Senior Learning Leaders Weigh In on the Economy’s Impact

Leaders Discuss The Reality Realities of Adjusting and Aligning to Business Imperatives.

A panel of senior learning and talent leaders recently convened to share their thoughts and insights on the current global economic climate — especially as it pertains to the learning/training function.

De facto moderator was Larry Israelite, vice president of human resources for Liberty Mutual. Panelists were Steven Teal, former chief learning officer for Honeywell; Bill Byron Concevitch (BBC), chief learning officer for The Learning Consortium; Deb Tees, vice president of enterprise learning for Fifth Third Bank; George Selix, senior director, employee and partner of Sun Learning Services; and Nick Van Dam of Deloitte Tohmatsu.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Israelite: What is the current economic downturn’s impact on corporations and the learning function?

BBC: Everyone is reeling in spending, as they should be. But the focus should be on not cutting revenue producers or those that can have a positive impact on revenue and results. Chief learning officers need to be part of the strategic discussions that will lead to the right plans to weather the storm. They need to be at the table, especially in these challenging times.

TEES: Companies can’t conduct business as they have in the past. This is a different world we are now living in. We lean on the learning group to help us figure out what must be done and how to accomplish it. Learning and talent are huge levers that can impact results and how well an organization weathers the storm.

VAN DAM: It’s all about the business and running the business most effectively. Companies must closely examine all their business units. Resources should be deployed to growth areas that are having success, and toward training to fill skill gaps that are identified. Get talent where you need it. Now is the time to train, re-deploy people if it makes sense, and maximize the use of your existing talent.

SELIX: In the current market, your voluntary turnover will be zero. This situation forestalls — at least for a few years — the transfer of knowledge from people who would normally be retiring to those who will need the knowledge as the retiring generation departs.

TEAL: People who would normally be retiring realize that they can’t retire and keep their benefits. So they are staying longer. Some are opting to work part time. They are not always leaving the staff.

Israelite: In this economic climate, there is a lot of talk about downsizing and cutting training staff. What is the reality? If training teams are reduced and we still have to meet the needs of the organization, is outsourcing an option that fills that gap?

BBC: When you have to cut internal staff, outsourcing is an option that provides for maximum flexibility.

TEAL: We don’t have a training budget any more, and we’ve cancelled future projects that were on the books. In the Pharmaceutical Division, we keep in vesting in training and leadership development based on their contributions to the bottom line. The funding may come from other places, but when impact is felt, someone will find the budget to make things happen.

SELIX: You have to figure out the critical positions within your organization and devote the appropriate resources to train them with the skills essential for their success. In most organizations, sales, product development and leadership are all critical for growth, so investments in training for these essentials remains.

VAN DAM: There are lots of new regulations already on the books and more coming. Every person needs to be trained for this new legislation, so training on this is not an option, it is mandatory. The goal is how to do it most cost-effectively. Funding will be there, as this is a necessary cost of doing business; it’s not optional.

Israelite: What should we be communicating? How do we retain our resources when all parts of our organizations are being asked to make cuts? How do we make sure senior leadership sees the value in what we bring to the table?

SELIX: First, you should tie what you are doing with the life blood of the company. Then execute it efficiently and deliver results. Focus on increasing revenues, increasing sales, and diversifying your customer base, or increasing your clients. Then, make sure you validate the impact and communicate the impact created.

BBC: If you see an opportunity in your marketplace, seize upon it. Make learning/training investments that enable you to get more competitive. Make yourself more valuable to the organizations you serve and better equipped to impact customer success. Show impact to the business — impact you can quantify, otherwise your funding will be cut.

VAN DAM: This is an unusual time, so you have to pick your battles. Who are the important people in your organization? What do they need? How can you support them best?  Focus on what you can win now, and strengthen your leadership. Listen, then deliver.

Israelite: What is the role of talent management?  Influencing the building of talent, or is it the delivery of training to build talent?

TEES: As a leader within learning, you need to be aligned with those that are actually running the business. Make sure you are on the same page with and bringing value to the business leaders who are most visible and who are leading the largest parts of your company. Understand what they need to get done to build talent in their areas, and help them do it.

VAN DAM: We have seen an evolution from human capital management to talent management. Business today on a global scale is more complex. Companies need to perform faster, better, and cheaper. So we’re developing employees who will stay with us and help others to perform. Training/learning has become a continuum rather than events. This is a change we want in our enterprises, and people in the learning function can help, if they develop the necessary skills to accomplish what the enterprise needs and move from events to a continuum of learning.

Israelite: Sometimes training is grouped under human resources, sometimes it is housed within business units. Now we have this area of talent emerging. How does all of this fit together and how do we collaborate to meet the needs of the business?

BBC: We’re not ready for a turf war among the human resources unit, the learning/training unit and the business units — which is what I see occurring inside some organizations right now. When this happens, it means that people are becoming too focused on their own roles rather than on the business as a whole. We need to join together and deliver impact to the business. I believe that when we take this approach, it will point to where learning belongs, and it will be a different structure in each case, depending on the organization and its dynamics.

VAN DAM: We moved away from human resources being an independent function and created an umbrella approach under talent. We have one talent organization. It is aligned and coordinated holistically, from beginning to end. Last year, we implemented a competency model, matching content and skills. It’s a more integrated approach that’s led by a talent strategist. Here’s where the collaboration across all areas becomes essential for success.

Israelite: The current workforce is multi-generational, from baby boomers to Generation X to Generation Y to the MTV generation. How are each of you effectively dealing with this wide range of diversity among a workforce that is faced with the stresses of today’s economy?

SELIX: Communications is the major challenge. How do we reach each segment of the employee base in ways in which they prefer to receive communication? There is a lot in the communication mix today: Websites, instant messaging, synchronous communications, e-mail and podcasts are just a few of the vehicles we utilize. As an example, Jonathan Hawkins, Sun’s ‘Unified Communications Architect,’ is a blogger. This is how he likes to communicate and to be reached as well. There are many like Jonathan, and there are just as many that prefer other communication vehicles. The challenge is getting the mix close to what you need it to be create ‘reach effectiveness.’

TEAL: We found that there are many differences emerging in the generations’ preferred communication styles, so we studied them. For instance, we asked if social networks drive business impact. Twenty-five percent of our employees in their 20s said no, while 50 percent of our employees in their 50s said no While knowing this presents challenges, it also helps us create the right mix.

SELIX: Here’s another statistic: 34 percent of Sun employees participate in flex work options. With this percentage of the workforce on flex hours, having the most effective communication vehicles in plan to reach these workers is critical.

Israelite: What further insight or advice can you impart?

TEES: The learning function must stop separating itself from the business. We are all part of the business, and we all have a responsibility to influence customers and results.

TEAL: I would recommend that everyone read the book ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded.’ It’s not a learning book — it’s a key business book at the moment.
VAN DAM: I offer a stretching assignment. Identify 25 best practices for your learning and development organization — integrate these into all of your initiatives.

BBC: Be careful what you ask for, as now is not the time to demand more resources. Deliver more than you committed to, with the resources you have today. If you want to step it up a notch, deliver more tomorrow while at the same time reducing the size of your staff. Everyone else is being required to do this, so why not step up and to it yourself — before it is forced upon you?

SELIX: It’s predicted that the recession will be over in 18 to 24 months from now. Will you be ready?


‘We have seen an evolution from human capital management to talent management.’
—Nick Van Dam

‘Learning and talent are huge levers that can impact results and how well an organization weathers the storm.’
—Deb Tees

‘Be careful what you ask for, as now is not the time to demand more resources.’
—Bill Byron Concevitch

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