Survey after survey of CEOs points to a shortage of leadership and management talent as a leading concern.1 In an era when the capabilities of knowledge workers, not technology or capital, is often the key constraint on growth (particularly in emerging markets), this is hardly a surprise. The mystery is how ineffectual the response has been. It’s not that companies aren’t willing to invest in developing their people. They spend heavily in this area: In 2012, companies in developed economies spent nearly $400 billion on training.2 And yet, at least one study concludes that the majority of managers believe that employee performance wouldn’t suffer if their own company’s learning function were eliminated altogether!3 As corporate learning professionals, we find this lack of appreciation dismaying.
The fact is that much of the investment and effort that organizations spend on learning is focused on the wrong things. For example, companies often ask us to assess whether the types of learning experiences they provide their employees are “cutting-edge.” The proliferation of online courses and just-in-time knowledge available through mobile apps is prompting organizations to rethink traditional approaches to learning, so it’s understandable that many corporate learning leaders are paying more attention to innovative modes of instruction. In our view, technology has the potential to expand and democratize the reach of learning in organizations. Moreover, research in neuroscience and the science of learning is revealing more every day about how effective learning experiences engage the cognitive and emotional centers of our brains. But breakthrough advances will only be possible when learning is linked to business goals. In our opinion, the emphasis should be on strategic alignment of learning rather than on how learning is delivered.
The importance of alignment in learning and development is receiving increasing attention.4 In 2009, the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), based in Ixelles, Belgium, established a system for accrediting corporate learning organizations that included a set of criteria for assessing how well corporate learning aligns with overall corporate strategy. EFMD’s Corporate Learning Improvement Process, which one of us helped develop, was the first effort of its kind to define research-based assessment standards for evaluating and accrediting corporate universities and learning functions.
1. According to a 2012 survey, one in four CEOs said they were unable to pursue a market opportunity or have had to cancel or delay a strategic initiative because of talent constraints. Further, a 2011 World Economic Forum report describes the talent conundrum in stark terms: “Soon staggering talent gaps will appear in large parts of the world threatening economic growth. Economies will struggle to remain competitive while organizations will compete for talent on an unprecedented scale. Now, human capital is replacing financial capital as the engine of economic prosperity.” See, respectively, “15th Annual Global CEO Survey 2012: Delivering Results — Growth and Value in a Volatile World,” www.pwc.com; and World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, “Global Talent Risk: Seven Responses,” 2011, www.weforum.org.
2. P. Kolo, R. Strack, P. Cavat, R. Torres, and V. Bhalla, “Corporate Universities: An Engine for Human Capital,” July 18, 2013, www.bcgperspectives.com.
3. Corporate Leadership Council, “Driving the Business Impact of L&D Staff,” Corporate Executive Board Company, London, 2012.
4. S. Ben-Hur, “The Business of Corporate Learning: Insights from Practice” (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 14.
5. A. Rutsch, “Creating Business Impact Through Learning Functions,” Global Focus 4, no.1 (2010), 64.
6. “15th Annual Global CEO Survey 2012.”
7. P. Voser, “Chief Executive Officer’s Review,” in “Shell Annual Report,” 2011, www.shell.com.
8. This phrase has become part of Shell’s corporate language. Former CEO Peter Voser selected it to describe the company’s approach to leadership development.
9. Shell was recently included in the 2014 Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders; see “2014 Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders Winners,” n.d., www.aon.com.
10. Based on a global study of 23 companies ranging in size from 8,000 to 300,000 employees in a wide variety of industries; see P. Kolo et al., “Corporate Universities.”
11. S. Ben-Hur, B. Jaworski, and D. Gray, “Reimagining Crotonville: Epicenter of GE’s Leadership Culture (A),” IMD case study no. IMD-3-2313 (Lausanne, Switzerland: IMD, 2012).
13. B. George, K.G. Palepu, C.-I. Knoop, and M. Preble, “Unilever’s Paul Polman: Developing Global Leaders,” Harvard Business School case no. 413-097 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013).