Good branding communicates the value of learning and its impact on employees' professional development.
When Alexander Graham Bell's telephone was field tested, the first reaction from President Ulysses Grant was "Very remarkable! But who in the world would ever want to use one of them?" Today, this remark might seem shocking since life on earth cannot be imagined without a landline telephone or a cell phone. The issue is not specific to the invention, the inventor, or the perceiver; the event happened because the value of the invention was not clearly communicated. Arguably, the state of learning today is sharing a similar fate.
Learning functions around the world are realizing the significance of creating a brand for learning in their organizations. While various training service providers take branding seriously, learning functions in large corporations also have started to focus on branding. The idea is not just about inviting employees to attend a training program, but about convincing employees to believe in what the training program has to offer. Good branding can open minds and can create a conducive atmosphere for learning to take place.
What is branding?
Scott Bedbury, CEO of Brandstream and former marketing executive for Nike and Starbucks, said, "A great brand raises the bar—it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it's the challenge to do your best in sports and fitness, or the affirmation that the cup of coffee you're drinking really matters." Of all the definitions one can find in business books and dictionaries, this statement best exemplifies the significance of branding for a product or service.
Branding is much more than a logo, a witty tag line, or a beautiful design, however. Branding is the collective effect of several aspects of a product or service (including its logo and tag line) on the consumer. Branding learning is about communicating an individual's experience with a learning function—his perception of the learning function, his attitude toward learning programs and initiatives, and his enthusiasm to learn.
The two sides of the learning coin
While most learning functions and corporate universities understand the need for branding, the branding focus often seems one sided. The learning function in any organization caters to two different segments: business leaders and employees.
Every learning function has to align to the business strategy and enable the successful achievement of business objectives, which is the primary reason for its existence. The learning and development (L&D) team also has the responsibility of growing the skills and building the competencies of employees.
Though these two objectives seem unrelated, they are actually two sides of the same coin. When a learning function aligns perfectly with the business strategy and works toward greater efficiency, the function will have to build on the competencies of the employees who will drive the business. And when employees gain the specific skills demanded by the business—to perform better at work—their growth in the organization will be much faster.
However, business leaders and employees are two different stakeholders with two different expectations from the learning function. A good branding strategy should understand and appreciate this difference, communicating to their unique needs and in their preferred mode, thereby creating a powerful impact.
The business brand
The first business meeting I attended in the beginning of my career is fresh in my memory because of one question. The head of human resources asked us, "If the business leaders were given a choice between this learning and development function and another L&D function in the industry, are you sure they will still choose you?" This was one of the defining moments in my career because I truthfully didn't know the answer.
The L&D function primarily exists to support the business. Though all L&D functions work toward and often create a business impact, few communicate the value of investing in learning to the business leaders.
In today's workplace, chief learning officers and deans of corporate universities have started to speak the language of the business, and are increasingly recognized as strategic business partners. Focused branding collaterals that communicate the indispensability of the learning function will not only gain the goodwill of business leaders, but also will help recognize the L&D department as a strategic arm of the business.
Three suggested branding areas are reporting to the business, communicating the L&D function's efficiency, and establishing channels for feedback and suggestions.
Reporting to the business. One of the common ways by which the L&D function communicates with the business is through reports on the function's activities. Several L&D departments submit monthly, quarterly, and annual reports to the business, but most often it becomes more of a mere to-do item than a means to influence decisions—which can significantly impact the learning brand.
Understanding the business decisions that are made on a quarterly or annual basis will bring much focus to the reports designed by the L&D staff. By presenting the results achieved by the learning department, the reports will transform into an executive summary of the learning function's business impact.
Communicating the L&D function's efficiency. The L&D department plays a crucial role in the life of an organization because it is the only function that can take the organization (and its employees') potential to excel to the next level. Therefore, it is the responsibility of workplace learning professionals (WLPs) to communicate the function's efficiency to the business, and persuade the business to invest in the learning function. One of the means to achieve this end is by participating in national and international competitions, such as ASTD's BEST Awards, to showcase the L&D department's efficiency.
Establishing channels for feedback and suggestions. Branding is like effective communication—as much as we communicate for our brand, so much should we listen to our customers. The more we listen, the more insights we will receive on the value of our service. Establishing a channel for feedback and suggestions from business leaders will keep us in check if we deviate from the function's defined goals and expectations. It need not necessarily mean creating an exclusive forum for feedback; it can even be an integral agenda of an existing forum or meeting.
The service brand
One of my all-time favorite stress management strategies is reading Scott Adams's Dilbert comic strips. It not only lifts my spirits with witty humor, but it also delights me with its puns about corporate life. The unfortunate truth about the Dilbert comics is that it is so close to reality.
There is an ocean of difference between communicating what we do as WLPs to our fellow colleagues and to our organization's employees. Although our colleagues can relate to action learning projects, understand social learning techniques, and be aware of the benefits of simulation-based learning, other employees cannot.
WLPs have evolved their approaches to learning, taking input from developments in the fields of education, technology, and workplace behavior, as well as from social media. At the same time, learners also are trying to keep pace with the changes in their learning options. And more often than we wish to believe, learners feel lost or, worse, lose interest in learning.
As in the case with the business, the learning function must look at learning from the employee's perspective and tailor its communications accordingly. To the employee, the L&D function needs to communicate the value of learning and its impact on his professional development, the several arenas of learning available, and their advantages.
Knowledge of learning programs and initiatives. One of the most crucial functions of the branding team is to ensure that employees are aware of the learning opportunities available to them, unique to the roles they play. Learning staff need to communicate to new, existing, recently promoted, and role-changed employees what learning options are available to them. We cannot always depend on employees to search on our website to figure out what are their learning options. Consider automated mailers, brochures, and fliers to trigger action from the employee.
Understand the value of learning. Though most organizations hate to admit it, attendance in learning programs always has been an area of concern. We ask our colleagues, "What is the permissible percentage for absence in training programs?" But we really need to ask ourselves, "If an employee believes attending a training program will make her perform better in her role, why would she want to back out of it?"
When we communicate the value of our learning programs, we almost always are answering the wrong questions. The question we need to answer is not "What will a training program help participants gain?" Instead, it should be, "How will a training program affect the performance or career of participants?" For example, a communication skills training program, we all know, will enhance an individual's communication. But how will learning communication help a person become more efficient at work?
Clarity on how best to use the learning arenas. The latest trend in website designs, and one of the features I admire about ASTD's new website, is telling a visitor how best to use the website. With videos, animations, and graphical representations, and in simple language, web designers are communicating to website visitors the site's features and the ways in which they can navigate through it.
The amount of changes that have happened in our field, and the distinct differences in which Gen X, Gen Y, and all previous generations of employees operate, have created the need for WLPs to look at user guides on learning arenas seriously. It can be a document, video, illustrative diagram, tooltip, or interactive flash, as long as these user guides communicate to employees the advantages and disadvantages in the different arenas of learning, and help them to choose an arena more suited to their learning preferences.
Drive an excitement to learn. The L&D department does plenty more than provide training programs and learning initiatives. It also drives a culture of continuous learning among employees. Branding the learning function will have to encompass this often-undermined, regrettably unintended role of the learning function. A focused branding toward this cause can encourage employees to believe in learning and in their abilities to develop themselves, and also will promote informal learning among employees.
Set up a branding arm
Employees and the business already will have a perception about the learning function. As such, the branding arm's main function will be to alter this perception to promote learning. Start by understanding how your employees perceive the learning function by conducting focus groups, surveys, and training program effectiveness studies.
Next, brainstorm with the organization's WLPs to see how you would want employees to perceive the learning function. Think of an identity for your function that illustrates your mission and philosophy. An identity is not just a logo, but a logo helps immensely in linking experiences to the brand. Consider a simple logo and a short tag line that best communicates your purpose. Take input from your research on employee perceptions to understand the gap in expectations.
A branding strategy revolves around the different focus areas of branding (such as training programs, learning arenas, and developing a learning culture), the communication channels to be used for branding, and the objective of branding learning. Use such internal communication channels as company newsletters, intranet portals, and magazines to reduce cost and create a maximum impact.
Appoint someone on the L&D team to be in charge of branding. This person will need to collaborate with the organization's corporate communications or marketing team. A dedicated WLP needs to be in charge of branding since only a WLP can understand the business of learning, the trends in the learning industry, and the psychology of learning.
The next step is to establish mechanisms to review the impact of branding. There are several means to do this if the branding's objective is clear and linked to definitive results. It is best advised to have several measures of branding impact, amounting to an overall impact on the learning brand. For example, developing internal websites for specific training programs and conferences are now trending.
To measure the impact of a learning website, we need to look beyond the number of hits. Based on the goal, look at the number of repeat visitors, the amount of time a visitor spends on a specific page, or even how a visitor navigates the site. Connect with your organization's marketing or corporate communications team and learn from its best practices.
As discussed earlier, branding not only needs to convey something to employees and business leaders, but also has the responsibility to listen to their changing needs and give input to the learning function. When establishing a learning function, design a process around incorporating the consumer's (the employee's) feedback and suggestions into its operations. The learning function can thus be relevant to the employee and can adapt itself to the changing trends in the workplace.
In the words of George Fisher, "When you aim for perfection, you discover it's a moving target." That holds true with your branding efforts as well. With the changes in the learning space, branding should be as versatile as the learning function in itself, taking input from various fields to communicate best the case for learning and its undeniable effect on growing the individual and the business.