Learning innovation can outpace market change in the telco world

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this piece Ian Helps of Consalia discusses training and the benefits of encouraging employees to think more for themselves.

“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 and telecommunication 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 telco 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

According to PWC’s Telecommunications Trends 2015, the increasingly digital world we live in will mean that “telecom providers must completely redefine their relationships with their customers”. This redefinition will, in turn, force the whole supporting business to redefine itself. Broadband, TV, phone and wireless quad play is one of the current example of such change; others will surely quickly follow.

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 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Today’s best practice is often out of date before it can be codified and, when it is trained, it rarely meets the specific market reality of the learners.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:

  1. The participant experience drives everything
  2. Follow academically verified best practices for successful adult learning
  3. Provide leading edge, business relevant material that radically challenges students’ existing worldview and triggers them to seek new answers
  4. Students immediately apply the new learnings to a business-relevant project
  5. Use reflective practice and individual, peer to peer coaching and virtual collaboration to encourage real learning
  6. 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’).

Tangible Results of 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.

Paul Devlin is a director of SAP Middle East North Africa (MENA), currently studying for a Masters in Leading Sales Transformation with Consalia and Middlesex University. Taking the time to reflect, Paul concluded that improving the quality of recruitment was the single biggest impact area for the business. He took it upon himself to lead the transformation of recruiting sales people. SAP MENA subsequently recorded its highest performing year ever in 2014 and doubled its rate for converting sales opportunities into contracts.

Another student on the same Masters course was a sales manager in technology with three team members on performance improvement plans (PIPs) facing imminent redundancy. Sales managers are notorious in finding it hard to turn around PIP situations but, to the student’s delight and surprise, after reflecting and using an Appreciative Inquiry approach of looking at the positives rather than the traditional negative mindset, all three PIP employees were coached to success and are now solid performers.

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 ConsaliaIan Helps is a director of Consalia, a global sales performance improvement consultancy and a member of Cranfield University’s Practice Advisory Board. Ian has worked for major companies, including BP, Shell and E.ON, where he held a variety of roles including strategy manager and European business development manager, focused on major transnational deals. Whilst at Shell, he was a global consultancy manager, where he launched and turned around businesses throughout the world.

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