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Charting the future of corporate learning

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As the business climate shifts, L&D functions are increasingly becoming more professional in their approach. Akankasha Dewan talks to senior HR leaders on how corporate training methods have evolved, and what implications these changes hold for the future.

Businesses worldwide have woken up to the fact that change is the new and perhaps only norm today.

In this age of rapidly evolving ideas, technologies and systems, many of employees’ fundamental relationships – within organisations and economies – are being reimagined and recreated in ways that challenge their usual assumptions.

Because of this, the learning and development function has become even more integral in the process of equipping staff with the skills they need to deal with such change.

But as conventional assumptions about what such training represents for a company shift, assumptions about the operations of the human resources functions handling such programmes also naturally changes. The issue doesn’t merely stop at whether the function grows in importance or not, but rather about how the function grows.

This involves a revaluation of both the department’s products and sources – in terms of what skills, knowledge and capabilities people will require, and in terms of how learning and development interventions can be delivered effectively amid this environment of change.

Becoming a better strategic partner

A recent report by futurethink on the future of L&D programmes worldwide highlighted the immense need for L&D functions in the near future to be more in tune with the business objectives of the company.

“If L&D groups want to truly get a seat at the executive table, there is a strong feeling among survey respondents that they will have to do a better job of being true business partners, offering courses that teach the topics that help management drive business, not just build foundational skills,” the report states.

According to the survey, 44% said the role of L&D in their organisations could be described as that of a strategic business partner, something which resonates with A Mateen, vice-president of human resources at DHL Express, Singapore, Southeast Asia and South Asia.

“Learning and development programmes have to align with and support the overall business strategy and goals,” he says. “There are two key aspects: foundational programmes that build a strong culture across the organisation based on shared values and those that advance specific functional and/or managerial competencies.

“Both types of programmes have to exist in order to groom employees of today into leaders of tomorrow – capable managers or individual contributors who are also strong brand ambassadors.”

To facilitate a greater connection between training programmes and the business objectives of the company, Eduardo Pérez Cejuela, senior HR director for Asia at Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, suggests improving the participation of senior leaders in L&D initiatives.

Such participation is key also because it is precisely in developing leadership capability that staff development initiatives are increasingly targeted towards (74%), according to the corporate learning priorities survey 2014 by Henley Business School.

With business unit leaders now requiring their teams to stay on top of competitive trends, analyse complex business situations and understand global markets, it is precisely such leaders who can provide the best training for their staff.

“A leader’s involvement in the whole life cycle of L&D planning is crucial,” Cejuela says. “In the designing phase, they are required to provide input on measurement criteria – for example, behavioural change and work efficiency – at the outset of each training programme.

“At the implementation phase, it is about staying involved and remaining attentive to the progress of their employees.

“As a follow-up, they should continue to coach and mentor the employees to ensure the newly acquired knowledge and skills are applied by the employees to drive the overall business objectives.”

Brendan Toomey, vice-president of human resources for Asia Pacific at Hilton Worldwide, agrees, adding that senior business leaders of companies should be at the forefront of learning and development programmes.

“One of the unique features of our development programmes is the general managers and other senior leaders actually lead and deliver some of our training programmes,” he says.

“For instance, GMs deliver the management development programme to heads of departments. They are also observers in these programmes which develop high-potential team members to director-level and future GMs. Often, these GMs serve as mentors to these team members through a company sponsored mentoring programme.

“By doing all this, we move the learning away from it being a HR-driven initiative and towards a partnership with the business. These GMs lend credibility to the programmes and inspire the team members through the sharing of their stories and experiences.”

Prioritising your training

According to the futurethink report, if L&D programmes are becoming more business-oriented, then audience segmentation within training efforts has also increased over the years.

Now, such business-targeted training is aimed towards those employees with high potential, who are viewed as the primary group for which training is prioritised, the survey stated.

Managers and new employees followed this high-potential group respectively, with executives and the general employee population being the least important groups when it came to training

Toomey observes that changing business climates contribute to the necessity of having such distinctions.

“We have a strong pipeline of hotels that are opening in Asia Pacific within the next few years. Hence, there is an urgent need to attract more talents into the company and to develop our existing team members,” he says.

“We believe that learning and development plays an extremely important role in attracting quality talent into Hilton Worldwide, and also in retaining high-performing individuals.”

In a general context, the high-performing employee is someone with the ability, engagement and aspiration to rise to – and succeed – in more senior, critical positions. But training such high-performing individuals isn’t without its fair share of challenges, the first being their competition with senior employees.

“High-potentials generally are highly confident and full of enthusiasm,” Mateen says. “They are often impatient and want to be promoted to the next higher role within 18 to 24 months. Senior staff, on the other hand, may also expect to be given roles of higher responsibilities by virtue of their length of service.

“These two groups of employees may expect learning and development opportunities to go hand-in-hand with promotions, that is, once the training is received they will get the bigger job that they are after.

“However, these decisions are always made on current capabilities and job fit, which is a match in skills and competencies of candidates in running and those required in the role.

Cejuela agrees: “The biggest challenge when training high-potential and senior staff is to understand their focus and needs in different stages of their development. In this day and age, the new generation comes in with different expectations, and it is thus crucial for leaders to address their concerns, and further motivate, engage and identify the right programme to bring out the best in them.”

Therefore, honest and regular feedback and communication becomes integral in managing expectations of such employees.

“This is where we, as HR leaders, need to be clear on how we communicate the objectives and even the timelines when people embark on these programmes,” Toomey says.

“To ensure we meet the challenge of increasing mobility and succession planning, we, as HR leaders, together with the operations leaders, also run quarterly talent reviews of all our available talent in Asia Pacific. These serve to highlight available talent which is ready to move as well as roles in which they can move into.”

Changing the mode of training

Keeping pace with technological change, L&D functions have also evolved rapidly over the past few years when it comes to the style of delivering content to better serve the global marketplace.

All three HR leaders agree that moving forward, the most successful organisations will see greater flexibility and adaptability in learning styles to fit the diverse needs of all employees, whether they’re fresh out of university, Gen X or a Baby Boomer.

“There is an increasing demand for convenience and accessibility,” Cejuela says.

“In 2013, we continued to expand our resources and tools to develop global cross-cultural competency, including company wide access to an online platform containing information and online training modules to provide easy access, in addition to classroom courses.”

Mateen concurs on the use of a blended approach towards training, but highlights a few other modes of training that have become popular over the past couple of years.

“Cross-border exchange and job placement programmes within the organisation have become more common,” he says.

“They augment on-the-job training to provide international exposure and opportunity for best-practice learning. A greater emphasis on development centres is also on the rise in recent years. It helps provide for another avenue to identify and assess talents and high potentials across the organisation for succession planning.”

Cross-functional training is also a method highlighted by Toomey which complements the traditional classroom approach when it comes to corporate development.

“We believe people learn best when they are given cross-exposures to other functions, when they have mentors to guide them and when they are given projects to do.”

“This allows for maximum exposure to the business and senior leaders. We have found that regardless of age, our team members have given good feedback on this method of learning, citing its applicability and relevance to work. There is still a place for traditional classroom training, but that probably constitutes around 20% of all our programmes.”

But increasing the effectiveness of learning remains incomplete without there being a strategic process in place to measure the impact of learning, all three leaders warn.

“Improving efficiency and return on investment (ROI) have grown to become a key theme in business organisations across the board,” Cejuela says.

“The L&D function is no exception. There is expectation for measurement and results for investment in training, especially in terms of business and behavioural impact.”

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