The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: A Book Review by Bob Morris

Six DisciplinesThe Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results
Calhoun W. Wick, Roy V. H. Pollock, Andy Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan
Pfeiffer/A Wiley Imprint (2003)

Note: This is an excellent example of a book re-read about ten years after it was first published that is even more relevant and more valuable now than it was then.

An organization’s chief learning officer or equivalent must be prepared to answer questions such as these:

o What is the ROI of our learning and development programs?
o How do you determine that?
o If the ROI is unacceptable, what is being done to increase it?

My guess (only a guess) is that similar questions are also asked of those who lead innovation initiatives. The fact remains that in most organizations, board members and CEOs not only expect but indeed demand that every hour and every dollar be committed to helping achieve and then sustain profitable growth and that is especially true of training programs and innovation initiatives. There seems to be little (if any patience) with any costs that cannot be justified in business terms. In this context, I am reminded of a brainstorming session at Southwest Airlines years ago during which someone suggested that a chicken salad treat be given (not sold) to passengers as an expression of appreciation. Then CEO Herb Kelleher is reported to have responded, “Does it help us to continue to be the low-cost airline? If not, then chicken salad is chicken shit.” End of discussion.

What Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan (hereinafter referred to as co-authors) offer in this volume is a rigorous and eloquent analysis of what they characterize as “the six disciplines of breakthrough learning.” They devote a separate chapter to each discipline, concluding each chapter with one checklist of reminders and action points for learning leaders and another for line leaders. In this context, it may be of interest to at least some of those who read this review to know that two other authors also recommend comparable disciplines. In Think BIG Act Small, Jason Jennings suggests that all high-performing companies are led by people who are down to earth, keep their hands dirty, make short-term goals with long-term horizons, let go (“when it’s DOA, bury it”), have everyone think and act like an owner, invent new businesses, create win-win situations for everyone involved, choose their competitors, build communities, and grow future leaders. In Six Disciplines for Excellence, Gary Harpst recommends these: Decide What’s Important, Set Goals That Lead, Align Systems, Work the Plan, Innovate Purposefully, and Align Systems.

Because learning and development programs are investments by a company in its workforce, the authors acknowledge that management “has a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to ensure that those investments produce a return: results that increase enterprise value.” None of what the co-authors call “the 6Ds(tm)” is a head-snapping revelation, nor do they make any such claim. However, in my opinion, they should guide and inform all performance at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise and rigorous measurement and review of performance should be based on them. Exhibit 1.1, the “6Ds(tm) Learning Transfer and Applications Scorecard,” provides a diagnostic that enables the reader to evaluate the readiness of a learning program to deliver results. There are other diagnostic exercises inserted throughout the book’s narrative.

I appreciate the fact that the authors also include a number of mini-case studies based on real-world initiatives by prominent organizations that include Sony Electronics, British Broadcasting Company, Home Depot, and Pfizer. And I also appreciate the series of brief but insightful statements by a CLO or equivalent, called “From the Top,” that provide an eyewitness account of specific learning initiatives. The exemplar organizations include the Center for Creative Leadership, General Mills, University of Notre Dame, Honeywell, and AstraZaneca.

Knowing what not to do is often at least as important as knowing what to do. Kevin Wilde offers a case in point in the Foreword: “A talented and hard-working team designed an air-tight course: activities planned to the minute, world-class external faculty and cutting-edge simulations…all grounded in specific learning objectives. But the team fell short by failing to first clearly identify how the company would benefit from having leaders attend the program. I’ve been there – so caught up in crafting the excellence of the learning event that we failed to ground everything in the real business case. When that happens, the results leave you heartbroken, far short of the learning breakthrough intended.”

The authors are exemplars of pragmatism, of “nailing the fundamentals,” when formulating and then launching learning initiatives. They also have bold and compelling visions of breakthroughs in training and development while agreeing with Thomas Edison’s observation, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” The advice with which Marshall Goldsmith concludes the book will also conclude my review of it:

“The designs for learning and development programs should be considered incomplete if they do not include plans to encourage participants to follow through, practice what they have learned, and reach out to colleagues for feed forward ideas and coaching. When those elements are in place to support well-designed and well-delivered learning, then we have all the ingredients for a true transformation. Life is good.”

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