Tight Budgets Call for Spot-On Learning Investments

By Trellis Usher-Mays Dec 1, 2008

As corporate executives seek ways to reduce costs, investments in learning programs and resources often are among the first eliminated. While internal learning organizations aren’t immune from negative impact, organizations should make these decisions with the same thoughtful analysis as with other functions in the business.

Still, the learning organization bears most of the responsibility for positioning itself as a value-added function that executives look to in times of uncertainty.

As corporate executives try and determine where the organization is going and what it will look like in three to five years, it’s the learning organization (in partnership with HR and the business) that sets the strategy to develop the right people with the right skills at the right time to execute those strategic goals. During lean times, it’s more important than ever that learning investments be made where they are going to produce the most value. Often that means investing in the organization’s future success and sustainability.

The goal of any strategic learning-needs analysis is to identify talent development needs critical to the organization’s future as opposed to simply maintaining the status quo. As part of the process, five key questions must be answered regarding:

  • Future State: What looks different about the organization in a three-to-five-year timeframe?
  • Key Capabilities: Based on the strategic goals (three- to five-year horizon), what key competencies and capabilities will the company need to “buy or build” to win in the market?
  • Target Audience: What functions and/or job families are most critical to achieving those goals?
  • Readiness: For each of those functions/job families, how would you rate the incumbent’s level of readiness to meet future challenges and opportunities?
  • Measurement: What levers do we expect to see move if we’re successful?

A well-done strategic learning-needs analysis will yield a comprehensive summary of findings and recommendations that will serve as a road map for the company for the next two-to-three years. Keep in mind that learning priorities should be re-evaluated and the plan refreshed annually to ensure continued alignment.

Acting on Analysis Results

So what do organizations do in the near term? First, make sure that the wheels don’t come off while the company is getting to its destination. While the internal learning organization is often busy making sure that current needs of the business are being met, more companies are turning to outsourcing partners and independent consultants to help develop their strategic human capital development plans.

Companies are finding significant value in having a dedicated resource with broader experience to help them navigate the often-uncertain task of figuring out what they’re going to do before they do it. In a recent study by Chief Learning Officer online, experts reported that in 2008 the second largest learning outsourcing expense was on front-end analysis and design and development services ($16 billion), second only to outsourcing training delivery ($23.6 billion).

Whatever approach an organization takes in identifying the future skill needs of its workforce, one thing is certain: It can’t afford to get stuck in the mud of economic uncertainty. Organizations that focus on a clear set of key strategic objectives, lead in market-driven product innovations and make targeted investments in their people will be the success stories of the next decade.

Trellis Usher-Mays is president and CEO of the Atlanta, Ga.-based consulting firm T.R. Ellis Group LLC. She also is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Organizational Development Special Expertise Panel and can be reached at Trellis@TRE-Group.com.


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