When it comes to driving through complex change in an organisation, learning networks – which encourage employee engagement and re-shape the role of manager into that of influencer – have much to recommend them.

Learning Networks Facilitate Melding of Influence Leadership and Formal Management

In a world where any competitive advantage is only temporary and a dynamic of permanent change has become essential, an approach based on collaborative intelligence – which helps managers to arouse team engagement and bring about necessary changes starting out from the real situation on the ground – is highly recommended. Learning networks whose aim is to bring together a large number of staff whose work is essential for forming strategy, driving innovation, and improving performance in an organisation, to examine their own attitudes and work towards change, are seen by many experts as the right way to go. They respond to the need for a radical culture change, based on cooperation. It was an initiative based on this principle which earned France's national state-owned railway company SNCF an award at the International Meeting Place on Change Management hosted by Paris-based ESSEC Business School on 18-19 September. However, explained SNCF Management Networks Advisor Thierry Raynard, it is important to use learning networks in an appropriate and well-thought-out manner.


Collaborative intelligence underpinning complex, high-value-added change


Thierry Raynard estimates that 90% of organisational change arises from a change in the environment, which calls for new ways of doing things, requiring not so much technical mastery as ‘soft’ skills. These changes, which he categorises as Level-1 changes, do not require ‘learning networks’. Learning networks are not designed to help people learn to work together or to improve tools, but rather pursue far-reaching company objectives that call for a slower process of gestation. Learning networks are required for what may be termed Level-2 changes – i.e. relating to advanced skills, especially management skills, values and beliefs and company identity, explained Raynard. One of the projects that SNCF successfully carried through based on learning networks was to improve the reliability of the TER Regional Express Service in Normandy, northwest France. Today the Normandy TER runs at 96% punctuality thanks to a reduction in the number of trains cancelled due to equipment failure, and also provides better customer information and new customer services such as a porter service at stations and a car-pooling system. The tools SNCF used on the change project included Word-cafés, learner tables and open forums, revealed Raynard.


3% staff participation plus a new leadership approach facilitating change


Thierry Raynard is nevertheless quick to point out that “co-operation doesn’t just work to order.” Staff must have the desire to work together, try to understand the issues and implement the necessary change. This in turn calls for a change in the leadership approach. Just 3% of the staff were sufficient to start up an experimental ‘laboratory phase’ at SNCF, looking at issues which affected around 16% of the total workforce, before moving forward to the transformation phase involving more than half of the employees. Raynard also enumerated some of the pre-requisites if learning networks are to work properly. You need internal facilitators, coupled with a new management approach, based on a willingness to experiment, take on board ideas from outside, embrace diversity, and encourage spontaneous contributions and free speech. Change managers therefore need to be generous in their attitudes to such contributions but also demanding, communicating a sense of responsibility among the staff. “The change coordinator must beat out the path together with his/her group,” stresses Thierry Raynard, because it is by fostering ‘learning by doing’ that learning networks enable “people to work out the changes together in advance before carrying them out in practice and so together create the basis for workable, sustainable solutions.”

By Pierre-Marie Mateo