CLOs must evaluate their ability to help their enterprises rebound and ensure their learning staff is ready and able to lend assistance.
by Cushing Anderson
February 21, 2012
A large number of firms changed their spending patterns between 2008 and 2010 in reaction to the global financial crisis. However, learning and development investments increased in 2011 and are expected to rise again this year.
Investment in technology continues to be a priority compared to other learning initiatives. Content development and learning strategy are also returning to the top of CLOs’ investment priorities. Enterprises expect to continue their investments in learning management systems, assessment systems and performance management capabilities and are eager to try simulations, mobile learning and collaboration and social tools. However, economic uncertainty has learning budgets under pressure.
In spite of the increase in the benefits organizations receive from learning technology investments, the largest expense for most learning and development organizations remains staff spend. To maximize learning spending, and to ensure flexibility and capacity for the economic recovery, learning organizations must properly allocate and deploy their staff. While learning relevance has increased steadily since 2006, many enterprises must still find a way to have more impact on organizational objectives.
Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board (BIB) on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes important to senior learning executives. This month’s analysis of how learning and development organizations allocate staff, in addition to how much staff they deploy, can help jumpstart a process to better apply existing resources. While some organizations find it appropriate to become an organizational adviser or change consultant, others continue to improve delivery efficiency. Either way, CLOs must evaluate their ability to help the enterprise rebound during the recovery and align their staff to that goal.
Learning and Enterprise Strategy
While the global economic outlook and, in many cases, the local economic outlook remains murky, enterprises continue to invest to improve key functional areas such as the supply chain or finance function. For some, this maintains market share against competitive pressures; in other cases, it’s an attempt to take market share from struggling competitors. But regardless of the reason for the investment, enterprises also must not forget to focus on their employees’ performance. Learning and development has never been more important to organizational success than now as companies tentatively transition from crisis to re-growth.
Learning executives remain generally optimistic about employee development — only 17 percent feeling less optimistic about 2012 than they were about 2011 last year. The reasons for optimism include the fact that gradual economic recovery and skills shortages necessitate knowledge sharing and cross-training, and an increased awareness of the critical part training plays in organizational success. But learning leaders must align their efforts with business goals.
Last year, IDC reported 80 percent of organizations think learning and development could play a moderate or significant role in helping their organization achieve its strategic goals, and enterprise training and development initiatives are increasingly focused on core business priorities. Like the wider enterprise, learning organizations that focus on outcomes drive business value.
Research for the past several years indicates training organizations have tightened their belts, but also have increased their efforts to ensure the entire workforce is prepared to execute on the organization’s strategic imperatives. However, nearly one in five learning organizations do not think they are in a position to help their enterprises address the economic crisis of this generation. And, only 45 percent of learning and development organizations think they play a significant role in helping their enterprise execute its strategic objectives. Going forward, a key imperative for learning leaders must be to ensure their ability to play a significant role in helping the enterprise meet its objectives. Otherwise, the CLO will preside over an organization ripe for trimming.
Changing Staff Mixtures
Since 2006 the traditional learning organization has been changing. As a result of increased focus on learning strategy, organizational development and performance, learning staff roles have become an increasingly meaningful component of many learning organizations.
During the last six years, there has been a significant shift away from content development and instructional designers. Tools have helped improve staff teams’ efficiency. Other trends — such as shorter courses and even more rapid course development approaches — have reduced the need for content developers by half since 2006.
The trend toward online training hasn’t had the impact some observers expected: CLOs report the percentage of their staff who are instructors has increased slightly during the past few years.
Also somewhat contradictory is that while technology is playing an increased role in learning — for instructor-led training, self-paced instruction, content development and facilitation of social learning experiences — the percentage of technology specialists has declined in most learning organizations from 2006 and remains near 2010 levels. Better, easier to use products, more sophisticated management tools along with greater administrator skills are the primary reasons for reductions in learning technology administration staffing.
The percentage of the learning staff CLOs describe as learning organization management has doubled since 2006. This is most likely the result of the increased role learning and development plays in the enterprise, which requires more senior-level relationships to ensure high-level impact. A small decline from last year reflects a reprioritization toward performance consulting.
Staff Sizes Are Stable
Regardless of the economic challenges or learning organizations’ ability to help achieve the change initiative, learning and development organizations have experienced their fair share of belt-tightening. From November 2008 to mid-2010, learning organizations lost 10 percent of their staff. In 2011, their staffing generally remained steady.
IDC is often asked about the appropriate size of a learning staff to serve the broader enterprise. That ratio is variable. Before 2008, the ratio of learning and development staff to overall staff in large organizations could be close to 0.5 percent — with a small number of learning professionals serving a very large employee base — or in smaller organizations that ratio could have been as high as 3 percent. In late 2011, those ratios were slightly lower. As enterprises recover staff and seek a longer-term view, IDC does not expect that ratio to grow much, with learning becoming a slightly smaller proportion of the overall workforce. This is because any operational shift or improvement the learning organization instituted during the crisis — in development efficiency, organization consulting staffing or technology management — is not likely to be undone. Highly leveraged staff — such as performance consultants or organizational development consultants — likely would be added first.
Fifty-one percent of CLOs think they don’t have enough staff. This is the lowest rate of dissatisfaction IDC has recorded and is down from 66 percent in 2007. Only rarely — less than 10 percent of the time — do CLOs report they have more staff than they need.
Staffing expectations for 2012 closely resemble those of 2011. Four times more companies are expecting to add learning and development staff in 2012 than those that expect to reduce staff size. This again reflects belief in the importance of training. Enterprises that have successfully passed through the difficult period have gained “a greater appreciation of internal knowledge to support informal training and organizational performance,” according to one CLO. And this has resulted in hiring opportunities for learning staff.
Learning Talent at an Equilibrium Point
Nearly 45 percent of enterprises expect to hire learning and development staff in the coming 12 months either as a replacement for transitioning staff or to increase the size of the learning organization. When companies do hire, more learning professionals appear available to fill vacant positions. An equal number of organizations believe the job market is either tighter or easier than last year, suggesting a point of equilibrium.
CLOs expect to spend between one and four months looking for the right candidate, slightly less time than filling a position last year.
Even though the mix of learning skills has shifted away from content developers as previously mentioned, those skills remain the most likely to be hired and the most difficult roles to fill, according to CLOs.
Overall, organizations expect to hire, fewer expect to cut back on learning staff and the availability of talented development professionals appears to be increasing. While many organizations think learning efforts could impact company strategy, only 45 percent think their learning organization will play such a role. However, more than half of enterprises say they must find a way to have more impact on the achievement of organizational objectives. This may require better application of existing resources or changing the role learning plays to become a more significant adviser and change consultant.
Cushing Anderson is program director for learning services at IDC. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.