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The Role of Governance in Learning Transformation

As part of our continuing look at The New Learning Organisation, Steve Barden and John Helmer examine the important issue of Learning Governance, and give five best practice recommendations for New Learning Organisation governance.

In a previous post we highlighted how learning is being transformed in today’s workplace. In doing this, we touched on some of the top-down and bottom-up forces within organisations that create the context and challenges which today’s learning and development departments have to understand.

Taking the long view, we can see that many of the problems afflicting L&D arise from a rebalancing of those forces that is going on, driven by social, economic and technological change (see our post, Drivers of Transformation).

It often feels that L&D gets caught in the middle – working to meet the demands that come down from the top team, whist at the same time struggling to meet the expectations that come up from the workface. The feelings of powerlessness this often causes – the sense of having to work to an agenda it has no part in writing – we believe has led to growing focus on the need for better learning governance.

Having a good learning governance framework in place will not only allow L&D to be more proactive, it can also bring efficiency and bottom line improvement – ie business results!

We hear time and again from conference platforms that L&D needs to get off its back foot. Be less reactive. Shoot for a place at top table. A focus on learning governance is seen as one of the stepping stones to achieving this. But why should this be the case and, for that matter, what is it?

What is learning governance?

Deloitte defines learning governance as ‘the formal framework for managing decisions about learning and talent development’.

Fleshing this out a little, Charles Jennings says that good governance:

These two definitions tell you what learning governance does, but not much about where it comes from as an idea, what it’s for or why it is so critical to New Learning Organisations.

Learning governance sits within the context of organisational or corporate governance, which is essentially about balancing the interests of stakeholders. These might include shareholders (whose interests loom large in corporate governance models), management, customers, suppliers, financiers, government (of high importance in public sector bodies) and the community.

In theory, therefore, governance models for different functions within an organisation – e.g. operational governance, financial governance, marketing governance – would inherit their priorities from the over-arching governance model of the organisation.

It’s all about alignment. And if there is one message that arises loud and clear from the babel of voices bidding for the ear of L&D – from analysts, learning gurus, consultants and business leaders alike – it is that learning and development departments nowadays need to align themselves more closely with the goals of their organisations. In the words of Richard Beaven, customer services director at Lloyds, interviewed in e.learning age, ‘our L&D colleagues need to spend more time understanding what the business is trying to achieve’.

In order to understand why this push for L&D to gain a strategic focus is so strong at the moment, it helps to remind ourselves of why training as a discipline has historically been so remote from such concerns.

Born on the back foot

2008 research found that 86% of organisations in the US did not have an enterprise-wide plan for learning, and more than two-thirds (69%) said that learning roles and responsibilities were not optimally aligned across their organisations.

In 2011, a World of Learning poll showed 71.9% of organisations had no council or other governing body for learning.

So although at the level of programme design we might point to an unhelpful rigidity in the traditional model of training, it seems that when it comes to governance, training has in fact been rather overlooked.

A large part of L&D’s problem in tightening up the governance of learning stem from the lowly status of training within organisations, and its etiology as a discipline. Some of the views within HR about how it should be managed arguably militate against forming any view of it as a planned, concerted activity distinct from HR.

An example of this can be seen the table below, a summary of the different classes of stakeholder involved in organisational L&D, indicating their various roles and responsibilities, as identified by Salaman and Mabey (1995).

One thing to note about this table is that responsibility for not only performance and coaching but also resources rests with line managers. Learning professionals can presumably be found either in the categories of ‘HRM staff’ and ‘providers’ as facilitators or field specialists. In other words they have no direct responsibility for resources or performance.

Martyn Sloman (2006) of the CIPD defined the role of trainer as ‘a people developer, and it is about supporting, accelerating and directing learning that meets the organisation’s needs and that are appropriate to the learner and the context’. This seemed to move things on a bit (it at least contains the word ‘directing’).

But consider this passage from the 2007 book Human Resource Management (now in a seventh edition).

‘Most organisational examples suggest that the formation of training and development strategy is not something that should be ‘owned’ by the HR/HRD function. The strategy needs to be owned and worked on by the whole organisation, with the HR/HRD function acting in the roles of specialist expert and coordinator.’

In other words, there is a highly prevalent view within HR at least that Training shouldn’t wholly ‘own’ training.

Such a view is bound to be problematical for New Learning Architects and CLOs who want to take a strategic approach to learning and lead change. Serious technology innovation at scale requires strategic level sponsorship, not to mention leadership. With the status of ‘facilitator’, ‘specialist expert’ or ‘coordinator’ an L&D head is going to struggle to bring about change on this scale within an organisation.True, many heads of L&D have far more power in practice than the academic model suggests; but the day of the US-style CLO has not yet dawned in UK business – if it ever will. For now, L&D struggles to make use of technology innovation at strategic scale, with a resulting tendency to focus on authoring tools, online content that replaces classroom courses and (largely) tactical platform development.

Since technology is where decisions become operational tools, the balancing of local and enterprise needs, along with decisions about which processes to standardise, often results in technology initiatives. If you are caught implementing an LMS before these issues are thoroughly resolved, no amount of change management will salvage the project.

Learning governance boards

One way of squaring this circle is through the use of a learning governance board, council or committee – a route highly recommended by Charles Jennings. This allows learning to be provided in a controlled manner across the organisation according to a strategic plan, but with all stakeholder interests represented though the board.

Learning governance boards can also provide a forum for tackling the turf issues that often come up with strategic-scale programmes. Developments in learning technology such as mobile and JIT increasingly cause learning to cross the borders into other organisational disciplines such as marketing and knowledge management. We have noted a trend within learning transformation for training to be driven ever closer to the working situation – for knowledge to be integrated into workflow – but realising the benefits of this change requires liaison with operational units, which a learning governance board can also help in facilitating.

The business case for governance

Interest has grown in tightening up the management of learning through better learning governance, driven by the new opportunities technology has provided for organising learning at enterprise scale, particularly through cloud-based tools and platforms. This has been sharpened in recent years by the problems in the global economy. The drive to do more with less has thrown the focus on alignment of training with business objectives as the route to greater efficiencies. Better governance of learning is touted as the way to do this.

It’s an appealingly simply idea, at its root: organise training better and you can stop doing all the stuff that doesn’t actually have any impact on the bottom line.

Organisations are aware that significant amounts of the training they do is duplicated, tick-box or simply ineffective, the result – arguably – of too little strategic focus within the learning function and too many important decisions made on the fly at too low a level, adding up to a picture of confusion and even chaos. The quite common phenomenon of global organisations waking up to realise that they are running multiple learning management systems on completely different software platforms is a symptom of such confusion.

Good governance, and better alignment, ought to be able to tame such tendencies – cutting out waste and delivering more bang for the learning buck. However, things are rarely as simple as we would all like them to be.

Centralised, decentralized or federated?

A significant complicating factor is that learning is not always centralised within organisations. Individual regions, or business units might have a large degree of autonomy. The slide below shows three different governance models for learning, depending on whether learning is centralized, with all decisions being made at the hub, completely decentralized, with individual business units controlling their own budgets, resources and suppliers, or somewhere between the two. Realistically, learning governance is hard to exercise within an organisation whose learning is completely decentralised.

This slide comes from a presentation on shared learning services, a learning governance model that ‘shifts common activities from individual business units to a centralised operation to reduce costs and improve service quality’. It’s a technology-driven idea, and one that replicates, in this manifestation at least, a fairly rigid course-based model. As such it now looks out of step with training transformation as we have described it on this blog, faltering on issues such as content creation, which it assumes should be entirely centralised, and evaluation, an area about which there is a great deal of debate and change in learning at the moment.

A further reflection, drawn from LEO Learning's particular experience, is that learning initiatives, even strategic ones, are quite often content-driven. A particular skill area needs to be improved for a particular subset of the organisation; objectives and content of the desired learning experience are defined and only then is the best way to publish, promote and assess that particular piece of learning decided. This is a perfectly valid way to conceive a programme that might have a decisive impact on business performance, but it is an approach that might well bypass or conflict with the terms of engagement laid down by a shared services governance model.

The above is not intended as a criticism of the shared learning services model per se, but to give an example of how complex the issue of governance can be when it comes to laying down hard and fast best practice guidelines.

How bespoke is a learning governance structure?

Introducing an idea of governance into a situation where there is none, will inevitably tend to imply a degree of centralisation, and centralising dispersed activities will almost always achieve attractive cost savings since duplications are weeded out.

However, aligning with what the organisation needs might involve working with an existing organisational structure, rather than attempting to reorganise training around the capability of specific technologies to deliver efficiency improvements.

What the organisation needs, when everything is taken into consideration, might well turn out to be training created and delivered at local level (irksome, perhaps but true). Aligning with organisational goals might involve working with cost/benefit equations that look across the whole organisation, and this might be found to conflict with a view that looks solely at those related to the administration and delivery of learning as a discrete line item.

To put the argument more simply, it could make more sense to allow a little duplication of training if the ultimate result is an uplift in sales or profitability that dwarfs the cost of that duplication.

And then of course, there is the issue of what should be done, versus the issue of what can be done – given the organisation’s culture, and the power of L&D to effect change within its immediate situation.

For all these reasons, while different governance models are useful to look at, an individual organisation’s learning governance model will most probably be a highly bespoke thing. In essence, though, it will have some common factors like a continuum that covers the strategic and the tactical, the global and the local, the business and the personal needs. An effective governance model will cover the whole spectrum.

Though it might not be easy to get it right, defining and implementing that effective governance model will be well worth the effort.

Benefits of achieving the right learning governance framework

To quote Deloitte again, by instituting effective learning governance, it is possible to:

  • Align L&D with strategy
  • Improve the prioritization of initiatives and resources
  • Improve the learning function while retaining indispensable talent and essential employee development programs that deliver real business value
  • Advance the maturity of the learning function
  • Move L&D from an administrative function to a valued, strategic partner in the business
  • Help prioritize the right learning programs to build the workforce skills necessary to support business growth and reduce risk

How do you do it? Here are five things LEO Learning believes you must do to achieve best practice New Learning Organisation Governance:

  1. Start with a learning strategy that reflects your organisation’s business strategy (LEO Learning's HealthCheck can help you do this).
  2. Constitute a learning council that comprises business, learning and HR stakeholders.
  3. Consider the internal and external customer drivers that define the objectives and culture of your organization.
  4. Define accountabilities, priorities and measures.
  5. Make communications from the governance council to all stakeholders a high priority.

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