The field of employee learning and development has grown exponentially in the past decade. According to the ASTD 2010 State of the Industry Report, U.S. organizations spent approximately $125.88 billion on employee learning and development in 2009 - a $65 billion increase from 2001 when ASTD began tracking this data.
The field has also been evolving from the traditional instructor-led approach to a learner-centered systematic approach that focuses on learning and development to improve individual, team, and organization performance. During the last two decades, the corporate employee learning and development function - specifically the corporate university (CU) - has not only increased significantly in size, but also in its strategic importance in the organizational structure. CUs have played an important role in human resource development in organizations worldwide and have received the attention of scholars and practitioners for research purposes.
CUs are often charged with complex and multidimensional tasks in a strategic role to support individual, team, and organizational learning. The CU label often suggests the strategic importance that a company has on the employee learning and development function. Research has shown that superior employee knowledge and competencies contribute to positive competitive advantages and financial performance within organizations.
Given today's difficult economic situation and limited support and resources for developmental initiatives, the effectiveness of the CU is under scrutiny from senior management. CUs need to be smart about how they spend their time, energy, and resources by aligning all learning activities with organizational goals.
There have been numerous articles and case studies about the different practices of CUs, but rarely have these efforts examined how to effectively manage a CU and how to best allocate its resources for optimum results. In an effort to investigate these questions, we first conducted a thorough literature review to understand the wide array of methods and approaches used by CUs to operationalize the employee learning and performance function. These practices can be summarized as specific dimensions, grouped into profile categories.
Given the diversity of practices, it is a daunting task for CUs to address all of these dimensions at the same time. This is especially challenging in light of current resource constraints. Therefore, we sought to identify the key functions for a CU to inform resource allocation for optimum effectiveness and efficiency.
We conducted a survey of 210 CUs across industries and geographies in North America. We then used statistical analysis to reduce complexity in the dimensions and identify the most strategic areas of focus for the CU. The results suggest that there are five essential strategic areas on which CUs should focus:
- alignment and execution
- development of skills that support business needs
- evaluation of learning and performance
- use of technology to support the learning function
- partnership with academia.
Alignment and execution
The success of the learning function depends foremost on its alignment with corporate goals and the execution of its learning strategy. First, the CU needs to have a clear learning vision and mission that aligns to the company's overall goals and objectives. This can be achieved by a learning governance board, composed of leaders from a variety of business units. This executive committee works alongside the CU to develop learning strategy for the organization.
Second, the university needs to partner with corporate HR leaders to analyze employee skill gaps and to develop learning programs that support employee development. The CU can be viewed as a critical component of the organization's strategic HR management efforts.
Third, learning efforts should be in alignment with HR performance appraisal processes to identify employee development areas. Many organizations implement annual performance processes to evaluate employee capabilities. HR is the function that manages these processes and can aggregate developmental issues that span across the organization. Based on the aggregated findings, learning and development professionals can collaborate with HR to design appropriate learning programs.
An important mission for CUs is to support overall organizational goals and major initiatives by operationalizing the employee learning and development function. By working closely with business leaders and HR leaders, CUs can align human capital planning and sustain organizational competitive advantages.
Development of skills that support business needs
Developing skills to support business needs highlights the need for customized programs focused on specific skills or jobs that align to business unit demands. Developing competency-based curricula for various employee roles in different business functions with line managers ensures relevancy to business operations. Skills gaps are identified collaboratively with business units, and targeted programs are designed to fill these gaps.
Collaboration with business units is essential for learning professionals to grasp the business knowledge domain and understand business processes. If learning initiatives are not aligned directly with business objectives, CUs run the risk of becoming ineffective, inefficient, or redundant. It is important for CUs to understand the business dynamics and purpose to best appreciate how learning can drive improvement that will ultimately increase revenue and speed to market.
CUs can target a broad range of employees. For example, learning initiatives can be designed for an employee's level or title, job role (for example, sales support, finance analysis, or call center management), or group (for example, onboarding college graduates or newly promoted managers). Often, organizations will offer leadership development curricula targeting high-potential individuals for various management levels across business units. Focusing on the needs of a specific group is increasingly significant because the workplace now includes four generations of workers with varying skill capabilities and management experience. Some CUs even offer programs for audiences externalto their company, such as suppliers, external partners, and customers.
Evaluation of learning and performance
The goal of learning and performance evaluation is to measure the impact of learning efforts on organization-wide results as well as the effect on business units. Evaluating learning programs by measuring return-on-investment of learning efforts and learning transfer are clearly identified as important metrics by CUs. And as organizations spend more money on learning initiatives, executives want to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of resources.
The evaluation and measurement of learning impact within corporations is a complex task. This is especially challenging when what is learned is intangible, such as leadership effectiveness, adoption of corporate values, and critical thinking and analysis. A commonly used approach in learning evaluation is the Kirkpatrick Four Levels. As noted in a recent ASTD State of the Industry Report, approximately 38 percent of organizations honored for learning excellence are using or moving toward the Kirkpatrick model for learning evaluation.
Traditional training departments typically focus on the lower levels of measurement - Kirkpatrick's Level 1 student satisfaction and reaction and Level 2 skill and knowledge demonstration evaluation. CUs are attempting to increase learning evaluations to Level 3 application of learning on the job and Level 4 bottom-line business impact. Levels 3 and 4 are more challenging to capture as a means to measuring impact of learning initiatives.
Use of technology to support learning
The use of technology in learning and development efforts has evolved significantly throughout the last two decades. Now, companies focus on just-in-time, targeted use of learning programs in multiple delivery formats such as intranet modules, CD or DVD programs, podcasts, webcasts, simulations, and Web 2.0 technologies. The impetus to move learning toward other delivery formats emerges from organizations that want to reduce expenses associated with classroom-based training and related travel costs.
Additionally, organizations need to train more employees and reach larger audiences around the world. Along with the need to reduce costs, online delivery allows for greater flexibility to quickly customize and change content of learning programs for different audiences. Learning management systems also provide tracking and administration support to learning leaders so that resources can be allocated appropriately based on demand. The use of technology is dramatically shifting from trainers teaching in front of a classroom, to online courses that offer learning assistance anytime, anywhere to employees who require knowledge and information while they work.
This technology dimension underscores the need to implement technologies that support learning delivery and administration, and offer additional programs to employees. Online learning space can support learning and performance development and administer learning programs globally. Increasing the use of Internet-based learning technologies can extend the reach of learning initiatives for CUs with relatively small staffs - in our survey, about 50 percent of the CUs surveyed have fewer than 25 full-time employees.
Social networking tools represent another new trend that will potentially revolutionize the learning and development functions in organizations. Technology enables the rapid customization of learning content for specific learner needs at the time of use. With the constant advancement of tools, the potential of technology-supported learning is enormous.
Partnerships with academia
There is a growing trend of CUs working with academic universities for customized design and delivery of noncredit learning programs, as well as for-credit or degree programs. In addition, faculty exchanges and development programs assist CU expansion because external resources and expertise are needed to supplement existing staff and knowledge, especially for more technical and specialized skills. Some CUs even offer employees customized degrees that are accredited by a university.
Partnership with academic institutions can allow customized content development and degree programs for employees. For example, Motorola University in China partners with 21 Chinese higher education institutions to deliver executive management programs such as MBAs and specialized technology training. General Motors offers a customized MBA program with Indiana University. Often, faculty from academic universities speak on specialized or technical topics where the company wants to develop knowledge.
A functional model for CUs
The sidebar depicts the five strategic areas as a functional model for CU to operationalize in a more effective manner that will help CU endure difficult economical challenges.
It is important to point out that the five areas are not perceived as equally important by the CUs in the study. The dimensions of alignment and execution, developing skills that support business needs, and technology to support learning are the top priorities, followed by learning and performance evaluation and partnership with academia. The five strategic areas are, however, interconnected and as such, coordination of activities across the five dimensional areas within a CU is critical.
The reason that these five strategic areas are essential for CUs is because they capture a large majority (70 percent) of CU activities based on statistical analysis. Focusing CU efforts on these specific areas instead of on a wide array of dimensions may help CUs to reduce operational complexity. For example, CU leaders can focus only on the five strategic areas when allocating resources and staffing. This model can also help corporations aspiring to advance their employee learning function to visualize their efforts in accordance with the proposed five areas.
With today's mounting economic pressures and increased restrictions on resources available to CUs, practitioners can benefit from this model by improving efficiency or simply targeting areas in which to dedicate resources. The employee development function will continue to gain recognition and strategic importance in organizations striving to compete in a technology-driven knowledge economy.