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Learning 2009: Mission critical

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peopleDrawing on research by the ASTD, Gordon Bull argues that for their own, and their organisations' survival, learning leaders must be more business aware. This article looks at the importance of L&D during a recession and what learning leaders need to do to help their organisations survive the downturn.








It is a certainty that many organisations will look very different on the other side of this recession. While many companies are currently operating in survival mode, the smart ones are retooling and looking to their best resource – their people – to not only navigate the stormy economic waters, but also chart the course for strategic success when the recession ends. Learning professionals are uniquely positioned to guide that course.

Learning is mission critical when it comes to weathering any economic crisis. Why? Because companies must safeguard and develop their critical talent to survive the downturn and prosper in the turnaround. One needs only to look at Circuit City, an electronics retailer in the US, to see what can happen to a company when it cuts its experienced staff.

Photo of Gordon Bull"Learning professionals must know the business drivers for their organisation and align them with learning initiatives while making sure that every learning programme supports a goal and has metrics to measure value and performance."
Circuit City’s knee-jerk dismissal of large numbers of its most talented salespeople produced a one-time cost savings but eliminated its distinctive value – knowledgeable, talented salespeople. Just a matter of months after that staff reduction, Circuit City cascaded from a bankruptcy declaration to liquidation.

In a down economy, workplace learning professionals must be strategic business partners. They must understand what is going on in their companies’ target markets, including how the competition is performing, and how customers are reacting. Talent management has never been more important because it is the very component of business that develops an organisation’s talent and ensures there are processes in place to find, hire, and keep the key talent that is vital to survival and growth.

In a new research study, 'Organisational Learning in Tough Economic Times', shortly to be published by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), a learning executive noted: “Changes in the economy are often precursors to changes in business in general. During such times, we must be prepared for the changes by developing our people to succeed.”

The very skills that learning professionals bring to the table – expertise in competency management, skills assessment, organisation development – directly connect to business decisions. Writing in the May 2008 issue of ASTD’s 'Learning Executive Briefing', director of the Wharton Centre for Human ResourcesProf Peter Cappelli stated: “The ability to get the right people with the right skills into the right jobs in a cost-effective way makes it possible for an organisation to adjust and respond in the strategy arena.” While learning professionals are ideally suited to facilitate the management of talent for business strategy, it is clear that the old ways of thinking about and implementing training and learning no longer apply. Knowledge gain is no longer the name of the game.

Survival of the learning function in a down economy is all about leveraging existing best practices, eliminating redundancies, and creating programmes or situations where employees can learn from each other.

The ASTD-i4cp study shows that while learning budgets are being trimmed, most are not being eliminated. Further, while learning executives show measurable uncertainty and apprehension about their own organisations’ financial situations, the study also revealed that 75% predict their ability to meet their organisation’s learning needs will stay the same or improve over the next six months. How this will happen will be up to creative, innovative approaches to learning and talent management while ensuring the learning function supports the organisations’ vision and goals.

More than ever the cause-and-effect relationship between learning initiatives and results needs to be apparent and promoted. Learning professionals must know the business drivers for their organisation and align them with learning initiatives while making sure that every learning programme supports a goal and has metrics to measure value and performance.

"In a down economy, workplace learning professionals must be strategic business partners. They must understand what is going on in their companies’ target markets, including how the competition is performing, and how customers are reacting."
If the paradigm for learning in a down economy is “doing more with less,” then the keyword is “accountability.” When learning professionals streamline their initiatives, align each program to business strategies, and show the value of learning to key decision makers, they are doing more than just saving their own jobs. They are reinforcing the principle that investing in training and learning equates with investing in the company’s core business strengths.

Successful, forward-thinking learning professionals will take the challenge of the current economy and look for ways to innovate, opening new opportunities for informal learning, elearning, collaboration, mobile learning, and blended learning. By looking for ways to innovate, learning leaders will also become change leaders.

The shift in thinking about the value of the learning function is seen by comparing the current global recession with the recession of 2000-2001. Then many learning budgets were completely eliminated because training was considered a nonessential activity. That is not the case today. Learning professionals have vital skill sets, which when applied strategically and aligned to an organisation’s bottom line, can make all the difference to that organisation’s success. Learning leaders, therefore, are poised to be leaders in the recovery.

Gordon Bull is a non-executive board member of the ASTD, and is based in the UK. He can be contacted at [email protected]. This article is based on the ASTD white paper, 'Keep learning mission-critical: How to communicate the value of learning in difficult economic times'. The ASTD International Conference & Exposition, will be held on 31 May to 3 June. For more information, visit www.astd.org.

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