Elearning Market Update – May 2013: Is Corporate elearning in Crisis?

This month we look at a thought provoking article on Making Corporate Learning Work by Shlomo Ben-Hur and Nik Kinley in which they pose a number of difficult questions for those responsible for corporate learning. They question why the satisfaction of business leaders with their learning functions has remained as low as 20% for over 10 years and why such leaders believe half of their spending on learning may be wasted.

None of us in the learning business want to believe that half of our efforts are going to waste – so you can imagine why this article is getting a lot of interest. We highlight the key points below.

Complacency is the killer, not ROI

Ben-Hur and Kinley argue that learning functions are too complacent. They quote surveys where heads of learning say their biggest challenge is proving the value of corporate learning. Far from this recognition being a good thing, the authors argue it has become one of the problems itself. They argue it masks an assumption that everything is OK and the issue is demonstrating the value of current learning rather than changing things. They argue “not only do businesses need to improve how they do learning, but whatever they do needs to be different from and better than what has been tried up to now.”

You’re asking the wrong question...

...it’s outputs, not inputs that matter

The authors argue that corporate learning departments have been focusing on the wrong things. Fundamentally they argue the focus should be on behaviour change and not learning, that the spotlight should be on outputs i.e. how things that are learnt are applied. The danger they see is an academic approach to developing knowledge and skills and not enough focus on how these are applied in practice. Their argument is summed up as follows:

"Corporate learning is not about traditional learning, but about changing people’s behaviour in ways that produce value for the business. And in this respect, the very word ‘learning’ misrepresents what organisations are trying to achieve."

The three core arguments that resonated with us were as follows:

1. There is too little focus on behavioural change

The importance of behavioural change is underplayed in corporate learning according to their findings. They see a greater need for behavioural reinforcement techniques

2. There is insufficient focus on supporting the application of learning in the workplace

They argue “contextual factors such as the workplace environment are actually more important in ensuring the application of learning than the quality of the learning event.”

Whilst 71% of learning leaders expect managerial support there was little practical guidance on what this meant other than endorsing the programme.

The importance of line managers in ensuring learning is applied was a major finding in our annual survey of training managers last year; see a summary and links at the bottom of this article.

3. There is not enough evaluation

They make a strong argument that there is too little evaluation of programmes, which makes it difficult to apply market forces i.e. to drop programmes that are less effective and focus on the most effective ones.

They say that learning functions have spent 40 years acknowledging the issue without making any headway. Take that Kirkpatrick... In a more precise field such as engineering, there’s no way you’d be able to plug away for half a century without proving what’s working, and stopping what isn’t.

Like the authors of the report, we at Kineo have been involved in many learning interventions that have worked, with detailed evidence of pre and post performance to back it up. The issue is that across the industry, data is the exception, not the norm.

The authors do seem to acknowledge some reasons for this. Measuring impact of learning on performance is complex, costly and takes time to analyse. That’s not an excuse for not doing it.

Our view

The authors make two other core criticisms, which resonated less well with us...

They argue that the ‘scramble’ to align learning with business strategy has led to a misalignment of learning functions to add value to the business. Thus, they are not correctly functionally aligned. If that’s the case, then it’s not because the principle of alignment is incorrect – hard to argue they shouldn’t be aligned.

But granted, the process of alignment and the practice of it may not be working as well as it should. Probably because the alignment is often done at a surface level of describing how learning functions have shared goals and missions, and that doesn’t always translate fully into being business minded at the coalface. Changing reporting lines, rewards and measurements of the learning function (and maybe changing their name) would affect this.

They also propose that learning functions need to both understand the business and be independent: “If learning functions are to add value they have to find a way to balance the need to be an integral part of the business with an equally strong ability to step outside it and take an objective view.”

Thus their criticism appears potentially contradictory and it is a difficult balance in any area. We’d put it in these terms: “Don’t just order take from the business; they’re not the domain experts in behaviour change and will only ask for known learning delivery methods, e.g. elearning. No innovation will occur if you just fulfil requests. Be a consultant, challenge, innovate – and deliver results that prove it was the right choice”. It’s not clear if that’s what was meant, but in our opinion, that’s the right approach.

The first three arguments are the most powerful in our view. They also reflect the findings of our own survey of learning managers conducted last year, which shows that managers are already aware of the issues. The authors would probably say this is exactly their point. That learning functions know what is required but make little practical progress.

In our experience that may be a little unfair. In our interviews with over 30 learning managers last year from across industries and geographies, they highlighted many examples of practical changes designed to address these aspects, such as:

  • Closer working with line managers as the key group to influence and support
  • A greater focus on performance support and practical application rather than simply learning
  • More regular assessment and evaluation of outcomes
  • Recognition of the need to use a wider spectrum of methods for delivery and engagement

However, the authors pose a question, which learning functions have to address, despite its uncomfortable nature: "Why is there is a persistently low level of satisfaction with corporate learning amongst business leaders?"There has never been a more important time for corporate learning, given the economy and skills shortages, and our research findings last year suggest learning managers are rising to this challenge. One quote that captured the mood in that research was:

There’s never been a better time for learning technology to demonstrate the value it can deliver to the business.”

The time is right. The question is, can learning functions prove the value?

In 20 years, will CEOs be saying “We finally figured out how to improve performance through learning interventions and get results. Back in 2013, 50% of our spend on learning was wasted. Now I’d say it’s 80% effective. That puts it on a par with ROI for other critical functions like frontline service. And I don’t think about how I’m going to cut the training budget, any more than I think maybe I should spend less on customer service.”

It’s the destination we all aim for. How will we get there?

What do you think?

Do you agree with the argument that corporate learning is in crisis? We have started a discussion in our LinkedIn group, one of the largest training and elearning groups on LinkedIn with 7,000 members. Join the discussion here.

We are also about to undertake our second annual survey of learning managers with e.learning age. If you would like to take part and be interviewed please contact us.

By Steve Rayson
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