CEOs lose sleep at night worrying if their companies are “hitting on all cylinders” with regard to employee competencies across the extended enterprise. The problem for most CEOs is that they don’t have a strategy, a system or a clearly established set of processes to address this issue. Although the promise of an enterprise-wide learning and performance strategy, with its broad emphasis on people development and performance outcomes, can certainly be considered strategic, many learning practitioners don’t feel this connection with the overall business. This is ironic, given that virtually every company’s annual report states, “Our people are our most important asset.”
In recent years, many organizations have invested in systems and tools to better manage their learning requirements. While these systems help connect and automate many key learning resources and processes, the learning function generally remains fragmented. Most learning groups are only beginning to address the organizational barriers and change management challenges that stand between the current state of their companies and a complete realization of the enterprise’s value and vision.
Managing these issues at a higher level and creating the mechanisms and protocols for systematic planning and decision-making is the next opportunity for many. Call it the “governance challenge.” Enterprise learning governance represents the next “learning gap” that has to be closed. It isn’t about understanding learning programs better, but about understanding people processes and leveraging organizational disciplines better.
Governance is a discipline that comes out of change management strategy. In essence, it’s about how organizations get things done—systematically and completely across the organization. Governance is a system of decision-making structures, processes, practices and values that enable an organization to make good and actionable decisions: preparing plans and managing implementations, obtaining sponsorship, overseeing continuing operations, surfacing and resolving problems and conflicts, assigning responsibility and ensuring accountable actions. Ultimately, it crosses boundaries, touches every business unit and links tightly with the overall management of the organization.
Learning practitioners typically haven’t engaged in major change management initiatives, but the demands and scope of supporting enterprise-wide learning programs require that they do so quickly. It’s hard to align learning programs with strategic business units if one doesn’t speak the language of business and incorporate key business outcomes into learning objectives. Furthermore, it’s difficult to expand the learning footprint across broader parts of the enterprise without aligning the many teams that will help with issues around content, technology, administration and management of the program. However, doing it well takes thought, design and superb execution. Given that every organization is unique, each of us approaches this challenge with a different perspective.
Getting Started—-Link to Strategy
Recognizing that e-learning pilots may have started in a single segment of the business such as sales or compliance, HR, channel or customer education, a starting point for governance can be virtually anywhere. The question to address is how to link these fragmented activities.
A critical first step is to identify strategic business initiatives that are important to the company and hitch your learning wagon to one or more of them. There are various strategic organizational initiatives that are designed to improve business performance: increase revenue, grow market share, reduce costs or lower risk. Associated with these initiatives are personnel resources, budget and management attention and learning needs to help carry them out. This is where you want to link for support.
For example, lowering out-of-compliance risk has been a major business driver behind many recent learning initiatives in health care and financial services. Likewise, increasing sales revenues in any company can be supported with learning programs that hasten time-to-market of new products and services. Finding and supporting initiatives with these kinds of business measures will “pull” your learning programs forward, helping traverse some of the organizational barriers, rather than leaving the learning organization trying to “push” programs out cold.
Prioritizing the right strategic business initiatives should not be too difficult. Key factors to consider are whether projects are date-driven, funded and have identifiable business results that the line manager is responsible for achieving. If these factors line up, chances are the business sponsors will likely contribute funds and resources to help execute. The most important task will be to align resources and use this partnership as the basis for moving forward.
Figure 1 shows several “best practice” guidelines that help organizations evolve their learning governance bodies to provide consistent, scalable and repeatable service across larger parts of the enterprise.
Once business initiatives are identified, the next step is to establish an operating model and rules of engagement to further integrate the learning organization with the line(s) of business. Again, best practices and lessons learned from other change management initiatives can provide further insight to managing this task.
Organizations today use a “shared services” model for services such as IT, HR or finance. This is usually supported by service/account management role(s)—to work with, understand needs and help create overall alignment between corporate goals and business unit imperatives. With regard to learning, the account management model is emerging as a key coordination function in organizations with separate central learning groups in the lines of business or operating regions.
One manufacturing organization employing such a system also developed a robust communications model and planning toolkit to facilitate productive interactions between learning and business owners. Its working guides help succinctly define business issues and document process requirements, behavioral outcomes and performance objectives. The engagement model is based on a simple business intelligence interface, where business people describe business issues and challenges, process people speak about process improvements they seek, and training people design learning to address those needs. This interface helps clarify roles, responsibilities and requirements, with appropriate focus on the specific business drivers and outcomes. However, these guidelines do not have business people addressing learning design and program development.
As a result, marketing the learning function is not one of their concerns. To them, “engagement is marketing.” People are either talking together, or they are not, and the planning guides they use help drive this activity. The interaction doesn’t stop there. They “grade” each other on their respective engagements. Did the business leaders articulate their business objectives clearly enough? Did the learning team understand these requirements and design the learning accordingly? The business outcomes, learning successes or shortcomings, as well as a “grade” on the nature of the engagement, are all reported up the food chain. This tightening of alignment is what we mean by leveraging the account management model and “managing the middle” as a best practice for initiating change.
Seeking the involvement of business unit leaders helps develop a stronger governance board as well. Given the inherent decentralized nature of learning, these initiatives will require their coordination and cooperation for success. Some even say that business unit buy-in can be more important than senior management buy-in in terms of giving the learning function the strategic business focus it needs. Business line managers are among candidates who should be added to the governance advisory team to expand the council beyond learning practitioners and provide greater visibility in the organization.
Formulizing Governance Systems and Structure
At some point along the learning maturity path, conditions that help support further development of a governance system become more apparent. They might include:
- A sufficient critical mass of programs with relevant business leaders who will participate in the development and can create organizational momentum around design and implementation.
- Wider understanding of the business value of governing learning more strategically and at an enterprise level.
- Wider adoption of standards, tools and interoperability guidelines so content resources are shared effectively.
Early on, when learning is largely reactive and locally fragmented, there is little basis for governance. In secondary phases, basic governance is needed to create economies of scale and automate processes of managed learning. Whether through councils, committees or lines of reporting, clear and actionable mechanisms of decision-making emerge about the learning strategy and business operations. Many e-learning pilots fail to grow due to the lack of appropriate governance and sponsorship structures.
As one moves along, the steps require more sophisticated governance mechanisms—more developed processes and shared values, broader participation (including more functions such as business planning, content procurement or development, and technology), deeper and more flexible problem-solving, and tighter accountabilities and feedback from the business about what’s working and not working.
The ROI case for learning also becomes more complete, enhancing its value up the organization. Inefficiencies that result from organizational fragmentation are weeded out of the system, cost savings are realized across different segments of the business, and productivity benefits accumulate across multiple business outcomes. Such a composite ROI will promote a wider understanding of the investment value of governing learning at this level.
Governance structures will vary as well. There are different models, ranging from strongly centralized processes to more decentralized and “softer” integration among units (via, for example, creating a “spoke and hub” shared service model), plus a predictable range of hybrid approaches (such as matrix decision-making, networks of operating committees, “communities of practice” and so on).
As more sophisticated models are put in place, formulizing communication policies becomes more important. Initially, lateral communication with business units is critical. However, to be effective over time, enterprise-wide learning requires robust communications with all segments of the organization to gain enterprise-wide investment. This understanding includes the purpose, direction and measurement of the company strategy and the linked set of processes and interventions developed by the learning organization. Communications “north and south” need to be filtered and refined so that executive sponsors are not inundated with operational issues and can focus on strategy and resource allocation. Likewise, task teams need consistency in communications to execute effectively.
Financial stewardship also is part of the governance process—deciding and allocating the costs of owning and maintaining the learning organization and securing ongoing investment. Again, models can vary by organization. Strongly centralized models tend to have central learning budgets allocated across business units or process owners based on some unit of measure. However, many more examples are emerging where the learning organization itself is relatively small, and resources are contributed or shared by the business unit, region and process owners. By committing program dollars, business initiatives help prioritize resources for assistance from the learning organization in the form of learning program design, content development, learning system administration, etc. The lesson for practitioners is that if a business truly has an imperative, the money for learning services will be there. Hence, the ability to align appropriately is critical to secure or leverage additional resources.
Fulfilling the Promise
A governance system is comprised of decision-making structures, processes, practices and values to drive better learning investments. This definition has several implications for the development of any governance system. First, governance is much more than just an organizational design—it’s not just a particular council or hierarchical organizational chart. Second, as a system, governance requires coordination and alignment among its several components. Third, because it has multiple layers and dimensions requiring coordination, the development of governance takes time. It can’t simply be drawn on a whiteboard or implemented and integrated into an organization quickly.
Whether one is beginning to devise a learning governance system or improving what is currently in place, one must identify what needs to be accomplished and why, as well as determine the organization’s readiness for the change. It is important to understand the overall business strategy of learning within the organization, as well as the culture and openness to transformation. A new governance system always involves some transformation, and these commitments are necessary for success. Even if one is developing a learning strategy from scratch, using these governance principles will help build up an appropriate learning organization and gain enterprise momentum.
A learning and performance management system is only part of the governance system. Deploying it enterprise-wide raises a host of issues about standards, authority and information access rights, stimulating the organization to create a governance model. It also might be an outcome of establishing a governance model—once the need for more integrated and scalable processes is recognized, the drive to converge to a common system is more logically adopted.
By understanding and working with governance principles, learning executives can interface more often with senior management, gaining visibility and ongoing support. Crafting successes can elevate the chief learning officer’s role and importance. These too are legitimate reasons for pursuing a governance strategy.
Grant Ricketts serves as vice president of business development for Saba and was part of the startup management team that founded the company in 1997. Among his key roles is sponsorship of the Content Alliance program, which serves more than 160 content and tools providers worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.