5 surprises for AMI during 4 years of developing people across Africa

20th July 2018

Let’s start by stating the obvious: People matter.

In fact, people doing a good job – performing effectively and responsibly – underpin pretty much everything.

But what’s less obvious, is how to help people and organisations unlock their potential. And how do you do this at scale, with lasting impact, while making money?

That’s the challenge we set ourselves just over four years ago when we started the African Management Initiative a social enterprise pioneering a scalable approach to workplace learning for Africa.

We’ve tweaked our model multiple times over the past few years. But we’ve never strayed from our core mission of delivering practical and impactful learning experiences at a price SGBs and intermediaries can afford. So far, we’ve directly trained over 20,000 managers, entrepreneurs and young people across Africa through our clients and partners, including many ANDE members and their portfolio companies. 100% of our clients reported a tangible impact on business performance after engaging with AMI, with two thirds drawing a direct link between that improvement and their work with AMI. So, we know our model works. But there have been many surprises along the way, and we’ve shared a few of these below.

1 – Learning is a practice, not an event

Training is not new.  In fact, if anything, many of the SGBs and intermediaries we work with are tired of training. And this fatigue comes DESPITE a recognition that SGBs in Africa and beyond are battling critical skill gaps. So why the disconnect? It’s simple – traditional training is broken. And the reason? Traditional training centres on events, such as workshops or courses, instead of on practices or habits. Effective learning experiences help individuals and organisations develop new practices and habits to drive performance. That’s not something you can do in a 2-day workshop once a year.

So, what does practice-based learning look like – in practice? At AMI, we refuse to deliver what we call ‘hit and run workshops’ (despite getting asked for them regularly). Instead we partner with organisations to deliver ongoing learning journeys. First, we create a ‘learning academy’ that staff can access anytime, anywhere, on an ongoing basis, and then we layer in blended programmes for targeted groups. So, for example, our Management Development Programme for new and middle managers lasts 4-6 months and takes participants through a journey that introduces them to key tools for managing their teams through our web and mobile platform, then gives them a chance to practice those tools with their peers in our interactive workshops, followed by time to apply these skills on-the-job with their teams. In any AMI programme, we work around that cycle several times, creating opportunities for learning, practice, feedback and reflection. Eventually, new habits are formed, people flourish and organisations grow.

2 – Entrepreneurs and employees have different learning styles. But blended is almost always the best.

Different people learn differently. But there are consistent patterns. Our data shows very clearly that entrepreneurs prefer informal and practical learning tools, rather than formal courses and workshops. They want to drive their own learning agendas, have little interest in one-size-fits-all training programmes, and critically – they need to see the results immediately by using what they learn in their business. They also want to network – exchanging ideas and seeking out support from their peers. This makes sense – impatient and busy business owners want to find exactly what they need, when they need it, and are not interested in taking a course someone else thinks is important.

In response, we designed Grow your Business a scalable approach to business development support that flips the traditional model of entrepreneurship training on its head. Instead of starting with a core curriculum, entrepreneurs choose five business practices from a list of activities that we know correlate with business growth. We provide the tools entrepreneurs need to embed these practices or habits in their business (things like ‘I forecast my cash-flow monthly’, or ‘I survey my customers every quarter’) over a 6-month period, and connect them into a peer support group. It’s a highly scalable and effective model that allows entrepreneurs to feel in charge of their own learning journeys, without resorting to expensive (and often ineffective) consulting. We’ll have more data to show soon, but initial feedback is very promising. In one of our most successful programmes with entrepreneurs, 7,000 young entrepreneurs downloaded over 1 million tools from our online platform in less than 6 months. 100% reported business growth and 75% increased revenue. Grow Your Business is being tested rigorously through a Randomised Control Trial with a team of researchers at MIT.

Participants at our Grow Your Business Programme in Partnership with KCB Bank

Employees tend to have a very different learning style from entrepreneurs. They typically enjoy being part of a shared learning journey – and in fact this collective experience typically boosts engagement and improves outcomes. Employees are much more likely to complete a formal online course – as opposed to downloading informal tools and resources – and attend scheduled workshops, particularly if they know they’ll get a certificate, and think it might boost their career.

Despite the different approaches, we’ve learned that combining online resources with in-person experience, plus and structured opportunities for on-the-job application, yields results for both for entrepreneurs AND employees. Blended is best, always.

3 – Everyone needs soft skills. And soft skills are hard…

We like to think of soft skills as personal habits for effectiveness. And everyone needs them. This is perhaps less of a surprise now than when we started AMI a few years ago, and many others in the talent space have identified the same need. But still, too many SGBs and intermediaries still think their biggest challenges are around technical, functional or ‘hard’ skills, when research and experience suggests that the less tangible skills – such as people management, communication, personal effectiveness, working as a team, critical thinking – often cause the biggest problems. Of course, these are also the skills that can be hardest to develop, particularly in the pressure-cooker of an entrepreneurial business. Working with an external learning partner can help. Again, we’ve noticed a real shift in the past few years, as talent-forward organisations increasingly see the value of investing in developing core people skills, at entry level as well as middle and senior management. Programmes that focus on helping staff manage themselves and their teams now account for almost all our work with established businesses. Even with busy entrepreneurs, we’ve embedded courses on personal effectiveness and setting goals into our programmes, and they often end up being the ones that generate the light-bulb moments, and the most significant changes in habits and practice.

4 – Investing in a few key people can lift a whole workforce.

We’ve always hypothesized that investing in key managers, either at senior, middle or even line manager level, would not only improve the performance of those participants, but could affect employee engagement and productivity across a whole workforce. Our latest impact report confirms this assumption, with 100% of clients reporting improved company performance and 92% of business clients reporting improved productivity across the whole company (not just AMI participants), 96% noted improved employee engagement.

The data is clear – providing structured learning opportunities even to a small group is a win for the entire team. It has a ripple effect – good managers, develop good workers. Developing key staff increases the collective capacity of the team, boosts employee job satisfaction and acts as a powerful retention tool. We hope this data will encourage even cash-strapped early-stage SGBs to invest early and often in their people, to quickly see the benefits across their team and the business more broadly.

5 – It is possible to demonstrate impact and Rol on developing people.

For several years, the human capital community – particularly in East Africa – have been wringing our hands over how to measure impact and Return on Investment. Measuring intangibles like leadership skills, or organisational culture, is not easy. We often revert to blunt instruments like workshop feedback surveys or course completion rates. At AMI, we’ve been working hard to develop a better methodology for impact measurement. We don’t have the whole answer, but for the first time this year, AMI generated data proving that our programmes not only help build the skills of the individual participants who take them, but also drive the business performance of organisations.

 This is a game changer in demonstrating how talent links with SGB performance, and in proving the RoI for developing people.

AMI data showed that 92% of business clients saw improvements in management and leadership skills among their employees, with 100% of clients saying business improved after they ran AMI learning programmes with their employees. Of those, 92% reported an improvement in operating efficiency and 92% reported improved customer satisfaction. As Richard Branson said, look after your staff, and your staff will look after your customers… Our programmes with SMEs and entrepreneurs appear to be even more impactful than those with employees, despite often running with thousands of participants at a time. 100% of entrepreneurs who completed a post-programme survey saw a change in their business after engaging with AMI. Of these, 75% reported an improvement in revenue, 73% increased profit, 50% created new jobs and 35% secured debt or equity funding. All of them attributed that change at least partly to the AMI programme.

We’re thrilled to finally have hard data that proves the power of people development. And we’re looking forward many more surprises, as we expand our work to empower individuals and organisations across Africa.

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