Management: Does Your Organisation Maximise its Learning Opportunities?
Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Or are you just ticking off the boxes on the training plan? In this first article of a four-part series on using learning to advance business goals, Ross van Horn discusses after-action reviews (AAR).

In any industry, and in any country, the business environment presents hundreds of seemingly impossible challenges that must be overcome to be successful. Developing a competitive advantage in an open marketplace is incredibly difficult, requiring much time and focus from the CEO and executive team, and an open organizational culture that consistently brings innovation to the forefront of company conversations. Since Peter Senge wrote the groundbreaking "The Fifth Discipline" in the late 1980s, many global companies have tried to implement learning as a key competitive edge to their activities. Yet as time has passed, sometimes it seems as though the international corporate community has lost sight of the long-term value of learning, instead choosing to focus on the minutiae of quarterly reports, immediately high rates of return on equity of shareholders, and other short-sighted measurements.

In my work as a consultant to various kinds of organizations in Africa, the Middle East and the USA, including private sector companies and international governmental bodies, I can count several cases where proactive learning has moved an organisation forward strategically more rapidly than it would have without the learning experience, and other cases where learning activities directly contributed to significant cost savings and increase in revenue in the short term. Unfortunately, there are also numerous cases where blind implementation of basic operations over and over again without reflecting on effectiveness has likely cost companies millions of dollars and lost customers in the process. The tricky thing about this dynamic is that although it is easy to attribute new customers and rising revenues to strategy, it is far more challenging to link lost customers and falling revenues with the inability to learn.

Two critical success factors contribute to linking organisational learning with business effectiveness. The first success factor is the ability to efficiently and consistently capture and use the learning that happens informally as part of normal work. The second is the ability to link the activities of formal learning programmes, like training, to business results.

To achieve the first critical success factor, capturing learning that occurs in normal daily work, structured processes need to be implemented. There are numerous methods available to do this. I have outlined four examples. Part I of this series describes the first, the After-Action Review.

Same Old
As a consumer in Kenya, whenever I enter I shopping mall or supermarket, I am often greeted by the predictable deluge of push-girls promoting various health care products, and other promotional activities designed to market FMCGs. The approach is always the same, and I often wonder how much thought has gone into the strategy and implementation of the marketing campaign. Usually I conclude that the company is simply rolling out the same approach it has used for decades, but I still question whether the process is just so amazingly effective that it cannot be improved.

The same goes for customer service: It often seems as if a basic template for customer service is rolled out, without reflection on how it is implemented over time, how the various functions in the company are working together, or whether it can be improved through adjusting the method. For example, I get the same type of response today when I call my television service provider as I did three years ago.

On the flip side, we definitely notice as consumers when something has changed for the better. For example, some years back I worked with a telecommunications service provider in West Africa that often had endless queues snaking out of their customer care centres in town. A thorough review of the customer care processes identified several quick fixes, including better quality scratch cards so that fewer customers would be coming to the shops to validate top-up cards with poorly printed numbers on them. It also identified opportunities for the customer care reps in the shops to immediately address customer complaints rather than wait for headquarters to respond. The results of these changes included a decrease in the number of customer problems with top-up cards and a faster complaint resolution cycle. These improvements were noticed by customers.

In the East African marketplace, new players are entering every industry, some with deep pockets ready for a long battle. The companies that will succeed are those that not only execute strategy effectively and quickly, but also those that take time to consistently review and reflect on their processes and activities in the market with a focus on refining and improving their approach month after month, year after year. One way to do this is through the After-Action Review (AAR).

After Action Review
The AAR is a simple but challenging process designed to be implemented after an organisation has completed a specific business-related project or roll-out in any of its functions, for example in marketing, sales, recruitment, or customer service. It can also be implemented company-wide for larger learning needs, which I will address later in this article. The AAR is often a structured session engaging all of the staff members involved in the project, and is usually designed to answer four questions:

  • What was intended to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What can we do in the future to build on the successes of the project and learn from our mistakes?

Although it has a simple format, the AAR can be challenging to implement because frankness and candor are required for maximum learning, which leads to building a more competitive company. A successful AAR will require stakeholders who made mistakes to be straightforward about what happened, and will require all team members to look into how they are functioning as a group, and how they can support success. This can be difficult in organisations that have hierarchical or functional silos or other blockages to communication, such as a culture of fear and blame. Sometimes partner organisations, like vendors or suppliers, will also need to participate. When done well, the AAR can help a company save money and drive revenues by avoiding mistakes and repeating successful activities with intent and purpose.

Ask, and Ask Properly
It is worth noting that although several of the questions listed above seem at first glance like they would take only about five minutes to answer, it is important to fully and deeply explore the answer to each question. For example, for the first question, we can answer very clearly what the project title was and what we hoped to achieve, but we can also explore what some of our assumptions were about the marketplace in which we implemented the project, and more accurately describe how we defined the project’s goals using hindsight. For the second question, we can explore step-by-step each of the twists and turns that the project took. Were major changes made? What data informed those changes? What was the effect of those changes? How were decisions about the changes made? If no changes were made, what data led us to believe that our original ideas were solid and valid? Following along this method of investigation, all four questions can be answered using intensive and participatory inquiry over the course of a half-day or even a full-day depending on the scope of the project.

For companies that do not already have a strong learning culture in place, it is often helpful to utilise an external facilitator in the short term who can bring objectivity and group dialogue management skills to the task. If this option is chosen, the external facilitator must be seen as a professional equal of the project leader, and as someone with the skills and knowledge relevant to the work of the company. If these criteria are met, the group has a high likelihood of success. As the company grows its learning culture and becomes used to the open dialogue processes required for an AAR, the external facilitation can be phased out while internal facilitators are developed and utilised. When this has happened, the company demonstrates maturation and effectiveness in its approach to linking intentional learning and market competitiveness.

The AAR can also be used on a larger scale than a simple project review. Many years ago, I was part of a consulting team that conducted an AAR for a construction and logistics company that had attempted to implement a shared-services centre at a cost of over USD20m. The project had been widely viewed as a failure, yet the CEO chose to spend more money on investigating what went wrong, and more importantly what went right, so that value was captured despite the overall failure of the centre. Our collaborative AAR took place over several months and included interviews and focus groups in approximately 10 branch offices in various locations. Ultimately, it uncovered several components of the centre that could be salvaged, as well as a couple of new and significantly productive behaviours throughout the company that had emerged organically and could be replicated throughout the system.

Whatever size or form your AAR takes, the emphasis is on looking at what happens in normal everyday work. It’s not a training programme or a seminar on some new business idea, and because it is participatory and related directly to the work of the organisation, it results in positive side effects like greater employee engagement, innovation, and renewed focus on performance. When the AAR becomes part of normal business activities, the very fact that it exists, and staff know that their work on the team will be reviewed in a structured format, it increases motivation and emphasis on overall team drive for results.

Coming up next: Creating special project teams for learning to solve cost and revenue-related challenges.

 About the Author

C. Ross van Horn is a management consultant, coach and trainer based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has led and contributed to consulting and training interventions throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the USA. In this series of articles on learning in business organisations, he draws mainly from personal consulting experience to illustrate how learning activities can be linked directly to business effectiveness.

Find Ross here:
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Twitter: @RVHrossvanhorn

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