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Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy
By Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas

What benefit does your organisation derive from training and development? Do they contribute to key business objectives such as winning new business? Does anyone actually know how much is being spent on them? Is anyone happy with the methods used to evaluate outcomes? If all existing courses were closed down would customers notice or care?

Now is a good time to ask such questions. Training and development are at a watershed. Many existing courses and facilities are coming to the end of their useful lives. There are new approaches to learning and knowledge management to consider, emerging technologies to evaluate, and collaborative opportunities to assess.

Those responsible for corporate learning face multiple choices and challenges. Should a corporate university be set up? How might a corporate intranet best be used? Could business development and the processes of value and knowledge creation be better supported?

Certain options go to the heart of current operations. Should training and development be a revenue centre or a distinct business? Could particular activities, or the whole function, be outsourced? What would be lost if ‘central training’ were closed down?

A two-year investigation of corporate learning plans and priorities has examined these and other questions. It included corporate visits and 69 individual and structured interviews with those responsible for the training and development of some 460,000 people. The results are summarized in the report ‘Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy’ (1).

The findings are sobering, if not depressing, and demand urgent attention. Many courses have passed their ‘sell by’ date. At the same time essential requirements and critical corporate priorities are largely ignored. Thus, little effort is devoted to business development, relationship building, knowledge creation, e-business and entrepreneurship.

Only one of the organisations surveyed is equipping its people to be more successful at bringing in new business. Overwhelmingly the emphasis is upon squeezing and cutting costs, rather than the generation of incremental income streams. Yet companies such as Eyretel, Osi, and SDX have secured significant returns from CD-ROM and laptop based support tools for their sales teams. They have consciously equipped their people to win business. The award winning solution created for Eyretel (see www.cotoco.com) addressed major skills shortages far more effectively than a traditional training programme would have done.

One company visited derives some 80% of its turnover from major bids that are won through a competitive bidding process. However, training is not provided in this area, even though the top twenty bidding and negotiation skills have been identified (2), as have the secrets of success for winning business in particular sectors (3), while 30 tried and tested bid management tools are also available (4). Members of the bid team could not name a single ‘trainer’.

This experience is not unusual. Millions have been spent on grandiose initiatives, fashionable concepts such as empowerment, and general ‘quality’, ‘teamwork’ and ‘leadership’ training, while particular requirements of critical importance are overlooked.

Human resource teams are working hard, but do not appear to be connecting with the world around them. There is a particularly pressing need for information, knowledge and learning entrepreneurs who can make money by packaging what is available to meet individual needs. Presentations on ‘knowledge management’ abound, but specific initiatives to develop knowledge entrepreneurs or equip people to use e-Business are few and far between. Again, there are best practice lessons to draw upon such as the winning entries for the Awards for Innovation in e-Business www.awards.abfl.co.uk, so there is little excuse for inaction.

Companies are focusing upon core competencies, and ‘non-core’ activities are being outsourced. As a result more value is delivered by supply chains rather than individual companies. Competition is increasingly between consortia, or networks, of collaborating partners. Hence, the importance of learning, and shared learning, along and across supply and value chains.

In spite of greater interdependence, the organisations examined focus overwhelmingly upon the internal training and development of employed staff. Some companies, for example ICL with its vendor accreditation programme, have a broader vision. Accenture recognises that learning should address the development needs of external as well as internal groups. Contractors, suppliers, customers, business associates and supply chain partners can all have development needs which could, and in many cases should, be addressed.

Companies such as IBM and Microsoft regard customer education as a major global business opportunity. However, in general education, training and development are not perceived as a source of incremental revenues. Nor are they used as a means of building relationships with key decision makers in strategic customers, suppliers and business partners.

In most of the commercial organisations examined there were few general managers or professional specialists who fully appreciate the extent to which education, learning, training and updating are rapidly becoming enormous and global markets in their own rights. They are among the most exciting of contemporary business opportunities. Potentially lucrative learning requirements exist in many situations and contexts.

There is enormous potential for income generation, higher margins and knowledge entrepreneurship. Information can be sold. Know-how from simple tools to advanced techniques can be licensed. Yet, many trainers and developers are not directly encouraging and supporting the creation, sharing and application of knowledge and understanding.

The few explicit knowledge management initiatives encountered during the investigation seem to have been conceived, and now operate, quite independently of training and development programmes. Many human resources professionals are abdicating their responsibilities in this area. They are leaving the running to IT specialists and vendors of software for capturing, structuring and managing existing knowledge, when the emphasis should be upon creating the‘know-how’ that will be needed to create and exploit future opportunities.

Most trainers appear to ‘follow fashion’. Many buy ‘off the shelf’ learning resources packs, rather than think for themselves about what would be most appropriate in specific situations and circumstances. They persuade senior management that all members of staff should receive some standard programme, regardless of individual interests and needs. Enormous sums of money are spent exposing diverse people, working on very different activities, to common experiences that have little relevance to their particular requirements and priorities.

The management of a current stock of information, knowledge or understanding which might or might not be relevant, either to individual aspirations and customer requirements, or corporate objectives has become an obsession. Flows of new insights, discoveries and breakthroughs, the dynamics of the creation and application of pertinent knowledge, are the key issues.

Not surprisingly, education, training and development expenditures are widely viewed and treated as a cost incurred to achieve some other purpose, rather than as strategic activities. They are not considered vital investments in the creation of knowledge, intellectual capital and value for customers. Glaxo Wellcome is an exception. The company views innovation and creativity in the development of new products as a critical business process, and staff are positively helped to become more effective researchers.

Opportunities for training collaboration, joint action and specialisation are being missed. People worry in isolation about which relevant learning technology to adopt, or how to bring down the ‘costs per head’ of training. Most major organisations face similar development problems and challenges, as do many local companies. Maybe the cost of new resources and facilities could be split between several users. There are also shared learning networks to join, such as the Business Development Forum for those interested in becoming more effective at winning business.

Finally, the aspirations of individuals are being largely overlooked in the majority of the organisations examined. Trainers are focusing unashamedly upon corporate pre-occupations. Yet many people are seeking greater control and more balance in their lives. Switching the emphasis from cost cutting to innovation, business building and value creation can result in enhanced corporate performance and greater personal fulfilment (5). While the benefits are clear, enterprise was not being encouraged, nor entrepreneurship actively supported, in any of the organisations examined.

All in all, the current state of affairs cannot continue. Those interviewed are sincere, hard working and personally committed to individual and corporate development. They derive little satisfaction from the situation revealed by the survey (1). One head of training explained in exasperation that: “It’s like going along to the stadium to play any one of a number of new games whose rules you do not understand and not knowing whether your kit, equipment or technique will be relevant or acceptable.”

So what needs to be done? Lets start with learning. Winners tend to be pioneers and innovators, rather than observers and imitators. In many sectors, future market leadership will go to those who venture beyond a ‘passive stage’ characterised by the importing and sharing of existing information, knowledge and understanding.

Enterprise should be championed and rewarded. True entrepreneurs no longer play ‘me-to’ or ‘catch-up’ according to yesterday’s rules. Instead, they are energetic creators, imaginative innovators and restless explorers (6). They invent new games, establish new markets, introduce new ways of working and learning, and generally push back the boundaries of what is possible in order to deliver greater value to their customers.

Learning should be built into work processes. It should embrace customers, suppliers and business partners, and also be explicitly rewarded as well as encouraged. People should be expected and helped to think for themselves, explore and discover. External interventions should be the exception rather than the rule, and even then geared to supporting a ‘step change’ or increasing learning capability. Standard offerings should be abandoned in favour of specific and tailored interventions.

Training activities should contribute to enterprise, business and knowledge development. Whenever a direct causal link to additional know-how, greater customer value or extra business cannot be demonstrated, they should be discontinued. The proportion of the value of end goods and services constituted by ‘know-how’ continues to grow. Training teams with the potential could be tasked with becoming profitable businesses in their own right. Providing individuals with personal learning accounts could create ‘customers’.

Targets and measures should reflect these changes. Input indicators such as ‘bums on seats’ should be replaced by demonstrable outcomes. For example, by how much has the ‘win rate’ in competitive bidding situations increased? What proportion of turnover do new products and services account for? What value is ascribed to newly packaged intellectual capital? Wherever possible outcomes should be independently verified, whether the securing and retention of Investors in People status by an organisation, or the number of accredited qualifications obtained by individuals.

‘Human resource’ professionals must work much more closely with information technology specialists, business unit teams, facilities managers, and learning partners in the stimulation and support of knowledge, value and enterprise creation. Companies need to become incubators entrepreneurial activity, and working environments should inspire and enable learning, innovation and creativity (5).

Many corporate training teams are missing an historic opportunity to make a strategic contribution to knowledge and value creation and the achievement of corporate objectives. Hence the critical importance of undertaking a fundamental review of corporate learning strategy.


(1) Colin Coulson-Thomas, Developing a Corporate Learning Strategy, the key knowledge management challenge for the HR function, Bedford, Policy Publications (Tel: +44 (0)1234 328448; e-mail: policypubs@kbnet.co.uk), 1999

(2) Peter Bartram, Bidding for Business, the skills agenda, Bedford, Policy Publications (Tel: +44 (0)1234 328448; e-mail: policypubs@kbnet.co.uk), 1999

(3) Carol Kennedy, Winning New Business in Construction, Information Technology, etc. and Mick James, Winning New Business in Advertising, Management Consultancy, etc., Bedford, Policy Publications (Tel: +44 (0)1234 328448; e-mail: policypubs@kbnet.co.uk), 1999

(4) Carol Kennedy, The Bid Manager’s Toolkit, Bedford, Policy Publications (Tel: +44(01234 328448; e-mail: policypubs@kbnet.co.uk), 1999

(5) Colin Coulson-Thomas, Individuals and Enterprise: creating entrepreneurs for the new millennium through personal transformation, Dublin, Blackhall Publishing (Tel: + 353 1 6773242; email: blackhall@eircom.net), 1999

(6) Colin Coulson-Thomas, Shaping Things to Come, strategies for creating alternative enterprises, Dublin, Blackhall Publishing (Tel: + 353 1 6773242; email: blackhall@eircom.net)

Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas
Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas
About the Author:

Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas is an experienced chairman of award winning companies and consultant. He has advised over 80 boards on how to improve board and corporate performance, leads the world's largest winning business research and best practice programme, and has reviewed the processes and practices for winning business of over 50 companies.

Following marketing and general management roles Colin became the world's first Professor of Corporate Transformation and more recently Process Vision Holder of major transformation projects. He is the author of over 30 books and reports, including ‘Individuals and Enterprise’ (Blackhall Publishing, 1999), 'Shaping Things to Come' (Blackhall Publishing, 2001), 'Transforming the Company, Manage Change, Compete and Win' (Kogan Page, 2002 and 2004) and ‘The Knowledge Entrepreneur’(Kogan Page, 2003). Colin has spoken at over 200 national and international conferences and corporate events in over 20 countries. He can be contacted:

Tel: 01733 361 149
Fax: 01733 361 459
Email: colinct@tiscali.co.uk
Web: www.ntwkfirm.com/colin.coulson-thomas

Transforming the Company: Manage Change, Compete & Win
Colin Coulson-Thomas shows that to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality, business people must make far-reaching decisions about the value to them and their companies of particular theories, past assumptions and traditional approaches. Based on original research, the first edition of this was ahead of its time and predicted many of the current management trends. The author now brings the text bang up-to-date for the 21st century. This second edition of Transforming The Company shows how to turn theory into practice by highlighting the obstacles and barriers that confront companies when trying to bring about change. For management at all levels faced with this task, this thought-provoking book will inspire and enlighten.

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital  by Colin Coulson-Thomas

Buy UK   Buy US

The Knowledge Entrepreneur: How Your Business Can Create, Manage and Profit from Intellectual Capital
In many companies knowledge management has focused almost exclusively upon the packaging of existing knowledge. This book is designed to help readers boost revenues and profit by significantly improving the performance of existing activities and also creating new offerings that generate additional income. It shows how practical knowledge-based job-support tools can transform work group productivity, and reveals the enormous scope for addressing contemporary problems such as "information overload" with imaginative responses. Additional information includes: a list of possible commercial ventures; detailed checklists that can be used for identifying and analysing opportunities for knowledge entrepreneurship; and exercises for assessing entrepreneurial potential and "scoping" possible products and services. The free CD-ROM packaged with the book gives examples of particular knowledge-based job support tools that have dramatically improved desired results in crucial areas such as winning more business.








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