A Perfect Marriage?

MORE THAN EVER, H.R. IS LIKELY TO ENCOMPASS TRAINING AT LARGE CORPORATIONS. IS THAT GOOD OR BAD?

Over the last 30 years, the corporate human relations (H.R.) function has evolved from managing personnel and employee information to managing essential procedures (such as payroll) and key strategic elements (such as top management development).

In the meantime, e-learning has become more than simply “courses on the Web.” It’s become a platform to support and integrate learning into the overall human capital development and management cycle.

It would seem almost intuitive, then, that the training department would be an integral part of the HR department. But, in many companies, that has not been the case.

Michelle Lotti is director of training for the Americas Consumer Finance Division of GE Money. She re-invented the company’s whole training function—and now she is part of the H.R. department, outsourcing tactical training elements and keeping strategy and business-driven elements in-house.

Lotti allowed Elearning! magazine a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about how her company has integrated the HR and training functions.

HOW HAS THE TRAINING AND H.R. RELATIONSHIP CHANGED WITHIN YOUR BUSINESS UNIT?

The training function has always reported into H.R.  When we existed as one of its units, we were a separate but fairly large division, with 170 people servicing 10,000 to 15,000 employees. As we evolved back, we went through a series of outsourcing strategies where we looked at the feasibility of variable versus fixed-cost models and then adjusted our internal staff for that purpose. We became an organization with strategic learning leaders in place, but with many tactical responsibilities outsourced, like design, development and delivery. That enabled us to reduce our staff significantly and achieve efficiencies.

However, what we decided was that it really made sense to further integrate H.R. and learning. In past years, the alignment of HR and training wasn’t as strong. Training was a separate island, and training and H.R. were two entities battling for business attention. When we looked at opportunities to merge talent management with talent development, we found some efficiencies in blending those resources. So training as its own entity dispersed, and we became more aligned with the H.R. executives within the business.

HOW DID THE H.R. EXECUTIVES TAKE THAT?

They took that very well, because it rounded out their teams. There was a gap in terms of H.R.’s Generalist functions and its strategic functions.  Giving learning a direct line to HR enabled a better Partnership. Today, I have a huge non-exempt staff in operations and collections — the bulk of our business unit — that I support from a call center perspective. It’s enabled me to partner with my H.R. leaders for those operations and collections functions, and we get a lot further together. It’s not so much who can posture in front of business leaders anymore. We look [to executives] more like we’re connecting the dots between talent management and development.

HOW IMPORTANT IS E-LEARNING IN THE OVERALL TRAINING PICTURE?

Our non-exempt training is much more heavily structured around e-learning. Those programs are mature and they’ve been through several evolutions because there’s a lot of turnover. About 40 percent of those programs are e-learning-based.

When you get up to the leadership and senior types of programs, we find e-learning is not quite so beneficial. There are some high-end simulations on the sales side, but most of our e-learning would be categorized on the awareness process and technical skills levels.

HOW HAS THE H.R. DEPARTMENT ACCEPTED YOUR INCREASED INVOLVEMENT?

They accept it as a good blending of skills, because you’ve got people who really understand succession planning and so forth, and then you’ve got people who are focused on determining the gaps in performance and driving the right solutions from a learning and development perspective.

Does it come with its challenges? Of course, because learning people tend to have a lot of special expertise whereas the H.R. staff tends to possess very general people-type skills.

You also have to be very careful in insuring that the language you use doesn’t come across as too theoretical. We all tend to get into that ‘training-speak’ quagmire at times. I’m guilty too. I’ll start talking about our passions around learning strategy and ‘Here’s how you get there,’ while business leaders’ concerns are different. They care about how the development fits with the people they’re managing.

WHAT ABOUT FINANCIALLY? DO YOU STILL CONTROL THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY AND RESOURCES?

Yes. I manage the function of training, so that piece hasn’t changed. How the money gets spent on initiatives has changed a little, because you don’t roll up into one training entity.

When you’re aligned directly to H.R., you’re positioning initiatives as more strategic. When we were a training entity, we had a little bit more control of the initiatives and how the dots connected and the synergy— but at the same time, we didn’t have a lot of buy-in from business leaders.

ARE ANY OTHER CHANGES EVIDENT AT THE LEARNING/ TRAINING LEVEL?

Partnering on the front end is getting stronger. The H.R. generalist is the pulse of the site, which I never thought about before.

The H.R. manager is the site’s sounding board, so he or she has a lot of peoples’ ears. For the longest time, I was a die-hard ‘training-should-be-its-own-department’ proponent. But once you understand the arms within the site, it becomes very clear that H.R. is an advocate for your work.

This change in philosophy doesn’t necessarily impact the end-user too much, because the H.R. entity really doesn’t get involved with that as much as it does with the partnership with the business leaders.

HAS THIS ARRANGEMENT MADE THINGS EASIER FOR YOU? COULD YOU SEE A SCENARIO WHERE THIS KIND OF ARRANGEMENT COULD BE A HINDRANCE?

It has definitely made some things easier. I don’t have to work uphill so hard to convince business leaders, because H.R. is a very well respected entity within the organization.

Overall, has it made my work easier? No. I don’t think that changes.  In certain scenarios, it could be provide roadblocks if you didn’t have that buy-in from your H.R. partners and if you’re unable to align the visions. It takes a lot of effort to sit down and align what you want to do from a staffing and recruiting perspective and where you want to be from a talent management perspective — as with any business partner.

As a training organization, as we evolve more into talent development, we have more of an opportunity to blend traditional instructional/systems/design (ISD) methodology into corporate strategy. You can now take some of the skills needed for training people—needs analysis, instructional design —and breed them into talent development strategies that really benefit where you want to target individuals in your population or function. A strategic learning person can take those skills and make them work, while an H.R. person leverages that unique skill that you have to help them figure out where learning fits into development strategies.

To me, a lot of the problem is trying to adapt your language into making it work within the H.R. framework. 

OVERALL, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE?

 I’ve had to learn a lot of things — everything from succession planning to the Oracle system.   I had to take a step back in terms of the traditional way that I managed my work and my organization. It wasn’t just business as usual, because there is a lot of aligning of strategy and language, and you do have to listen to the strategy of H.R. and where the focus is, whether it’s engagement or development of people. It’s not different than being with a business leader.

The whole experience definitely has been very positive. You get a seat at the table more readily—but to make the seat credible, you need to understand the language of H.R. and align your work to it.

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