Running learning like a business simply means applying business discipline to the learning field. It means creating a plan with specific, measurable goals and then executing that plan with discipline. That’s it.
Most organizations already do this at a high level. They create a business plan for the year, then create and use monthly reports to manage their activities to come as close to plan as possible. Many other departments do this at a lower level as well. Think about a typical sales, quality, or manufacturing department. They establish goals at the start of the year, then they compare their progress each month against those goals, taking appropriate actions as necessary to stay or get back on plan if they are behind.
But I’d say fewer than 10 percent of learning departments manage this way. Most work hard and accomplish a lot. But they could have an even greater impact on their organizations if they worked smarter. They might not deliver more courses or reach more employees, but they will certainly make more of a difference in their organization’s performance.
So, what does it mean to work smarter? It means plan your actions more carefully, then execute your plan with discipline. The upfront planning means think carefully and critically about what you want to accomplish, why you want to accomplish it, what resources you will need to accomplish it, and what measures you will use.
Invariably this will involve tradeoffs and prioritization since resources are always limited. So, what is more important for you to work on this coming year? Where can you make the greatest difference or add the most value? Once you have some ideas — and they may be different than what you have been working on — the next task is to settle on a reasonable and achievable goal, which means you must think carefully about what resources will be required. It simply may not be possible to accomplish the goal with your resources. In which case you need to set a more realistic goal. This will force you to think about measures to use to set the plan and line up your work effort.
While this does require work, a disciplined planning process culminating in specific, measurable goals, will help ensure you are focused on the right goals for the right reasons with the right resources. Many leaders say they do think about goals and resources, but they stop short of setting specific, measurable goals. In this case they have not thought critically about the level of resources required. Nor have they created reports with a column for plan to use in managing the learning each month.
Theoretically, it would be possible for these leaders to accomplish the same as those with plans, but practically speaking it is far less likely. After all, why do you think your colleagues in other departments go through all this work? They wouldn’t if it didn’t lead to better results. Simply put, running learning like a business will ensure you are focused on the right learning with the right goals, measures and resources to deliver the greatest value to the organization.
While I believe more learning leaders are running learning like a business, most are not. One objection I hear is that this focus on planning and executing is no longer relevant. Some tell me their organization’s goals change every two or three months, thus it makes no sense to plan. This is ridiculous. I don’t think the company’s goals change every few months and, if they do, I would question senior leadership’s abilities to manage the company. Priorities may shift during the year, but goals like increasing sales, quality, and employee engagement are not going to change every few months.
Perhaps the aforementioned learning leaders mean that their own projects or work assignments change frequently, which may be a result of not having a good business learning plan. Others say they have stable goals, but their company’s products change once each quarter, thus there is no way to plan. Of course there is.
First, focus on the goal to increase sales, and let this be your guide in planning programs. True, new product models will come out, and you will have to design training programs around them, but you don’t need all the specifics at the start of the year. You have an idea of what is required for each product launch, so use that to plan. Your specific, measurable plans for reaction, learning and application are probably the same for all your product-related learning, and you have ideas about the target audience’s size. So, plan based on what you know, and refine as you get better information.
Bottom line, running learning like a business is simply applying time-tested basic business skills to learning. Outside of learning, it is nothing new. And, outside of learning it is still very much relevant. So, let’s move that percentage up from 10 percent and see what a difference it makes to manage learning this way. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
David Vance is the executive director for the Center for Talent Reporting and author of “The Business of Learning.” To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.