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Getting the blend just right

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Corporate learning works best when it consists of a blend of outsourced and in-house training. How can HR leaders combine the unique characteristics of each to ensure staff get the best mix of training available? Akankasha Dewan finds out.

Conducting training in-house or outsourcing it elsewhere is no longer an either/or decision. Human resources professionals have long searched for creative solutions to come up with the best training strategies for their staff, and more often than not, many find an integrated approach works best.

Why? Because it gets the blend just right.

In fact, the 2014 Kelly Global Workforce Index found a blend of training – comprising of employer-provided training (48%), mentoring (39%) and outsourced training (23%) – are the most popular resources in Singapore when preparing for career development and advancement opportunities.

“This is not an either/or question,” says Amy Kong, regional director of learning and people development at MSLGROUP Asia. “What we should look at is the desired outcome based on training needs analysis and discussions with the business leader, then look at whether the best source or training or content can be found internally or externally, or both.

“Our people – and our training programmes that help them to thrive – cannot be complacent and must transform alongside the business in order for us to succeed.”

Indeed, the broad capabilities of today’s hybrid trainings ensure the unique challenges that arise as budgets tighten and demands increase can be overcome – but they must be adopted while keeping in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each type of training in line with your own learning philosophy.

“Employees have to approach their jobs and careers with the perspective that learning, informal or formal, is a continual ongoing endeavour,” Kong says. “Companies can facilitate that by designing training and other development initiatives to encourage that mindset.

“It is about lifetime employability and not lifetime employment.”

What works for your needs? 

One of the first elements to take into consideration when designing an effective hybrid training strategy is analysing the type of corporate environment the employees are working in and its specific requirements.

“About three years ago, we did an analysis and we found that 66% of people who join us leave us in their first year,” says Carol Yong, human resources director at Dairy Farm South Asia.

“The main reason for that is that this environment is not an easy environment to stay in. At Dairy Farm, most roles are multi-tasked and fast-paced, so it’s very natural for new joiners to find their first years quite challenging.”

It does take some trial and error in finding the right trainer. We ask around, we do research on the providers.
– Wong Wai Meng, head of capability development and human resources, Goodrich Global

She adds that supervisors and managers, specifically, have to upscale their capabilities at a rapid pace upon joining the industry.

“In retail, the person who manages a team has a lot of responsibility on his or her hands. This includes managing not only people, but also products, inventory and housekeeping. So they need to be pretty strong as a manager.

“In the areas of leadership development, negotiation and executive coaching, we will leverage on external resources. Outsourcing also helps overcome the tight labour situation, and the time gap needed in recruiting competent people who are able to train well.

“Time is also saved in building the infrastructure required to conduct training exercises. Outsourced professional experts are also likely to deliver high standards of service and meet all KPIs.”

While Wong Wai Meng, head of capability development and human resources at Goodrich Global, similarly acknowledges the benefits of relying on external sources, he adds certain aspects of industries are too technical to outsource completely.

“Almost 80% of our training is outsourced, but we can’t outsource the other 20% because we are unique in our industry and we have our own syllabus,” Wong says.

“We have certain instances where we find there’s no available service provider who can cover topics, such as some core proprietary knowledge, which is not commonly available within the public training syllabus.”

This is something which resonates with Eileen Keng, vice-president of leadership and senior talent at Credit Suisse, who adds outsourced providers need to be well established, especially in the topic which they are being engaged for.

“If you are a subject matter expert in terms of having many years of research and experience in a particular topic, then you will be the type of provider we would go for,” she says.

“The downside of this arrangement is, of course, the lack of organisational context. This means the learning and development team has to make sure the external training providers are aligned with the organisational needs and learning culture through a very close partnership.”

The need for alignment and communication

But such an alignment between companies and their external training vendors is precisely what is lacking in the corporate landscape today.

A study by GP Strategies in 2009 found only 41% of survey participants had a strong alignment with their learning service providers. Additionally, while three in four companies are aligned at the beginning of an engagement, less than half remain strongly aligned throughout the engagement.

Shedding light into the root causes of this alignment drop-off, the survey found poor communication, a lack of clearly defined goals and provider flexibility were among the chief factors impacting alignment and performance.

Keng stresses these factors are integral if HR departments wish to establish a good working relationship with their outsourced providers.

“For those programmes which we outsource, we work very closely with our partners, right from the content design stage,” she says. “We ensure their key messages are aligned very closely to what we’re looking out for. We use consistent briefs or outlines when we go out and source for a partner.

“This outline is consistent globally to ensure we send the same messages and teach the same topics to our employees worldwide, even if the providers we are using are different in different places.”

It is about lifetime employability and not lifetime employment.
– Amy Kong, regional director of learning and people development, MSLGROUP Asia

But merely attempting to align expectations and goals with providers is but the first step – the process is complete only when providers themselves are able to give companies the quality and level of services which are expected of them.

“Provider inflexibility is a big obstacle to achieving alignment,” the GP Strategies survey stated. It added that respondents believed providers’ inadaptability had a negative impact on alignment, and the number one reason they would replace a provider was a lack of flexible or responsive service.

Finding the right facilitator

Often, such a lack of flexible services include the lack of a good facilitator who is able to change and adapt course content and delivery to suit the type of employees on hand.

“The challenge is identifying and finding a suitable faculty who has the right level of gravitas and who can speak to the seniority of those employees whom the content is targeted at,” Keng says. “So if it’s a very senior audience, we need a faculty member who can match their level of extensive knowledge.”

She adds another challenge is the inability for external facilitators and programme providers to actively use and appreciate the corporate language that is used within Credit Suisse.

Using such language will aid in helping employees to relate with the examples and contexts employed by the trainer.

With such challenges in place, all leaders admit HR divisions need to put in effort and time before choosing the right training provider and facilitator to work with.

“If it’s a new training programme, we would have to assess the quality of the training provider,” Wong says. “It does take some trial and error in finding the right trainer. We ask around, we do research on the providers.”

Keng agrees and adds that throughout the training period, her organisation diligently keeps track of the learning provider’s performance.

“We are very careful in the way we select who comes in to deliver the programme and we monitor the feedback that our employees give the facilitator very closely,” she says.

“We communicate our expectations very clearly upfront to them and we have very clear standards for them to meet. If the feedback which we receive about them is not very positive, we do take actions to remove them from our faculty.”

She adds the large-scale presence of the bank mandates her L&D department has a very comprehensive learning system in place globally.

“We have a standard set of questions that we collect feedback on, on all programmes and on all trainers. Because all our programmes are coded in the same way, we can key in some key words for a particular programme and we can pull out a report showing all the feedback across all regions for the same programme. We can then do a comparison across regions.”

Enhancing in-house learning

However, Yong reminds us that even with such measures in place to overcome the disadvantages of using external vendors for training, outsourcing training does pose a few risks.

“When companies do outsource training, they are likely to face an increase in costs, or a year-on-year increase in service fees. There is also the risk of below expected delivery standards sometimes, and companies might also suffer from a potential loss of confidentiality, such as data related to payroll,” she says.

Such reasons are precisely why there is a strong need to simultaneously build internal learning and development teams which can not only conduct training sessions for employees, but also manage external training vendors diligently.

“Our L&D team leads programmes such as POS (point-of-sale) cashier training and proprietary fresh programmes,” Yong says. “They also work on service and campaign training and lead engagement platforms. This team also analyses the type of external programmes that are suitable to meet our needs. They are involved in management trainee assessment, talent management, and in a lot of group programmes.

“A dedicated training department needs to be present, so they take full responsibility and accountability for training employees.”

Business leaders typically want to cram as much as possible into a training programme to maximise the employees’ time away from work. Avoid the situation where you cover everything and participants learn nothing.
– Amy Kong, regional director of learning and people development, MSLGROUP Asia

Kong warns us of the need for L&D leaders to work hand-in-hand with business heads when planning training programmes.

“Business leaders typically want to cram as much as possible into a training programme to maximise the employees’ time away from work, but there is a limit to how much knowledge an employee can retain. Avoid the situation where you cover everything and participants learn nothing.

“The job of the L&D function is to work with the business leader to strike a balance between maximising the training time and retention of learning.”

Wong echoes this, and highlights such an approach is especially useful to small and medium-sized enterprises, such as Goodrich, which has limited resources and budgets for learning programmes.

“For us, cost-effectiveness is very important – we may not be able to afford a high-end trainer,” he says.

Invoking leadership participation

Keng further elaborates on how Credit Suisse’s internal learning strategy relies quite heavily on the participation of senior leaders.

“Running in-house programmes allows for the content to be highly customised to fit the organisational context and issues. It is also highly effective if we can identify internal subject matter expertise of experienced leaders to deliver the training,” she says.

“Leaders teaching leaders is a very established and well-received delivery format in Credit Suisse. Our high potential leaders have a responsibility to be a part of our learning faculty and they are all very committed to the development of other colleagues in the firm.

“Colleagues, on the other hand, appreciate hearing from leaders in the firm so they can contextualise the learning in real-work situations and challenges.”

All interviewees unanimously agree that invoking management support is key for any training programme to succeed.

“Often, HR and L&D teams organise a lot of programmes, but the senior management often does not know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Yong says.

“They don’t know exactly what needs you are fulfilling. It is very important for them to understand these needs, endorse the approach you have adopted, and be involved in the training programme. They can give motivational talks, and be subject matter experts.”

This article was written in partnership with the Tripartite Committee on the Employability of Older Workers (TriCom), to share the importance of leadership, progressive HR practices and training opportunities in the workplace that help build an inclusive workplace for all workers, including mature and older workers.

Image: Shutterstock

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