How Strong is Your Web? Learning Programs as Open Systems

This blog is the second in a series of seven blogs focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of learning teams. I hope you find them helpful.

I want you stop for a second and think about every person or group that has a connection with your learning programs (seriously – this blog will be better if you really do this). They might be consumers of your content, or leaders with budget authority, or technicians responsible for setting up your computers for new hire, or administrative department heads. Other connections might be specific practice groups, individual senior leaders, secretarial teams, project managers, paralegals, legal talent/professional development, HR, or finance departments. You can even start to look outside the firm with vendor partners, peer firms, associations like ILTA or ATD, or even your firm’s clients. Take a moment and make a list of all the connections and I’ll bet you come up with a long list. If you want, you can draw them on a piece of paper. Draw the most important relationships bigger. Think about the strength of each individual connection on that list. I’m sure some are very strong, some are growing, and some might be a little shaky. If you make a visual representation of this list – with different colored lines representing the strength of your relationships – you’ll be looking at the strength of your web of connections. 

Now you have a piece of paper with different sizes and colorful lines, but what does this have to do with training? Everything. 

Let’s start off with some quick definitions. Firm training is a system. The training content, team, courses, Learning Management System, and documentation are all related parts of the system. A system is a set of components that form an integrated whole with a structure, behaviors, and a level of inter-connectivity to the parts and processes. Or, more simply put, a group of related parts that work together. Social scientists define two types of systems – closed and open. 

A closed system is isolated from or has relatively limited interaction with its environment. It exists with low connectivity to the external factors surrounding it and tends to stay at rest with the status quo. 

An open system has substantial interaction with its environment – a feedback loop exists between the parts and the surrounding external factors. An open system assumes that there are infinite supplies of energy that come from interaction with the environment.     


Now take a look at your paper and think about these two definitions. Are you closer to limited connectivity or do you have substantial interactions with your environment? Do your programs tend to rest with the status quo or do you feel the infinite supply of energy that comes from your environment?

The best learning programs operate as open systems with substantial interaction with the surrounding environment and key stakeholders. Here are a few supporting thoughts:

  • The ability to discover the needs of the firm requires strong internal relationships. When you hear of a potential issue or opportunity within the firm, you have to be connected in order to pull more data so that you can conduct a thorough needs analysis. And to be in a position to understand there is a need, you must have connections in the first place. I see discovery as an active process that requires a strong web. Often the process of strengthening the web uncovers needs.
  • As I mentioned in the first blog about Aligning Learning Programs to Firm Strategy, you have to find the pieces of the puzzle. The important fact here is that other people are holding all the pieces. By connecting with your internal network, you can inquire about their goals. You can ask leaders how you might support the accomplishment of their team’s annual goals. Think about how they might respond to the servant approach (how can I help you). You can tap into the infinite energy supply if you take this approach. 
  • There are a couple of leading approaches to measuring the effectiveness of learning programs. The first approach is the measurement-heavy, level of evaluation approach. I think it’s important to understand this approach, measure the critical programs, and know how to articulate your team’s value.  I think it is also important to be very clear about the expectationsstakeholders have for learning at the firm. Connecting frequently with the web of connections allows you to find out if you’re meeting (or exceeding) expectations.
  • Learning does not exist in a Field of Dreams world. In fact, if we build it, they might come, but only if they are aware of it and see the value. Interaction with stakeholders opens up the possibility of learning program sponsors who can champion the value for their teams and provide valuable feedback over time. These leaders can be the key to the firm engaging with your resources. With these connections, you will see your influence grow.
  • Within a strong external network, you can find the energy for new things that might increase the value of your programs. Connect with new people at firms to find out how they are solving their learning challenges. Shift your thinking from networking tocommunity building and bring likeminded people together for conversations. You’ll walk away feeling the infinite supply of energy that those conversations can create. 

I am an advocate of building a strong internal and external network, but there are a few requirements that are necessary in order to be effective in this effort:

  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): According to researchers, there are four skills to emotional intelligence – Self-Awareness, Self-management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management. Building a strong web of connections assumes EQ skills are high enough to read social cues, build, and maintain healthy relationships.
  • Cultural Intelligence (CQ): This is an emerging focus area because there are so many multi-office, global firms. CQ “picks up where EQ leaves off” and includes having sensitivity to the local culture within an office or a region. CQ is required to build connections beyond the local office.
  • Agility: The pace of change is increasing so fast that we have to be ready to act quickly to meet the needs that the new connections help uncover. We need to be able to prototype rapidly and meet needs as required. This also means that we’ll have to prioritize the needs based on importance to the firm. 
  • Lateral Processes: One-on-one relationships are great, but it’s also great when you can pull a group together that can provide feedback and guide program development and priorities over time. Technology Training can be a strategic advantage if used properly. A governing or advisory board that meets periodically can help streamline the feedback. It’s also helpful to have meetings between the different training groups in the firm – open up the castle walls and find a way to show the customer a unified experience. You can use new developments like the ABA Rule Changes and Security Awareness requirements to open the door. 
  • Political Savvy: Sometimes rigid organizational structures can be a challenge. There are times when managers only go to meetings with other managers. You have to be adept at learning these rules – and a way around them. Sometimes you have to cut across the infield a little bit to get to the finish line first.

When you have a strong internal and external web of connections, you can make sure you are exceeding expectations and access limitless energy to improve your programs and deliver more value to the firm. 

Some questions: Take a moment and reflect on your original list of connections. What can you do to maintain your strong relationships? What would help grow the emerging ones? How can you improve the weak ones? And how can you initiate new ones that you think you’ll need?

In the next blog, I’ll discuss what it means to deliver quantifiable results to the firm. 

Traveling Coaches is here to help! We have programs that can help you elevate your learning programs, improve your communications and help your lawyers and staff embrace change.