SOLUTIONING: A TALE OF THREE COMPANIES

“But what is it that you will do? I’m the one who’s going to give you all the content!”

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Recently I was speaking to a prospect who was also the Subject Matter Expert. They were trying to get us to drop the price. In all naive earnestness they asked, “But what is it that you will do? I’m the one who’s going to give you all the content! Why are you charging so much?” That particular exchange turned out to be just a misunderstanding of what the price was for, but it made me want to articulate something I’ve been chewing on.

I want to discuss with you the dimensions of solutioning and the implications of what we do when ideating solutions. I’ll start with some incidents that are pretty typical for training vendors to encounter and then lay down the connections I’m making to a larger picture.

THE 3 TALES

So, first, here are 3 conversations with 3 different companies. The sizes vary on a spectrum from ‘global giant’ to ‘pretty large multinational’. Two are market leaders in their sector, ubiquitous household names. All have been around for several decades and they have conducted trainings and used e-learning for quite a while.

One had a requirement about software application training. The second was about company purpose and values. The third was about a diversity and inclusivity program.

A. The Software Application Training

This company is of the profile of household name + global giant. I studied their application, asked the questions that I needed to. Talked them through the approach. Everything was hunky dory. We landed the project, and as agreed, went through vendor orientation. We had to read through and sign an agreement to abide by the various company position statements and documents on policies, particularly relating to legal and ethical compliances, adherence to the company’s code of ethics, etc.

Then we began work on the prototype. As part of the solution there were going to be some animated screens featuring different characters representing various roles. Inclusivity and non-discrimination had been mentioned in the company’s code of ethics, so we went ahead and included a character in a wheelchair. After all, a good training partner should recognize that such values apply across all messaging and courses, and not just the ones explicitly about diversity, right?

I conducted a walkthrough of the prototype. There was an interesting moment when the stakeholders murmured about the character in the wheelchair. The decision was taken to swap out the character and have a ‘regular’ character instead.

You don’t bring about cultural change by virtue signalling in a single course or initiative. You bring it about by consistently living by the message you want to send.

But to circle back to the aspects of solutioning that I explore from practice? –

The first reflection:

Solutioning considers the larger picture beyond the purely technical focus of an SME. While the latter is essential, it is not enough – not for serving learners, not for good corporate citizenship, not for society at large.

It was an interesting realization that we as the vendors were being truer to the company’s values than the training stakeholders. And given the typical dynamics of the relationship, we had very limited ability to push for them to reconsider.

The second reflection:

Solutioning is an opportunity to raise important questions and let the stakeholders face at least the momentary discomfort of their loaded choices. Or prompt them to revisit some implications of their decisions.

When we solution, we designers have the option to not be tacit bystanders. Sometimes things change because various people posed obstacles to a poor choice. The first obstacle may not alter the chain of events, maybe not even the tenth – but there could be a cumulative effect.

B. The Purpose and Values Training

This company is between global household name and extremely large multinational in stature. In this particular briefing, they said that they wanted to teach the purpose of the company, and its spirit of being very values-driven. They mentioned also that their employees really look up to the leadership.

But eh, really, we know everybody says these things, right? So naturally, being of a somewhat questioning mind myself, I cued them to talk about how they tied their values with their purpose, how they connected day-to-day activities with their purpose… and it led to a really good, rich, thoughtful response.

In fact, over several days after that, the main stakeholder thought of various initiatives to share, various anecdotes from within the company – they gave a very rich sense of really what the company did to put its money where its mouth was.

Such a contrast with the incompleteness of the buy-in and alignment of convictions of the previous bunch of stakeholders!

The third reflection:

Solutioning can contribute towards a cogent story of the company. It can spot that there is an opportunity for such identity crafting, that there is a strong enough consonance of actions and choices across various operations of the company.

As outsiders we get access to various divisions that are otherwise in watertight compartments in particularly large organizations. From our perch, we can consciously draw out patterns across divisions, activities and operations.

C. The Diversity Training

This brief was unquestionably a weak one, and a conversation that just ran into a series of conversational dead ends. The company had done nothing even in token initiatives. It had no clue what it wanted to say, no sense of where its employees were at or what issues they wanted to tackle as a team; but they just wanted to commission this training (we’re guessing) because it’s the flavor of the times or something to point to in the annual report.

To have undertaken this would be an act of cynical design. Admittedly, we got the easy way out of this – the conversation petered out and went nowhere.

The fourth reflection:

At the time of solutioning, sometimes we can gauge if a company is headed down a dubious path ethically – or even professionally. There are signs of inevitable failure to come because people don’t typically bother with the slickest or most fully-conceived presentation to their training vendors.

AND NOW THE BIG PICTURE…

This part starts with a fourth story. A pharma company that came to us with a requirement of training for its sales reps.

In the discussion, we were given a deep dive by the Subject Matter Expert on what the learners should be taught. It was in the usual way that this role is trained in the industry. However, we always like to ensure we’re not just being docile and obedient, so we did go ahead and do our background research before coming up with a training recommendation.

We went through various studies of what doctors wanted to hear from medical sales representatives, their concerns, the regulatory bodies’ publications and opinions on this interaction, etc. and made our approach recommendations accordingly. The stakeholders were appreciative of the way we came at the problem, the homework we’d done. This story ends here because due to other factors, we didn’t take up the project.

But, months later, we had a strange and unexpected moment of validation looking at the news. When it comes to pharma sales and marketing, there has always been a widely known dirty secret in India. And even the Supreme Court commented on it.

Pretty much every industry player engages in this practice of bombarding and/or bribing doctors. Our profession has been comfortably invisible despite being very relevant to this picture. We are co-conspirators in a sense.

When we talk in our professional circles about solutioning, we don’t really address the influence we can have on ethical conduct unless it’s the subject matter of a course. And we do keep talking about our place at the table – but not alongside our place in society and the responsibility that comes with that. We don’t debate the difficulties, frameworks, approaches, processes or techniques to use in solutioning that help navigate such complex aspects of solutioning and scoping.

We are still far from ready to start that conversation. But, in the hope of getting there some day, I want to acknowledge these four aspects that are very much a part of solutioning. To recap –

  • Solutioning is the point of the process where we consider the larger picture beyond the purely technical focus of an SME or the content.
  • It is an opportunity and moment of responsibility to ask important questions, to at least discomfit stakeholders about problematic choices, and to prompt them to revisit the implications of their decisions.
  • Solutioning is an opportunity to spot if there is consonance of actions and choices across various operations of the company.
  • If we keep our eyes open, sometimes we can gauge if a company is headed down a dubious path ethically – or even professionally.

I’m waiting to be asked again what solutioning can particularly do – if it is just about how many screens we will use to re-present the content given to us (and how much that’ll cost!). I promise you, I’m developing my answer with every single day of practice, in every single interaction!


Written by Mridula R., Principal Learning Consultant @ Learnnovators

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