Maximizing Partnerships: How Employee Learning Impacts the Organization

Sending employees to work on a project with a joint partner is a convenient and efficient way for companies to glean outside knowledge and learn new ways of conducting business. But it’s not that simple. Employees who are chosen to work on these projects often have to learn under very unfamiliar conditions, and they must figure out how to integrate that new information into the existing framework of the company. In her paper, “Organizational Learning through Alliance Secondments: Managing the Spin-Out, Spin-In Paradox in Cross-Sector Partnerships,” Wharton management professor Aline Gatignon examines organizational learning and how both employees and managers can smooth out the transitions that come with intellectual growth.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Spin In, Spin Out

This is a paper about how companies can source knowledge from outside the firm by seconding their employees to an alliance partner to work on a joint project. For example, Nissan has an exchange program for employees with three other automobile manufacturers, or Brazilian firm Vale and Japanese firm Mitsui have immersion programs for their employees. Some companies even go so far as to second their employees to humanitarian sector partners in emerging markets. The reasoning is that employees will be exposed to more challenging contacts and different ways of doing things.

For instance, global logistics provider TNT seconded over a 10-year period almost 600 of its employees to work on joint projects — close to 300 of them with the United Nations World Food Programme in 43 emerging market countries. For these alliance secondments to be successful, individual employees must learn under very unfamiliar conditions — what I call the “spin-out” phase. They must also re-integrate the knowledge that they’ve acquired back into the company when they come back — what I call the “spin-in” phase. The problem is we don’t really understand yet how these types of individual processes contribute to alliance outcomes. And that’s what this paper is about.

Coordination Is Key

I use archival interview and survey data from both TNT and the World Food Programme to try to explain what can foster employee learning during the spin-out phase and what may hinder re-integration during the spin-in phase. I find that in order for employees to learn from these radically different organizational and operational contexts, it requires very tight coordination with their alliance partners. They have to really work as a team, both making decisions together and implementing them together, as opposed to working autonomously and then putting everything together at the end. Tight coordination can both reduce prejudice between the partners, or this feeling of “us vs. them,” and it can help employees understand better what kinds of knowledge they can access through their partners and where it is located. It can also help them find creative ways of recombining their different approaches.

However, the level of tight coordination that is necessary for learning is actually detrimental to re-integration in two different ways. First, it’s very difficult to de-contextualize and then translate for your colleagues when you come back into the company. Somewhat paradoxically, the more you learn in these projects, the more re-integration difficulties you’re going to experience afterwards. The second unintended consequence reinforces this, because the tight coordination that is required for learning is going to create shifts in the way that employees perceive what it means to be a part of the company. When they come back, their sense of what it is to be an employee is going to be misaligned with their colleagues. The importance of their role as part of this alliance is going to be different than what it is for their colleagues.

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Fortunately, I find that this effect can be dampened when managers foster a sense that employee secondments are really valued by the company. Finally, I also test out the original premise of the paper, that for firms to actually benefit from these alliance secondments, employees not only need to learn, they also need to re-integrate what they’ve learned when they come back.

Learning to Re-integrate

What I found is really intriguing. Secondment managers at TNT initially evaluated the success of alliance secondments exclusively based on the amount of employee learning that happened in the field during projects. But over time, you could see them start to realize that the re-integration phase was also important, and they increasingly incorporated it into their evaluations of alliance secondments. Eventually, they gained such a nuanced understanding of the whole process that the re-integration difficulties that they sometimes saw were actually factored in positively in their evaluation of alliance secondments. In a way, they sort of realized that this was a bit of a no pain/no gain situation, that the re-integration difficulties might be indicative of a deeper learning experience.

Forging Greater Alliances

The research was done jointly with TNT and the United Nations World Food Programme with the help of the INSEAD Social Innovation Center. So, the paper is very much grounded in the real world, and the findings are directly applicable. But beyond alliance secondments, I think we could also think about how the findings might apply to different contexts in which employees are asked to learn when they’re going into more complex, turbulent, or geographically, institutionally or culturally distant environments, or when they’re just working with partners that are very different from them. Think about a multinational corporation where you could also see similar kinds of things playing out — for example, when you have scouting units or virtual teams or relationships with subsidiaries. We could also think about broader applications in that more and more firms are using knowledge projects or team-based work. So, you could think about the creative industries or the professional service firms.

“The tight coordination that is required for learning is going to create shifts in the way that employees perceive what it means to be a part of the company.”

What’s Next

My broader research agenda focuses on cross-sector partnerships between private, public and nonprofit organizations as a way to create value in emerging markets, both for the organizations that are involved and for the societies that they evolve in. I’m working on a follow-up project with [INSEAD] professor Luk N. Van Wassenhove and [INSEAD Ph.D. student] Julien Clement to study North Star Alliance, which is a foundation that TNT and the World Food Programme helped to create through their partnership. The foundation sets up and manages health clinics along African transport corridors to reach mobile populations, such as truck drivers and sex workers, that are at risk of HIV and AIDS.

We’re trying to understand how a multinational organization that crosses borders can foster internal collaboration among members of the organization in order to spread best practices about establishing and managing cross-sector partnerships. We’re also looking at how combinations of very diverse partners can help an organization reach populations that are difficult to access in these parts of the world.

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