Tuesday, 26 September 2023 IMS HomepageHome

Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy

By Professor Coulson-Thomas

Could your organization and its people derive more benefit from training and development? Does your training meet personal and professional development requirements and contribute to key business objectives such as winning new business? If all existing courses were closed down would customers notice or care?

Now is a good time to ask such questions. Training and development are at a watershed. Many existing courses and facilities are coming to the end of their useful lives. There are new approaches to learning and knowledge management to consider, emerging technologies to evaluate, and collaborative opportunities to assess.

Those responsible for corporate learning face tough choices and multiple challenges. Should a corporate university offer formal qualifications? How might a corporate intranet best be used? Could business development and the processes of value and knowledge creation be better supported? Should resources devoted to e-learning courses which people ignore or find boring be used for more productive purposes?

Certain options go to the heart of many current operations. Should training and development be made a revenue centre or a distinct business? Could particular activities, or the whole function, be outsourced? What would be lost if ‘central training’ were closed down?

A two-year investigation of corporate learning plans and priorities examined these and other questions. It involved corporate visits and 69 structured interviews with those responsible for the training and development of some 460,000 people. The results, summarized in the report ‘Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy’*, are sobering and have demanded urgent attention.

Many courses, and in some cases those who deliver them, have passed their ‘sell by’ date. At the same time essential requirements and critical corporate priorities are being largely ignored. Too little effort has been devoted to business development, relationship building, knowledge creation, e-business and entrepreneurship. There are new approaches to transforming the performance of key work groups that offer much higher returns on investment.

Overwhelmingly, the investigation found that the emphasis was upon squeezing costs, rather than the generation of incremental income streams. Only one of the organisations surveyed was equipping its people to be more successful at bidding for business, even though the top twenty bidding skills and critical success factors for winning bids have been identified and tried and tested bid management tools are available (Winning New Business, Bedford, Policy Publications, 2003).

Human resource teams are working hard, but many of them do not appear to have been connecting with the world around them. Millions have been spent on grandiose initiatives, fashionable concepts such as empowerment, and general ‘quality’, ‘teamwork’, ‘motivation’, and ‘leadership’ training, while particular and important requirements are overlooked.

Critically, training inputs are not leading to new know-how and intellectual capital outputs. Existing understanding is being shared, but the new knowledge needed to compete and win and secure market leadership is rarely being created. Presentations on ‘knowledge management’ abound, but specific initiatives to develop knowledge entrepreneurs or equip key work groups with knowledge based support tools are few and far between.

The organisations examined focused overwhelmingly upon the internal development of employed staff. Customers, contractors, suppliers, associates, supply chain and business partners can all have development needs which could, and should, be addressed by shared learning and relevant support tools.

Education, learning, training and updating are rapidly becoming global markets in their own rights. They are among the most exciting of contemporary business opportunities. However, in general training and development are rarely perceived as a source of incremental revenues. Nor are they used as a means of building relationships with key decision makers in strategic customers, suppliers and business partners.

Many trainers appear to ‘follow fashion’. They buy ‘off the shelf’ rather than think about what would be most appropriate in specific situations. They provide standard programmes regardless of individual interests. They expose people working on very different activities to common experiences that have little relevance to their particular requirements and priorities. Employees are sent on general courses rather than given job-related support.

Opportunities for training collaboration are being missed. Many companies face similar development problems and challenges. Maybe the cost of new resources and facilities could be split between several users. There are also shared learning networks such as the Business Development Forum for those wanting to win more business.

Finally, the aspirations of individuals are often being overlooked. Trainers focus unashamedly upon corporate pre-occupations. Yet many people seek greater control and more balance in their lives. Switching the emphasis to innovation, entrepreneurship and business building can enhance both corporate performance and personal fulfilment.

Not surprisingly, education, training and development expenditures are still sometimes viewed as a cost, rather than as strategic activities. They are not always considered vital investments in the creation of knowledge, intellectual capital and value for customers. There are exceptions. Glaxo Wellcome views innovation and creativity in the development of new products as a critical business process. Staff are helped to become more effective researchers.

All in all, the state of affairs uncovered by the investigation deserves attention. Those interviewed came across as sincere, hard working and personally committed to individual and corporate development, as was evidenced by the high priority given to obtaining and retaining Investors in People recognition across various areas of corporate activity. Interviewees derive little satisfaction from the situation revealed by the survey*.

So what needs to be done? Winners tend to be pioneers and innovators, rather than observers and imitators. They facilitate, enable and support development. They champion and reward learning and enterprise. Learning should be built into work processes and peoples roles. It should embrace customers, suppliers and business partners.

Winners allow individuals to manage their own learning. They encourage their people to join shared learning networks and achieve breakthroughs in understanding. They establish corporate universities, foster learning partnerships, and keep their learning strategies current, relevant and vital. Standard offerings are abandoned in favour of specific and tailored interventions. Key work groups such as bid teams and account managers are supported with tools that incorporate critical success factors and the winning ways of high performers.

Training teams with the potential should be tasked with becoming profitable businesses in their own right. Training activities should contribute to enterprise, business and knowledge development. Providing individuals with personal learning accounts could create ‘customers’.

Demonstrable outcomes should replace input indicators such as ‘bums on seats’. For example, by how much has the ‘win rate’ in competitive bidding situations increased? What proportion of turnover do new products and services account for? What value is ascribed to new intellectual capital? Whenever a direct causal link to additional know-how, greater customer value or extra business cannot be demonstrated, activities should be discontinued.

‘Human resource’ professionals must work much more closely with their colleagues. Companies need to become incubators of entrepreneurial activity. Working environments should inspire and enable learning, innovation and creativity.

The continuing investigation suggests many corporate learning strategies and practices need urgent review. Many training teams are missing an historic opportunity to make a more strategic contribution to knowledge and value creation and the achievement of both personal and corporate objectives.

© Colin Coulson-Thomas, 2007

back to Articles