Farquharson, M. (2005) ‘Ten Ways to Create a Dynamic Learning Strategy’, Learning & Development, March, pp20-21. [featuring interview with Nick Wright]
Traditionally, learning and development strategies have been fairly straightforward. HR department decides employee needs to learn. HR sends employee away to learn. Employee sits in room with enthusiastic but less than engaging, trainer with flipchart and hopeful smile. Employee stares into middle distance, interrupted only by lunch and coffee breaks, wondering if they will all get away a little early. Employees fill in straight ‘sevens’ on evaluation sheet. Everyone feels they have done their bit and one week on little is remembered.
Over the past few years, looking-forward HR departments have realised the limited impact of the traditional training approach. A more complete learning philosophy has developed with a focus on learner-driven practices and greater engagement. The philosophy is sound, but how to make it work? How to convince a workforce, and the top table, that this has real substance and value?
1. Know your business
For a learning and development strategy to have any hope of success, the people who deliver it must fully understand what the company actually does. This needs to go beyond ‘we make widgets’ to a full appreciation of philosophy, strategy and market.
Andrew Mayo, programme director for the Centre for Management Development at the London Business School, explains that, ‘with many companies, it’s worth getting senior management to state, “what do we believe?” You need to ask, “do we believe we are going to invest in people for the future, or train them for the present? Do we believe in internal resourcing and so on”, because that framework will influence a lot of what will go into policy.’
Then, says learning and development consultant Steve Roberts, ‘you can talk with authority to people internally about how you are going to contribute’.
2. Identify your targets
Beyond the big picture, a very specific understanding of business objectives is required ‘Learning and development is an aim in itself,’ says Tracy Robbins, group HR director of leadership and development at Compass Group, ‘but it needs to service the business. So you need an understanding of the business strategy and the key implications for the next few years.’
Mayo agrees. He stresses the importance of knowing how a firm intends to progress, whether that will include, for example, ‘a big drive on customer service or expansion, who the people are that lie behind that and what the implications are for their capabilities.’
Nick Wright is learning and development team leader at relief and development organisation Tearfund. He suggests that this can only be achieved by ‘meeting various stakeholders, such as leaders and staff teams, and trying to work out what their development goals are, and what kind of methods would work for them. At that point, the learning and development team is working as consultant to stakeholders rather than delivering traditional service provision.’
3. Sell it to the big chief
‘It can be a big philosophy change, but it’s about getting senior managers to buy in,’ says Charles Jennings, head of global learning at Reuters. ‘I pushed at open doors in Reuters in making sure that we transferred learning, because if you tell a senior manager we can develop people more efficiently, faster, cheaper etc. they are not going to say no. We’ve now got a governance structure in place, and have heads of learning for each of our major business units. They report to a very high level in the organisation.’
Robbins has a similar take to tell. ‘In our case, the chief executive championed our initiative,’ she explains. ‘We introduced an evolved vision and a new global measurement piece and it was all fronted by him.’ It may seem obvious, but without buy-in from the top, a learning strategy will remain just that, a strategy put together by a training team rather than a business-wide concept. With steps one and two complete, learning and development leaders should be able to put forward a business case to win over even the most recalcitrant CEO.
4. Run an internal audit
Prior to launching a strategy, a learning and development director needs to know if they have the capabilities within their own team. Beyond that, an audit needs to be completed of the wider firm. ‘Most organisations have problems of some kind,’ says Mayo. ‘Ask where the problems are, what implications they have for learning and development, and if there is a learning solution. When you analyse most problems, it’s either the people, who are just not up to it, or it’s a system problem – but there are people behind that as well.’
Knowing exactly where those problems are relies on consultation with the business from day one. Getting out to talk to line management, staff and leaders is the only way to understand their concerns.
5. Don’t give in to convenience
‘This happens in early every company you look at,’ explains Jennings. ‘A line manager says “I need my people to be trained.” A learning manager puts a course together and delivers it. It’s convenient for both. Everyone feels they’ve done a job but actually nothing happens, no measurement occurs and there is no real performance improvement.’
‘That happens when you don’t have an accountability-oriented development framework but have accountability for business results sitting in the business line and the accountability for training or learning sitting in a separate bucket,’ he continues.
To crush this ‘conspiracy of convenience’, learning professionals must be proactive and spread the word to the wider workforce. This carries greater clout with visible backing from the top and a learning team that can demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the business and what it needs.
6. Create a positive environment
‘Learning is a discretionary activity,’ notes Martyn Sloman, adviser for learning, training and development at the CIPD. ‘If people are not motivated and committed to learn, you must create a climate that makes it something people want to do.’
The level of challenge will vary according to staff and their capacity to learn. Sloman proposes a number of approaches. ‘Developing coaching capacity, enhancing the role of line managers, encouraging peer group networks, creating and communicating strategy, refocusing the role of the training department. All of these are appropriate interventions – which is most appropriate depends on the circumstances of the organisation.’
7. Agree clear roles
There are at least four parties involved,’ says Wright, ‘leaders, staff, the learning and development team and a service provider. In the past, where learning teams have unilaterally dreamt up ideas they believe will be good for the organisation, it’s been understandably hard to get managers to commit.’ If each party has clearly defined and explicitly agreed roles, no room is left for buck passing if problems arise later. ‘This comes back to the idea of doing it together in a business partnership model,’ Wright explains. ‘Each party can contribute but each is also dependent on the other fulfilling its part of the equation.’
8. Choose suppliers carefully
Internal support may be gained, but if suppliers prove to be more sales pitch than substance, things can go awry. No firm can ever be sure how good an external supplier is until a project is well under way but steps can be taken to minimise any potential damage.
‘The key is to talk about partners rather than suppliers,’ reckons Roberts, ‘it puts a different emphasis on it for both sides. Then you’d want to see how willing your potential partners are to learn about your business rather than them trying to sell you some courses. At ICI, we wanted global coverage and a willingness to provide people at the appropriate level within the partner organisation to work with us.’
‘Go through a rigorous process with them. Find out their standing, other activities they’ve worked on, third-party references and will they work with your processes for invoicing? If it’s an instructor-led activity, are they up front about who they will put in front of you and have you got a chance to engage that person? It’s so much more than “we need a course, let’s look in a book or magazine”.’
9. Measure the results
‘The measurement process needs to go beyond “we want to have put 30 people through project management 101 by the end of the year”,’ says Roberts. ‘It needs to happen beyond the happy sheets at the end of an event, its three, six, 12 months down the line, considering the learning and development activity an individual has undertaken and the impact of that.’
But, of course, measurement is useless if results are not acted upon. ‘A lot of people do build in an evaluation process but don’t use it,’ complains Robbins. ‘You need to be very thoughtful about this, track success, feed back opportunities and adjust your strategy accordingly. It’s an on-going process. There are always going to be changes in the external environment, organisational leadership, work processes and so on. Review it, update it and evolve it to match these requirements.’
But the greatest measure will be the cold, hard figures. ‘It has to impact the business performance,’ says Roberts, ‘not just people working harder, but profits, market share, brand share, then the strategy will have credibility.’
10. Talk to staff
‘You need to set processes for regular engagement with your internal customers,’ says Roberts. ‘That may sound a bit grand, but it means getting out there to talk to people. If you’re open and people see value, they will work with you in terms of helping measure impact and improvement in efficiencies. It helps people see you as an integral part of the organisation.’