Are you missing the link between your training department and the company's overall goals? If you are, you've got some work to do. This year, plenty of trainers are concerned with linking training to the overall business strategy, according to the fourth annual Learning Priorities Survey conducted by Brandon Hall Research and Training. This year a group of four internal Brandon Hall Research analysts revised the survey to cover a broader range of issues that learning professionals intend to deal with. What did we find? This year, priority one—which also could be called "CYA—Covering Your Asset"—is linking training to the business.
Priority 1: Linking Training to the Business
"Linking training to the business" remained one of the top three priorities this year. (The item ranked No. 2 in the 2005 survey, but owned the top spot in 2004.) In fact, it was the hands-down winner in 2006, with 26 percent of respondents pinpointing it as a top-three priority.
What does this signify? Primarily, that linking training to the business requires continual attention year after year because it has become critical to keeping budgets, staff and even one's own job.
A number of challenges make this difficult to achieve, and one of the challenges is the customer service paradox. Focusing on internal customers, for example, means being open to training requests, but some requests for training can be a misuse of the resource, and some may be off-strategy. The result? It's often a slippery slope from supporting the business to order-taking for training.
In today's bottom-line-oriented organizations, however, Tammie Snow, L.L.Bean's director of training, says order-taking is no longer an option. "Training is so expensive to design, develop and implement, that if it's not going to solve a business need, it's often a huge waste of money. The problem is, I think a lot of training in our industry happens either because the organization isn't structured to ensure that training is only delivered where it can [provide] the most value or because people don't know how to deliver training that's truly linked to the business."
Snow counts herself lucky in this regard. At L.L.Bean, an outdoor gear and clothing retailer based in Freeport, Maine, an organizational shift toward centralization of the training function two-and-a-half years ago necessitated a stronger link between training and the business. Before that time, she says, training at the company comprised small, decentralized training departments that lived in each functional area of the cataloger's business. These departments, Snow says, reported into their own functional area and were "basically order-takers."
While the push toward centralization was driven, primarily, by a desire to cut costs and reduce redundancies, it had an added benefit in that it allowed training to become more integrated into the overall business. "Were we aligned before? Sort of, but we also have gone from taking orders from our business areas—where we rarely ever said no to requests for training and did a lot of training that was maybe a waste of time—to really looking at every request that comes in to ensure that it will be relevant to the business if implemented."
For Snow's team, that not only means saying "no" when necessary—it also means staying close to all facets of L.L.Bean's business in order to understand what is driving each area. The training department works closely, for example, with the company's distribution function to understand what the department measures its performance against and where its competitive advantage lies. "Then, we are very clear that our goal in training their people is for them to meet or exceed those standards. To do that, we go in and develop a clear understanding of their business goals, and then we train to those goals using a performance-based approach."
Priority 2: A New LMS or LCMS
Think everyone has an LMS? Think again. This year, 25.5 percent of survey respondents ranked "implement a new LMS (learning management system) or LCMS" as a top-three priority.
What gives? Although the LMS and LCMS efforts of larger, bigger-budget companies tend to garner plenty of ink in the business and trade press, many smaller organizations only now are jumping on the bandwagon. The purchase delay for many of these companies, according to those polled, was due, primarily, to monetary, technology and logistical constraints.
Taco Bell Corporation is one such company. Until now, the Irvine, Calif.-based fast-food restaurant chain has stuck to the tried and true when it came to training: It utilizes expensive instructor-led training and also distributes six "big books" to its restaurants annually. These books, says Laurie Kwilos, the company's manager of system training, contain corporate policies and procedures, as well as resource guides that workers refer to while on the job with questions about restaurant procedures.
In 2006, the company plans to move its paper-based reference system to an online format. The move not only will allow Taco Bell to reduce the "enormous costs" associated with printing and distributing the books, it also will enable the company to deliver "learning at the speed of need as opposed to making people wait for updates."
None of this would be possible without the implementation of the company's first LMS/LCMS, Kwilos says, which is slated to occur this summer. "It wasn't that we didn't know about LMS/LCMS technology or [didn't] think it would be valuable," she says of the company's reasons for waiting. "It was a matter of figuring out the logistics of how to put a [computer] inside each restaurant that is solely dedicated to training, learning and information—especially when we have limited space behind the counter."
Meanwhile, at Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, an 8,500-employee car-rental company headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., lower price points and better, more proven technology finally have made it feasible to implement an LMS, according to Deborah Ruemler, the company's director of training and development.
Yet another factor contributing to Dollar Thrifty's decision to implement an LMSthis year,Ruemler says, was organizational growth and the ever-burgeoning list of training content available to support it.
"I think we are typical of many organizations our size in that we have been doing a bit of internally developed WBT (web-based training) here, a bit of externally developed training there, and a bit of training elsewhere, and suddenly, you find that you have training and processes housed in a variety of different places and you hit a point where it becomes very, very important to centralize all of that because tracking, efficiency and speed of delivery become paramount."
That's not to say that LMS and LCMS purchases will be driven solely by small and mid-sized companies in 2006. Many of the learning professionals we surveyed, for example, intend to spend the year uniting disparate systems housed in various business units of their organization into a single, centralized LMS/LCMS that serves the entire enterprise. Meanwhile, other learning professionals will spend 2006 either upgrading their previous systems or implementing completely new platforms.
At one large telecommunications company that asked to remain anonymous, the need to do things faster, better and cheaper recently led to wide-scale implementation of several new SAP modules.As a result of this initiative, the training organization intends to retire its existing LMS in August of this year and transition to the SAP Learning Solutions Platform, which combines LMS and LCMS technologies.
The key benefit of the new platform is that it will allow the training department to achieve "one-stop shopping" for all of its learning events.
The company's current LMS, for example, lacks LCMS functionality and only manages certain components of Web-based learning. The new platform, by contrast, will enable the training organization to manage everything in one place—from WBT and self-instructional library materials to ILT registration, instructor assignments, tracking, room reservations and beyond.
Priority 3: Supporting a Major Business Initiative
Sometimes, top priorities choose themselves—especially when it comes to "supporting a major business initiative," which 24.5 percent of respondents ranked as a top priority for this year.
"In some cases, a priority is so pressing that it is not a matter of deciding what the training department wants or needs to take on," says Todd Averett, director of learning and development at Payless ShoeSource in Topeka, Kan. "Instead, the priority chooses itself because the strategic initiative that's driving it is so important."
One of Payless' corporate objectives for 2006, for example, is to more effectively differentiate itself from other value-priced shoe and accessory retailers. To do that, Averett says, the company intends to reposition its marketing efforts and redesign its stores and product offerings. It also plans to find ways to provide additional levels of service to customers.
Training will help the company to achieve the latter goal, Averett says, through his department's Brighten Smiles training program.
To date, the program—which focuses on key customer-service areas including suggestive selling; mentioning price and value; in-aisle follow up; looking in the back room and top stock; explaining promotions; and suggesting measuring kids' feet—already has been rolled out to district managers (DMs), store managers and associates in more than 1,000 of the company's 4,600 stores.
The goal for 2006, he says, is to complete training in all remaining stores and to address two "missing pieces" of the training puzzle. "First, before implementing the program, we didn't go into the stores and look at other tasks, such as managing shipments, that associates and managershave to balance against the need to interact more effectively with customers," Averett says.
To that end, his department spent much of 2005 working with retail operations to reduce or eliminate unnecessary tasks and to implement training for both store managers and associates that focuses on "new ways to do tasks in stores that enable them to devote more time to the customer experience."Averett's team will continue to work on this process throughout 2006.
Averett's group also plans to provide additional coaching training to DMs and store managers this year. The goal, he says, will be to help leaders across the organization "more effectively reinforce and coach toward" desirable customer-service behaviors.
Back to Basics in '06
When it comes to learning professionals' top priorities, how have they changed since last year and the years prior?
In 2006, as in the years preceding it, it's not the newest technologies or trends to hit the industry (think rapid development or mobile learning for example) that are important to learning professionals. Instead, they continue to remain relentlessly focused on more enduring, well-established priorities that represent what's most important in organizational learning and development today—from the need to be relevant to the business and to deliver training that helps the organization to achieve its goals to the importance of demonstrating training's value.
As our survey results indicate, doing just that, and doing it well, takes both time and persistence—just as any initiative with the potential to truly impact an organization should.
Brandon Hall is CEO of Brandon Hall Research, a learning research and consulting company headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif. The staff of BHR contributed to this article. More information is available online at www.brandon-hall.com.
Have an opinion you'd like to share with Training readers? E-mail your letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Letters to the Editor" in the subject line.