Recent research about organizations' human capital practices reveal that high performers have continued to invest in learning and employee development, even during tough economic times.

For decades, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has examined critical human capital issues in high-performing organizations (those companies in the top quartile of market share, profitability, revenue growth, and customer satisfaction) and low-performing organizations (those companies in the bottom quartile).

i4cp's latest human capital report, The Best Get Better: Critical Human Capital Issues of 2012, compares data from 2010 with data from 2012. The study's most important revelation is that high-performing organizations consistently are increasing their capabilities in the human capital areas they consider most critical, and have been doing so throughout the course of the global recession. Specifically, these organizations are seven times as effective at managing learning and development and five times as effective at leadership development, coaching, and recognition as their low-performing counterparts.

While some may argue that high-performing organizations have more money and staff to devote to these issues, Jay Jamrog, senior vice president of research at i4cp, argues that, rather, these organizations understand which issues are most important and intentionally dedicate resources to effectively develop them.

The top five critical issues for high performers are leadership development, succession planning, managing or coping with change, talent management, and learning and development. Alternately, the top five critical issues for low performers are managing or coping with change, leadership development, managing organizational change, performance management, and engagement.

High performers tend to focus on external factors, while low performers turn their attention internally. According to the study, this is one reason why high-performing organizations emphasize innovation, sustainability, and global markets, while low-performing organizations get mired in building their corporate brand.

Jamrog explains that trends developing within the next year reveal continued uncertainties, coupled with the learning function's Jekyll and Hyde-esque pessimistic versus optimistic outlook.

"Everyone's working hard, putting in a lot of hours with lean staff, trying to make things happen, and it's stressful," he observes. "However, some companies are getting it—they're working smarter and not just harder. And you can see their results here: They are seven times more effective at learning and development—they must be doing something right!"