Staff sizes are expanding for learning organizations, as is the impact of the learning function on business strategy. More importantly, the latest research from Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board (BIB) indicates the function will have a critical role to play in organizational efforts to bounce back post-economic crisis.
Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer’s BIB on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes that are important to senior learning executives. In March, L&D staffing data revealed enterprise learning staffs are adjusting well now that the recession is over, sales are increasing and companies are refocusing on growth. However, despite a strong belief that learning is critical to organizational success, there is a disconnect between learning’s perceived impact and its actual position as a business solution provider amidst key stakeholders.
A Critical Role to Play
IDC’s “Impact of the Downturn” research from October 2009 revealed some 80 percent of organizations polled thought learning and development plays a moderate to significant role in helping organizations achieve their strategic plans. Chief Learning Officer’s BIB research in 2009 and 2010 echoed that sentiment, revealing that while learning organizations were busy tightening their own belts, they also redoubled their efforts to ensure the workforce was prepared to execute on strategic imperatives. Strategies varied among hunkering down, repositioning or taking advantage of the downturn to push the learning/business agenda.
Depending on the strategy, learning leaders believe their organizations have a greater or lesser ability to influence strategic outcomes. When the enterprise hunkers down, more than a third of CLOs in the 2011 BIB L&D staffing study think they will have no role in helping the organization weather the crisis aside from their ability to tighten their own belts and shift from more classroom formats to more online or self-paced learning.
When the enterprise is positioning for future growth, 65 percent of CLOs believe they will have a significant role to play and only 10 percent believe they will have no role. In forward-thinking strategies those roles include helping communicate the repositioning strategy and to not only prep key job roles with development options to enhance their skill sets, but also helping front-line employees to maximize their capabilities and perhaps develop those needed to ascend to higher ranks.
When organizations attempt to aggressively grow, 60 percent of learning organizations believe they will have a moderate role and the remaining 40 percent believe they will have a significant role to play in helping to achieve the stated strategy. Overall, learning organizations can play a large role in facilitating a winning organizational strategy if development options are completely aligned with growth objectives. Further, it appears the more dramatic the organizational change, the greater role the learning and development organization has to play.
Going forward, a key imperative for learning leaders must be to ensure their ability to play a significant role in helping the enterprise meet its objectives. Otherwise, the CLO will preside over an organization ripe for trimming at the first sign of organizational stress.
New Players on the Stage
Since 2006 the learning and development staff mix has changed. As a result of increased focus on learning strategy, organizational development and performance, learning-related positions have become an increasingly meaningful component in many organizations. That is a benefit to the L&D profession and to the organizations they serve.
In the last four years, there has been a significant shift away from content development and use of instructional designers. That’s likely because technology and tools have helped improve the efficiency of learning teams. Other trends, such as shorter course lengths and more rapid course development approaches, have reduced the need for content developers by half since 2006.
The trend toward online learning hasn’t had the impact some observers expected, however. CLOs report the percentage of their staff members who are instructors actually has increased slightly since 2006.
Also somewhat contradictory is that while technology is playing an increasing role in learning — for instructor-led training, self-paced instruction, content development and facilitation of social learning experiences — the percentage of technology specialists has declined in most learning organizations. This may signal a shift in responsibility for both technology management and learning administration, both of which saw a comparable percentage increase since 2006.
Regardless of the economic recovery or the ability of the learning organization to help achieve strategic initiatives, the overall size of learning and development organizations has remained relatively unchanged.
From November 2008 to mid-2010, learning organizations lost about 10 percent of their staff. The ratio of L&D staff to the broader enterprise is highly variable. Before 2008, the percentage of employees in large organizations who were L&D staff could be close to 0.5 percent — with a small number of L&D professionals serving a large employee base — or in smaller organizations it could have been as high as 3 percent.
In late 2010, those ratios were slightly lower. Learning organizations’ staff may become slightly smaller in 2011 and beyond because any operational shift the L&D organization instituted during the crisis — in delivery or development efficiency or organization consulting staffing — is unlikely to be undone.
Despite slight changes, organizations that do not think they have an appropriate level of staffing were measured at 2006 levels (Figure 2). About 60 percent of CLOs believe they don’t have enough staff. This is down from a high of 66 percent in 2007. In 2009, fewer than 55 percent of CLOs reported not having enough staff.
Staffing expectations for 2011 closely resemble those from 2008. Significantly more companies are expecting to add learning and development staff in 2011 compared with 2010, and fewer firms expect to cut L&D staff. This change reflects optimism that the importance of learning is increasing, along with budgets. In the BIB research on training outlook published in January, researchers found 60 percent of companies were more optimistic about employee development in 2011 compared to 2010. CLOs have passed through the difficult period that has resulted in “a greater appreciation of internal knowledge to support informal training.” This is resulting in hiring opportunities for L&D staff (Figure 3).
Learning Professional Talent Shortage Easing
A little less than 50 percent of companies expect to hire learning and development staff in the coming 12 months either as a replacement for transitioning staff or to increase the size of the L&D organization. When companies do hire, more L&D professionals appear to be available at a level comparable with 2008. And CLOs expect to spend between three and four months looking for the right candidate, which is comparable to 2008 data and much less time than 2006 data revealed.
Even though the mix of L&D skills has shifted away from content developers, individuals with those skills are the most likely to be hired and are likely to be the most difficult roles to fill, according to CLOs. Instructors and technology specialists are the next most sought-after roles.
Some 45 percent of organizations think their learning organization will play a role in the changing strategy their companies will adopt as the recovery builds. Still, more than half of learning organizations must find a way to have more impact or influence on the achievement of strategic objectives.
This may be a case of better application of existing resources, or it may require changing the role learning plays to become a more significant business adviser and change consultant. Either suggests CLOs must critically evaluate their ability to help their enterprise rebound during the recovery, and ensure their learning staff is both ready and able to lend all appropriate assistance.
Cushing Anderson is the program director of learning services at IDC. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.