Chief Learning Officer Magazine’s Business Intelligence Board has been constituted to provide a continuous, relevant look at the challenges and opportunities faced by learning executives.
Readers responded quickly and vocally to the call in September to join the CLO Business Intelligence Board. More than 900 agreed to participate in the board—from nearly that many companies—and took an average of nine minutes to answer 14 questions related to their company and their organization’s attitudes toward training. Every other month, we will pose a short list of questions to this board on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes that make up this diverse but important role. This article is the first in that series.
When aligning training to strategy, there are a number of hurdles to overcome, even before the CLO places pen to paper to announce or even articulate the training objectives. Foremost among these are organizational commitment to training, alignment of offerings to objectives and the clear dissemination of the impact that development and CLOs have on an organization. These reflect the three truths that seem to drive a CLO’s success:
- Organizational success depends on organizational commitment to development.
- Development offerings must be continually evaluated to determine alignment and relevance to the current business climate.
- No one knows how well you are doing (or what you are doing) unless you tell them.
This article lays out how CLOs and others represented on the Business Intelligence Board feel about their organizations and the role that the learning organization plays in supporting organizational alignment.
Importance of Training
The Business Intelligence Board strongly believes in learning and employee development and its importance to organizational success. Nearly 97 percent believe that learning and development is either critical or very important to the success of their company (see Figure 1). This enthusiasm is clearly explained by the positions of the respondents. More than 55 percent are CLOs or hold other responsible positions in the training department of their organizations and have a strong affiliation with the relationship between development and organizational success (see Figure 2).
At the same time, this group also seems to believe that their senior management places less value on training and development. Only two-thirds reported that senior management of their organizations see training as “critical” or “very important.” What is more interesting is that one in three respondents believe their organization’s senior executives view training as merely “important” or “not important” to the business. This suggests a disconnect between employee development personnel and the rest of the organization. In fact, 35 percent of all respondents felt that getting executive or line of business buy-in was the most significant hurdle they face when aligning organizational learning with corporate strategies. This portends the first of several truths facing CLOs: Organizational success depends on organizational commitment to development.
While it is easy to place all responsibility on senior management—and without a doubt, those positions hold a great influence over the tone and direction of an organization—up and down the organizational ladder, commitment to development cannot be overemphasized by CLOs. Not only do employees (of all levels) feel supported and empowered with a strong organizational commitment to training, but they are also more productive and less likely to change jobs.
Only with organizational commitment to development will “training” the organization on a new corporate strategy have any impact. Development and change must be part of the organizational mind-set, or the “training” will be one more program that fails due to lack of interest.
Alignment and Organizational Strategy
“Organizational strategies change.” This truism reflects the nature of business, especially for the past 20 years. In the 1980’s businesses changed to respond to a depressed economy, then in response to high unemployment, followed by a roller-coaster economy tied to the Internet boom and bust. The speed with which organizations can adapt their strategies (and their workforce) to new conditions predicts the strength and opportunities the company can expect to leverage in the future. A quick search of the leading business press for August uncovered these examples of drivers to corporate change:
- “Focus on areas of competitive advantage.”
- “Become a great place to work.”
- “Our company must be…(smart, nimble, prepared to change).”
- “We must focus on…(the customer, leading the industry, gaining market share).”
Without trying to sound cynical, some organizations change their strategy as a way of biding time or delaying the day of reckoning. Even so, CLOs have worked hard to align their curricula with the current (and possibly future) directions. The Business Intelligence Board believes that about 65 percent of their training offerings are well aligned with their organizations’ strategic goals. The remaining 35 percent represents “under-aligned” offerings. (See Figure 3.) But changing a training offering can be costly in terms of money, time and effort. And there is often institutional resistance to removing outdated offerings. This comes in large part from the difficulty most CLOs have convincing organizational leaders of the value and necessity to train employees. The Business Intelligence Board believes that their No. 1 challenge to aligning development with organizational strategy by far is demonstrating the impact that successful training could have on new strategy adoption (see Figure 4).
This raises the second critical truth for CLOs: Development offerings must be continually evaluated to determine alignment and relevance to the current business climate.
Where Are CLOs Successful?
All this talk of challenges and opportunities can seem to overlook the hard work and successes CLOs are having within their organizations. After spending time and money to align training to their organizations’ strategies, learning executives are confident that their efforts are working. Three-quarters of board respondents feel that their efforts have led to programs that help client-facing employees better serve their customers. This is a remarkable achievement. When IDC began this research, we believed that we would discover that a significant portion of the board would be dissatisfied with their accomplishments, or frustrated by the pace of organizational adoption of a learning model. Quite to the contrary, CLOs believe that their programs are directly and significantly influencing the customer experience to the benefit of the clients and their companies.
While a large percentage of the respondents feel that their programs benefit their clients, seven of 10 respondents also feel that their programs improve employee productivity. Ultimately, this group says, employee performance can be improved by the deployment of high-quality training supported by high-quality assessments. And their programs are designed to do this. (See Figure 5.)
Still, almost 40 percent believe that the programs they deliver do not help adoption of major corporate initiatives. Somewhere, there is a breakdown between the supporter of the initiative and the training organization charged with facilitating its adoption. This is reinforced by the belief, identified by more than a third of respondents, that getting support up and down the organization is the most serious impediment to aligning training with organizational strategy.
More dreadful still is the admission by 56 percent of the respondents that their processes and systems don’t facilitate smooth promotion of critical employees. This had been a traditionally strong role for the corporate training department—readying employees for promotion. Assuming that CLOs are focused on the key issues of their organizations, this finding suggests that this imperative is less important than in years past and is lower on the ever-lengthening list of organizational goals.
This foreshadows interesting opportunities for further research: What should a CLO’s role in the organization be? How does that role differ from the traditional training department? Future research will help uncover these interesting elements of this evolving and increasingly important position. And while it portends opportunities for interesting research—it also highlights the next critical truth facing CLOs: No one knows how well you are doing (or what you are doing) unless you tell them.
CLOs can’t always influence the construction of the new strategy, but are always on point when it comes to getting it adopted throughout the organization. The challenge with this “out front” role is that the CLOs can’t act unilaterally to execute the needed training and development activities. The impediments CLOs face range from funding to staffing to support, but ultimately, each must be tackled in order to follow through on the commitment to aligning training with organizational strategy.
The process of organizational alignment is a constant struggle between the cosmic forces of entropy that drive organizations toward an ever more disorganized state and the forces of ectropy that encourage alignment and order as a result of growth and development (and with an epicenter located just inside the offices of the CLO). The Business Intelligence Board will act as the corporate scorecard to highlight how well the good guys are doing.
Cushing Anderson is program director of Learning Services Research at IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm. You can e-mail Cushing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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