As part of its broad objective of supporting organizational learning, the United Nations Development program (UNDP) launched the Learning Manager Network (a global network of learning coaches) concept in October 1999 as a way to better support the global development of staff competencies, with individual self-directed learning as the anchor. Three years on, over 95 per cent of all 140-plus country offices have learning managers/learning coaches. As participants in specifically designed action-learning-based learning manager workshops, the majority of learning managers have undergone coaching training to equip them with the basic competencies required for their challenging role as change agents for learning. In that context, newly appointed learning managers, most of whom were totally new to the concept of coaching, were coached one to one, experienced group coaching and had an opportunity to practice coaching themselves in order to learn how to coach their clients back in their duty stations as opposed to becoming merely experts for learning. At all times, the learning manager function is supplemented by support from headquarters as well as through exchanges and peer support within the Learning Manager Network (LMN) itself. The LMN has become a community of practice that has evolved into one of the most vibrant and largest of UNDP's networks. The LMN is a determined group of learning coaches who have volunteered (and been nominated/supported by their managers) to support and advocate for staff learning in addition to their other functions.
Creating a largely decentralized and virtually operating network where ongoing trust was the underlying source for successful reciprocal learning and mutual collaboration.
Resisting the temptation of planning every detail and enforcing the implementation of every planned detail on the list in the roll-out of this project as opposed to going with the flow. For example, ensuring the natural growth of the network based largely on interest of the (self-nominating) learning managers as opposed to enforcing top-down nominations of candidates.
Respecting the diversity of the group and allowing for different learning manager approaches in different cultures, by different people with different skills and in a different work context.
Ensuring continuous collaboration amongst all the members of the network after their return to their duty stations.
By embedding the learning managers into a learning process where they begin to experience the power of the network from day one of their nomination, and bringing them together for the action-learning-based face-to-face workshop (a completely customized workshop designed to address the needs of each and every participant) and their coaching training very early in the process.
By establishing broad goals, like the expected coverage, with learning managers, and at the same time responding quickly to emerging detail issues even if they were not on the initial plan, such as support to a regional meeting or quick and unbureaucratic support to a new learning manager who has replaced somebody who had just been trained. Also being willing to let go and respecting silent periods or virtual disappearances.
By emphasizing that each learning manager has the right and duty to determine, based on his or her personal situation, what can be done on the ground and what can't. The corporate learning function provides the framework and support mechanisms. Rather than mandating the implementation of certain activities across the board, which often leads to frustration, this sort of situational performance management approach leads to an empowerment of the incumbent and to a motivation that results in a much more dedicated effort (self-directed), ultimately with much higher impact.
By providing continuous support to the network via electronic media, from telephone to collaboration technology. Making staff time available to deal with emerging issues and at all times modelling the behaviours expected from them. Ensuring quick turnaround when support is requested. Undertaking occasional visits to country offices and giving pep-talks about learning to support the learning manager role. Enhancing the visibility of the LMN in the internal and external context. Fostering sub-regional collaboration amongst learning managers: the management of the project needs to stay in touch with the group as a whole. Making uninvited contributions to the network, sending out documents, sharing information, commenting on something positive that happened elsewhere in the LMN.
The support the members of the network have been giving each other can hardly be expressed other than in the stories from the trenches but it has been very, very real. The activities within the network vary from a quick 'Happy Birthday' note, to a recommendation for a consultant, to badly needed moral support in a difficult situation. From an impact point of view, the learning managers by now have become strong allies of the central learning function and, on top of delivering ongoing learning support on a global scale but locally adapted, they are increasingly called upon to get involved with corporate initiatives such as the roll-out of a new performance assessment process, the roll-out of the online computer driver's licence (ICDL) and the 360 feedback program. Thanks to their dedicated work, 59 per cent of UNDP staff confirm having spent at least 5 per cent of their work time in 2003 on learning (up from 53 per cent the year before) and they answered yes to the question as to whether they receive the training needed to do a quality job in the Global Staff Survey 2003. A total of 66 per cent now say 'My supervisor encourages me to take advantage of learning opportunities', as compared with 62 per cent last year and only 50 per cent two years ago.
Managing such a network is like coaching an extremely diverse group of people at three different levels at the same time, namely individual support, group support and a focus on creating organizational impact. Trust the process and provide ongoing support (yourself and your team) at all of these levels simultaneously with a view to empowering the whole group rather than solving their problems. In the end, this will be a perfect approach to solving your main challenge: ensuring the enhancement of organizational learning.
All learning managers are fully aware that change happens at different levels - individual, group and organizational. Therefore they are each trained to find their personal entry points for best results at any of these levels. Since the situation in each country office is different, it is important to accept that what represents the challenge in one office might already be an achievement in another office and vice versa. This is exactly where the power of the network becomes most obvious. Sharing and mutual support in their everyday functions, at any of the three levels, are at the heart of the LMN. Whether the challenge is of a personal nature, such as becoming a better listener, whether it is related to the group/office level, such as how to best promote the use of learning resources in a particular office, or whether it is organizational, such as how to advocate for the 5 per cent of staff time for learning, the learning managers can safely rely on the respectful support of their peers.