The New Imperatives For Learning and HR

The New Imperatives For Learning and HR

Companies Eye Market Expansion, Other Investments As Hedge Against Slower Economy

Over the last two years, most organizations have gone through unprecedented transformations in products and services, organizational structures, and go-to-market strategies. These factors—along with globalization, changing workforce demographics, and new technologies—are dramatically revamping the way organizations manage their people.

As part of our regular TalentWatch research, we survey hundreds of executives about their business, budgets, hiring plans and challenges. The latest survey showed that after two years of budget cuts, companies are beginning to invest again in their people.

And while cost containment and reduction is still a top priority for most companies, accelerating innovation is a close second. Almost a quarter of respondents said that market expansion is also a high priority — up from only 16 percent a year ago. The survey also saw an increase an respondents whose companies are undergoing mergers and acquisitions and introducing new products and services.

Demographic trends are also having a major impact on learning and HR. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the workforce in 2018 will look much different from today. (See Fig. 1,Workforce Demographics 2018). The 2018 workforce will be older and more diverse. We’ll see fewer highly-skilled young professionals, gaps in emerging leadership and management, and the inevitable retirement of baby boomers. The percentage of Hispanics in the workforce is projected to increase by 33 percent and Asians by 27 percent. Additionally, today’s college graduates are under-prepared for work. According to a study from ASTD and The Conference Board, U.S. college graduates need additional skills in order to perform their jobs. Employers report that 22 percent of graduates are not ready to perform or to learn quickly on the job.

All of these changes are driving learning and HR in new directions. We have identified seven areas of focus to consider as you develop strategies and plans for the future.


Companies need to rethink their talent acquisition strategies. Seven-11 told us it receives more than 180 applicants for every job opening at its headquarters. IKEA gets more than 250 applicants for every job opening in its stores. It takes resources (no matter how good your applicant tracking system is) for employers to review applications.

The solution is to reduce the number of candidates and get the right ones to apply. For example, the biopharmaceutical company Regeneron needed to hire several hundred doctoral scientists. It took a hard look at its culture and built a new branding campaign to reflect its deeply specialized “culture of sages.” The result was a 10- fold increase in the quality of candidates. IKEA devised a similar approach, making it clear it wanted candidates who shared its values of simplicity and efficiency. The company saw a tremendous increase in the quality of its recruiting.

Successful recruiting now requires a focus on quality not quantity. Companies should consider creating an authentic employment brand and replacing traditional approaches with social media tools.


In the years ahead, companies need to focus on new competencies for success.
These include global awareness,innovation, collaboration, change and disruption. Leadership development programs should also include action learning, including realworld assignments, and mentorship programs and apprenticeships.

Cisco, for example, realized a few years ago that its leaders needed a new set of skills to collaborate, innovate and create disruption in the market. (Disruption is one of Cisco’s leadership competencies.) Within its Center for Collaborative Leadership is a program called The Enterprise Action Learning Forum. This program brings together leaders from different units and assigns them to build a new business within Cisco. One of the businesses born of this program takes technologies from across Cisco business units for developing highly communicative, smart energy devices — a $5 billion market, according to the company.


High-performing companies succeed by being specialists. Companies we’ve studied such as Qualcomm, Accenture, Westinghouse and Vestas use specialization to drive competitive advantage. These companies focus on continuous learning throughout employees’ careers. Westinghouse, for example, has created an informal learning model for its nuclear power plant operators. The model enables operators to use enterprise social networking to share information with each other and build deeper and deeper levels of expertise.

Specialization is built over time, but it doesn’t require building more formal training programs. Modern organizations are using mentoring, coaching and informal learning. (See Fig. 2,Modern Learning Architecture).


Our 2009 High Impact Learning Practices research showed that learning culture is the biggest driver of learning outcomes. So we decided to look closely at 100 practices related to culture and compare to business performance. We identified 40 key practices used by companies with strong learning cultures and found that they drive innovation, productivity, time-to-market and quality.

We also found that most of these 40 practices involve operational processes and are outside the traditional domain of corporate HR and training departments. Leadership and management play a pivotal role in learning culture, and most practices focus on informal approaches to learning.

The bottom line is that culture matters. Companies with strong learning cultures have a distinct competitive advantage and outperform their peers.


We have studied succession management strategies at hundreds of companies. We’ve learned that succession management is not just about replacement but about talent mobility — having systems to move people around your company in a strategic, deterministic fashion.

At JPMorgan Chase, for example, employees are required to have an up-to-date résumé posted online at all times. It is a cultural norm to be moved around the company. In fact, employees can be “poached” by other managers after 18 to 24 months on the job. To support the company’s growth by acquisition (it acquired 100 companies over the last 10 years), JPMorgan Chase has systems in place for allocating groups of 20 employees where needed in a rapid fashion.

HR needs to evolve from its view of succession management as “moving up the pyramid” to one of transparent talent mobility at all levels of the organization.


For many years, the focus of HR and learning has been on delivering services, reducing costs and using technology to better inform decisions. But the most valuable thing you can do is to find the high-performing, wealth-creating roles in your organization and focus your resources there.

Movie theaters, for example, make their money off concessions — namely, popcorn. AMC Theatres identified its 40 highest-performing theaters in popcorn sales and studied the characteristics of managers’ demographics, skills and capabilities. Using this information, AMC is changing its leadership development, succession planning, recruiting, and training and revitalizing its theaters.

Successful companies including Rogers, EDS and Lowes are segmenting and differentiating talent and are focusing their resources toward key talent.


The HR function itself is undergoing a transformation to become more strategic to the organization. (See Fig 3, The Four Stages of HR). For the past few years,many companies have been focused on integrated talent management. The problem is that some have viewed talent management as the end game, when it really should be a means to get continuously closer to the business through the use of integrated processes and delivery models.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. workforce is expected to grow at a rate of approximately 10 percent over the next eight years. However, the growth in employment in HR and training is expected to grow 22 percent. We believe the increased demand for HR stems from the issues and trends mentioned above, from changes in demographics, the underskilled workforce, and the need to develop leaders and globalize. Over the next few years as we emerge from the recession, there are greater opportunities than ever for training and HR. Focusing on these seven key trends will help you add tremendous value to your organizations.

—Josh Bersin is CEO and president of Bersin Associates, one of the most respected research organizations in the elearning field. Visit the company at the Website

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