Meet the New Learning Executive

By Robert Rodriguez Apr 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, April 2005 Learning executives redefine titles and roles to meet business objectives.

Take a look and you’ll probably find fewer “trainers” on company rosters than in the past, but that’s not because organizations are eliminating the training function. Instead, trainers are gaining more respect, and many are being brought into the executive fold as a way to increase corporate competitiveness by developing a higher-performing workforce.

To reflect this increasing respect, trainers’ titles are evolving to include such phrases as “workforce development,” “labor force readiness” and “organizational effectiveness.”

Overseeing them all may be a “chief learning officer”—an executive responsible for spearheading a learning strategy for the entire organization and ensuring that initiatives are closely aligned with the organization’s mission and goals.

In short, trainers execute corporate training strategy, and top learning executives develop that strategy. “It’s not about learning per se; it’s about building a people strategy that supports the business,” says Kate DCamp, senior vice president at Cisco Systems Inc., based in San Jose, Calif.

Top learning professionals are being asked by CEOs to align initiatives to the most pressing and important business needs. And they are working even more closely with business unit leaders to achieve this.

As a result, learning executives are facing increased demand to measure their effectiveness and impact on the business’s performance, and to manage the learning function as a business.

How learning professionals achieve this depends on the culture of their organizations. Some argue that because a centralized approach keeps trainers under one umbrella, it encourages economies of scale. Others feel that trainers should be closer to the business leaders’ needs by being embedded in their departments to facilitate communication. Top learning executives need to decide which structure best fits their organization.

Strategic decisions like these—decisions that affect the bottom line of the company—are raising the profiles of top learning professionals. They are also raising the bar, so all HR professionals involved in employee training, development and learning will need to understand the new, more-strategic direction training is taking.

Skills and Capabilities

Those who are willing to step up to the enhanced role of learning professional must be able to market and communicate the benefits of the learning function, according to a 2004 study by Accenture. The more credibility, integrity and business acumen someone has, the easier it is to promote such learning programs, says DCamp.

Thus, the power of persuasion can come in handy. “We need to be able to shift the thinking of business executives to view learning as adding value and resulting in some return on investment—just like every other expenditure,” says Bonnie Stoufer, vice president of learning, training and development at Boeing Corp., now headquartered in Chicago. “That has not always been part of the thinking in the past.”

From their role overseeing an organization’s entire training operation, top learning executives can boost return by better managing corporatewide training resources, including vendors.

For example, before Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard merged with Compaq Computer Co. in 2002, the two firms independently used more than 1,000 external training vendors. After the merger, Daisy Ng—HP’s vice president of workforce development and organizational effectiveness—looked to better manage those relationships. Ng eliminated redundancies and developed partnerships with some of these vendors, ultimately whittling their numbers down to about 350 and improving efficiency.

As the trend toward outsourced training continues to grow, it will become increasingly essential for learning executives to work with providers, as Ng does, to create the most effective arrangements. Such providers can include traditional training vendors, business school executive education departments and, increasingly, online universities. (For more information on the skills needed to work with training outsourcing vendors, see "Carve Out Training?" in the February 2004 issue of HR Magazine.)

The Business of Learning

With their budgets growing and their profiles rising, learning executives are being measured on how well they manage the business side of learning and how effectively they meet defined business outcomes.

“The key is to remember to make decisions that are for the overall good of the corporation, not just for the good of the learning function,” says Cheryl McConnaughey, president of Schwan’s University at The Schwan Food Co., a branded frozen food company in Marshall, Minn.

As a result, tracking the effect of learning initiatives is a key responsibility for running the learning business.

Holly Nordquist, managing director of talent management and development at Xcel Energy, an electricity and natural gas company in Minneapolis, tracks various learning analytics and metrics as part of her balanced scorecard. One measure is cost per participant hour, and another is cost per consulting hour. Both measure efficiency.

In addition, Nordquist evaluates training sessions using “Level 4” evaluations—the most advanced form of evaluating training that measures the return on investment (ROI). (For more information on the different levels of evaluation, see "Evaluating Evaluations" in the June 2002 issue of HR Magazine.)

“We also track qualitative data,” Nordquist continues. “Spe-cifically, we track lots of what we call ‘ROI stories’ from our leadership development program. We have a comprehensive leadership development program with several learning sessions throughout the year. In each session, we do a segment where we gather information from each participant on what they’ve learned, how it’s been applied and the impact of the application. We codify all these responses into a report that goes up to the CEO and his governance council.”

Xcel takes these metrics and benchmarks them against best practices to determine the learning organization’s effectiveness, efficiency and resources, and to plan process content improvement.

“It helps us track the ROI of our initiatives and allows us to capture the value we provide through our learning and development efforts,” Nordquist says. She also crafts service-level arrangements with key internal clients to make sure that their business needs are being met through learning programs. (To learn more about service-level agreements, see "Keeping HR on the Inside" in the October 2004 issue of HR Magazine.)

Top learning executives are driving the use of these measurements. As the profession has progressed in visibility and importance, learning professionals have raised the bar with measuring the value learning provides.

Centralized Learning

The structure—centralized or decentralized—of a company’s learning function can affect its success in serving the business’s needs. Neither type of structure is necessarily right or wrong. But knowing the characteristics of each approach can help you decide which would be a better fit for your organization. As a top learning executive, one of the most important decisions you can make is whether to centralize or decentralize your learning function.

A centralized training organization leverages one corporate training function that usually reports to one person, such as a chief learning officer. Centralized training functions assume accountability for managing learning and development throughout the organization.

By contrast, decentralized training organizations push control and responsibility for training out to the various business units. Learning professionals report to the business units and are allowed to design and deliver their own learning and development solutions.

Those who favor centralization maintain that it helps reduce variances and redundancies within an organization’s learning offerings. For example, centralization of learning proved helpful in the offering of financial education courses at Schwan’s University.

“When our head of executive development was looking to enhance financial acumen in some high-potential young leaders, he was able to leverage some courses that the vice president of manufacturing had recently offered within his business,” explains McConnaughey. “The centralized approach prevented us from having to reinvent the wheel.”

Also, some maintain that a centralized approach is better for measuring a learning program’s business impact. Centralization permits easy measurement of factors such as course completion rates, spending and learner satisfaction rates, its advocates say.

Leveraging purchasing dollars is another benefit for companies that centralize the learning function claim. “By having a holistic view of the learning initiatives within an organization, a learning executive can create a collective purchasing approach when dealing with external vendors that will save the company money,” Stoufer says of Boeing’s centralized structure.

“Having a centralized person in charge of learning provides the ability to oversee and direct investment at the company level and to determine the trade-off of the investment as an organization,” HP’s Ng explains. “This also allows maximizing the investment through the efficient use of resources and effective vendor management.”

One criticism of a centralized approach is the inability to know business leaders’ learning needs. Although learning at Schwan Food is centralized, McCon- naughey maintains that she stays aligned with the needs of individual units through the dialogue that develops as she negotiates learning budgets with each of them.

Overall, companies such as Schwan Food and Xcel have found that keeping learning in one location facilitates the sharing of best practices as it creates economies of scale and makes it easier to track initiatives.

For these reasons, a recent study by IDC, a technology forecasting company in Framingham, Mass., found that 58 percent of organizations polled plan to further centralize their training and development departments over the next few years.

Decentralized Learning

Nonetheless, a decentralized approach is preferred at some organizations because, proponents say, it fosters stronger alignment between the learning program and the business’s goals.

“We feel that the trend to centralize learning is not in the best interest of our company,” says DCamp. At Cisco, the decentralized approach to learning is borrowed from an internal best practices concept. “We think that a wide array of approaches to learning is best,” she says. “In such an environment, the best ideas tend to win, and then others will migrate toward that approach.”

At Wal-Mart Inc., where organizational assessments, leadership development and other functions are centralized, organizational learning is essentially decentralized. “We believe that better alignment with business strategy is one of the best arguments for having a decentralized approach because our learning professionals really get to know their business units,” says Charles Baldwin, vice president of corporate people development at the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer.

A decentralized learning structure fits Wal-Mart’s entrepreneurial corporate culture. “This approach allows for creativity,” Baldwin adds. “With a decentralized training approach, you are even closer to your immediate business issues because you are located at and report to the business unit.”

However, the ability to share information and best practices can be a challenge for decentralized learning functions. To overcome this, Wal-Mart has created formal task forces consisting of all business unit leaders and learning executives to share knowledge. These councils provide input into how learning can achieve strategic business priorities.

“Sharing information becomes a function of how aggressive the different training groups are in making it happen,” says Baldwin. “I believe if you have built appropriate relationships or partnerships that you find sharing information becomes a nonissue. Typically, a monthly or quarterly review with all training groups helps facilitate the process of sharing.”

Baldwin feels that such governance is essential. “At Wal-Mart, one such governing body is called the Total Talent Roundtable, made up of senior executives and learning professionals who help translate business challenges into the learning needs of our business.”

The Future of The Learning Executive

Trends indicate that the learning executive is going to become a fixture of the corporate executive team for quite some time. One reason is that organizational learning is instrumental in helping firms attract, develop and retain top talent—a key business imperative in today’s knowledge economy.

Stoufer feels that her learning initiatives help achieve that goal. “People seek us out because of the reputation we have built for providing a continuous learning environment, which promotes lifelong learning.” She oversees Boeing’s lifelong learning program, which facilitates advanced learning and career development for employees at all levels. Last year, Boeing employees attained more than 1,400 undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees, and the company invested nearly $73 million in its lifelong learning program.

Elevating top learning executives is not unique to large corporations. Learning, and the HR leader responsible for learning, can be just as critical at smaller organizations. “I have many of the same challenges and responsibilities as my peers at much larger organizations,” says Tina Thompson, director of employee learning and development at Applied Systems, an insurance software company with 700 employees based in University Park, Ill. “I, however, do not have access to the same financial resources and staff they have, which means I’m responsible for assessment, development and quite often delivery of our learning programs myself,” she adds.

The enhanced role for learning executives promises to play a key part in the success of many organizations. Adds Ng of Hewlett-Packard, “Not only is it an exciting time to be in the learning business, but those of us in these positions realize that it is also quite a privilege.”

Robert Rodriguez, Ph.D., is faculty chair for the Human Resources and General Management Program in the School of Business at Capella University in Minneapolis, where he teaches courses in human resources and talent management.

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