Making Corporate Learning Work

By Shlomo Ben-Hur Apr 8, 2013
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Corporate learning may be a joke in the eyes of some, but it shouldn’t be. With organizations spending more than an estimated $200 billion on learning each year, it’s big business.Yet more than half of managers polled said they believe that employee performance would not change if their company’s learning function were eliminated, according to the results of a 2012 survey conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council of The Corporate Executive Board Co. If those responsible for corporate learning accept or ignore this assessment, they risk making the department the laughingstock of their organization.

Fueled by budgetary pressures driven by the economic downturn, there is a real and growing focus at companies on the value of corporate learning—and on how to add value to the corporate learning function. Below are several areas that businesses must concentrate on to clarify and quantify the return on investment in corporate learning.

Focus on functional alignment. Much of the thinking about corporate learning has been about the need for it to be strategically aligned with a company’s business objectives. But to translate strategic alignment into operational results, many learning functions themselves must undergo a functional realignment that takes into account the:

  • Best way to structure or organize the function to accommodate business needs.
  • Mind-set and capabilities of the people within the function.
  • Design of learning systems, products and services that support learning throughout the business.

Focus on behavior change, not learning. People tend to talk and think about corporate learning in the same terms as traditional academic learning. Yet much corporate learning does not involve acquiring new knowledge; it’s about changing people’s behavior in ways that produce value for the business. Changing behavior is a very different task from helping people to learn. It requires different theories, methods and tools, and businesses cannot hope to be successful at changing behavior by using traditional academic learning models and tools.

Step in and out of the business. The psychologist Bruno Bettleheim said the challenge in changing people isn’t about stepping into their heads to understand motivations and thinking; rather it’s about stepping out again to think objectively about what needs to happen to bring about change. 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 contribute an objective viewpoint.

Share accountability for learning. The responsibility for ensuring that learning happens, that behavior changes and that performance improves needs to be shared by all parties involved. If learning is to occur, businesses must avoid reinforcing the idea that corporate learning is only about that function “doing something” to employees. The employees themselves, their managers and the broader business all need to be held accountable for their roles in creating a learning environment. Research has consistently shown that contextual factors such as the workplace environment are actually more important in ensuring that workers apply learning than the quality of the learning event.

Apply market research and market intelligence to decision-making. Corporate learning is effectively a market with competing products and services, and if quality is to prevail, businesses must be able to compare products and know what works and what doesn’t, so they can make informed judgments about what they want to do, what they can do and what they need to do.

These priorities are at the heart of what corporate learning needs to address to increase the learning function’s value. As skill shortages and fewer ways to achieve competitive advantage drive businesses to look internally to their human resources to differentiate themselves from the competition, learning leaders have their companies’ attention like never before. They may be under greater pressure to deliver, but they can show the value of the function by implementing more cost-effective performance solutions, by demanding faster design and delivery cycles, and by providing workers more accessible content.

Shlomo Ben-Hur is an organizational psychologist and director of the Organizational Learning in Action (OLA) programfor the IMD business school in Switzerland. His latest book, The Business of Corporate Learning: Insights from Practice(Cambridge University Press, 2013), draws on his more than 20 years of corporate experience in senior leadership positions for companies such as DaimlerChrysler Services and BP Group.

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