L&D is an influential part of fostering organisational growth, but determining and measuring its impact remains far from clear. Akankasha Dewan talks to leaders about getting the greatest possible ROI on learning.

The main problem with engraving the words “war on talent” on the emblem of any self-respecting HR leader lies in its intense employee focus.

Winning the war on talent is, and will perhaps always, remain a key priority for HR.But ultimately, the training provided should almost always be aligned to the business goals, rather than simply what employees demand. There is a need to ensure the impact of training benefits the organisation as well as the learners themselves.

Training employees in today’s day and age should not have to be a herculean task. In fact, a recent report by City and Guilds Kineo on the top 10 tasks for L&D in 2014 concluded corporate learners are not waiting for learning to come to them. They are increasingly proactive, and are eager to quench their thirst for knowledge.

But with the importance of training and development being such a strong focus, there is a chance the relevancy and impact gets overlooked.

“When it comes to development programmes or developing people, there’s always a challenge, because it takes time, it costs money, and it is a long-term objective,” Joke Bunnens, theHR business partner for commercial banking at ING Bank Singapore, says.

Philippe Bonnet, vice president of global head learning and development for human resources at Essilor International, suspects this problem might be a regional one.

“In Europe, training is more transformational - it is related to the business. For other markets, such as the US for instance, training is more to do with onboarding and talent acquisition,” he says.

In Singapore, we need to be more active and clear about what we want to do when it comes to training and education.
The issue might also be at the grassroot level, according to Rachel Earhard, learning and development director for APAC at McCann Worldgroup, who says the problem varies depending on the industry in question.

“When you look at any business set up across Asia Pacific, be it a FMCG or from any other type of industry, you will see that every market will approach talent learning and development in a different way,” she says.

“Among the biggest things we’re looking at right now is really digital education and making sure that we’re raising the bar across the board because integrated marketing services is now digital, full stop.”

This is where training leaders need to be flexible when it comes to teaching such hard skills to their workforce - and it’s particularly critical when you have four generations of people in the workplace, and need to adapt to their training needs.

“Some people don’t have a relationship with their phones, and some do,” Earhard say, adding that tailoring your mode of learning without losing sight of your goal is what’s important and needs to be addressed.

“What we do has not changed - it is still about content, and content, whether it is a campfire story, or whether it is on the greatest, latest mobile platform, remains the same.

It is just a matter of helping people reframe to that new lens, and making sure you deliver the right hard skill set to be able to scale up in that space.”

This alignment between the desired skill set and the learned skill set, is, however, easier said than done.

A Cegos Asia Pacific survey on major learning trends across the region recently found “a lack of dialogue in some organisations between professionals and the learning community” and concluded that some training provided may be “considered irrelevant, out-of-date, or simply not required”.

“This is particularly true in our survey of participants from India and, surprisingly, Singapore,” the report stated.

How then, can HR ensure the main impact and aim of training goes beyond ticking a box in an annual company review?

Establishing KPIs

Bunnens suggests the answer lies in identifying specific gaps in training beforehand, and making sure these gaps are filled by the end of the training sessions.

“What we try to do is to integrate the learning programme in the yearly performance cycle. We will try to determine at the beginning of the year where the employee will be at the end of year,” she says.

“What we do in this cycle is to focus not only on what our yearly KPIs are, but also how we’re going to achieve them. This ‘how’ focuses more on behavioural competencies.

“We have in total seven behavioural competencies we work on. We call them ‘seven orange leadership behaviours’ but they are not only related to people management skills. Besides those, every single manager in the bank has the objective to define at least one personal development objective on a yearly basis for each staff member.”

On a regional level, Bunnens explains that after managers set individual learning objectives with employees, regional heads also gather annually to consolidate that information and determine which training programmes would be best suited for which departments.

Similarly, Bonnet has set KPIs in place when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of training in his organisation.

“Basically, we have three KPIs when it comes to learning. Firstly, how many people have improved in their yearly performance review following the training, or how the management has perceived a change in quality and content of employee discussions during evaluation sessions,” he says.

“The second looks at promotions, and how many people have been promoted internally after the training process, and thirdly, related to promotability is the retention factor - how many people stayed in the organisation after the training.”

Marrying creativity with process

Leadership involvement when it comes to L&D programmes is growing. However, it is important to note this involvement is still mainly on a formal level, such as the yearly performance cycle and learning KPIs highlighted by Bunnens and Bonnet above.

Earhard recognises the importance of having set learning processes to enable a clear structure on learning, but also embraces a less rigid notion of learning via teaching, especially because she works in a creative agency like McCann.

“The most important thing for me is being able to be as flexible and nimble and agile as possible,” she says. “Processes are very popular. Now, you don’t want to kill creativity with process, especially in the industry I work in, but you do need to give some structure to the learning process, and you need to allow people to have their creative license.”

For Earhard, the added privilege of being able to combine resourcefulness with rigidness is part of that structure. Her approach involves getting the business itself to be accountable for the development of employees.

“My vision is really being able to find people who are brilliant at what they do and who are able to share their skills and mindsets with others.

In this day and age, when you have multiple generational gaps within organisations, half the time you have young people educating more seasoned people, so a lot of it is functions and generations teaching each other.
In addition to doing a lot of development with the management team, and rolling out soft skills programmes and digital development, she says she’s also working on creating a thought leadership mindset so people understand the difference between presenting information and really having the understanding of how to impart knowledge.

“That is a really important thing for us to do in terms of change of mindset both for our clients, and also internally in terms of how we develop and engage people.”

Combining learning and teaching within organisations therefore has a twofold aim. Firstly, equipping high-potential employees with not only the hard skills relevant to their fields, but also the soft skills needed to communicate effectively and impart knowledge helps in their own professional and personal development.

Secondly, their ability to guide others in their chosen fields of specialisation aids in providing context to other learners on how they can apply what they have learnt to their specific job roles.

Leading and teaching by example, this type of learning combines the strengths of the 70:20:10 model of learning. In other words, it marries experiential and didactic learning together to enable a more structured and effective method of learning.

Adopting a holistic approach

However, Bonnet adds too much reliance on leaders and learning professionals to direct learning may lead to negative side effects.

“If you don’t show me you want to grow yourself, and smartly, it will be difficult for me to help you,” he says.

In fact, employees should be able to decide what they want to learn for themselves.

“Our responsibility should be to offer them the resources and be available answer their queries on what type of in-house and outsourced courses we have, and to monitor at the end their development and transformation,” he says.

Bunnens agrees, adding a holistic point of view needs to be adopted when planning these training sessions so as to get the greatest possible return on training.

“It’s a combined effort between individual himself, one’s direct manager, and a company’s regional heads together with the HR business partner,” she says.

“Sometimes there are critical points in the life of an employee, for example when he or she changes jobs or when he becomes the new people manager, or when he feels like he would like to do something different in his career. These situations create the opportunity to zoom in into the personal development plan of the person.”

Taking responsibility for one’s development may lead to a more vested interest in learning, as it will be rooted in the employee’s personal motivations.

Creating a dialogue

The problem lies in the failure of organisations to take these personal requests or feedback into consideration when planning learning and development initiatives for their employees.

According to Skillsoft’s Learning and Development Trends in Asia Pacific report, while the evaluation of learning takes place in 70% of surveyed organisations across Asia Pacific, only 36% go beyond the procedure of measuring by actively making adjustments to their learning programmes.

“Measuring employees’ satisfaction with the learning program is critical to driving greater learner engagement. However, collecting feedback does not always translate into concrete measures to enhance the effectiveness of learning programmes,” the report stated.

“The opportunity lies in how organisations translate data into insights and actions that actually modify their strategies.”

Bonnet believes feedback for training sessions should be seen as more a dialogue between learning professionals and learners, with equal participation from both sides.

“Culture plays a huge role in this communication as well. Perceptions from the management are sometimes very different from that which actually occurs in reality,” he says.

“I have been leading training programmes in Singapore, and I’m not too sure if managers are validating the personal development of their employees, and we need to focus on that.”

Facilitating this dialogue might work especially if clear targets and goals of learning are also outlined to the employees.

“It’s really all about looking at the goals of the business. Following which, it is about looking at the goals of the team, and deciding where are we at on bench strength and where do we get feedback on that,” Earhard adds.

“I always collect feedback after the training session, and because we roll them out in waves, we tweak them based on whatever session we’ve run.”

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Case Study: Essilor International