13625704575 3bfdb32e92 o

A 2014 survey found that more than half of managers believe that employee performance would not change if their company's learning function were eliminated. It would be nice if we could just pass this off as a one-off finding, but we can't. Over the past ten years survey after survey has repeatedly shown that the proportion of business leaders who are satisfied with their learning function's performance is around 20 percent. The hard reality is that by and large corporate learning is just not working as it should, and has not been for some time.

Of course, for anything to change, there needs to be some recognition that there is a problem. This may sound obvious, but not everyone appears to be convinced of the need for change. For example, whenever learning leaders have been asked by surveys over the past few years what their biggest challenge is, they have persistently reported that their number one issue is demonstrating the value of their work. There is no doubt that demonstrating the value of corporate learning is a challenge. But the surprise is that it comes out as the number one concern. My fear, then, is that this finding reveals an assumption that lurks in the background of corporate learning – the idea that there is nothing wrong with what is being done at present, that value is already being added, and that the poor satisfaction ratings are somehow not a fair reflection of what is being achieved. It is as if the issues are skin-deep, challenges of presentation and political positioning more than the substance of how learning works.

I could not disagree more. I am certain that the learning profession can, and often does, add value. I have seen and been involved in pieces of work that have made a genuine difference to organisations. Yet I also believe that the poor standing of corporate learning is not just about presentation, that it runs deeper than that. Top to toe, something is wrong and it is going to take more than a change in how learning is presented and positioned to put things right. With satisfaction levels hovering around 20 per cent, merely doubling or trebling them will not be sufficient. We need to quadruple them, improve them by a staggering 400 per cent, before we can start saying that corporate learning is in a good place.

Moreover, not only do businesses need to improve how they do learning, but whatever they do needs to be different from and better than what has been tried up to now. Because the apparent lack of progress in improving the standing of corporate learning comes despite significant amounts of effort and activity. In fact, the past ten years have witnessed big changes in the practice of corporate learning and the journals are full of case studies of genuinely fascinating, innovative and apparently excellent practice. It is not that things have not been happening or changing, but that the changes have either not been the right ones or have not been enough.

So what has gone wrong and what do businesses need to start doing? In a paper written with my co-author Shlomo Ben-Hur (Professor of Leadership Development at IMD business school), we describe five key priorities – five critical things that businesses absolutely must do to put things right and make learning work:

  • 1.Focus on behaviour change, not learning
  • 2.Focus on functional alignment as well as commercial alignment
  • 3.Get close to the business, but not too close
  • 4.Apply market forces
  • 5.Share accountability for learning