Strategic learning cycle

Strategic Learning Cycle and the development of strategic thinking

The framework is based on extensive theoretical research and several years of experience.

Introduction

Strategic leadership and strategy work has large been seen to belong to the top management of the organization, to a small elite and few consultant. Strategy work has been labeled with secrecy, strange terminology, and the feeling of superiority.

Today, however, to be an expert in strategy, it is not enough that you master your Porter, Mintzberg, and your Quinn. The members in the organization ever more often ask the leaders what does this strategy mean, what should I do?. It is the problem of strategy implementation. Too often the management is wondering why the personnel does not in a couple of weeks adopt and implement new ways of working forgetting that it took themselves perhaps six months to figure it out.

Strategic leadership is not only strategic navigation towards the future vision, but it also hard work on renewing everyday issues. In many cases the organizational renewal and strategy implementation takes place by renewing working processes with significant changes in people’s roles and responsibilities.

Strategy work has changed significantly in last ten years. We have seen the various schools in strategy work: strategic planning, strategy formulation, strategic portfolio analysis, emergent strategies and so on. In the very turbulent times in the middle today’s environmental changes the notion of strategic thinking and developing the core competencies has become important. In strategic thinking the notion of strategic intent in central. Because the environmental change is very great, the traditional analytical way to collect information is not enough. Strategic thinking includes the whole process of visionary leadership including a detailed analysis of the changes in the environment, formulating the future vision of the organization, developing the core competencies of the organization, formulating the strategic change processes, and implementing them. This calls for new approaches in leadership and new tools and techniques to be administered: analyses and development of organizational culture, working with values, developing the ethical climate of the organization, understanding differences in peoples’ thinking and decision making, facing with strong emotions at the workplace and understand the team dynamics.

THE TURBULENCE GOES ON AND ON ...

The strategy work that organizations did in the 1980’s has been changed radically. The reason for that is the turbulence in the business horizon. The changes in the task environment of organizations are so fast that we no longer can predict future by extrapolating history. The changes began from the oil crises in the 1970’s and continued with major changes in the society, economics and competition in the 1990’s and in the first years of this millennium. In  2015+ we are seing new phases of turbulence; finacial crises, humanitarian crises leading to major local changesi in most countries. Several writers are predicting that the speed of change is still increasing.

From strategic planning to strategic thinking

Strategic planning is based on the assumption organization’s relevant task environment is analyzable and controllable if we have enough information about it. This thinking also supposes that the top management has all the necessary information to make proper decisions, and therefore all decisions should be made there. Top management and a special “strategic planner” are responsible of formulating the strategy. The role of the rest of the organization is to make the strategy to happen.

This process is heavily hierarchical and it follows a detailed planning procedure and rational thinking. The strategy aims to find the “right” answers, and after it has been created, it is implemented with a “top-down” approach. the traditional tools for this kind of work are SWOT- analyses, life-cycle analyses, different two by two matrixes, balance scorecard and its applications. This thinking can be called left-brain thinking.

The models of strategic planning described above are based of assumptions and techniques that evolved in the  1980’s, 1990's and early in the second millenium and their applicability today is limited only to those organizations that think to work in very stable external situations – and there are not of those. In the turbulent world it is ever more clearer that a static strategic planning process focusing in formalities and processes does no longer work. We need to shift to a completely different ways of making strategic choices called strategic thinking.

It states that the creation of strategies belongs to the whole organization and it must be seen a creative process which must not be limited with high formality. The strategy itself is not necessarily very exact and it does not give immediately right answers. Contrary to strategic planning, here the strategies are implementing with expanding strategic thinking to whole organization. The tools and techniques for strategic thinking are analyzing and anticipating the change, visionary thinking, intensive interaction and communication, continuous learning, and creative – right brain – thinking with connections to action – the left brain thinking.

Strategic Learning Cycle in developing businesses

Strategic Learning Cycle is based on strategic thinking and organizational learning. Central to this thinking is dynamic perspective of the change in the organization and the changes in it’s environment, and of the strategic work. The old and static frameworks of strategic planning are replaced with flexible strategic solutions emphasizing strategic thinking. The strategy process involves the whole organization, not just the manager. Information and ideas flow both vertically (top down- and bottom up) and horizontally crossing the old boundaries of departments.

The strategic intent can be stated with different strategic documents which, however, are not those huge documents  with several hundred pages they used to be. Following the strategic intent, the communication of the vision and the strategic choices is of utmost importance. Visionary thinking and visionary leadership are the tools and techniques to navigate into the uncertain future. Because strategic thinking stresses continuous learning and long range thinking, re-visioning might be even more important than visioning.

Strategic Learning Cycle is based on several years of experience in consulting, leadership training and team development in different organizations, businesses, associations, the military, and other not-for-profit organizations. It is closely connected to the Learning and Innovation profile describing the individual way to process information.

Individual way to process information

As found out in the research conducted, our individual way to think - our personal way to process information can be described on four dimensions:

Analytical and logical aptitude (Ana)
Inclination to organize (Org)
The intensity in social life and human relations (Soc)
The intuitive mind ( Int )

These different dimensions have each certain specific characteristics, which can be described as follows:

The analytical and logical aptitude concentrates into facts and figures. This way to process information focuses on testing the reality of new ideas, and on making analysis and theories. Abstract thinking and deep professionalism on a specific field requires analytical and logical thinking. The major characteristics of organizing are the ability to change ideas and theories into action, be specific with details, and to plan and organize matters in a sequential manner. The social inclination is connected to the subconscious mind: values, attitudes, and instincts. Human relations and social interaction are emphasized. This way of thinking is typical to people, who are sensitive and empathic, and who prefer feeling and people over reason and facts. The intuitive way of thinking is future oriented: it uses imagination without the limitations of today’s realities, it creates new ideas and possibilities. People with this inclination have a tendency to take risks.

Demand for holistic thinking; the importance of strategic learning cycle

We can now utilize the Strategic Learning Cycle framework in describing the change process that take place in the organizational, team, and individual levels. We can do this by thinking over the different steps we need to go through in order to accomplish real change.

First, we should make a detailed analysis of the situation where we are; the realities, possibilities that are basis for our mission to the future. For the second, we need to set the goal. Our personal vision for the future including the new ideas and things we want to accomplish. For the third, we need a strong feeling of success, we need a real commitment to the new pursuit. Ad, finally, we need to take concrete actions towards our goal. In this way the Strategic Learning Cycle is also a tool to locate a possible “weak spot” in ourselves, so that we can start working with it. As you can see, we have to move all the way round the Strategic Learning Cycle in order to make sure that real change happens. On the following we follow briefly through the strategic learning Cycle and describe it’s application to organizational setting.

In my PhD dissertation about organizational learning and change, I found an important connection between individual thinking, team decision making, organizational strategies, and the conduction of organizational change. This notion of cognitive trail will be discussed in detail in the internet training program and in the seminars conducted.

The dimensions of the Strategic Learning Cycle

Below is a very brief description of the four dimensions of the Strategic Learning Cycle and their properties.

ANALYSIS

First of all, we need to make detailed scan of the environment and also perform an analysis inside the organization. Analysis is the basis to all strategic work in all organizations. It is self evident, that when failing in this work can cause crucial mistakes in the next phases in the strategy process. Previously it was popular to perform so called SWOT analyses, which for some extent can still be useful. It should, however be extended with a much more detailed environmental analyses. The organizations of today have also a wide array of stakeholders whose opinions should be taken account for. The internal analysis of the organization should include the determination of the core competencies, the analysis and development the organizational cultures of the organization.

Fundamental for the development of the organization in change situations is it’s strategic readiness. For the individual, readiness has traditionally been seen his/her ability and wiliness to perform a certain task. This definition is good for the organization, too.

One significant feature in the strategic readiness of the organization is it’s capability to transform it’s leadership style from reactive style to proactive style. The other key factor is to transform the organization to become a real learning organization, where continuous development has bee adapted to become part of everyday work.

In order for a strategic change to happen, we must be able to change our old paradigms - our own mental maps both in the individual and on the organizational level. Holistic is central, and this one of the most important features for the management team for the organization is the demand for heterogeneity in thinking and deciding. Because very seldom we as individuals possess all the four strong dominances, we need a team to perform real change.

VISION, GOALS, AND NEW IDEAS

Vision means the image of the organization in future. Vision can be defined only after the mission of the organization has been clarified. Although it might seem self-evident that organizations have mission, but it is not always the case. The mission statement of the organization is one of the first steps in renewal. The mission answers the questions; What, To Whom, and How?

Vision is based on the mission and on the analyses explained earlier. Vision can be described as a cross-cut from the organization in the future. The time perspective of the vision is most often 10-15 years. The vision should also include statement of values of the organization.

One of the most important tasks for the vision is to develop the demand for learning and change to the organization. We can define the need for learning and development when we compare the present situation to the future visionary state of the organization.

The demand for learning can be realized in the developmental goals of individuals, departments, and the whole organization, that no more represent the present state. The greater the difference from today to the future is seen, the greater is the demand for learning

COMMITMENT

The functions of analyzing and visioning are element that emphasize thinking, decisionmaking, even academic work. To make visions and strategies happen, we need concrete action. On the way to there we need still another very important element in the organization - commitment. Far too often the organization has made compelling visions, and brilliant strategies - but nothing new happens. The reason could be problems in committing to these new goals.

In building commitment two element have proven vital. The firs is perform the strategy process together with all the key personnel in the organization. The traditional way - top-down does not build commitment. The other important element is open and candid two-way communication. Commitment also includes acceptance of the changes in individual roles and responsibilities and strong personal responsibility to all organizational matters.

Commitment starts from the individual level - - and goes through the whole organization including groups and teams. Commitment is strongly a matter on the ”soft” side in developing the organization. It is connected to values, organizational culture and feelings. The amount of commitment in the organization determines it’s level of energy for change. Crucial questions are everybody’s taking part in the process, developing strong organizational culture, and aligning values.

Concrete action

The last phase in the Strategic Learning Cycle is concrete action. This is the phase where new strategies take form of real action. It may include new structures, new procedures, maybe new employers in due course of time, and in some cases even new buildings. Action happens here. New roles and responsibilities are define, renewal is scheduled, short term goals defined.

Real concrete action can take place when all are committed to the renewal. Without commitment there is great danger that renewal is superficial and there is no lasting change.

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