Just as organizations adopt a range of models to structure and govern their operations, they employ a range of models and methods to disseminate learning and training to their business units. There is no single “right way” for learning organizations to work with the business units that are, in a very real sense, their clients. As in any client relationship, however, the main charge of the learning function is to best serve the needs of learners, business units and the overall organization. Further, the learning function always must strive to build partnerships rather than “transactional” interactions, or worse, competition between itself and the business units it serves.
Three primary models for structuring learning within an organization are:
1. Centralized Learning. In this model, most often seen in large organizations, the learning function revolves around a center of excellence or university. Indeed, there are often physically centralized facilities such as a “campus” for training. Centralized learning often correlates with characteristics such as highly customized training content, internal certification programs, large sales or consulting organizations, highly technical workforces and a boot camp-style onboarding process. Centralized learning organizations often are viewed as “shared service centers.”
2. Decentralized Learning. More typical of smaller organizations, decentralized learning is fully incorporated into lines of business with the possible exception of enterprisewide compliance training. In decentralized models, the business teams might undertake training responsibilities, or training might be primarily vendor-based and specialized.
3. Hub-and-Spoke Learning. A hybrid model, a hub-and-spoke learning organization features a central learning team that primarily functions in a cost-recovery capacity, as well as an organizational structure that mirrors the lines of business.
Not surprisingly, all three models have their advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing each and learning how to avoid the pitfalls is essential to optimizing learning.
Centralized Learning: Control is Great but Avoid the Eiffel Tower
When learning is centralized, the CLO primarily is measured on operational effectiveness and cost reduction. Business cases are built and presented to determine learning priorities and initiatives. The centralized function works with line-of-business executives through a governance structure built around training councils.
Benefits to this approach include centralized funding with more control over assets and learning resources. This creates an environment more conducive to deploying centralized solutions (such as an enterprise LMS or LCMS), and standard tools and templates, as well as centralized facilities with state-of-the-art equipment. The centralized approach also enables a focus on discovering best-in-class learning solutions.
At the same time, centralized learning creates the potential for “Eiffel Tower” syndrome, wherein the learning function is perceived as an inflexible monolith out of touch with the day-to-day needs of the business unit.
The learning organization also runs a greater risk of being viewed purely as a cost center and the business unit-learning organization relationship as primarily transactional rather than a partnership. There might be an over-emphasis on physical facilities and a potentially outdated model, as learning increasingly becomes embedded into daily workflow. A final drawback to the centralized model is the temptation for business units to bypass their internal “university” and seek outside learning expertise.
In centralized models, learning teams must recognize they cannot be all things to all people. Rather, they must determine and focus on their core competency such as management training, new hire training, vendor management, learning operations or other competencies.
Centralized learning organizations must consider their internal marketing and branding. They need to execute campaigns to develop awareness and build the value proposition around the business case for a learning initiative. In addition, centralized organizations must not allow their physical presence to become a liability — they must have as strong a virtual presence as they do a physical campus. They can do this by establishing strong, role-based online learning portals that capitalize on the latest knowledge management and virtual learning techniques. The centralized learning function also must be sure to integrate learning metrics into its communication with the organization’s executives.
Finally, centralized learning operations must never forget their clients have a choice. This dynamic can open the door to mutual trust or create deep distrust. For example, a line-of-business group went to its centralized training team to request a workshop on basic instructional design. The members of the group wished to better understand the difference between good and poor training. The learning organization refused, indicating, “If we did that, what is to prevent you from just doing your own training?” The result was that the business unit contracted an outside vendor to lead the workshop, and the contracted organization now manages all of that team’s learning needs.
Decentralized Learning: Where’s the Strategy?
In the decentralized learning model, learning directors primarily are measured on their ability to respond to problems that affect the key performance indicators (KPIs) of their particular unit. They report up through the line of business, and they are regarded as part of the staff of that unit.
The main strength of the decentralized model is that learning is closely aligned to the needs of the business — the learning organization is close to and has its finger on the pulse of business priorities and needs.
Decentralized learning, however, can suffer from a tendency to take learning for granted. This model tends to deliver learning that is primarily reactive and rarely strategic. Learning teams might be business unit experts, but they often lack a formal background in learning. Decentralized learning makes it difficult to deploy enterprise learning solutions because of a lack of vendor consolidation, which also might lead to duplication of effort across the organization. This model also presents a challenge to track learning metrics on a corporatewide basis.
If the model is decentralized, learning leaders must place a priority on understanding the strategic objectives of the business unit, as well as building learning plans aligned to those strategies. Learning must not be pigeonholed as a checklist requirement, but it should be positioned as an innovative means to support where the business is going.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest pitfall to decentralized learning is that it can become sub-par. One organization with a decentralized model staffed its learning team with employees on the retirement path. In some cases, these were employees whose jobs had been eliminated because of automation or organizational restructuring, and they could not find a position anywhere else. The net result was a team of individuals with a greater interest in job preservation than in learning. This clearly creates a bad name for the learning organization and can have tremendous impact on the value.
In essence, learning leaders in a decentralized model must work to position themselves not as crisis managers but as business advisers and innovators. They need to educate line-of-business executives on the value proposition and future of learning. In doing so, they must resist the temptation to build Band-Aid learning solutions that mask more fundamental problems within the business unit.
Hub-and-Spoke: Managing Expectations
The hub-and-spoke learning model typically avoids many of the potential inefficiencies and redundancies of the decentralized model. Other advantages include clear communications channels between learning and business units with learning viewed as a partner. Hub-and-spoke typically features consolidated vendor and expense management. Further, it involves multiple business units in decisions on enterprise learning solutions.
At the same time, hub-and-spoke can lead to silos in the learning organization — this model might increase the difficulty of managing multiple requests from business units throughout the organization. As a result, the learning team might fall into a pattern of being “order takers.”
Ironically, a key pitfall of the hub-and-spoke is that because learning becomes so aligned with the business, the potential arises for LOB executives to use learning as a crutch. Training becomes the solution to all problems or easily can be used as a scapegoat for issues that are more endemic.
In one case, a call center that was facing very high attrition rates shortly after hiring pointed the finger at training. The perceived problem was the training class itself, which somehow must have been driving away new employees. The organization mandated learning design and redesign its training, yet these efforts had no impact on attrition.
Eventually, training was pushed back, and the problem was properly diagnosed as a job design/process issue. New products/offers were being rolled out to customers without any real backend processes to help support these processes. The call center representatives left because they felt they could not help these customers — not because they did not have suitable training.
The Five Pillars of Practice
As we look across the models, their strengths, their weaknesses and the steps learning organizations can take to maximize the former and mitigate the latter, patterns of best practice emerge that transcend any model. It is these five pillars of practice — alignment, business knowledge, governance, communicating value and being proactive — that constitute the building blocks of a strong and lasting bridge between learning teams and the business units they support.
Alignment is the first pillar. The successful learning organization must align itself to the businesses it supports. At the most fundamental level, this means training methods and objectives must be in lock step with the key metrics of the business and in partnership with the business. When training is built, there must be agreement on how that particular curriculum will affect the business. Business leaders should have a single point of contact into learning who is seen as an advocate to that line of business function. Even if you operate in a shared service model, a liaison between the business unit and learning can go a long way.
Business knowledge is the second pillar, and it is a logical and necessary follow-up to alignment. Any learning professional engaged with a given business unit must know and understand the key performance indicators of that unit. This includes not only learning managers but developers of learning content.
Beyond key performance indicators, learning professionals must speak the language of the business unit with which they are working. There are limitations to line-of-business experts taking on the role of trainer without a formal learning background, but it’s also clearly problematic if learning professionals are not immersed in the business for which they are delivering training. Of course, business units should make subject-matter experts and content available to build training programs. But learning organizations need to respect the time commitments of such experts, and they need to have access to their own resources to develop and maintain a deep understanding of business unit strategy and objectives.
Learning organizations must continually demonstrate the value they bring and how their solutions are aligned to overall business strategy. One way to do this is to use data from LMS systems to build training dashboards to which business unit executives have access. These dashboards should align learning operation metrics with business metrics and KPIs, enabling data-driven decision making. This implies yet another area for alignment:
Learning organizations and business units must agree on how learning will be measured, and the former must then follow through. Are the metrics increasing sales, reducing costs or cutting customer hold times? Learning must be able to show how its solution drives these metrics and how those metrics will be collected and used.
Governance also is key to building bridges with business units. No matter the framework, learning governance should include training councils with representatives from the business units. Learning councils need decision-making authority, both with regard to business strategy and learning deployments. Indeed, one of the leading problems in learning governance is placing the wrong people on the governance board, people who lack the necessary authority and knowledge. This can result in learning losing credibility as a strategic partner and in poor decisions being made.
The fourth pillar is communicating value. Whether it is a formal, internal marketing campaign or regular operational reviews with business unit executives, CLOs and their direct reports must regularly communicate the value they bring to the table. This includes providing detailed operational metrics and ROI analyses as appropriate. Measurement dashboards should be part of the standard operating practices of every learning organization.
Finally, the learning function must be proactive, not reactive. Too often, learning is brought in too late in the process, its role relegated to putting out fires as opposed to building strong and successful business units. Business units need to bring learning in early in the process. Not only can true partnership lead to unique and innovative solutions specifically directed at the fundamentals of a business challenge, but when it comes to learning, self-diagnosis is inherently problematic.
At the same time, the learning organization must make the case for a timely seat at the table. The organization must create the compelling business cases that will persuade business unit executives to make the investment necessary to bring learning initiatives to fruition. This can mean taking risks. Learning leaders must take the lead in demonstrating thought leadership. They must establish trust by being willing to share experiences of failed learning projects, for example, challenges for which training was not the right solution.
If you want to build bridges with your business units, don’t wait for them to come to you — take the initiative. Treat your business units as valued clients and trusted partners. Be prepared to walk the talk with knowledge of what makes a business unit tick, as well as an unbiased assessment of its training needs.
Michelle Page-Rivera, Ph.D., is an associate partner for IBM Global Business Services’ human capital management department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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