Moving from laughingstock to saving grace

Five priorities for making corporate learning work

By Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur

Here's a shocking finding: more than half of managers believe that employee performance would not change if their company's learning function were eliminated.[i] Corporate learning may well be a joke in the eyes of some, but it shouldn't be, because it's big business. It's no laughing matter that organizations spend over $200 billion on learning each year.

Yet, the fact that something is seriously wrong with corporate learning is well known. Over the past ten years surveys have repeatedly shown that only around 20 per cent of business leaders are satisfied with the performance of their learning function.[ii] For any other department of a modern-day business this would be grim news. Yet for corporate learning it seems to be accepted or ignored, making the department the laughingstock of many organizations.

But a unique opportunity is on the horizon. Fuelled by downturn-driven budgetary pressures, there is a real and growing focus on the value that corporate learning adds.[iii] The heat is on, and if corporate learning is to retain what remains of its credibility, this is a saving grace not to be missed.

Of course, for anything to change, there needs to be some recognition that there is a problem and unfortunately not everyone seems convinced. Whenever learning leaders have been asked what their biggest challenge is, they have reported that it is demonstrating the value of their work.[iv] There is no doubt that this is a challenge. But I am deeply concerned that it comes out as the number one issue, because it reveals an assumption that there is nothing wrong with what is being done at present and that the poor satisfaction ratings are somehow not a fair reflection of what value is being achieved. It is as if the issues are skin-deep with challenges of presentation and political positioning presiding over the substance of how learning works.

I could not disagree more. I am certain that the learning profession can, and often does, add value. The poor standing of corporate learning is not just about presentation. Top to toe, something is wrong and it is going to take more than a change in how learning is presented and positioned to put things right. With satisfaction levels hovering around 20 per cent, we have a long way to go before we can start saying that corporate learning is in a good place.

While the past ten years have witnessed changes in the practice of learning, with journals full of genuinely fascinating and innovative case studies, what's happened hasn't been nearly enough to move the needle higher. Changes have either not been the right ones or have not been big enough.

So what has gone wrong and what do businesses need to start doing? My research for the upcoming book "The Business of Corporate Learning: Insights from Practice," points to five key priorities that businesses absolutely must do to put things right and make learning work.

1. Focus on behavior change, not learning

People tend to talk and think about corporate learning in the same terms as traditional, academic learning. Yet in the majority of organizations much of the corporate learning that happens is not about acquiring new knowledge, but about changing people's behavior in ways that produce value for the business. Changing behavior is a very different task from helping people learn. It requires different theories, methods and tools and businesses simply cannot hope to be successful at it while using traditional academic learning toolkits.

2. Focus on functional alignment

Much of the thinking about corporate learning has been about the need to be strategically aligned with a company's business objectives. This is undoubtedly critical to success, but it is time for a bit of balance. In order to translate strategic alignment into operational results, learning functions need to think more about functional alignment – how the structure of the function, the mindset and capabilities of the people within it, and the design of learning systems, products and services are all aligned with and capable of fulfilling the purpose of learning in the business.

3. Step in and out of the business

The psychologist Bruno Bettleheim said that the challenge in changing people isn't about stepping inside their heads to understand motivations and thinking, but rather about stepping out again in order to think objectively on what needs to happen. With all the focus on aligning with business needs and demonstrating value, learning functions risk losing their ability to be objective about what needs to happen. And if they are to achieve and retain credibility, they need to be able to contribute an objective viewpoint.

4. Apply market forces

Corporate learning is effectively a market with competing products and services, and if we want quality to prevail, we need to apply market forces. By this I mean that businesses need to be able to compare products and know what works and what doesn't, so that they can make informed judgments about what they want to do, what they can do and what they need to do. Businesses must evaluate and not just with 'happy sheets.'

5. Share accountability for learning

The responsibility for ensuring that learning happens, behavior changes and that performance is improved needs to be shared among all parties involved. If they want learning to work, businesses must not reinforce the idea that corporate learning is only about learning teams 'doing something' to employees. The employees themselves, their managers and the broader business all need to be held accountable for their roles. After all, research has persistently shown that contextual factors such as the workplace environment are actually more important in ensuring the application of learning than the quality of the learning event.

These five priorities are at the heart of what corporate learning needs to do to make learning work. It won't be easy, certainly as organizations increasingly expect more for their learning money: moving to ore cost-effective solutions, demanding faster design and delivery cycles and more accessible content. But, I am optimistic there is a new opportunity for change.

As skill shortages and fewer ways to achieve competitive advantage drive businesses to look internally, learning leaders have the attention of their organizations like never before. They may be under greater pressure to deliver, but they also have the stage and the opportunity to put things right.


Shlomo Ben-Hur is an organizational psychologist and professor of leadership and organizational. He is program director of IMD's Organizational Learning in Action (OLA). His new book "The Business of Corporate Learning: Insights from Practice," draws on his more than 20 years of corporate experience in senior executive positions, including vice president of leadership development and learning for the BP Group, and chief learning officer for DaimlerChrysler Services. 

 

[1] Corporate Leadership Council. (2012). Driving the Business Impact of L&D Staff. London: The Corporate Executive Board Company.
[2] Accenture. (2004). The Rise of the High-Performance Learning Organization. Results from the Accenture 2004 Survey of Learning Executives. London: Accenture.
[3] Giangreco, A., Carugati, A., & Sebastiano, A. (2010). Are We Doing the Right Thing? Food for Thought on Training Evaluation and Its Context. Personnel Review, 39(2), 162-177.
[4] Accenture. (2004). The Rise of the High-Performance Learning Organization. Results from the Accenture 2004 Survey of Learning Executives. London: Accenture.
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