Today’s successful organizations must focus on aligning learning and employee development with strategic initiatives. To achieve this goal, learning activities must be integrated into the business processes that drive organizational performance. Linking learning with corporate strategy has two components: Learning systems must be integrated with business operations systems, and learning must be managed as a mission-critical component required to advance and achieve an organization’s objectives.
Integrated Learning Systems
Until now, learning organizations have spent significant money and time integrating learning systems with the applications that support strategic processes. Today, however, learning is offered as a component of broader employee relationship management (ERM) solutions, which include a pre-integrated suite of applications supporting employee and business performance.
What we’re seeing today in learning solutions is similar to previous trends in other areas of information technology. In the past, for example, an organization that wanted to implement a customer relationship management (CRM) solution would buy a contact management system from one vendor, an opportunity management system from another and a service request tracking system from another, and would perhaps build a few other elements in-house. The difficulty was getting this disparate set of systems to work in an integrated fashion. Today, organizations can purchase an integrated CRM suite that offers best-of-breed functionality across all customer-facing business processes. The central innovation over the previous 10 years in CRM has been to consolidate offerings from multiple point providers into an integrated offering. The same innovation is occurring in employee-facing processes. Today, organizations can also implement an ERM solution that incorporates learning management and a wide array of related capabilities that help organizations effectively execute on corporate strategy.
Using technology to foster workforce development is not new. In the 1990s, an entire industry of stand-alone learning companies formed around the concept of “e-learning” and the notion that information technology could be valuable in solving the business challenge of training employees. These e-learning point solutions generally support a traditional learning process in which employees complete courses on an ad hoc basis. With this process, learning is achieved but is rarely integrated with other business processes such as performance management and skills tracking. Of greater detriment, the learning occurs outside the context within which the knowledge will be used.
Today, training has evolved to enable education anywhere and at any time, giving businesses the opportunity to deliver mission-critical learning in formats both more immediate and more effective. Organizations are now able to incorporate, or blend, learning into employees’ daily work activities.
For example, in the past, customer service call-center agents were simply asked to do their job—answering calls and handling customer service requests. Occasionally, a training class would be scheduled for the end of the day, and agents would leave their workstations to attend a course taught by an instructor. It was expensive and not personalized, and this limited its effectiveness in building on-the-job skills.
Alternatively, a blended learning solution integrates the IT systems that comprise the call center with learning solutions that weave training activities into an agent’s daily workload. For instance, a blended solution can detect when a call-center agent is taking longer than the recommended time to resolve a specific type of service issue. Because it is now integrated with the organization’s learning solution, the call-center application can take the agent “off-hook” for 10 minutes for a computer-guided refresher course on how to resolve that service issue. Or the system can provide the call-center manager with metrics that correlate service issue-resolution time with specific agent skills and recommend specific learning-driven remedies. As learning becomes part of the business process and, therefore, the agent’s daily activities, it is simultaneously both more effective and less expensive.
Organizations are also using blended learning solutions to achieve strategic goals by using call centers to generate additional revenue. Enabling agents to cross-sell and up-sell during inbound customer service calls is particularly important now that the National Do Not Call Registry has limited organizations’ ability to make outbound sales calls. Blended solutions empower the call-center agent to quickly and easily access information when up-selling and cross-selling additional products and services.
To increase sales revenue, call-center agents, after resolving a customer service inquiry, are frequently prompted by a script to ask customers qualifying questions to determine if it is appropriate to offer additional products and services. These scripts are no substitute for good sales skills and strong product knowledge. Organizations offering integrated call center and learning solutions can address this challenge by integrating learning into an organization’s cross-selling and up-selling initiatives. By certifying agents on selling techniques and product information, calls can be routed to those agents who have acquired the skills needed to be successful in presenting offers. Real-time analytics can measure offer success rates and provide agents with refresher courses and increasingly sophisticated training as necessary. An added benefit is that employees who are empowered to improve their performance and therefore receive increased recognition from their employers will be more satisfied and less likely to leave their jobs, leading to lower recruiting costs for the organization.
Today, blended learning solutions allow training to become part of the applications that drive strategy and operations. By incorporating learning into applications and business processes, blended systems move corporate learning beyond point-solution e-learning systems to become a corporate business imperative that drives results and increases employee empowerment and satisfaction.
Pre-Integrated and Ready to Roll Out
The pre-integrated nature of blended learning solutions also means they can be deployed quickly. For instance, a leading provider of telecommunications and Internet technology rolled out its learning solution in less than a week. The company, which produces a complex product line of IP communications infrastructure solutions, needed to deliver real-time learning solutions to more than 4,000 employees worldwide. The organization was saddled with a manual process for training its workforce that was expensive and travel-intensive, and executives feared employees were not being equipped with the skills needed to successfully achieve strategic objectives. And while the company’s challenge to educate employees, reduce training costs and boost employee satisfaction was not unique, these goals did place added pressure on the organization to quickly demonstrate the value of the learning system.
And that it did. By eliminating many of the manual procedures formerly used to administer its training programs, the organization has reduced time spent on administrative tasks, such as registration and course maintenance, by 50 percent annually. Annual travel costs also were cut in half.
Added Responsibility and Accountability
Because of the impact learning can have on business results, many organizations are now elevating the importance of learning to an executive-level responsibility. No longer are training and learning programs the sole responsibility of the human resources department. The concept of a chief learning officer is taking on increased significance as organizations recognize the link between employee education and the execution of corporate strategy and begin to push for training organizations to demonstrate positive revenue impact.
As a C-level executive, the CLO is held directly accountable for linking learning programs, and the dollars spent on them, to quantifiable business results in support of corporate objectives. To do this, the CLO needs tools that provide metrics showing direct links between training initiatives and outcomes such as productivity, customer satisfaction, operational efficiency and employee turnover.
Learning Enables the Strategic Organization
As a member of the senior executive team, a CLO must understand how learning enables a company to achieve business results and design solutions that will address questions such as:
- How effectively does the organization work toward corporate objectives?
- What skills does the greater organization need to meet those objectives?
- What is the difference between employees’ current skills and the needed skills?
- How effective are the opportunities available to employees for building their skills?
- How do these skill-building opportunities integrate into employees’ career plans and performance reviews?
Ultimately, the CLO is held directly accountable for linking the dollars spent on learning programs to quantifiable business results. To do this, the CLO needs access to metrics that show direct links between training initiatives and business results, such as reductions in employee turnover and increases in productivity, sales, customer satisfaction and operational efficiency.
At its core, a learning strategy that is tied to performance can drive results by aligning learning with an organization’s objectives. When developing an integrated, closed-loop learning management business process, a CLO should follow these five basic steps:
- Initiate: Organizations must share information on departmental and organizational initiatives, integrate training plans into corporate objectives and produce a skill gap analysis to determine the organization’s skill development needs.
- Communicate: Having decided on corporate objectives, organizations must write training content and integrate learning activities into the context of business activities. Further, it is important in this step to communicate to managers and employees their current skills and skill gaps measured against these corporate goals.
- Manage: Tracking and managing learning curriculum across a spectrum of learning platforms, such as instructor-led, media or distance learning, is critical to success.
- Evaluation: Tying learning to a performance review process creates a clear link between learning and performance against objectives. If an organization is using an integrated ERM solution, this phase automatically updates a user’s skill profile.
- Analyze: Finally, it is important to measure the metrics that link training investments to measurable outcomes. This provides feedback into the planning process, which allows the CLO to measure the impact of training investments and make real-time corrections to strategy.
A metric-based feedback loop is crucial to providing the CLO with the insight needed to increase organizational performance by linking training initiatives with business results. As part of the overall integrated learning system outlined above, the CLO needs a platform for evaluating changes in employee and business performance using real-time, prebuilt reports and indicators that analyze training, help desk, performance management and general employee data. Personalized dashboards can be designed to provide insight into competencies needed by employees in specific roles within an organization—from the CEO or the human resources manager to the line-of-business head and to the individual contributor.
When integrated with other enterprise applications, training analytics provide companies with the ability to correlate training with employee and overall organizational performance, using key metrics such as sales and customer satisfaction. Correlation statistics can also be used to track departmental training utilization and how it relates to departmental performance. Training costs can be cut when analytics provides CLOs with information that correlates employee performance with cost and types of courses taken. By correlating employee performance to types of training courses taken, whether in person or online, organizations can determine which formats are most effective and at what cost to measure and maximize the return on investment (ROI) of training activities. In these ways, analytics that are integrated with other enterprise applications and that correlate employee-level data with business performance metrics enable quantifiable analysis of employee performance and its contributing factors.
A Changing Course
The promotion of corporate learning to an executive-level position is the most important development in corporate learning in years. The idea that organizations need to foster an overall culture of learning not only across the workforce, but also among partners and customers bodes well for the evolution of the role of the CLO. As organizations recognize the need to combine informal ad hoc learning and collaboration to achieve strategic goals, formal training courses will become relics of an antiquated business model.
To create and maintain competitive advantage, organizations must align the knowledge, skills and competencies of their employees with corporate strategy and increase learning effectiveness by incorporating learning into employees’ daily activities. Organizations also must seek to grow those skills over a broader set of employees, expanding them to meet the changing demands of the marketplace and the company’s evolving business strategy. The wide availability of pre-integrated software suites is allowing organizations to increasingly transition away from their traditional training department silo to one in which learning assumes strategic importance, as reflected by a company’s bottom line.
Anthony Deighton is general manager, Siebel Employee Relationship Management, at Siebel Systems Inc. In this role, he has worldwide responsibility for executing
all elements of ERM business strategy, including product, marketing and alliances activities. For more information, e-mail Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org.