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“This project represents my first ever critical self-reflection in eight years of working for [my company]”
This quotation captures the tragic waste of human capital prevalent in many technology organisations today. By encouraging staff to “execute and not think” companies expect high performance. What they increasingly get is obedience, low performance and an organisational inability to adapt fast enough. In this article I would like to demonstrate that there is a better way; one that is in tune with today’s relentlessly changing IT marketplace.
By critically self-reflecting and immediately applying new insights into business projects for his team, the student quoted above went on to develop a whole new set of opportunities for both himself and his company. He was clear that the old pattern of unquestioningly following old habits would not have brought this success and this matches recent research at Harvard Business School and HEC Paris showing that reflective practice increases performance by over 20%.
The Imperative of Disruptive Change
In IT, we are frequently the disrupters in our customers’ business models. The step changes via the Cloud, mobility and ‘big data’ are also transforming our own businesses.
A number of our customers operate in the technology and telecommunications B2B markets which are at the forefront of disruptive change: SAP moving its services to the cloud, Sony Mobile as it moves to content-rich offerings and Toshiba TEC UK Imaging Systems moving to new service-based document management offerings. They are all choosing an innovative and different way to learn because, as more markets move at digital speeds, today’s traditional approaches to learning are not fit for purpose.
Today’s best practice is often out of date before it can be codified and, when it is trained, it rarely meets the specific market reality of the learners. And, simply going online with training doesn’t solve this basic flaw. A global head of sales enablement summarised his quandary as “trying to download 300 days worth of information into two days of enablement per quarter.” And it’s going to get worse.
Developing the Reflective Professional
To stay relevant, professionals must develop greater learning agility through thinking and adapting for themselves. By providing an innovative environment which makes the learner think, reflect and challenge their own ways of working they can find new and original answers that can be rapidly deployed to the business front line.
Sony Mobile has already begun successful deployment of this approach, doubling its market share in some of its key areas over the Christmas season 2014/15, as key account personnel honed their ability to find relevant insights and to challenge their customers’ thinking with “tactful audacity”.
Reflective practices work because they have been tuned by the people using them and, through working collaboratively with their employers. To achieve organisation-wide impact, reflective practice should be incorporated at the heart of a learning system, based on a number of core principles:
- The participant experience drives everything
- Follow academically verified best practices for successful adult learning
- Provide leading edge, business relevant material that radically challenges students’ existing worldview and triggers them to seek new answers
- Students immediately apply the new learnings to a business-relevant project
- Use reflective practice and individual, peer to peer coaching and virtual collaboration to encourage real learning
- Place this in a formal academic framework that ensures quality standards of education and a goal. (For instance, in our case, Masters degrees in Transforming Sales or Transforming Sales Leadership that provide student ‘pull’).
Growing Sales via Reflective Practice
A student’s journey starts by transforming their ability to think and change and we’ve seen them constantly surprise themselves with the results that stem from their ability to transform their practices and those of their teams. Seeing them re-ignite their passion for learning and watching them become much more agile learners than before is like watching Rocky getting back into shape after years out of the boxing ring. They also become thought leaders for their areas of business as they seek new ideas and information to keep them one step ahead. The benefits for their employers are just as significant as they get to retain their top talent and test their best and brightest; many of whom we’ve seen get promoted off the back of their transformed perspectives.
Carl Day is sales director for the indirect channel for Toshiba TEC UK Imaging Systems. Carl chose a radically different route to grow sales. He and the MDs and Sales Directors of some of his key channel partners jointly formed a cohort of students to study for a Masters in Leading Sales Transformation with Consalia and Middlesex University. Using the reflective practice principles, the leaders each found transformative ways to enhance their performance. For some it was changing to a more empowered leadership style. For others it was radically re-inventing the sales approach by becoming strategic value co-creation partners for their clients. For others it was really making the transition to a coaching manager.
The results speak for themselves. From 2011 to 2014 Toshiba Tec UK Imaging Systems grew at an annual rate of 10%. After starting the Masters programme the annual growth was 70% from 2014 to 2015. Not only has sales dramatically grown but, perhaps more importantly for the long term, the levels of trust have also radically improved as new ways of collaboration between Toshiba Tec UK Imaging Systems and its dealers have been found. A new lexicon of transformative thinking has been developed based on thinking smarter than the competition.
Overall, reflective professionals tell us that they feel more confident in their role, better understand what works and what doesn’t and have the mental tools to continue to improve at pace – a vital legacy.
I firmly believe that this reflective practice approach that focuses on the learning agility of students is an innovative new blueprint for learning that can outpace the needs of the market in any profession. It marks a seismic shift away from traditional learning and towards actually delivering performance improvement by working smarter. And what business can afford to ignore that opportunity?
Ian Helps is a director of Consalia, a global sales performance improvement consultancy, and a member of Cranfield University’s Practice Advisory Board.