Surveys of CEOs point to a shortage of leadership and management talent as a leading concern. It’s not that companies refrain from investing in developing their people: In 2012, companies in developed economies spent nearly $400 billion on training. But, as authors Shlomo Ben-Hur, Bernard Jaworski, and David Gray argue, much of the investment and effort that organizations spend on learning is focused on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on new modes of instruction and technology, they write, corporate learning executives need to emphasize aligning learning programs with business strategy.
Although learning executives such as chief learning officers must shoulder the burden of developing the company’s talent capabilities and supporting strategic priorities, the authors argue that CEOs and other top executives have a critical role to play. Personal engagement and leadership on the part of the CEO can make a big difference in setting the right tone for the organization.
While companies often begin with training-needs assessments, the authors recommend starting by mapping what they call the “CEO agenda” to ensure that learning gets properly aligned with strategy. This connects learning and development with the company’s specific needs and cuts through the noise of multiple initiatives vying for attention — highlighting the critical “must-win battles” that the CEO has identified.
The next task is to operationalize the learning agenda through a portfolio of learning and development activities. This involves doing an inventory of existing learning and development resources. Companies should repeat this on a regular basis, the authors say, to ensure that the activities in place reflect the company’s learning strategy. Companies should be wary about making wholesale changes to learning portfolios and organizational structures, the authors warn, unless there are major shifts in the company’s mission or business context. Reorganizations “should be limited to situations where they are warranted — for example, when the learning agenda is misaligned with corporate strategy or the strategy changes.”
Like the CEO agenda, the company’s learning agenda should articulate the essential strategic initiatives for corporate learning. Choices about what to include or eliminate to bring learning activities in line with current priorities should not be made in isolation, and the authors say it’s important to get input and buy-in from both the learning organization and business leaders — all the way to the CEO level.
Although the CEO’s personal involvement is valuable, a broader effort of stakeholder management is typically required to promote and gain buy-in for the learning agenda. Learning leaders should map out a concerted “campaign” to inform and gather input from key influencers and decision makers in other parts of the business. A disciplined effort of stakeholder engagement and outreach gives learning leaders an opportunity to deepen their understanding of strategic priorities and demonstrate the business value of learning interventions.
Companies with successful learning programs like Shell and Capgemini invite leaders from various business units to help steer curriculum. Such advisory structures help ensure that local learning activities remain aligned with the company’s learning agenda and that corporate learning leaders adapt to the changing needs of different parts of the business.