An ideal isn’t necessarily something that can be achieved, but it is something to which someone can aspire. Of course, the concept of perfection is elusive because it is largely subjective. Therefore, people might disagree about the hallmarks of a model learning organization — some might maintain that the quintessential characteristic of a great learning program is a robust, comprehensive metrics system, while others will argue that it’s a creative and engaging approach to developing content.
For Ray Hartjen, manager of talent and organizational development at Sony Electronics, the key quality of an ideal learning organization is direction and support from the very top of the enterprise.
“It’s nice to know what other folks are doing — benchmarking, best practices, leading-edge thought about professional and executive development — but I think, first and foremost, a (learning) organization needs to be led by the business. What are the objectives? What are the strengths that our organization has that we need to leverage to better compete? What are the critical skills gaps we have that we need to close so they’re not fatal? For us, we need a lot of input from our business leaders — they need to tell us. They’re the best at assessing the organization, and how we’re going to compete, and what the value proposition is for the customer. We want not only their championing and sponsoring what we do, but also to lead things.”
Hartjen and his team are responsible for developing and delivering learning to about 6,500 internal employees in the United States, as well as thousands more in Canada and Mexico. Of these, about 2,500 have true career development plans. The workers who receive this more intensive and defined learning path typically are the ones in more advanced job roles such as engineers, sales and marketing pros, as well as high-level personnel such as managers and executives.
The involvement and control of organizational leaders, where corporate education is concerned, is paramount to success because it ensures learning will be aligned to the needs of the company. This is especially important at Sony Electronics, because the organization has so many different lines of business.
“We have to integrate (training) into our overall business initiatives,” Hartjen said. “We have 11 different businesses within electronics, and each one of those has a different set of strategies and objectives that roll into our larger organizational mission. Our value proposition to our (internal) customer is for them to recognize that this directly affects the value proposition they offer to their customer. If we can do that, people will take time out of their busy schedules to learn and develop and apply that to their jobs.”
Hartjen added that while the learning function at Sony Electronics has not yet attained the level of participation from leaders he desires, he is happy with the progress that’s been made.
“We’re trying to live up to those values,” Hartjen said. “It’s a change from the way we have done business. We are engaging our executive team to actively sponsor, participate and sometimes even lead training. We’re getting there: That’s the goal we’re shooting for, and every month brings another success story.”
One of these success stories has been the Sony Business Management simulation, a three-day experience (preceded by e-learning) in which small groups of managers go over important financial and operational concepts. Ten weeks after the session, Hartjen and his team checks in with them to see what the benefits to the business have been.
He said one Sony Business Management simulation, which involved 25 employees and cost $30,000, had resulted in $3.1 million in cost savings or revenue enhancement because of it.
“It doesn’t take much for the business leader to understand that value,” Hartjen said. They’ll look at that and say, ‘That’s good. Let’s fund some more.’ That’s not audited by Ernst & Young or anything, but let’s discount by half and say it’s $1.5 million. Is that a worthwhile return on our $30,000 investment? Yeah, it is.”
Ultimately, the success of a learning organization is determined by the value it brings to the business it supports, Hartjen said.
“We don’t want them to learn for learning’s sake — we want them to have things that are tied to the challenges they face, and more importantly, can apply to add value to their teams, their customers and our organization,” he said. “It’s not a brainiac, academic learning organization that’s thinking about neat models and so forth. It’s what’s practical, what works. How can we create value?”
Brian Summerfield, email@example.com
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