We’ve covered a lot of ground in the first six “courses” in the series for our mythical learning business MBA, and we’ve mostly focused on what—identifying the key skills and knowledge learning businesses need to survive and thrive. The what is important, but so too is the who—finding people with the key skills and knowledge and cultivating those skills and knowledge in your team. This includes people (the human resources), but it also extends to how to support those people in doing their work. In other words, this is about capacity.
In this final installment in our seven-part series before winter break, we dig into the key ideas related to capacity for learning businesses. We discuss the importance of investing in the training and development of your internal team and common barriers preventing this. We also offer a simple but effective tool to help you uncover, track, and achieve your capacity goals.
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[00:29] – Intro
What Do We Mean When We Say “Capacity”?
[02:23] – When we use the term capacity, we mean the ability to execute. Once you have a strategy, you also have to have the knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, and culture to execute. Capacity is a dimension that is really important in the context of our Learning Business Maturity Model™, which we often talk about on the Leading Learning Podcast, and a capacity-related question we pose as part of that model is “Does the learning business have sufficient capacity in terms of human resources and technology to pursue the vision and strategy effectively?”
Stage 4 learning businesses are characterized as innovative in the maturity model innovative—it’s the most mature stage a learning business can achieve. A Stage 4 learning business has the necessary resources (human, technological, and financial) to address current needs as well as the resources to support ongoing innovation and growth. Processes are well defined, they are continuously evaluated and improved, and the business consistently invests in staff and volunteer development.
When we talk about human resources, we include staff and contract help. We include the internal team and any consultants or volunteers involved in the learning business. But capacity is broader than just people. You need the people—the human resources—but you also need the tools, technologies, training, and learning to support those people in doing their work.
Creating, building, and maintaining capacity takes money, but we like to think of it as an investment rather than a cost because money spent on capacity should provide a good return. It’s always important to invest in your people, invest in building and maintaining capacity, but it’s especially important in the current moment, as we’re experiencing what’s being called the “Great Resignation.”
To help with attracting and retaining good talent, a learning business should make sure to continually invest in its people in a thoughtful, intentional way and give that effort the dedicated time and money that it requires.
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First Who, Then What
[06:25] – One could argue that we were misguided in focusing on the topics and skills of the learning business MBA before we talked about the team. Jim Collins—mega-selling author of Good to Great and an expert in innovation and strategy—popularized the concept of getting the right people on the bus. Collins framed this as “first who, then what.”
In this series so far, we have talked quite a bit about the what. Now we’re coming around to the who. But Collins might have said we should have been talking about who in the first place. In his view, those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats on the bus before they figure out where they’re going to drive that bus.
When you’re dealing with chaos and uncertainty—and certainly there’s plenty of both to go around in the current moment—it’s impossible to predict what’s coming, so your best bet is to have a busload of people who can adapt and perform well no matter what comes. Collins asserts that great vision without great people is irrelevant.
If your learning business is new, the concept of “first who, then what” could be really helpful. For an established learning business, it maybe a little trickier, unless you’re planning to clean house and fire and rehire—which probably isn’t the case. For established learning businesses, what’s more helpful is to talk to everyone on the bus to make sure you understand their skills, skills gaps, desires, and mindset. Through that conversation, you’ll better understand what you might need to do to address capacity in your learning business.
Some of the things you might do to address capacity include the following:
- Get supplemental help. This might mean hiring a contractor or a consultant for a specific project. Hopefully they will help you learn how to fish along the way. Any consultant who comes in should be aiming to help an organization develop capacity. Even a freelancer can help teach you how to fish so that you are building capacity in the organization using supplemental resources. Volunteers can also fill out your capabilities, skills, and knowledge.
- Hire new staff. Hiring might happen through natural attrition, or, if you have the funding—or can make the business case for it—it might mean expanding the team.
- Invest directly in the training and development of people on your team. This goes beyond having consultants teach you. This is about getting the team the training and development it needs in specific topical areas. We’ve found that learning businesses often don’t do enough of this. They can be so focused on serving their external audience’s education and learning needs that they fail to do the same with their internal team.
The Internal Training and Development Imperative for Learning Businesses
[10:49] – Some common barriers to investing in the training and development of the internal team include the following:
- It can be a resource issue. Training and development often take money, and, even if you find free materials, training and development still take time. So time or money or time and money can be a barrier to addressing the internal training and development needs of your team.
- It can be an issue of finding the right content. Part of what we’re trying to do with the podcast in general is to provide content relevant to a learning business. We’ve put together an informal learning business curriculum, which highlights different episodes of the podcast and other resources that are categorized according to the Learning Business Maturity Model™. You can go through these individually or, even better, do it as a team. Get a study group together in your organization, and work through the content we’re providing.
- It can be a culture issue. You need to have a learning culture. A learning culture is one that clearly values and prioritizes learning, and it rewards the people on the team who pursue learning. This continual learning means the organization is able to change, adapt, and evolve as circumstances change. Learning culture is an asset in any organization, but, for a learning business, it’s even more relevant. It’s about walking the walk along with talking the talk. Also, for a learning business, the culture is not confined to that single organization, but it extends out into the broader community, field, or industry that the learning business serves because it’s trying to raise capacity not just internally but across the field, industry, or community the learning business serves. As a prerequisite to supporting the broader culture, it’s crucial that a learning business model the desired outcomes.
You have to address all three barriers to build capacity, and this is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Referencing another classic in the business literature world, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action by Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton speaks to this discrepancy between knowing and doing.
You can know something, but then you have to do it actually. And there’s often a gap between that. And I think it’s often capacity that represents that gap because you can have great ideas, but, if you’re not really able to execute those great ideas, execute that strategy, execute that vision, if you don’t have the capacity for doing that, then you’re just not going to have a thriving learning business.Jeff Cobb
Learning Business Capacity Matrix
[16:21] – To help you assess your capacity, we suggest creating a simple matrix, like the one shown below. Use knowledge domains as column headers, and then list your team members as rows.
In the knowledge domains, we included strategy, marketing, technology, learning science, and finance, which are all important areas for a learning business to have some acumen in. Depending on where you are as a learning business, you might want to get more granular or add a different domain and generally tailor the matrix to your specific learning business and what’s most important to you. Once you get the domains and people on the bus laid out in the matrix, you’re able to analyze, assess, and document where you are—your strengths and gaps—and then figure out a plan for shoring up those gaps.
You could include a final row and also a final column for notes. The notes in the final row would be specific to a domain. The notes in the final column would allow you to jot ideas and information about individual team members. Once you have this information laid out, the matrix can become a tool for internal sharing and peer learning. This is embedding it in the culture.
The matrix, as we’re describing it, is obviously a very simple tool. But just putting things down on paper—surfacing them, making them visible so that they can be shared and discussed and learned from—just doing that can be a profoundly powerful step to take in increasing your capacity.Celisa Steele
These kinds of simple tools help to surface the big, meaty things that a learning business needs to tackle. We do the same sort of thing with the Value Ramp to help you look at your portfolio and with the Market Insight Matrix to help you assess and go deeper in understanding your market. The capacity matrix another simple tool to make things visible so they can be talked about. The capacity matrix becomes what we’ve often referred to as a social learning object. It gives you something everybody can see, focus on together, and have meaningful conversation around—discussion that will lead to positive change and building capacity.
Other Thoughts on Capacity
[22:04] – In episode 284, we talked about financial modeling and financials at both the product level and at the portfolio level. What we’re talking about with assessing your capacity is the same kind of dichotomy. You want to do it both for your overall team, and you want to have individual goals for team members.
You need to have a focus for each individual employee, but you also want to emphasize the team nature. Not every team member has to be proficient or strong in all of the domains that you identify, but you need to make sure you’re covered and that at least some resource is available in each of your key domains.
Once you’ve had those conversations with the people on the bus, it’s helpful for the team members to share their individual goals and progress. Everybody on the team should know what everybody else is working on and where they might be having some successes or where they might be running into to barriers. Even when people have different areas of knowledge, skills, and focus, it’s still often the case that we can help each other out in making progress on our individual goals.
With the overall team view from the matrix, you’re all collectively able to monitor progress over time and see changes in capacity as individuals realize their goals. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, ideally. The matrix gives you a team view. For individual goals, something like the personal learning road map that Mary Byers shared in episode 281 is equally simple but also equally effective. You can use those two tools—the capacity matrix and the personal learning road map—to help you focus on how to develop and improve capacity for your learning business over time.
In episode 284, we also talked about the time horizon for financial projections (typically a three- to five-year time frame for learning products works well). Time horizon is also a consideration with the capacity matrix and the personal learning road map—you want to have some notion of timeline. You have your current skills and knowledge and some areas for growth, and some gaps may take more time to fill. You might see some short-term gains in some areas, but it’s important to be aware that it may take months or possibly even years to see the full benefit of investing in the ongoing development of team members.
There’s a corollary between the capacity matrix and the strategy canvas that we’ve talked about in the context of blue ocean strategy in episode 280. You want to see where you are now—and both the strategy canvas and the capacity matrix can help you understand that—but they can also help you understand where you want to be. The domains that you choose to include as part of your capacity matrix, how you address them, and the specific focus or perspective your learning business brings as you’re paying attention to those can be a way for you to differentiate, become unique, and strengthen overall.
As you’re determining the areas to focus on in your capacity matrix, think strategically, maybe even think back to the areas that you might have outlined on a strategy canvas and or laid out on your Value Ramp. Where is it you’re trying to excel and differentiate as an organization, and how is the way in which you’re building capacity mapping to that and ensuring that you realize that potential to differentiate and to become unique as a learning business?
A learning business’s capacity can be a strategic advantage. It’s hard for someone else to copy your team and all the capacity that you bring to bear on any projects. Even if a competitor were to poach a person or two from your team, this is a case where the sum is hopefully greater than the parts. If you’re really acting as a team, as a cohesive unit unified by common goals, then your capacity really is bringing a strategic advantage.
[27:37] – Wrap-up
We hope this learning business MBA series has given you some ideas and approaches for deepening and broadening the skills and knowledge of your team, and, if you haven’t started yet, we hope you’ll get to work now on implementing some of those ideas and approaches. The capacity matrix can be a great starting point.
This is the last episode in the learning business MBA series. We’ll resume releasing new episodes of the Leading Learning Podcast in January 2022. In the meantime, we invite you to make use of the archive of hundreds of past episodes and other resources on the Leading Learning site to dig deeper into the critical skills and knowledge needed by learning businesses.
If you have suggestions for future podcast episodes, whether topics to cover or someone to interview, please leave a comment below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Other Episodes in This Series:
- Learning to Get Down to Business
- The Strategy and Marketing Episode
- Studying Innovation with Mary Byers
- Learning Diversification with Jim Obsitnik
- MBA Student for a Day with Steven Schragis of One Day U
- The Irresistible Episode—Now with Financial Modeling!
Episodes on Related Topics:
- 8 Tips for Optimizing Your Value Ramp
- Free Tools and Resources for Your Lifelong Learning Business
- 7 Ways to Build Capacity for Your Learning Business
- Leveraging the Learning Business Maturity Model
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