As IDC reported in September, firm spending on learning and development has been volatile since 2008, declining and recovering in reaction to the global financial crisis and its abatement. Recently, increased economic uncertainty has again caused learning and development budgets to come under pressure.
Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board (BIB) on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes important to senior learning executives. For the last several years, members of the BIB have been asked to share their outlook for the year ahead. This month the survey focus is on discovering how CLOs feel about 2012 and contrasting that to how CLOs have felt in recent years.
A Mixed Bag for 2012
A growing number (17 percent) of learning and development executives are less optimistic about the outlook for employee development. For the first time, less than 50 percent of CLOs are more optimistic. CLOs have passed through a difficult period, but a large number expect learning and development “will continue to evolve into a stronger entity recognized as contributing to delivery of business strategies and objectives.” Some see different writing on the wall and think CLOs “will be under severe cost-cutting pressure unless [they] can defend the strategic and financial impact.”
For those who are optimistic, the reasons are not surprising: economic recovery — “gradual recovery, but better than 2011” — and “many skills shortages” combined with “increased awareness of the critical part training plays in success of organizations.” Learning organizations and the wider enterprise realize that in the current economic situation, having highly effective people makes the difference as long as learning leaders align what they are doing to the business goals.
The economic conditions haven’t returned to pre-crisis levels and will continue to impact training budgets. To some, signs of economic recovery are unclear: “The economy has impacted our training organization … It’s not a time to grow or expand,” one survey respondent said.
Nevertheless, companies are expecting increased positive developments in the role the training function plays. Compared to last year:
• Ninety-three percent of CLOs expect training to be more aligned with company business objectives.
• More CLOs believe the perception of training within their company will improve.
• More CLOs believe the quality of their training offerings will improve.
Informal and Instructor-led Learning Increase Impact
Informal learning has again moved up the impact list, overtaking competencies for the top spot. Instructor-led training is also expected to be more important in 2012 than in 2011. A pattern emerged when looking at the top five items: CLOs are striving to demonstrably and effectively convey the right information to the right people. Informal learning is leveraged “to share knowledge across a global organization” and ensure stakeholders see its value to “impact pre- and post-formal training activities.” Some organizations believe informal learning is virtually untouched today and presents an important opportunity.
While in decline, leadership development remains an important activity within many organizations. In the survey one CLO said: “So much to learn, and so much development to be done. [It is a] major focus over the next couple years.”
When asked about the most important learning activity, CLOs listed leadership development, self-paced e-learning and competencies as the most impactful activities in 2012. This reinforces last year’s findings that competency and leadership were considered the most influential opportunities after several years of decline. Economic reset has allowed their value to be appreciated again.
Key activities of significant impact are:
• Leadership development: It continues to be a hot-button issue as companies work to support corporate succession initiatives. “Grooming current managers for director positions is essential because many directors will retire in a few years,” one survey respondent said. “The company is in a huge growth spurt and average age of executive team is 55, so it’s paramount that the organization starts grooming and developing its [next] leaders,” another said. But companies focus on different elements of leadership depending on their requirements. Survey responses included: “Leadership is critical to our culture-building efforts,” and “leading in a global world is very different, and our training helps leaders leverage new behaviors.”
• Self-paced e-learning: Even though self-paced or asynchronous e-learning has been available for many years, it has not been widely leveraged for non-technology topics, and that is changing. “We are a 24/7 organization and need the ability to complete compliance and regulatory education whenever possible,” one respondent said. And the potential amount of training is staggering. One CLO reports his organization delivers nearly 9 million hours per year of self-paced learning.
• Competencies: Competencies are valuable because they are the foundation for assessment of skills and capabilities in business-critical roles. According to one survey respondent, “competencies enable us to identify where our greatest gaps lie and how to address them.” Some believe “having the appropriate competencies to solve tasks boosts self-confidence, motivation and fosters positive emotions” in addition to “resulting in higher effectiveness, lower staff turnover rate and a better working environment.”
Mobile Learning Requires More Attention
Twelve months has made a difference to mobile learning technologies. Last year they were decried as overhyped. This year respondents said “mobile learning is part of our learning 3.0 strategy, which fosters learning with tablets and webinars. This will affect the how and when we do learning and help us to connect learning to the job and daily life.” Another said, “This is where everything is going. We need to learn and utilize these new technologies for the future,” because “the mobile space — especially tablets — opens up a different and more exciting opportunity to learn.”
CLOs think informal learning deserves more attention in 2012 as well, as it has for the past three years, because when well-designed, “[informal learning] can improve productivity and efficiency.” However, “there is not a lot of thought leadership on it in the industry.” CLOs believe they “could use additional help in best practices to implement informal learning.”
Performance support systems “help the student on the job by providing reminders, job aids, reviews of what was learned and additional information that can help the students use what they learned in training on the job.” And “transferring training to the workplace is the only way training can be of any value.”
Without measurement there is no indicator of improvement. Organizations must show accountability, so metrics need to become part of the culture.
At the same time, the learning industry must rethink the importance of some topics. Expert locators — those systems that help employees locate colleagues with specific knowledge or insights — appear to be over-hyped. “There are enough resources to help individuals do this on their own” and they are “not something that is going to have a potential for growth in the future,” according to one respondent.
Social networking continues to be condemned despite the attention it gets. While some believe “we have only begun to scratch the surface of the power of social networking in learning” others think “it’s the fad of the moment.”
Back to Basics, Stretch the Limits
Much about this upcoming year is uncertain. However, the economy’s correlation to the learning industry seems clear: “Until the national economic situation improves, the training industry is bound to suffer.”
Others think the challenges that range from succession planning to compliance to safety training will increase the importance of the learning function. Some believe it will fare well: “It will evolve into a stronger entity recognized for contributing to delivery of business strategies and objectives.”
But only 43 percent of CLOs expect budget increases — the same percentage as last year. At the same time, more than four out of five CLOs expect to develop more custom content and to deliver more training themselves. Therefore, learning and development departments will continue to do more with less.
CLOs offered hundreds of predictions. Many were focused on content and methods:
• Most companies will use home-grown learning and develop their own curriculums.
• Learning spend will be more focused on customized solutions.
• When companies have little money/profit, one of the first things they can cut are new and innovative learning practices.
• There will be more investment in middle management and compliance.
While some respondents seemed disenchanted, several predictions were focused on the increased use and impact of technologies. Responses included:
• More focus on simulations and alternate delivery tools such as tablets, including social media networks. And, cost for simulations will go down as more authoring tools come on board.
• The cloud will be the new focus, along with how that impacts what CLOs are doing. The learning industry just needs to figure out how the technology impacts its environment.
• Because management will need to find better ways to stimulate innovation in the workplace, organizations will use crowd-sourcing technologies more to generate ideas, share knowledge and stimulate innovation.
• Use of rapid authoring tools will plateau. There will be an increase in companies looking to develop sophisticated, custom e-learning games and simulations that require more complicated tools.
Overall, companies believe the outlook for the learning function is similar to industries overall: “We will continue to fumble along, some places will be great and have success, and others will be considered a cost center.”
Cushing Anderson is program director for learning services at IDC. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.