Given the current economic climate, the time is now for learning and development professionals to establish proper governance. A survey of the state of learning governance reveals interest and potential — and room for improvement.
Ongoing pressure to deliver shareholder value, coupled with highly publicized management failures at companies such as Enron and AIG have generated a virtual tsunami of interest in corporate governance. A recent search on Amazon.com yielded 15,390 books on the subject — with more than 100 released in the past 90 days alone.
Given the increasing recognition that employee development and talent management are critical factors in long-term growth and profitability, it is a bit surprising there has not been a corresponding wave of attention around learning governance. As the economy starts to recover, learning and development professionals may be missing opportunities to raise visibility and increase the investment profile for learning.
To raise awareness around these opportunities, we conducted surveys with 130 learning organizations to get a snapshot of the state of learning governance today. Like its big brother corporate governance, learning governance is about:
• Establishing objectives and priorities.
• Allocating and managing resources to assure achievement of these objectives.
• Aligning organizational efforts to maximize effectiveness and increase operational efficiency and scalability.
• Building consensus and balancing stakeholder interests.
• Managing risk and holding leaders accountable.
About the Survey
The survey was designed to measure where organizations are making progress and where they are struggling. Questions included:
• How well is your learning organization able to cross organizational boundaries and serve multiple learning interests?
• Are different learning stakeholders aligned in your organization?
• Do they agree on learning priorities, how outcomes are evaluated and the way resources are deployed?
The surveys were distributed to three different learning peer-level organizations — groups whose members were directors, senior managers or CLOs. There was strong representation among larger organizations, with more than half (55 percent) coming from companies serving more than 20,000 learners. A wide range of industries, both commercial and public sector, were represented.
The survey was kept deliberately short at 11 key questions, and was grouped into three general sections: learning operations, organizational alignment and measurement and evaluation. There also were four questions to capture company profile and industry information.
The findings suggest governance is still a work in progress for most organizations. Some of the most notable results are:
• More than 80 percent of organizations do not have an enterprise-wide plan for learning. Most planning activities get fragmented in different business units, divisions or regional operating groups.
• While 70 percent of organizations have established a shared services role for learning (an emerging best practice), more than two-thirds said learning roles and responsibilities are not optimally aligned across the organization.
• More than 80 percent reported only low to moderate consensus on how to evaluate the learning function and its contribution to organizational results, suggesting there are still gaps in expectations about what measures are needed.
The first finding, that more than 80 percent of companies do not have a learning plan that spans the enterprise, was surprising. The notion of enterprise learning has been around for a few years. So this fact seems out of step with the importance most organizations place on developing and motivating people. And even if organizations aren’t developing enterprise-wide learning plans for that reason, one would think the sizeable cost reductions and increased scalability that come from aligning diverse groups would prompt more aggressive action.
Companies that have succeeded — less than 20 percent — have not always approached planning learning from the top down as you might expect. Several have started at the divisional level and have also established processes to roll up plans, provide a total enterprise learning perspective and match resources required to meet the needs. By mapping demand with the ability to deliver, priorities get synchronized with strategic initiatives and gaps become more visible for further investment consideration.
The second finding gets more directly at the cost-reduction issue. It seems most organizations have made at least initial attempts to use shared services as a way to be more efficient. But the fact that stakeholders still view roles and responsibilities as not aligned suggests that organizations are still struggling with shared services models.
The third finding is perhaps the least surprising. Measurement of learning has long been a challenging area. While learning leaders understand they should be measuring business outcomes, it often is difficult to do this type of evaluation in the real world. Still, a relatively small number of organizations are claiming success in this area.
Not surprisingly, most questions generated a fairly standard bell curve of responses. Below are quick characterizations of the results for the three sections of the survey.
This section probed respondents about learning functions for planning, content development and procurement, catalog management and other operational factors. The survey sought to find out whether critical functions were highly coordinated, moderately coordinated or widely fragmented in the organization.
• About half of the organizations reported that their planning functions and content development and procurement processes were moderately coordinated across organizational groups. The degree of collaborative planning and/or development varied.
• Less than 20 percent described their planning functions as highly integrated.
• Conversely, about one-third said these functions were widely distributed with different teams working somewhat autonomously.
An exception to the bell curve appeared in the area of learning administration, which was more coordinated than other learning processes. More than two-thirds of respondents indicated these activities are highly coordinated among regional or divisional administrators (40 percent) or mostly centralized either in HR/training or IT (50 percent).
This may be due to its linkage with systems for scheduling — systems frequently being an initial step in establishing a shared services capability. However, many cited inconsistent use of naming conventions and other meta-data in upstream life-cycle processes, making program administration, updates and maintenance more challenging.
This section probed respondents about how various roles and responsibilities are aligned and budgeting and funding decisions are made.
• Most respondents (two-thirds) felt the roles and responsibilities for learning were not optimally aligned, with more than half seeing them as too decentralized, fragmented or otherwise distributed across the company with many decisions being made on an ad-hoc basis.
• Less than 20 percent indicated a highly coordinated budgeting process with substantial oversight and low risk of program disruptions.
This last result correlates closely with the planning process findings. It’s interesting to note that the lack of visibility for program planning or delivery deficiency can lead to missed investment opportunities, as well.
Measurement and Evaluation
This section probed respondents about the types of evaluations and measurement in use.
• Reports that track completions and attendance remain the most common learning metrics, with more than 90 percent.
• Whether or not learning objectives were met was being tracked by 80 percent of the companies.
• However, metrics that capture impact on business results or talent-related factors such as role readiness or increased retention slipped to less than 30 percent.
Questions regarding evaluation and measurement practices revealed the quintessential challenge facing most learning organizations: capturing and measuring true business value. Only a minority of organizations surveyed were capturing real business metrics and sharing this data with executives.
Other Findings of Interest
A few responses came from people within the same company, and the variation in responses exemplified lack of governance. Visibility, transparency, consistency and consensus are central stewardship principles for effective governance.
A final survey question solicited open-ended feedback, asking, “If you could change one thing to allow your company to deliver more effective learning services, what would it be?” The top three responses:
• Incorporate more Web 2.0-type tools and other processes to facilitate more informal and peer-to-peer learning (56 percent).
• Share best practices more effectively so we aren’t always reinventing the wheel (47 percent).
• Create a better partnering relationship with lines of business so we understand their needs better (45 percent).
The responses with regard to Web 2.0 adoption are interesting, as they reflect the ongoing interest in using new training technologies. However, without an effective governance framework in place to support adoption, and without IT being an engaged stakeholder — it is usually perceived as a blocker — it’s difficult to see how organizations can quickly apply new best practices.
Room for Improvement
It’s clear there are many well-intended efforts in the industry, and some organizations are making true progress toward implementing an effective governance model. However, it’s equally clear that some organizations are treading water and not getting beyond a state of basic administrative coordination.
The findings suggest organizations who want to further their governance efforts should consider the following:
• Adopt more proactive planning processes.
• Engage more stakeholders to build consensus and alignment.
• Seek to close upstream and downstream process gaps.
• Identify more business outcomes and track and measure them.
Governance is not about the heroic efforts of a few. Rather, it’s about repeatability and scale, which can lead to greater innovation. Ultimately, governance crosses boundaries, touches every business unit and links tightly with the overall governance of the organization. But doing it well is not just for the asking. It takes thought, design and execution involving a wide range of stakeholders.