As organizations take a business-focused approach, deeply skilled instructional designers and learning theorists may feel marginalized. In today’s climate, finding the right blend of business acumen and learning experience is critical.
The concerns are expressed quietly, sometimes with a “don’t tell anyone I told you this” tone, but the story is often quite similar: A person deeply skilled in learning theory, instructional design or human resources management sees his or her insights and experience not always being welcomed by the senior team. Why? Because learning is being run by someone from a business unit who was brought in for rigor and project management expertise.
Such an executive may not fully appreciate the import of the deeply skilled learning professional’s perspective and may, in fact, look upon that perspective as something with the potential to add cost and time to the development project. And hitting those budget and schedule goals has become the primary measure by which the learning executive and the department itself is assessed.
Today’s stressful economic situation only adds to a learning person’s concerns. In the last round of layoffs, who survived and who didn’t? If, as anecdotal evidence sometimes suggests, the best project managers were retained instead of the best Web-based learning designers, one has to wonder about the long-term effects. If a company’s enterprise learning “muscles” are atrophying, what happens when the economy turns around and an organization needs those muscles again? How long will it take to get its strength back?
Clearly, there is a balance to be found here. No one is saying that applying business-outcome analysis to learning is a bad thing. The question is whether the pendulum has swung too far. One might argue that the balance was once set too far toward instructional design and learning delivery for their own sake, without enough emphasis on the measurable impact of learning on the business. Today, the issue that must be carefully addressed is whether the balance has shifted too far toward “running learning like a business” without adequate grounding in the what, how and why of enterprise learning.
The importance of the question goes well beyond individuals and their career paths. It goes to the heart of learning’s value to the business. It’s critical to run a tightly managed business function focused on hitting goals. But are they the right goals? Learning executives need to make processes more efficient. But are they the right processes? Answering those questions properly requires a blend of business acumen and learning experience. Different organizations may take different paths toward providing that blend, but finding such a path is critical.
Pulling All the Levers
Vince Eugenio, vice president of learning and organization development for information protection and storage company Iron Mountain, speaks of this learning-business blend in terms of how effectively a company is pulling all the “levers” available to drive better workforce and business performance.
“There are four primary levers available to an HR or learning executive that can drive organizational effectiveness,” Eugenio said. “First, you want to bring the right people into the organization, and [second] you want to help them grow through your development and training systems. Third, you want to recognize their performance through compensation systems, and finally, you want to optimize their performance through your performance management systems.”
For Eugenio, all four levers are essential. The precise ways they are manipulated may differ from company to company, but an organization that ignores any of them is going to realize less value than it might from its HR and learning investments.
“Ultimately, a single executive is usually responsible for optimizing the outcomes of these four areas, but if you’re smart, you’re going to make sure you have the right people on the team to augment your own professional background and education,” Eugenio said. “In some cases, learning leaders may not be effective financial management executives, and vice versa.”
Eugenio advises his colleagues who have grown up in the learning and development space “to add to their teams someone who can help them analyze and manage the function as a business, someone who can provide the data back to the units in business terms that senior executives will resonate with and respond to. At the same time, I ask my business colleagues to work hard to appreciate exactly what learning leaders bring to the table. Neither side can consistently hit those organizational levers in the right way without the perspective of the other side.”
In some cases, a business executive is put in charge of the learning or HR function as a way to develop broader experience across an organization — part of the grooming process for a senior executive role. Or such a businessperson may be appointed with the explicit charge to increase the rigor of learning investment management. In either case, such an executive often needs to deliver results quickly and may be challenged to put together an internal team with the necessary skills and perspectives. Partnerships are one way to overcome that challenge.
At IT storage solutions company Hitachi Data Systems, Nick Howe serves as vice president of HDS Academy, the company’s enterprise learning organization. Howe was a successful business manager before taking the learning position. He recalled “a long, hard discussion with our CEO about whether that was the right thing to do, or whether he would be better off going outside the company for someone with a more traditional set of enterprise learning skills and experiences.”
Almost five years into the job, having successfully developed and launched HDS Academy, Howe is convinced deep learning skills have to be present within the learning leadership team in some form.
“When it comes to domain skills, an executive does not necessarily need instructional design or learning development experience,” he said. “But you do need to understand fundamentally what learning is all about, and you need to have a performance consulting viewpoint, the ability to understand and articulate why learning exists in a company, what it can and can’t do, and how to link learning investments to improved business performance.”
Howe elected to partner with an outsourcing provider to develop the capabilities he needed to get the HDS Academy up and running quickly. Howe brought a deep business and cultural understanding of Hitachi Data Systems and a track record of successful management. The outsourcing provider brought a more transformative learning development capability.
Such an approach gave Howe two important things. First, it allowed him to deliver results much faster than he could have by leveraging or developing an internal team alone. Second, it provided him with a foundation flexible enough to change as the company’s business needs changed.
“What’s happened now is that the company’s business imperatives have taken us beyond the plans that we originally put in place for the academy in 2004. But our learning platform is flexible enough to support those plans. We’ve been able to create a learning development and delivery function that we’d match up against anyone, at the same time. We now have an organizational development capability that can continuously deliver against business needs.”
If an executive in charge of learning and HR has business or domain expertise, but not both, continuing education is an important way to provide balance. The University of Pennsylvania has a particularly rich and innovative executive education program. The executive program in work-based learning leadership is offered through collaboration between the university’s Wharton Business School and its graduate school of education.
Taught by professors from both schools and guided by an advisory board from the fields of enterprise learning and organization development, the program offers graduate-level certificates, as well as master’s and doctoral programs. Two-week course blocks are offered each semester, enabling students to continue in their current jobs as they work their way through the program.
The blocks reflect the blend of learning and business skills needed for a learning leader to be effective. One block, for example, is called “Business Acumen: The CLO as Business Advisor.” Another focuses on learning theories and applications. Courses in leadership, technology and decision making round out the curriculum.
Mary Francone, who works in the learning organization for the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, is among the learning leaders enrolled in the program. Having completed all course work, she is embarking on the dissertation stage and expects to receive the degree in a year or so. The most recent course block she completed was the one focused on workplace learning and performance. Assignments included a broad sweep of learning theories and applications, as well as a close analysis of actual learning programs being offered at the students’ companies.
“This course block has not only given all of us a better understanding of the theory behind what we do, but also has challenged us to assess the business value of our programs based on those learning theories,” said Francone.
The executives enrolled in the program believe successful workplace learning must always be aligned with the business strategy. However, said Francone, “The focus on learning theory has been especially important to those of us who assumed our learning leader roles after coming over from the business side. It has helped us develop knowledge and skills that will influence and enhance the ways in which our learning teams create and support workforce capabilities for our companies. This program is designed to balance out the business and learning perspectives. Most of us have agreed during this course sequence about the value and power in developing a deeper understanding of how learning really works.”
What the Future May Bring
Learning and HR executives with deep domain expertise need to communicate the business value of the skills they bring to the table. At consulting and outsourcing company Accenture, for example, Andy White and Jill Goldstein work for the enterprise learning and HR business process outsourcing (BPO) sides of the organization, respectively. Both affirm the need for balance between business and domain skills.
In fact, White — who has been a practitioner for more than 20 years in Accenture’s internal learning organization — feels today’s economic downturn actually increases rather than diminishes the need for deeply skilled learning professionals.
“Certainly one of the breakthroughs we’ve had in our company over the past half-decade or so has been in really nailing the business management side of things — running the function like a business and increasing the credibility that the learning organization has with the executive team.”
On the other hand, today’s focus on better cost management means traditional classroom training will, in many cases, be too expensive to produce, pushing the business toward more Web-based learning. “That means organizations are going to need more, not less, of the instructional design skills that can help them create engaging, innovative and even fun learning experiences,” said White. “That’s not going to happen with a bunch of engineers or managers trained only in managing budgets and projects.”
Goldstein, who worked in a variety of HR leadership roles for different companies before joining Accenture’s HR BPO practice, tells the story about a keynote speech she gave recently at an HR technology conference: “The person who invited me to give the speech told me that he wanted me to do something provocative, to get the group stirred up. So the position I threw out to the audience was that HR and enterprise learning as we know them are going to be extinct in the next 10 years. That got their attention.”
Then, Goldstein made her case by asking for a show of hands. “I asked them how many people in the room considered themselves to be businesspeople. Maybe two or three hands went up. Then I asked them how many considered themselves to be HR or learning professionals. About 300 hands went up.
“I said, ‘If you’re not careful, that’s why you could be extinct. Everyone’s hands should have gone up for both questions.’ The tide of history now is with those who have both the domain expertise to make the right investments in the right things and also the business expertise to deliver on the organization’s broader business goals.”