In a healthcare company, much depends on your drug pipeline. But there is another pipeline to consider in building a successful business—healthcare or otherwise—the talent pipeline.
Novartis established its Corporate Learning department in 1998 to provide an environment of learning for its senior executives, with the intention of developing a stable of future leaders to grow with the business. Key to creating this pipeline for the future: identifying and selecting top talent with high potential, providing the right job experiences, and supporting continuous learning with instruction from the best institutions.
Any enterprise can draw lessons from the critical points that drive the very successful and respected Novartis Corporate Learning program. These are divided into 10 guidelines. Let's examine:
Top Management Support
Based on experiences on different advisory boards and through benchmarking with many different companies, there's one clear message regarding the success of the Novartis Corporate Learning program: the participation and commitment of senior executives. Over the past 10 years, the senior management executive team has remained focused on all of the learning programs in Novartis, both in designing the programs and providing a presence at them.
Novartis always involves top management in the design of its training programs, right from the beginning. It talks about content and direction, and about who will make the decisions regarding content and about participant profiles. There's very close interaction between all the sponsors of the training programs during the three to six months of the design process. Once the program is established, the sponsor attends the course as a participant or speaker. This is true for every course program. The course portion represents about 50 percent of the overall learning program; the rest is made up of video and other training elements, such as Web-based resources.
Focus on Key Initiatives
Learning must be directly aligned with corporate strategy and business challenges. Companies are struggling if their learning function does not focus on these key issues.
Novartis developed Corporate Learning as an excellent "brand" through the quality programs it has consistently delivered to management, generated from Executive Committee mandate. Its experience, combined with a centralized budget for training, has made this possible. But while becoming more known and respected is rewarding, the threat for the Corporate Learning team is that it won't focus enough. It is vital for the group to remain focused on aligning learning programs with the organization's strategy, and not creating programs for any functional group that requests one.
For instance, Novartis Corporate Learning may get a request for a program from a Novartis function that is important for only about 30 people in the company. For those 30 people, it's really important, but for the overall company, it's not very strategic. However, Corporate Learning does help them build up their learning programs. Like many companies, the Novartis has limited resources. It has to be careful to focus its resources on the right programs that continually align with the overall strategy and challenges the company faces.
The Right People
In the past, only HR people served in training departments. While Corporate Learning, together with Global Talent Management, are key components of Corporate Human Resources at Novartis, an HR background is needed. Novartis found that a good mix of employees with "people understanding," such as a psychology background, combined with those who have a business background, is helpful in running a successful learning department.
What's needed is a mix of backgrounds in the learning department—commercial, finance, and marketing people with business acumen. This might include a trader or a dealer—someone with real-life business experience. So, even though it is a learning department, the company doesn't necessarily look for academics.
Also, Novartis' team is now a 50-50 mix of colleagues with HR and business experience. Corporate Learning has very little attrition, resulting in a considerable build-up of expertise over the years.
Think of your learning group as an exclusive boutique—not a shopping mall. Novartis focuses directly on the top 10 percent of people in the organization. It's very important for a corporate learning function to deliver programs of extremely high quality for this top tier of management. The intention is always to have these top-quality, top-level programs in place, and then it can diversify its other activities.
The most important programs at Novartis are done through its strategic partnership with Harvard Business School and other business schools. This has significantly helped Corporate Learning to establish its reputation as an exclusive provider of training programs. Novartis does not provide Harvard programs to first-time or middle managers. It reserves these programs for top-level senior management. Novartis' learning reputation is credible, and they know it can deliver quality programs to align with strategic initiatives that are driving the organization. It is important to maintain this reputation and build on the momentum it creates.
Manage Carefully and with Consensus
Novartis has a centralized learning function for the top 10 percent of the company, and decentralized learning for the lower levels. There are functions with direct reporting lines to the local HR organization, rather than to Corporate Learning. The department manages globally without formal authority in some areas.
Of course, cultural awareness and sensitivity must be taken into account in this type of organization. While diversity is an asset, differences present communication and management challenges, underscoring the need for respectful and globally collaborative processes.
Expanding on the aforementioned point: You need good intercultural skills, but in a global function, you have to act globally. The programs you put in place require a global standard. As an example: Novartis delivers its Leading on the Frontline program to first-time managers 90 to 100 times a year in 12 languages around the globe. But the basic elements of 80 percent of the content cannot be changed because that is the global standard for how Novartis would like to see its leaders lead other people.
Some customization is possible, for business or cultural reasons. If there is a restructuring in one country or region, and people must be released, you need to adjust your training module there to place more emphasis on how to hold difficult conversations. So, while you can adjust the weight and focus of the program, most elements must be included.
In addition to Novartis programs and training, Corporate Learning also is responsible for creating strategic learning projects in the organization. It identifies growth opportunities in emerging markets, such as China, Russia, and Latin America, where it expects significant growth in the future. With that in mind, Novartis elected to focus on China and opened a learning center in that country, where employee retention has been a problem. Novartis discovered employee learning could greatly improve retention in a company, since employees like to feel valued and connected to a growing organization that is willing to invest in its personnel.
Select and partner with the best training providers
Ten years ago, 90 percent of Novartis providers were Swiss- or German-based—in a global learning function. That was changed immediately. The key is to look globally to find the best training providers wherever they are—not just locally. That place may not necessarily be in the U.S., although it has an excellent pool of providers. But since Novartis is now investing heavily into China and other parts of Asia, it is looking more and more to find providers there.
In total, Corporate Learning has about 450 different providers for its programs. This number includes its business school partners, but also individual professors from these schools. In addition, Novartis uses consulting companies, training consulting companies, and individual consultants. It currently leverages about 150 of these providers a year. The company's local affiliates now ask Corporate Learning for help in finding local sources for their training programs.
Learning Team Stability
It's really important to have continuity in your learning team. Don't change your team too fast or too often. Learning is a strategic function; you need to build a sustainable team.
Novartis Corporate Learning selected people with a commitment and passion for learning. It might be someone who doesn't want to make a career in another function because they love learning too much. It's very important to have the right people, the right mix, and the right background—but they must all also have a passion for learning.
Fully Integrate into Overall Processes, but Focus on the Business
First and foremost, the business is the most important contributor in program development. Corporate Learning conducts many interviews and a great deal of research with business sponsors and potential participants. This level of detail and collaboration with managers leads to more valuable and relevant programs.
When it comes to selecting participants, the business is again the primary driver. When Novartis selects participants for its top-level training, it carefully considers his or her potential and past performance. Considerable time is spent with the business, actually dealing with the potential candidates and upper management, while leveraging valuable HR information. There is no open enrollment for the top management training; the nominations are done top down in the organization.
Assess learning results and align with the business
Novartis prefers to get direct feedback from participants after its programs. Then, six months later, it conducts random telephone interviews with the alumni to check on what they have learned, as well as what they have retained and executed after the training program. Those are the only two steps the company uses regularly to assess its programs. Then every two to three years it also gets the external assessments needed for certification.
If a program is good, you should talk about it, but if it's bad, you should still talk about it. Novartis Corporate Learning is so visible in this organization that if something is going wrong, it's seen early. If corporate strategies change, it is nimble enough to adapt to those changes.
So the key is to use some formal assessment tools, as well as informal discussion with participants and initial follow-up with participants after the program. Obtain their input; listen, learn, and continuously improve your programs.
Throughout all of these guidelines, the main focus of a good learning program is people management: how to manage people, how to manage leaders, and how to manage middle managers along the leadership pipeline. All training programs should be built around the leadership standards, values, and behaviors that are defined by the company.
To summarize, reinforce leadership as a core competence. Take a global view, encouraging the sharing of best practices across business divisions. Integrate and implement the 10 elements outlined here. Do this and your learning department can become a successful, critical part of your organization.
Frank Waltmann Ph.D., is head of Novartis Corporate Learning. For more information, visit www.novartis.com.