Learning and Development Trends for the New Year

Economic factors are having more impact on approaches to corporate learning.

The days of measuring an organization’s training department by classroom seats filled or courses taken are a thing of the past. Those metrics don’t speak to the business issues that matter to senior leadership or the operational performance results they strive to achieve.

Enterprise learning historically has been isolated from human resources, which is the primary decision-influencer for organizational talent management. However, the importance of learning and development in the talent management value chain cannot be overlooked. Learning now finds itself at the epicenter of talent management.

Certainly, the current economic climate is tightening budgets and forcing organizations to focus even more on getting the most from what they’ve got. Customers expect more, usually for less. Yet these factors are also driving the pursuit of learning and development, which can help retain high-potential top talent and create a workforce that adapts quickly and competitively to business change. An effective learning program also strengthens leadership competencies and makes human capital a competitive differentiator.

Meeting internal and external macro pressures via learning and development is no easy task. However, according to a recent benchmark research study published by Aberdeen Group “Achieving Real Business Value with Learning and Development” (a study of 535 human resources, learning / training, and line of business professionals, pertaining to the current and anticipated states of learning and development, its role within talent management, and the value organizations derive from it), the benefits of doing so can be enormous.

To make this happen, an organization’s HR or learning executives must interpret and determine how learning can remove barriers to attain organizational and individual goals. Then, the appropriate learning programs must be developed and accepted by workers. Finally, a means to track, report on, and validate the results must be put in place. Of course, this is easier said than done. However, companies identified as “Best in Class” by Aberdeen Group share many commonalities that all organizations can pursue to produce greater success and advance in their ability to achieve Best-in-Class results; these include a mix of strategies, capabilities and technologies that turn learning into a strategic enabler. They are:
>> Target learning to address specific organizational “pain” points as well as gaps in workforce competencies.
>> Make learning available via multiple means to all stakeholders who can benefit from participating.
>> Integrate learning with an individual’s specific development plan or career path.

Integrating Learning, Talent
Based on previous Aberdeen Group research, four out of five business executives prefer an integrated solution for their organizations’ overall human capital management needs. When it comes to learning and development — which has traditionally been siloed from human resources and talent management — the challenges pertaining to integration are magnified. However, the organizations that made “Best in Class” for learning and development understand that learning is not a one-time thing and view it as an ongoing process that serves a strategic purpose.

In fact, a main factor that differentiates Best-in-Class organizations is their ability to integrate learning strategy with talent management strategies. This is a significant development, as it makes learning a go-to enabler in both pre-hire and post-hire talent initiatives. For example, an online learning portal can demonstrate to passive candidates the organization’s commitment to its employees’ professional development. Structured learning programs can get new employees up to speed quickly and help socialize them into the organization. For established employees, software can suggest appropriate development activities based on performance reviews. And succession management programs can benefit by establishing a development culture and improving “bench strength” — both through learning. This has a direct impact on the ability to fill key vacancies internally and strengthen the management pipeline in terms of qualified successors.

Aligning Objectives
Aberdeen’s Best-in-Class organizations look toward learning and development to align their workforces with business objectives. The most common means to achieve alignment is tying learning programs directly to individual development plans, which allows workers clear line-of-sight into what they need to achieve success. This is especially critical in the retention and development of those employees that the organization deems as “high potential.”
Other means for aligning objectives are linking development plans to individual career paths and measuring learning against the organization’s objectives.

Process
Nearly one-half of Best-in-Class organizations have implemented a well-defined process to identify specific knowledge gaps that can be resolved through learning. This ability is essential for two reasons: to create and/or provide learning that targets these specific gaps; and to create and assign accurate development plans that can then link directly to the learning resources.

Though the geographic spread of the enterprise workforce poses numerous barriers, many good organizations make workforce collaboration and sharing a priority. Also, with the pending retirement of seasoned workers, it grows increasingly more important to provide a means for them to share proven knowledge and expertise with younger, high-potential workers. This is an area where Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis and communities of practice can play a significant role. In fact, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Aberdeen’s Best-in-Class organizations plan to use Web 2.0 tools in their learning and development efforts by the end of 2009.

Organization
Today, nearly two-thirds of all organizations offer structured, company-sponsored learning to executives, managers and exempt and staff employees, as well as hourly workers. In many cases, similar learning initiatives are provided to their direct-sales organizations, customers, indirect-sales organizations, partners and vendors.

A critical element to the success of integrating learning with employee performance management is defining specific career paths that workers can pursue at all levels of an organization. According to Aberdeen’s research, 95 percent of Best-in-Class organizations will have this capability within 12 months.

Knowledge Management
Two critical steps to integrating learning with talent management are to take inventory of all existing learning resources (content, modes, tools). This step reduces redundant spending by identifying existing technologies that can be further leveraged across the organization and that can connect the enterprise.

Similarly, “core competencies” that are critical for success in specific job roles must be inventoried. A competency framework not only provides direction for targeted development plans and insight into workforce readiness and respective learning gaps that must be filled, but also prepares the organization for more focused recruiting when no internal candidate surfaces to fill an existing vacancy.

Technology
Assessments and learning management systems (LMS’s) are popular software tools for learning and development. Assessments help determine knowledge, skills and leadership gaps that must be filled. LMS’s are an ideal complement to assessments in that they allow workers to access learning that is specific to their needs and also tracks workers’ progress against the learning needed to address their gaps. Especially in the areas of performance management and workforce compliance, this combination can play a vital role — and during uncertain economic times like these, they also become increasingly more important.

Supportive technologies revolve around prescriptive learning (like performance management and gap-analysis tools), organization alignment (like balanced scorecard dashboards) and collaboration (like synchronous Web conferencing and Web 2.0/social networking tools).

When asked what delivery modalities will see the most growth during the next fiscal year, the top responses to Aberdeen’s question were:
1) asynchronous, self-paced online training;
2) synchronous online training;
3) ILT; and
4) informal social networks and Web 2.0 technologies.

Performance Management
By reviewing or assessing the performance of learning and development programs after every course or at least once per quarter, organizations are able to adjust the content, delivery or modality in order to better meet expectations (Fig. 1).

However, just as the role of learning and development continues to grow in its strategic importance, so do the struggles within organizations to quantify or validate its measurable business value. In fact, the leading internal organizational capability planned among Best-in-Class organizations over the next 12 months (59 percent) is the ability to identify and assign specific quantifiable metrics to learning.

Measuring better skills or attitude might not mean business improvement, per se — but a positive change in employee attitude can go a long way toward improving retention, productivity and morale. What further proves the value of learning is measuring how participants apply learning and change their behavior. However, at the end of the day, what will continue to make learning and development more strategic to the organization is the ability for learning and development to solve or improve business needs. And it’s in this effort that learning executives must focus their attention.

What To Do?
Based on its research, Aberdeen suggests the following actions:
Level One
>> Identify all stakeholders that can benefit from learning, and make them aware of what’s available.
>> Identify and assign specific, quantifiable metrics to learning.
>> Promote the successes of learning programs.
Level Two
>> Establish a learning and development strategy that is integrated with the organization’s overall strategy.
>> Identify and take inventory of all existing learning resources.
>> Measure employee attitudes before and after a learning event.
Level Three
>> Establish a well-defined process to identify specific knowledge gaps that can be resolved through learning.
>> Define specific career paths that workers can pursue at all levels in the organization.
>> Implement a process that allows workforce collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Level Four
>> Establish a well-defined process to integrate learning with other talent management elements.
>> Make specific learning and development curricula available for high potentials, in order to strengthen leadership development.
>> Put in place processes and measures that will support and validate learning results and organizational return on investment.

—Kevin Martin is vice president and principal analyst in Human Capital Management for Aberdeen Group Inc., a Harte Hanks Company. To contact him, e-mail kevin.martin@aberdeen.com. Jerry Roche is editorial director of Elearning! magazine. For more information on the Aberdeen report “Achieving Real Business Value with Learning and Development,” visit the Website www.aberdeen.com.

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