind?
Adaora Otiji: Well, I think the most important thing when you go on this journey of developing a learning strategy is to have a really thoughtful about your mindset going in. I think oftentimes we approach the idea of creating a strategy as this easy thing. And the reality is that it takes a lot of iteration, a lot of time, a lot of listening, a lot of conversations, and that's even before you start putting pen to paper.
Adaora Otiji: And so really having a very clear mindset and setting clear expectations around what that process is going to look like is probably one of the most important things. Actually getting [00:03:00] into the learning strategy. I would say the thing that is really helpful to understand around the basic structure of it is to think about it as a story. When I think about a learning strategy, I always think about it in terms of past, present, and future. Right.
Adaora Otiji: And so the strategy should clearly articulate where you came from, where you are and where you're going. And so within that structure, it's then a matter of just telling your story and backing it up with your evidence to prove why that strategy is important. That could look like data quotes or feedback. Really it's anything to make that strategy matter to the people that it's going to impact.
Mason Scuderi: Oh, absolutely. I think of the word intentionality when I think of a learning strategy and the impact that it can have across the entire organization.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think when we, when I think about impact in order to understand how to make an impact, you have to understand who you are trying to impact. And so as human beings, we tend to gravitate and even the way that we process the world, we, we have our own stories, our own movies, [00:04:00] right, about the way that we are experiencing things. And so the more that you can think about how your strategy is structured as a timeline or a story, it starts to create that framework that's easy for your stakeholders to understand and follow.
Adaora Otiji: And ultimately that framework gives you building blocks and that building, that strategy to develop people and to make the organization function more effectively, you have to actually make sure that it's understood. So by structuring it as a story, it helps people to kind of understand where we came from and what that vision is that we're all marching towards.
Susan Cort: I would bet it not only helps the stakeholders, but it probably also helps the learners too, to know the strategy, the meaning, the why behind the learning.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, absolutely. Context is king is one of my favorite quotes. Think about that a lot when we think about strategy because at the day, I can write down all these wonderful ideas, but if I'm not including the people along that are actually going to help to make it happen or help to actualize it, it's just a really nice knob that [00:05:00] doesn't do a whole lot for anyone.
Mason Scuderi: I'd wager that this group is bought into a learn, to a learning strategy. I don't think you need to convince us, but for someone who's maybe on the fence, like what are some challenges that we've seen can come from not having a clearly defined learning strategy?
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, that's, uh, it's kind of scary to think about, uh, at least in my line of work with what I've seen, but I think the, the biggest thing that comes to mind is just a lack of direction. And oftentimes that lack of direction leads to this kind of. Slow unraveling within the organization that I think we tend to, we label it as culture, but that's really what it comes down to without the direction. You don't really have control over your culture and you start to lose hold of a lot of other things. The other piece of it too, for me is I think about an organization as an ecosystem, right?
Adaora Otiji: And so in an ecosystem organically find balance, but. We have the benefit of being able to set some intentionality to it, to have that strategy. And if it doesn't exist, then the byproduct of the lack of strategy or direction can really have [00:06:00] negative effects on the people in the organization.
Adaora Otiji: And ultimately an organization is only as strong as its people. So. If we're putting that learning strategy in place, it sets a mutual understanding and commitment to creating the best space and expectations for development organization.
Mason Scuderi: Yeah, that's a great answer. You can think of different areas of an organization going in different directions or marching to the beat of a different drummer and the inefficiencies that that could occur.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah. Organizations. One of the fun things for me, whenever I go into an organization is if you ask one person what the culture is and then ask another, there'll always be different answers. And the reality is there are subcultures within organizations that exist, every single division, every administration, every sub, every team within.
Adaora Otiji: It's just for me, a lot of fun to figure out what those cultures and subcultures look like, because it starts to give you a really wide picture of what you need to address.
Mason Scuderi: So on the other side of the coin, what are some benefits that could come from having a clearly defined learning strategy?
Adaora Otiji: Logically, having direction is a benefit, [00:07:00] but I think it's not just about the direction of the organization.I think about it more from having direction for your team, right? You have people that are responsible for actually executing the strategy. And the reality is that if you have a strategy, then you and your team know what the goal is. You know why it's important. You know how you're going to get. There, ideally, if the strategy is well written, but the other piece, I think the other benefit is it really helps to clarify priorities.
Adaora Otiji: Inevitably, you're going to set a strategy and you have to leave space to pivot, right? Cause best laid plans, they're always going to experience some level of shift or upheaval. And so that's always, uh, tend to think about it in terms of percentage, like how much of our time is really going to be focused on executing the strategy.
Adaora Otiji: Am I reserving at least, you know, 10 to 20%. Of my time to be able to pivot with the organization that I am here to serve. So having really clear priorities and the strategy means that let's say you get to the end of the fiscal year and there's this windfall of cash, it's like, Oh, we didn't manage our grant as [00:08:00] well as we thought we would.
Adaora Otiji: And we have all this extra money. What can we buy really quickly to help support? I can pull out my list of, okay, here are the things I wanted to do, but maybe we didn't have funding or we didn't have staff. And I can say, okay, number one is this. Can I. Get this, please. Or can I hire a new person? And so being able to have those really clearly listed out priorities of what needs to be addressed helps to kind of suck the wheat from the chaff on what you want to focus in on.
Mason Scuderi: Yeah the power of an internal roadmap, right?
Adaora Otiji: Exactly.
Mason Scuderi: Got to have a positive impact on retention.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah.
Mason Scuderi: Well, your experience as well.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah. And strategy definitely helps the learning team that's responsible for executing it. But I also think about the fact that it. It's designed to support employee experience. And so from that perspective, having that learning strategy, it creates opportunities for employees too.
Adaora Otiji: So the outcomes of the strategy are ideally amazing and impactful learning opportunities that create, that positively shape the employee experience and help to move the organization forward in a thoughtful way.
Mason Scuderi: That's really great. [00:09:00] Alright, so now that we're all bought in and we're moving forward with a learning strategy in our organization. What are some questions we can ask internally to help set a strong direction?
Adaora Otiji: I ask a lot of questions. The best things that I can ever say to someone who's new to an organization is you want to keep your mouth shut and your ears open, right? You want to you don't want to just want to take it all in and kind of hear what's happening.
Adaora Otiji: But when I think about creating strategy, And in that same guise of like creating strategy as a story, I go back to my own writing days and I go back to the five W's and the one H and it's, it's really, you know, not to say that your whole strategy should be, you know, who, what, when, where, why, how, like, you don't need to break it out that way.
Susan Cort: And to what extent, don't forget to.
Adaora Otiji: And to what extent that's right. Um, and so, so being able to kind of create that structure to, to start to guide my thinking and my research into this process, that usually shapes the conversations that I have, the questions that I ask, and ultimately how that information funnels [00:10:00] into the final product.
Susan Cort: Adora, is that something our listeners should think about doing for every learning experience, or is it something that you set more on an annual basis? What kind of advice would you give for people to get started?
Adaora Otiji: So, I would say part of any learning strategy should have an evaluation component, being able to actually have a process for how you're going to evaluate impact for any initiative that's put forward.
Adaora Otiji: But I think going into it, you don't necessarily have to have all of these questions answered. I vary between, it's good to plan, but you don't want to over plan because then you get stuck in this loop of, oh, it's not perfect, I can't execute. And the reality is you have to be agile and you have to be able to adjust, implement, and try things.
Adaora Otiji: It's finding a balance. So maybe it is taking a few of these questions to kind of start to structure what you're implementing and start to evaluate. But I would definitely recommend as a strategy is being put together, thinking about how you're going to evaluate the impact of your work. And even when I think about these five W's, it's always layered [00:11:00] or the five W's and H, right?
Adaora Otiji: It's always layered with. How do I, how am I asking these questions in relation to impact and return on investment for the organization? That's often a piece that's lost when we think about learning and development because it's like, it's the warm and fuzzy side of people development, which is beautiful and it's part of the reason I still do this after two decades.
Adaora Otiji: A lot of the conversations that I have with folks, especially, you know, doing coaching or having conversations with executives is I understand you want to do this. But how is it going to move us forward, right? So being able to articulate that connection and alignment.
Mason Scuderi: Absolutely. I mean, it's exciting to see out there the amount of adoption and prioritization for creating learning within organizations and sort of building out a strategy. But. It does take time and effort. So what are some ways that we can gain buy in? Uh, if we have any skeptics, you know, within our team to move forward with a learning strategy?
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, it definitely does take time. Um, I think, you know, I've shared a little [00:12:00] bit about the time it takes to listen, um, and being able to kind of make sure your strategies are a strong reflection of your stakeholders. But I would also say that comes along with just kind of managing your expectations and building a thick skin.
Adaora Otiji: This is organizational development is change management too. Not everybody takes change the same way. Some people fight against it tooth and nail, which is their right, but you have to kind of anticipate and build your toolkit for that to kind of hear people and validate their perspective and not be afraid to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say.
Adaora Otiji: I also find, especially the public space, oftentimes if you have folks who've been in public organizations or in, in government or nonprofits for a long time, they become a little jaded. And so rather than kind of shut that down or, or not take the perspective seriously, I dig in, I ask, I ask a lot of why's, why are you feeling that way?
Adaora Otiji: Tell me more about what you're thinking, what's crossing your mind. Like. Really helping to get to know that person and [00:13:00] their experience because the person that was in the room when you walked in who maybe didn't want to hear it will become your biggest advocate if they know that you're there to listen rather than to judge or just gather information and run away from them.
Adaora Otiji: So it's really about building partnership more than anything else. And that's tends to be the way that I really think about buy in. But I also think it's alignment. Right. So the approach of getting to know an employee and understand their perspective works to a certain extent. But if I go in front of senior leaders and say, I have great idea, they're going to be like, that's great.
Adaora Otiji: But how does it benefit me? Why does this matter next to everything else? And so that is, I think, where alignment comes in as well. Um, so being able to very clearly articulate, this is what I'm going to do, or this is what we're going to do. And this is how it directly connects to this organization's mission, needs, vision.
Adaora Otiji: And that really should be undeniably clear. So that this learning strategy is not just a series of trainings or opportunities for people to avoid their work, but rather [00:14:00] these are opportunities for you to engage with folks, to strengthen your team, to help achieve your mission and vision, to meet your key performance indicators, which I know people dream about in government, but really helping people to see how you are on their team and how this, this strategy serves all of us.
Mason Scuderi: Really liked your point about ROI as well. Like when we're asking questions and gathering data and we identify how we can get a return on investment. That can be a great point to emphasize when we're trying to get buy in.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah. It's always so easy to think about how it's going to make me like me personally feel.And if I go and do a training or a program or something like that, we have to be able to say, this is how it's going to benefit me, but this is how it's going to benefit you. It’s teaching people how to brand and sell themselves. Right.
Mason Scuderi: That's right.
Susan Cort: I would think too, with that ROI. You know, you're able to then see really what's working to better define the learning strategy moving forward and really kind of build your department, you know, in a more successful way.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, absolutely. Metrics are a key piece, a key next step once you have a strategy in place is identifying what, what that impact looks like and how you're [00:15:00] going to quantify it. So, I mean, I can tell you about all the wonderful conversations I've had with people when strategies are implemented, but it's going to come down to a number or a percentage and you have to have some way to quantify it. So it's the next step, I think.
Mason Scuderi: Alright, so we're all on board. We're all bought in and we've launched our internal learning initiatives that are aligned with our strategy. What are some tips for activating that learning once it's alive and available within the organization?
Adaora Otiji: I love that word activate. Get moving. It's a, it's a great way to put it. Cause that's really what it is. It's like, okay, we're all, we're all good. It's all written. Let's move. I think the, you know, the strategy is, is the framework, right. And that the key part of the strategy that I often see overlooked or omitted and these like really pretty glossy learning strategies that are put forward is the implementation plan.
Adaora Otiji: How are we actually going to get this work done? It's a lot of ideas and not a lot of, okay, this is what we're going to do in quarter one or quarter two or this year. Um, and so I think identifying those key actions first and foremost is [00:16:00] really important because it dictates your timeline. Once that plan is in place, the first piece is really, it's a roadshow.
Adaora Otiji: So, I'm socializing the idea with people, I'm gaining buy in and I'm building excitement through communication and branding, right? It's, I haven't even done the work yet. I'm just telling you what's going to happen so that you know, when I come to you and say, Hey, we're doing this great program or we're talking about these new core competencies, they don't look at me like I'm have two heads and they don't know what I'm talking about.
Adaora Otiji: So I want to get people excited about this and help to see the potential for them personally and investing and participating in this opportunity. But once you get to work, that really means ensuring that everyone who has a hand in implementing the strategy has very clear understanding of the actions that they are involved and responsible for, and not just their role, but also why it's important.
Adaora Otiji: That why is so crucial because it's the thing that's going to keep that person moving and stop me as chief learning officer from chasing people down to be like, Hey, did you forget about this thing that we're supposed to do [00:17:00] and why it's important? So it, it helps to, you know, you want that internal buy in to, to the ideas that you're putting forward.
Adaora Otiji: It's a fun dance to get it activated. Um, but I think once you've gotten started, it's just having your regular check ins and cadence and even communicating to the employees and the agency, we're going to continue to check in with you on how things are going so that this is visible and part of your day to day. So that you understand how we're flowing through it.
Mason Scuderi: Yeah, great point. And within d’Vinci and some of our clients, we've seen mentorship and peer to peer programs be a great way to reinforce and help everyone move forward.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, that collaborative learning is a lot of fun and it's where learning happens. Honestly, there's so little. That have not little, I mean, it's not like it's not important, but there is so little that is provides long term gains from just a classroom session. It really comes down to how are you applying it? How are you learning about it? How are you learning from others? So I love collaborative learning. It's that's where it's at so.
Mason Scuderi: So, Adaora, you've got some amazing career experience. Could you share some [00:18:00] examples of us with how you've used a learning strategy? To create effective learning.
Adaora Otiji: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I've spent my career working to develop people to improve organizations in the public sector and every single time it looks different.
Adaora Otiji: The most important thing is understanding the culture and the people you serve and you represent and you impact, you know, thinking about that in particular, there's one organization. Where, you know, after taking time to gather perspectives, I identified the organization needed to focus first and primarily on the development of managers.
Susan Cort: Not to say that employees weren't important, but it was clear, given the size of the organization, we still needed to identify opportunities for employees, but the reality is that in a large organization, the biggest determinant of culture and work experience is the relationship that exists between an employee and their manager.
Adaora Otiji: The more that I do to help influence that and prevent, kind of build up that toolkit for managers was, was really crucial. So managers needed to be able to [00:19:00] have comfort and guidance and their people and leadership skills to supplement that technical expertise that got them into that role, because oftentimes we see people who are rightfully promoted into management because they are good in the area that they are, they work in.
Adaora Otiji: It doesn't necessarily mean we're good at the interpersonal stuff. And the reality is the interpersonal stuff is what gets things done. It's not just the technical expertise. To support managers, I implemented a training program. We supplemented it with collaborative communities of practice that helped to create a network for managers, broke down silos, because often as managers, I often find that managers feel the loneliest because they can't talk about a lot of the stuff that they're dealing with, but they deal with it and they know that others are.
Adaora Otiji: Um, and so it helped to kind of break down silos between the multiple divisions in the organization and provided really practical experience and guidance from other peers and that space that managers could build on. It's one thing for me to say, Oh, well, if you want to manage that performance, you write this plan and [00:20:00] have this conversation, but to actually hear another manager say, this is what I did.
Adaora Otiji: And this was my experience that you talk about activating, uh, an idea like. That helped to managers to understand what it actually looked like. And even to get that feedback of, yeah, I was nervous. Yeah. I felt like I was going to throw up. Yeah, it was hard, but I did it here and here's how I got through it.
Adaora Otiji: That's really valuable, um, to hear from someone who is in your role, a lot of work with managers in this particular organization, and that ultimately provided a foundation to support a coaching culture that we were building towards, right? So it wasn't. I, I'm a certified coach. I can sit down and coach thousands of people, but that's all I'd ever do ever.
Adaora Otiji: And it doesn't work. So the reality is that as managers, you have to be able to shift into that coaching mentality as well, to get the best out of the people that are trusting you with their careers. And so because of the work that we did with managers. We had that foundation to start to build a coaching culture in the organization that was actually put into practice with the implementation of [00:21:00] an organization wide 360 degree assessment program that filtered and structured our performance management process.
Adaora Otiji: So there are all these different pieces that just kept falling into place, but it all stemmed from managers. The change that we needed in the organization had so much to do. It had very little to do with me sitting in front of someone and training them. It had more to do with facilitating, sharing of knowledge that already existed and building confidence and creating empowerment for those people who were leading the work in the organization.
Adaora Otiji: Um, so I mean, it all started with the strategy, the idea that we needed to create change and how are we going to do that to create this learning culture that helped people to thrive in their roles.
Mason Scuderi: Wow. What an amazing story. And think about the words alignment and strategy and. It's you just tell it so well, you can almost feel the employee morale lifting through the entire organization as you tell that story. That's amazing.
Adaora Otiji: I mean, I haven't been in that organization for several years and I still hear from a lot of people, you know, like it meant a [00:22:00] lot to build those relationships with folks and be able to support them through that growth. You know, the fact that you. still hear from people years later, and in positive ways is always a good sign.
Susan Cort: So that is, that is a good sign. Yeah, as we wrap things up, what kind of advice would you give to people either who are just starting to think about creating a learning strategy or those who have one and really want to make it a deeper and broader tool to use?
Adaora Otiji: Think about your why. That's probably the most important question or thing I can tell anyone to think about is. Why are you doing this? What are you really trying to achieve? And let that be the guide for the decisions that you make. Having clarity around the impact that you're trying to create and not even just impact, but the feeling, right? How do I want people to feel in this organization? And how am I going to get there?
Adaora Otiji: Cause at the end of the day, this work, when we think about learning and development, talent, development, OD, change, whatever you want to call it, it's about people and people are human beings and we have to think about what they need and how we can actually [00:23:00] reach them where they are. So the why is really important.
Susan Cort: Perfect advice. Thank you so much for joining us today, Adora.
Adaora Otiji: Thank you. This has been so much fun.
Mason Scuderi: Thank you, Adora. It's been great.
Susan Cort: Mason, Adora certainly laid out the reasons for a learning strategy. What are your takeaways from the conversation?
Mason Scuderi: Oh, she absolutely did. We made a clear and compelling case for getting started with a learning strategy, covering the basics, some of the challenges and benefits that can arise of adopting a clear organizational learning strategy.
Mason Scuderi: We also talked about how to gain buy in and to activate our learning strategy. Uh, once we have it established, uh, so it was a great conversation.
Susan Cort: And I'm sure that you've seen learning strategies work very well with the clients d’Vinci works with. Talk a little bit about the importance of a learning strategy and how it helps with learner engagement as well as being successful overall for the business.
Mason Scuderi: Yes, we always advise with our clients that when possible, it's worth [00:24:00] the upfront investment to define and establish and roll out. a strong and clear organizational learning strategy. So we've seen firsthand the benefits of this upfront. It guides the creation of the learning content, uh, and also the rollout and follow through within the organization. So it's a pretty compelling case
Susan Cort: Absolutely. Well, thank you, Mason. And many thanks to our guest, Adaora Otigi, Chief Learning Officer with the Washington, D.C. Department of Health and President of the Metro D.C. Chapter of ATD. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest, please reach out to us at Powered By Learning and d’Vinci.com. And don't forget to subscribe to Powered By Learning wherever you listen to your podcasts.
By Mason Scuderi, President
d'Vinci Interactive is an award-winning comprehensive learning solutions provider for corporate, government, medical, non-profit, and K-12 target markets.