Sunday, January 25, 2009

Get the Most Bang With Limited Training Bucks by John Myers and David Collins


It's easy to run a learning and development program when business is good. Growth leads to bigger budgets and new opportunities.

But in a tight economy, job opportunities decrease. Businesses are less likely to invest in new areas.
Employees are reluctant to leave their jobs, but may be distracted by financial concerns. As a result, productivity and performance often suffer at a time when just the opposite is required. To avoid this, learning strategy has to directly support the business.

"Only by understanding a business' most pivotal strategic goals can a relevant learning program be implemented," said Dr. John Boudreau, professor and research director at the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations.

Boudreau said leaders typically are comfortable allocating resources for technology, advertising and other areas because they have well-developed models for evaluation and ROI. But the framework for these allocations often is unsophisticated and not geared toward greatest impact.

"Training can be the first cut, focusing on costs saved rather than value lost. Even worse, organizations may make across-the-board training cuts even though they are certain training and learning are not equally valuable everywhere," he said.

Nail the Basics

When times are tough, it's critical to focus training efforts on business fundamentals: What skills training and development initiatives will address the greatest number of workers and have the greatest impact?

For many organizations, that's managerial and supervisory skills. In white-collar businesses, a significant percentage of employees fall into these categories. Even in manufacturing, retail or service businesses, managers and supervisors are the first line of contact with the workforce. Further, the quality of the relationship with a direct manager is one of the most important variables in employee productivity and loyalty.

Training programs that address core supervisory/managerial skills, such as time management, communications, personal effectiveness and delegation are among the most universal skills and represent the foundation of most training curriculum. Similarly, training around common issues such as coaching, conflict management and team performance represent areas that have near-term influence on productivity and performance.

Because these core skills have proven workplace impact, maintaining funding is easier than that for initiatives considered more speculative, or "nice to have."

Take for example, PHH Arval's fleet management services business based in Toronto. Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Halliday realized through analysis of turnover data, employee-opinion surveys and 360 feedback that managers were having a negative impact on employee engagement. This resulted in higher turnover and lower levels of initiative, creativity and innovation needed to drive business results.

"With limited training dollars, we decided improving coaching skills would have the greatest impact on improving engagement," he said. "Coaching is about having ongoing dialogue with staff; creating one-on-one relationships that demonstrate understanding of needs, issues and concerns; and providing support to achieve individual and company goals."

Ongoing measured improvement - in addition to seeing the positive progression of most of PHH's managers - convinced Halliday to commit to continuing the investment as a "must have" for the business.

At CoBank, a financial cooperative serving rural America, there is a commitment to provide developmental opportunities for every employee and belief that managers are crucial to build engaged employees and satisfied customers.

"We believe that people leave managers rather than companies," said Bob O'Toole, vice president of human resources. "To ensure we have great managers, we offer a Leadership Excellence curriculum for anyone with one or more direct reports."

Demonstrate Impact

In an ideal world, every organization would evaluate the impact of its training programs. However, when an HR department is running full steam with limited staff, it can be difficult to find time to do more than gather "smiley sheets" or perform simple learning assessments. These Level 1 and Level 2 evaluations are a start, but they're not likely to carry much weight with a CEO who wants to measure impact.

Surprisingly, few companies assess behavioral change and the impact of training on critical business performance metrics, despite research from Accenture, Watson Wyatt, TRACOM and others showing learning investments have a strong impact and positive ROI.

A down market offers two advantages when it comes to conducting such evaluations: First, if an organization pares back course offerings and streamlines outreach, staff may have more time to develop a thoughtful Level 3 or Level 4 evaluation process and implement it.

Second, if a company is using outside vendors for training, a tighter market should make the vendors more willing to help research the training programs. Learning providers are more willing to step up to keep a customer satisfied and to get access to data showing the impact of their training.

At a minimum, a vendor should be able to provide an organization with ROI studies and research to substantiate the value of their offerings. If a vendor does not have these studies and isn't willing to help assess training impact, companies should question the vendor's commitment to achieving anything of value.

In a tough economy, there is more scrutiny on spending and a greater need to make a compelling business case for learning. "But by aligning our learning and development strategy with key elements of our business strategy, it's actually easier to show a return on our efforts," said O'Toole.

Be Efficient, Whatever the Budget

A recent white paper from KnowledgePool, a U.K. training consultancy, said organizations with staff of 2,000-plus can reduce learning and development expenses by 30 percent by following best practices and working efficiently. It recommends:

  1. Careful supplier management, including adherence to an authorized supplier list and discount bulk purchasing.
  2. Automating training administration.
  3. More efficiently managing course scheduling to maximize occupancy and minimize empty seats and canceled classes.
  4. Reviewing and modifying training offerings. Course content offered in the past doesn't always have priority today.

Here are some other ways to operate more efficiently:

  1. Tie training to specific business initiatives and job tasks. The more talent managers can make training job-specific using workplace examples, the better.
  2. Balance internal trainers with outside suppliers during peak times. The "day cost" will be higher when using a vendor, but companies will come out ahead if they limit use.
  3. Offer flexible delivery. Ten years ago, more than 50 percent of TRACOM's business was for training programs of two days or more. Today, most are shorter than one day. The availability of modular training, pre-study and follow-up allows people to develop their skills in a more effective manner that requires less time away from their jobs.

At Gates Corp., a manufacturer of industrial and automotive parts, today's environment has meant constraints on training travel. "It's forced us to look for more creative ways to deploy training content," said Kathy Wojcik, Gates' manager of leadership development and learning.

"We're doing more Web-based training, webinars and consolidating training in the field to focus on what's really needed by the business. Self-paced and on-demand learning are also on the rise. We're evaluating the impact of these changes so we can make smart long-term decisions about training deployment."

Support People

One of the biggest challenges organizations face in a down economy is waning employee engagement. Organizations typically don't lose many people during a recession because external opportunities are limited. But slow-growth and a shrinking opportunity pool can cause employees to lose motivation.

If layoffs occur, the remaining people likely will experience fear and stress from the change and risk overwork from picking up extra responsibility. It's important to support employees through training and development.

Communication may initially take precedence over training in the stages of cutbacks. But once people understand the situation, don't overlook how training and development programs can help. Consider:

  1. Building core skills such as personal effectiveness, team performance and conflict management.
  2. Providing new functional skills training for employees with new responsibilities.
  3. Assessing employee engagement to uncover areas of concern.

"[At CoBank], we know our learning and development activities have improved employee engagement. People feel emotionally connected to the business because we invest in them," said O'Toole.

Just as a stock market decline presents an opportunity for investors to regroup before future gains, a down economy presents an opportunity for training and development.

"It's the challenges that teach the best lessons," said Wojcik. "The decisions we make today will shape our future.

[About the Authors: John Myers is president and CEO of TRACOM, a workplace performance company, and David Collins is general manager, TRACOM Training Products Division.]

HR Technology: 'Mavens' and 'Connectors' by Wesley Wu


The advent of Web 2.0 gives HR leaders a whole new opportunity to bolster their organizations' knowledge-sharing and collaboration capabilities.

HR technology has always been at the forefront of HR change. With the advent of the database, HR shed its role as the keeper of manual payroll processes and steward of the company picnic and quickly found new capabilities to track the workforce and provide some minimal understanding of the state of the organization's employees.

Workflow and self-service in modern HR applications have provided another step in the evolution of HR. By removing administrative and manual tasks from the daily routine, HR has become incrementally more strategic. Technology tools have also provided better analytics to give us deeper insight into the workforce.

However, HR -- for the most part -- has rarely been an integral part of the business. These days, HR leaders may talk about "service delivery," being "business partners" and focusing more on "talent management," but the objective of these initiatives is to make the delivery of HR services and processes more efficient, not to change the way the workforce directly creates value for the business.

It may have moved from being administrative record keepers to being the owners of talent management, but it hasn't shown value to the operations side of the house other than it can "get them people." Generally, HR has had no impact on the way in which talent's value is deployed. That is now changing with Web 2.0.

If Web 1.0 was defined by the linear and unidirectional interaction of a single user with a Web page, Web 2.0 has been partially defined by the simultaneous interaction of many users within a community, i.e., Facebook and MySpace. Enterprise networks can perform this same function behind the corporate firewall, allowing real-time collaborative interactions.

The role of social media in the enterprise has yet to be clearly defined, even with its rapid adoption by many organizations. Project-management offices may use wiki technologies as tools to track progress, while research-and-development departments use blogs to publish knowledge and promote new practices. HR has found uses for the CEO blog to promote employer branding. Blogs have also aided in areas such as new-hire onboarding.

But social media, for all its vast potential, comes down to a single idea: connecting people to content and content owners. It's within these connections that value is ultimately created. Unfortunately, many HR departments seem to focus on tactical questions rather than the strategic goals of social media. This view needs to change.

As we implement the various social media and networks at the workplace, many of the current water-cooler conversations and hallway chats between co-workers will be displayed by wikis, blogs, discussion boards and instant messaging. Often, these are accidental, unplanned meetings of the minds where thoughts and ideas are shared and many spontaneous solutions and innovations arise.
Currently, however, geographic disparities limit many collaboration opportunities that could be valuable to the organization. But as we move into enterprise social networks, the opportunities for individuals to connect, share and then collaborate become more simplified and more plentiful, although the sometimes accidental nature of sharing disappears.

Directing Traffic

While many believe that HR doesn't have a role in nurturing collaboration, nothing could be further from the truth. It's not enough to simply give employees tools for simplifying and increasing connections between them. While doing so will certainly lead to increased collaboration, it isn't the most optimal exploitation of social media.

To gain the most efficient utilization of a collaboration network, one must first understand how collaboration works. It is more than just bringing people together to share knowledge and ideas in simple transactions. Rather, it involves a complex network of agents who transact, coordinate and direct inquiries from senders and recipients.

To be truly effective, the collaboration network must be able to identify the individuals who hold specific types of knowledge (or who Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, calls "mavens"), those that help direct traffic to knowledge holders (people Gladwell calls "connectors"), and those who are able to synthesize knowledge from multiple sources to create new innovations ("synthesizers").

Imagine a typical water-cooler transaction:

  • Tom: How was your weekend, Jane?
  • Jane: Great, but I spent too much time trying to figure out [XYZ engineering problem].
  • Tom: You know, I hear Mary has a straw model to fix a similar problem. The ABC project team is looking at the issue to see what they come up with. You should go chat with them.

In this case, Jane is the requestor of information, Tom is the connector, Mary is the maven, and the project team is synthesizing the data. In most collaboration networks, the connectors are fairly stable: The same people always know where to go to find experts, even if they're never the experts themselves.

Similarly, the mavens and deep subject-matter experts for specific types of knowledge generally remain constant. In today's world, these are informal and uncodified networks that rely on users "knowing somebody." In the future state of Web 2.0 enterprise networks, HR will help manage collaboration as a quintessential HR function and a natural extension of its relationship with every other function.

HR can help facilitate these transactions simply by recording skills and competencies within the workforce and making them available to the network. This makes sense because HR not only has employees' self-identified skills and competencies at its disposal, but also job histories, performance reviews and other relevant data sources.

By identifying people within the network as subject-matter experts, mavens or connectors, HR can take even more of the guesswork out of matching knowledge with needs. In essence, HR could use a system of tagging to identify competencies, skills, knowledge and subject-matter expertise for each employee.

And, while it may require some effort, employees should also be able to self-update their own areas of expertise and have those data sets automatically uploaded back into HR and talent-management systems.

"Tagging" Knowledge

As the network matures and evolves, both the complexity and accuracy of employee "tagging" models should increase. First, a quick definition of tagging: In a Web and social-networking environment, tagging allows any user to create information about any data in the network.

As described by, a tag is a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helps describe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching. Tags are chosen informally and personally by the item's creator or by its viewer, depending on the system. On a Web site where many users tag many items, this collection of tags becomes a folksonomy.

In our example, the data would be a person and the tag would be a competency. Therefore, if I'm an employee looking for information about designing a widget, I should be able to look for tags associated with "widget" and find the right resources to help me.

As employees find resources within the network, they also have the opportunity to tag them. They may do this in employee blogs, entries on internal wikis, or participation in the network. As employees in the network create blogs or post changes to an enterprise wiki, those entries can also be tagged to identify their content. Network interactions in the form of blog comments and traffic to the specific Web page provide a measure through which popularity, insightfulness and expertise can be inferred.

When an employee writes a particularly interesting blog entry on a topic, other employees might also tag and rate that entry, which is directly related to the employee's competence on that topic.

So, each time an employee participates in any way, the network should be able to log and categorize that action. When the actions are categorized, we get information on what the employee is interested in, and also, perhaps, data regarding how competent they are in those topics.

For example, a single employee comment on a topic could be seen as providing low-level insight or requesting more information. But the employee who posts 20 or more transactions on the same topic might be considered either an interested party or subject-matter expert.

By going to the next step and looking at the connections that exist within the employee's network and how the employee has interacted with those connections through instant messages, blog posts, wikis and discussion boards, the organization could identify that person as a transaction agent in addition to being a subject-matter expert.

While HR's list of employee competencies and knowledge often centers on the employees' jobs, networks and the traffic patterns within them may reveal interests and subject-matter expertise outside their normal jobs. Additionally, as employees move around an organization and use previous work experiences, HR may find that their ability to collaborate in areas outside of their subject matter is greatly enhanced.

To fully realize the impact on collaboration networks in the business, HRIT organizations will not only need to mine their HR databases, but ensure that they're looking at metrics from the enterprise network as well. Integrating the two data sets and creating new types of analytics will inform HR not just about job competencies, but also about the employee dissemination and flow of knowledge from, through and to specific employee users.

Matching employee competencies in the talent databases to content, activity and traffic within the network can provide an analytical baseline through which new patterns of employee movement and conversation can be analyzed. It is through the combination of these metrics that HR will be able to best identify connectors, mavens and synthesizers in a collaboration network, and help employees put these skills to the best use. These analytics will allow HR to better facilitate knowledge transactions, and, therefore, create a stronger value proposition for its role in the business.

If the future of HR lies with greater integration with the business, then it must quickly adopt new technologies and exploit them before opportunities vanish. While the widespread implementation and adoption of these technologies may be several years away, many HR organizations can start preparing now.

Well-aligned competency models that include the roles played in collaboration models can be developed today. These models can be further broadened by incorporating employees' skills and interests.

Business-intelligence tools such as data mining and data warehouses will be needed to combine data -- everything from future collaboration tools to current HR technologies. Multi-dimensional data warehouse technologies will be used to combine data from core HR systems, talent, learning and any future Web 2.0 metrics.

HR needs to start incorporating Enterprise 2.0 tools into the organization. A major cultural change is necessary to reap the full rewards, and that takes time to create within a company culture. Now is the time to start.

Enterprise networks will accelerate the speed of communication, resource identification and collaboration. That acceleration will increase as HR incorporates data that only it can offer, including information on competencies, performance, job and organization history. The question is whether HR will be prepared to take a leading role in this new model of employee collaboration.

[About the Author: Wesley Wu is a senior consultant in the San Francisco office of Towers Perrin. He works with major corporations, helping them improve the effectiveness of their human resource programs and services. Wu's areas of expertise include HR strategy, service delivery, function effectiveness and HR technology.]

Capturing Knowledge That Makes the Company Great by Robert Hyde

As the Cold War generation retires from the defense industry, companies in this sector are struggling to replace these personnel with a shrinking pool of qualified professionals. Northrop Grumman has turned to knowledge transfer as a means for growing tomorrow's leaders.


The concept of knowledge transfer is taking on new importance throughout the defense industry. That industry is faced with a demographic profile that had its foundation during the 1960s portion of the Cold War. It developed the world's best technical workforce in a society in which engineering was an occupation of choice and our public education systems had the rigor to develop tens of thousands who understood, learned and applied the math and science skills needed to be successful engineers.

That workforce is now retiring and the pipeline of talented replacements has shrunk considerably. All of the above are realities forcing the defense industry to understand that knowledge transfer isn't just another consultant-generated fad or cutting-edge buzzword. Survival - and, by extension, the qualitative edge the industry provides the American defense establishment - is reliant on successful knowledge transfer.

The Northrop Grumman Story

For Northrop Grumman Marine Systems, which employed more than 2,000 during the peak of the Cold War, the final victory was symbolized with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the crumbling of Soviet Communism and the Westernization of the Eastern Bloc.

All of those events, however, resulted in tens of billions of dollars in canceled defense contracts and a flattening of defense spending on development programs and weapons systems production. It was the peace "dividend," which meant reducing the workforce from approximately 2,500 to about 1,000. Business wasn't expanding, few new employees were hired and attrition was limited to retirement.

Fast-forward to today and Cold War-era systems need replacement, business is better, employment is growing, and the generation that won the Cold War is retiring in droves.

Northrop Grumman Marine Systems owns the intellectual property that makes one of its products singular in the world. It helps deliver the absolute reliability of a key strategic weapons system. This technology, which has never failed even a single test during decades of deployment, is the brain child of a key and indispensable engineer who has nurtured, fine-tuned and mastered this technology.

The problem is that this engineer has decades of accumulated "institutional" and "tribal" knowledge bouncing around in his head. He is planning to retire. In response, the business hired a brilliant engineer to serve as a protege for several years and learn from the master. That was a plan right up until the moment the protege accepted her "dream job" at NASA. Lesson learned: Don't put all of your eggs in one basket.

The case above demonstrated a key flaw over and above having "all of your eggs in one basket." Where were the lessons? How can they be replicated? What gets taught first? These and other questions plagued the management team. The result was a documented process and management commitment.

The leadership team quickly understood that to succeed, the organization needed a plan that standardized the process and removed the guesswork of ad-hoc learning. That plan and the lessons inherent in it had to be documented and shared with more than a single protege. Lessons are now prepared, reviewed by contemporaries of the knowledge holder and the management team and presented in a classroom in Socratic fashion.

Starting with the basics, the senior technologist presents the technical road map intertwined with that invaluable lifetime experience. "Here's what the book says, and here's what I've found out about this that isn't in the book," is the key to passing on the unique knowledge and keeping the interest level of the learners high.

The foundational sessions are presented to a group of learners that represents varying levels of experience. A veteran should be included along with newer high-potential employees and those others who need the knowledge to better accomplish their jobs. That veteran will help with organizational knowledge and has his or her own set of experiences to impart. Along with each learning session, job assignments and projects are assigned so the learners, the master and the management team can be confident that the concept is being imparted.

As the lessons progress, they get more detailed and specialized. With the input of the knowledge-holder and management team, the larger group branches out toward those aspects that best fit their skills, abilities and interests.

If there are any prodigies in the group, they will keep up with multiple branches of the lessons. These lessons are presented at intervals of three to four weeks. In the intervening periods, the project assignments are prepared in consultation with the knowledge-holder and in collaboration the entire team of learners.

At the right times, independent projects are assigned so the learner can demonstrate competency in an aspect of the knowledge. To spread the advantages, other interested engineers and technologists who can benefit from the entire process are invited. Managers debrief the senior technologist and the learners in individual sessions every 60 days. Progress is measured and reviewed, and necessary adjustments are made.

To summarize some of the key lessons learned:

  1. Management must allow the senior technologist to have the dual role of contributor and teacher. Time and workload have to be carefully managed to make that work.
  2. It doesn't work without budget and allocated time.
  3. Keeping critical skills is the organization's highest priority. Without them, it is like every other organization. Remember that when weighing priorities.
  4. Impart the knowledge to groups, and don't hesitate to have the body of knowledge branch out into more discrete paths.
  5. Learned skills must be exercised, and learners have to develop their own lessons learned.
  6. Measure results and reward success. This process shouldn't be a burden; it should be an opportunity.

In summary, because there was a plan, a road map, frequent review and adequate documentation, the process not only succeeded, but could be replicated. The business is stronger because of it. Instead of a sense of dread regarding retirement of the senior levels of the workforce, this is seen as an opportunity to grow tomorrow's key contributors.


The U.S. defense establishment is faced with a wholesale passing of the baton from the Cold War generation. The legacy of that generation can be preserved. It's neither cheap nor easy, but it is imperative if the defense industry is to fulfill its responsibility to the shareholders and keep the United States and its Armed Forces personnel safe.

[About the Author: Robert Hyde is director of human resources at Northrop Grummans's Marine Systems business.]

Manager vs. Manager by Scott Flander [Human Resource Executive Online | September 2, 2008]


Employees worried about their jobs because of the tough economy are competing against each other in unhealthy ways. But HR executives can mitigate such problems in several ways, including making people feel more appreciated.

As the economy falters, it's more of a dog-eat-dog world than ever -- and your best managers and executives may be the ones snapping at each other's throats.

Executive coaches and others say that high anxiety in corporate America is causing co-workers to be more competitive, often in harmful ways.

"August is the biggest month I've had in 25 years," says Anna Maravelas, a coach and author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. "I've had human resource directors calling me up, they were hyperventilating over the state of their executive teams. They say, 'Our teams are dysfunctional, the executives are hostile to each other.'"

Maravelas, founder of the St. Paul, Minn.-based firm Thera Rising, which focuses on team building, conflict resolution and leadership development, says co-worker competitiveness has significantly increased over the past year -- a situation she attributes to the downturn in the economy.

'When people's economic security is at risk, their behavior deteriorates," she says. Among the most serious problems among managers and executives are "backstabbing and avoidance," she says. "You do something that annoys me, or I don't agree with, I don't bring it up. I don't ask for explanations when things aren't going well in your division."

Eventually, she says, executives will stop offering each other a head's up about imminent problems -- "Or worse, they'll set you up to fail."

There are other signs co-worker competitiveness is growing. A recent survey of 150 senior executives from large U.S. companies found that nearly half (46 percent) believe employees are more competitive with their co-workers than they were 10 years ago.

But, just in the past year, the competitiveness has been accelerating, says Dave Willmer, executive director of OfficeTeam, which commissioned the survey. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing firm, a division of Robert Half International, places professional and customer-service professionals.
He also puts the blame on the economy.

Competition among co-workers can be healthy, and can benefit companies when times get tough, says Willmer. But HR leaders need to be on the lookout for competition that becomes unhealthy -- which can lead to poor morale, lower productivity and difficulty in retaining good employees.

Employee often feel more anxious about their jobs when they don't get enough recognition, says Willmer. "If recognition is unfairly distributed or not distributed, people become competitive to seek that," he says.

Competitiveness among co-workers also increases when companies don't communicate with their employees well -- not only about where things stand with the company's health, but about where an employee's career stands. "When you don't know, you tell yourself, 'I have to do whatever I can,'" says Willmer. "But that may not be a healthy thing."

Joseph Koob, author of Succeeding with Difficult Co-Workers, says he's seen a growing competitiveness over the last five or six years, as companies have cut back and eliminated entire levels of management. "They're leaner and meaner, but that creates more work and takes away a fair amount of advancement," he says.

"Mid-level and senior executives are working tremendously long hours, which puts pressure on everybody," says Koob, founder of Metacoach, based in Lansdale, Pa.

At the same time, he says, there's less loyalty to companies, and people are jumping from one to another -- which means "you have all these people floating around who are really good." That gets managers and others worried about their own job security, which creates even more angst and competitiveness, he says.

Co-worker competition can be good when it helps people to do their best, but becomes unhealthy when employees are so unhappy they leave, says Koob. "That eventually undermines the whole organization," he says.

How can a manager or executive tell when competition has moved from healthy to unhealthy? Koob suggests that leaders walk around and talk to people. Among the signs: "People will be complaining about other people, pointing their fingers. They'll be blaming others. They'll be whining about their own situations."

Like other experts, Koob says that if employees feel appreciated, they're less likely to worry about their jobs and engage in harmful competition. "It comes down to how people are treated," he says. "If a manager makes an effort to understand who they are, and appreciate who they are, then competition is fine."

Maravelas, of Thera Rising, offers these suggestions for keeping competition from getting out of control:

  1. Acknowledge the contributions of your direct reports and other divisions daily." She recommends inviting leaders and employees from other departments to staff meetings and publicly thanking them. This helps everyone feel appreciated.
  2. Eliminate performance measures "that reward employees and leaders for sacrificing the needs of other divisions for their own gain" such as a sales-compensation structure "that drives wedges between groups and leaders."
  3. "Build the consistent message that we don't throw people under the bus here. As soon as you see a person disrespect or target another person or group, you shut that down."

Upgrading Talent by Matthew Guthridge, John R. McPherson & William J. Wolf


A downturn can give smart companies a chance to upgrade their talent.

Downturns place companies' talent strategies at risk. As deteriorating performance forces increasingly aggressive head count reductions, it's easy to lose valuable contributors inadvertently, damage morale or the company's external reputation among potential employees, or drop the ball on important training and staff-development programs. But there is a better way. By emphasizing talent in cost-cutting efforts, employers can intelligently strengthen the value proposition they offer current and potential employees and position themselves strongly for growth when economic conditions improve.

Companies can maintain their attractiveness to internal and external talent by using cost-cutting efforts as an opportunity to redesign jobs so that they become more engaging for the people undertaking them. A job's level of responsibility, degree of autonomy, and span of control all contribute to employee satisfaction. Head count reductions provide a powerful incentive to use existing resources better by breaking down silos and increasing the span of control for challenging managerial roles-thus improving the odds of engaging key talent in the redesigned jobs.

Consider Cisco Systems' approach to downsizing during the last recession. In 2001, as deteriorating financial performance forced the elimination of 8,500 jobs, Cisco redesigned roles and responsibilities to improve cross-functional alignment and reduce duplication. The more collaborative environment fostered by such moves increased workplace satisfaction and productivity for many employees. Initiatives like Cisco's succeed when companies focus on redesigning jobs and retaining talent at the outset of downsizing efforts.

In addition to redesigning roles, companies cutting jobs should carefully protect training and development programs. These are not only essential to maintaining workplace morale and increasing long-term productivity, but they also give people the skills necessary to carry out redesigned jobs that have greater spans of control. During the last recession, International Paper continued offering classes at its leadership institute by replacing external facilitators with the company's senior leaders. This approach not only reduced the cost of delivery but also, thanks to the involvement of senior leaders, redirected the content of the leadership program by tying it more closely to decisions and skills affecting the company's current performance. Similarly, IBM retained its employee-development programs during its major performance challenges in the mid- to late 1980s. It took the arrival of Lou Gerstner as CEO and a new strategy to turn the company around, but the historical investments IBM had made in developing its people helped achieve a successful turnaround.

Before undertaking widespread layoffs, companies should use their performance-management processes to help identify strong employees. Companies that conduct disciplined, meritocratic assessments of performance and potential are well placed to make good personnel decisions. These companies should also bring additional strategic considerations to the decisions. They should assess which types of talent drive business value today and which will drive it three years from now, as well as which talent segments are currently available and which will be in the future-keeping in mind, for example, that new MBAs will be equally available in two years. They should also look at which types of talent would take years to replace or develop-for instance, skilled electric utility engineers in an environment where retirements are dramatically reducing supply. Performance management well informed by key strategic questions can minimize the negative cultural impact of downsizing, improve the bottom line, and help identify talented people the company should try to retain.

Companies that are reducing staff must focus relentlessly on the internal cultural and external reputational implications of cost-cutting efforts. Although strong employer brands are resilient, it's difficult to reestablish brand strength once the culture has been damaged. The way many companies conduct large-scale downsizing decreases efficiency, morale, and motivation on the part of remaining employees. It also increases voluntary turnover among high performers and compromises a company's ability to attract strong talent in the future, as potential employees wonder how risky it is to take a job there.

Counteracting these tendencies requires creativity. In 2001, Cisco gave generous severance packages and assistance with job searches to the workers it laid off and launched a program that paid one-third of salary, plus benefits and stock options, to ex-employees who agreed to work for a local charity or community organization. Steps like these protected Cisco's employer brand by attempting to make departing employees feel better about Cisco and underscored the company's commitment to its people for those who remained. The results were measurable: employee satisfaction remained high, and Cisco retained a prominent spot on Fortune magazine's "Best Companies to Work For" list.

A strong employer brand is also important for companies undertaking selective recruitment even as they cut personnel costs elsewhere. Using slowdowns to uncover and hire displaced talent is often fruitful. Studies have shown that although overall levels of recruitment may level off or even fall, the quality of workers hired rises in recessions. And opportunities to find and hire displaced talent may be particularly valuable during this downturn, as massive downsizing in the financial-services sector makes available to nonfinancial companies a large pool of highly educated and motivated professionals who previously might not have considered jobs outside their previous employers or industries.

Some organizations are moving surprisingly quickly in response to these opportunities in the talent market. In late October 2008, the US Internal Revenue Service hosted a Manhattan career fair targeted at displaced financial-services professionals. More than 1,300 people attended, many standing in line for three hours to learn more about an employer that offered a newly interesting brand of "job stability."

Cost cutting during a downturn is often necessary to ensure a company's current profitability and future competitiveness. Rather than freezing all hiring and employee-development programs, companies should use this period as an opportunity to upgrade talent and better engage existing staff. This means reinventing a percentage of the capital liberated from cost cutting into, for example, selective recruiting and development programs and in efforts to safeguard the culture and to redesign jobs so that they are more engaging to the remaining employees.

[About the Authors: Matthew Guthridge is an associate principal in McKinsey's London office, John McPherson is a director in the Dallas office, and William Wolf is a principal in the Washington, DC, office.]

I Hate Coaching Employees! by Chuck Murphy


"I hate coaching employees! They take so much out of my day and waste my time. Why can't they understand this? It's so simple. I can explain it 10 times, and they still don't get it. Boy, are they thick! Where did they get this one?"

Sound familiar? Well, sometimes trying to coach employees can be challenging. This is especially true if the talent manager believes coaching merely means showing another employee how to do something. The difficulty usually is not the employee, but rather in the manager's understanding of what is required to be an effective coach.

Like other duties, coaching requires specific competencies. Think about the following change in our society.

Computers have greatly reduced our patience in waiting for information. Thirty years ago, it would take five to seven minutes for someone to retrieve information from a folder in a file cabinet, but nobody had a problem waiting. Today, if the computer takes 10 seconds to retrieve data from a system 1,000 miles away, we tend to think it is taking all day to service our request.

We become frustrated, angry, irritated and may click "Ctrl, Alt, Delete," to end the task because we feel the computer is hung up. In reality, the computer is just taking a bit longer to process our request because it has 100 million other customer requests in the queue before ours.

This instant-response mentality also might be the root cause of our impatience in other situations, such as waiting in line for a sales clerk, waiting an hour at a restaurant for a table on a Friday or Saturday night or, in our professional lives, waiting for an employee to catch on to what we are trying to explain.

Coaching involves patience and understanding. It requires that we perceive an employee's difficulty in comprehending what we are trying to convey. To be a professional coach, you must think back to a time when you had to learn a new process or task yourself. How did you feel about not getting it the first time? Were you nervous or unsure of yourself as you entered into the learning process? Did the coach appear to be irritated when you didn't catch on immediately?

Professional coaches go slowly and are patient. They move in slow motion, shifting down from their normal 90 mph speed, to 2 mph so the employee can comprehend the task or concept being explained.

Professional coaches are patient, empathetic, resourceful, kind, understanding and focused on maintaining the employee's self-esteem. Coaches know it may take several attempts before a trainee understands what they are trying to demonstrate or communicate. Further, professional coaches employ different approaches to effectively transfer information. A professional coach is creative and thinks out of the box, or uses analogies the trainee can relate to everyday life.

Good listening skills are extremely important in the coaching environment. A professional coach listens carefully to employees' questions to pinpoint the specific areas in which the trainee is experiencing difficulty. They chunk information and ask questions at key points to ascertain an employee's level of understanding. These periodic checkups allow the coach to correct any confusion or lack of understanding prior to proceeding with additional information. The coach approaches the task at hand in a slow and systematic manner and is aware of where the employee is in the learning process.

A good coach has his or her finger on the employee's pulse and an eye on the person's body language. A professional coach proceeds slowly and cautiously, maintaining the employee's self-esteem and providing the person with opportunities to stop and ask questions.

There's really only one thing talent managers need to do on a continuous basis when coaching: Ask, "How would I feel if I was the one learning something brand new?" Now you get it, coach.

[About the Author: Chuck Murphy is a training specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.]

Measuring Business Impact of Learning by Michael E. Echols, Ph.D.


In its one-year-plus existence, the Bellevue University Human Capital Lab has funded research on how best-practice companies are using measurement of learning's business impact to support their talent management and strategic objectives. Here is what's happening at some of those companies.
Business Issue: Employees Quit Their Supervisors

At ACS, multivariate statistical methods were used to determine the impact of learning on call-center performance. The first phase of the research documented that training is a key factor impacting employee retention. The method used to derive this conclusion addresses a key measurement issue: how to be sure the improvement in business outcome - in this case, retention - was directly related to the training and not something else. Based on the initial business implications, ACS extended the analyses to additional dimensions of the business including recruiting.

Business Issue: Leadership Pipeline

The business challenge addressed here is one way a geographically dispersed global retail organization identifies highly engaged associates and delivers learning to this hourly and salaried workforce at thousands of locations. In this case, the focus is a customized retail-management program leading to a bachelor's degree. The program is co-designed by retail subject matter experts in conjunction with Home Depot executives to provide maximum impact on current associate performance and on future career capability.

This program integrates the corporation's tuition assistance benefits into its leadership career development strategy. The key element of this program is the opt-in nature of the highly engaged associates. The business-impact measurements at the company include the tracking of the percentage of future store management that emerges from the customized program vs. more traditional channels.

Business Issue: Tuition Assistance as a Strategy

One of the most advanced companies in the use of tuition assistance is Verizon Wireless. Under the leadership of Dorothy Martin, LearningLINK program manager for Verizon, the corporation already has monthly dashboards that document business impact. The four key business outcomes measured include recruiting, retention, job performance and job mobility.

These are key human capital factors for any company. All four parameters show favorable outcomes for employees utilizing tuition assistance relative to the general Verizon Wireless employee population. Especially dramatic is the fact that the strategy has produced as much as a 10 percent improvement in retention. This result is important because it is directly opposite to the "educate them and they will leave" opinion widely held among operating managers.

To extend the impact of tuition assistance, Verizon Wireless is collaborating in the development and deployment of a customized retail management program targeted at accelerating the development of future leaders in critical retail operations. Calibration of the impact of the custom program on the business outcomes listed above is part of the deployment.

Business Issue: Sales Training Redesign and Redeployment

Few industries face the challenges seen in the auto industry today. Innovation, a key concept in many markets, is more than a mere expression at Chrysler Academy. First presented to the public in detail at the Fall 2008 Chief Learning Officer Symposium, the corporation has deployed an innovative approach including:
a) Performance maps for high performers.
b) Gap analysis.
c) Sales training redesign and new deployment model.
d) Measured business impact.

Answering questions around learning's impact has motivated senior Chrysler management to extend the analysis to dealership management programs that reach far beyond sales training.

In summary, these best-practice companies are walking the talk when it comes to innovative learning strategies and the related business outcome measurements that show the value of the investments. Validated in the first phase, these measurement initiatives are being leveraged to impact even broader strategy issues - the true seat at the table.

[About the Author: Michael E. Echols, Ph.D., is vice president of strategic initiatives at Bellevue University and author of "ROI on Human Capital Investment."]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Human Resources Department As a Profitability Factor by Kenneth Moore & Robert Furlong


What would you do if you had a Human Resources employee who could improve the company's profit margins, positively impact the cost of goods sold, lower the day's sales outstanding, and increase the price/earning ratio while liquidating overhead costs to the business - and still deliver flawless transactional and traditional HR services?

Most CEO's would react in two ways:
a) Why is this individual wasting his/her time in an HR department?
b) Why didn't I demand this level of HR department performance five years ago?

The concept of the Human Resources department as a profitability contributor is fast gaining currency in U.S. businesses and bears closer examination. Professor David Ulrich of the University of Michigan, a leading expert on HR competency models, sees the changing business world as a 20-20-60 proposition. Of executives surveyed, 20% currently use the HR department as active and innovative business solution partners. 20% believe that the HR department should remain as administrative overhead and only perform transactional work.

But, 60% of the executives are starting to expect the HR department to partner with others departments to improve the company's core competencies and competitive advantages. And, more HR people are stepping up to the plate and delivering the goods.

What's driving this thinking? The short answer is competitive pressure in a fast changing business world - pressures for sales, talent, and profits. Most CEO's (and their CFO's) are held accountable for three general but powerful results: Increasing revenue, generating cash, and reducing costs. In order to focus on these three accountabilities, executives are discarding paradigms that no longer work as companies seek to stay in and grow their business.

The HR department as a strictly administrative overhead and resource consumer is one of the paradigms under justifiable attack. Transactional HR departmental activities such as payroll, benefits administration and records keeping are easily outsourced or digitized (or should be) with significant cost savings.

We have worked with companies who have digitized their current and past employee data bases. In one company, they eliminated over 35 five-drawer file cabinets (and two rooms) and condensed them into CDs that fit into a shoebox. With advances in technology, even the shoebox is in jeopardy as a storage device.

To many CEOs and CFOs, the HR department as a revenue enhancer takes getting used to. That's not the way they were taught. They are more interested in the payoff and are asking appropriate questions: What's in it for the company? Where is the improvement in the revenue stream? How does this get us new customers and retain our current customers. Where is the proof of corporate performance enhancement metrics?

Once they get solid answers to these questions from competent HR leaders, the CEOs are quick to change their thinking. To answer the payoff questions, recognize that a continual company-wide value chain analysis is critical to the success of any organization. Over the past decade, CEOs began demanding that their Human Resources departments deliver flawless functional work and become a knowledgeable partner with all other disciplines to advance the business plan of the company.

Individual professional silos are breaking down. Disciplines such as finance, sales, marketing, operations, and HR no longer exist as stand alone entities. They are inter-dependent with one another. Weakness of any one of the links inhibits other links from maximizing their efficiency and productivity.

Expectations of the Human Resources Department Have Changed

These three emerging concepts in the practice of HR bear examination:

a) What value does the HR department bring to the organization. Many HR teams lack a vision that includes their value to the organization. Do the HR department's activities directly help the company achieve its broad business objectives? Are the HR team's arguments for or against a business strategy credible to the other department heads at the decision making table? How are the HR department strategies, that benefit the employees, the shareholders, the customers, and all other stakeholders in the organization, selected and implemented?

b) What value does the HR department generate for the customer - the end user of the company's product or service? Sales and quality are no longer restricted to the sales and quality assurance teams. Edwards Deming taught organizations that quality and value must be built into every step of the process. The HR department doesn't just hire a salesperson based upon a manager's request. The end result of HR's recruiting and hiring efforts is that the customer who interacts with the new sales person receives continuing world class service from the company. HR shares the quality of the new hire with the other departmental silos to insure that the company is, or becomes, the vendor of choice for that customer.

The final of the three emerging concepts for the Human Resources Department is:

c) What core business competencies must HR leaders possess in order to be credible strategic partners with the rest of the executive team? Each company and each industry can generate its own list of core business skills their teams must have that go beyond their individual specialties.

This issue has become so critical that in graduate and undergraduate level business programs, new editions of Organizational Development textbooks are including chapters on financial calculations and ratios, corporate social responsibility, globalization, and major workforce diversity challenges, among others.

The biggest barrier to profitability is ignorance - ignorance by many people about how the company makes money and how it achieves its objectives, and how all of the departmental silos are interdependent on each other. The myth that only finance people need to know about finance or that marketing people are the only people who need to know about marketing is fast disappearing. In today's business environment, profitable organizations require highly skilled employees who can solve complex problems using multi-disciplinary teams.

The Human Resources Department and Profitability

Can HR be linked to profitability metrics? Yes. Here are three examples.

a) A well known global company formed a group of HR professionals who developed processes and training programs in sales, customer service, workouts, project management, process improvement and leadership development that focused on critical performance issues for their internal and external customers. By partnering with operations, sales, and customer service they served as a catalyst to forge alliances, partnerships and agreements.

Many of their efforts resulted in improved relationships that translated into "Preferred Provider Status", which increased sales and lowered costs. All of their costs were liquidated by charging a fee for the service while creating net revenue. After two years, this HR group generated sales of $4 million and a profit margin in excess of 30% which was returned to the division budget at the end of each fiscal year.

b) Secondly, an HR team, partnering with the Audit staff, discovered that the accounts receivable turnover had moved from a preferred 30 days to 45 days during the past two years. They decided to let the chief credit officer go. The HR staff established criteria to identify candidates with the ability to reduce the ratio from 45 days back to 30 days. The HR staff recommended one candidate for hire. Within six months, the company's DSO (Days Sales Outstanding) ratio was reduced to 35 days.

c) In a third case, while designing and negotiating a new health care and 401(k) plan, the HR leadership partnered with the sales and marketing team to determine if the cost of the program would erode the company's market share and competitive pricing strategy. The resulting benefit program design achieved its cost/benefit objectives without jeopardizing the company's market share and pricing metrics.

Transition the Human Resources Department to a Profitability Factor

How do HR leaders and CEOs make the transition? Here are suggestions based upon our belief that the more employees become knowledgeably involved in the business, the better they will be able to become a more productive asset.

a) Develop a leadership development program that includes hands on training in all of the functional disciplines. For example, in the production department, identify the barriers that prevent managers from achieving efficiencies and savings;

b) Insist that Human Resources staff receive financial training so they understand the impact of cash flow, receivables, billing cycles, and so forth. If you're a public company, teach them how to read and understand your company's annual report or 10-k. Reading the proxy statement is always informative - even if the information contained in it is reluctantly revealed, and occasionally masked with arcane accounting jargon;

c) Have HR staff participate in sales strategies, customer visits, and technology reviews. Encourage them to learn quality methods, process improvements techniques, terms and conditions, and contract negotiations with suppliers and customers. Engage them as process consultants (have them trained if necessary) so they can assist with growth initiatives;

d) Most importantly, hold all employees accountable for achieving the "critical numbers" established for your company. A superb HR department becomes irrelevant if the company is sliding into bankruptcy. The HR department's powerful value focuses on its contributions toward reversing the slide.

Include your HR employees as full business partners. They will rise to the occasion and surprise you by building your bottom line and becoming a profit center contributor as well as maintaining their traditional responsibilities - and they will be better at both. The intense and brutally competitive business environment of our global and digital world needs the help of everyone in the company. To which group of 20-20-60 does your company belong?

[About the Authors: Kenneth W. Moore is the President of Ken Moore Associates. He specializes in quantitative strategic business and organizational development leading to improved corporate performance. Robert (Bob) Furlong, principal of Sage Leadership Consulting, provides business-savvy Human Resource consulting that enables organizations to meet business objectives while fostering individual employee growth.]

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Learning in a Tough Economy by Marc Sokol


Although there seems to be no shortage of bad news in the business world these days, there is a bright spot for learning leaders: Economic downturns often present opportunities to make learning more effective, thereby making organizations more competitive.

When the economy slows, corporations are forced to respond. It's a simple financial matter: Less money coming in means less money available to spend. Common fiscal belt-tightening techniques include budget cuts, spending and hiring freezes, and reducing the size of the employment base through buyouts, attrition or layoffs.

As organizational leaders weigh tough decisions on where to cut costs, they should ask themselves one simple question: "Do we still want to be in business after the downturn?" If the answer is "yes," one area in which spending should not be cut without some serious strategic thought is employee learning and development.

True, adjustments may be needed. The learning and development department probably should reduce spending just like everyone else. Instead of cutting all initiatives in equal fashion, smart organizations retain initiatives that are critical to business success and cut back on those that may simply be "nice to do." Think of it this way: It wouldn't be prudent for a restaurant kitchen to eliminate fire extinguishers to save costs in lean times, would it?

Canceling an arbitrary portion of training initiatives across the board creates the illusion of savings - some real via eliminated travel expenses and some potential under the assumption that freed-up staff time is put to good use. But without strategic thinking about where cuts should be made, such moves could end up damaging the differentiators responsible for competitive advantage.

Planning to Outlive a Recession

Development is a key factor in ensuring people stay engaged in the organization and continue to have an impact on the company's bottom line. Giving current and potential leaders the development they need helps a company weather the storm and continue to excel. So how can necessary cuts be made with minimal long-term damage? What can be cut, and what should remain?

To guide the decision-making process, company leaders should sit down with line managers and talent professionals to examine the key factors to business success and which training and development initiatives enhance these factors. Smart companies proceed strategically so that reduced learning and development spending won't blunt long-term corporate success.

Look at Talent Management as a Response to Economic Downturn
Don't spread reduced training dollars as if they were peanut butter and you were trying to make 10 sandwiches with only enough available for five. Such a nonstrategic approach simply reduces effectiveness across the board - including in the areas responsible for a firm's competitive advantages.

Instead, choose more carefully who you need to invest in and which types of behavior you need to impact. This means you have to determine which offerings have the most immediate and direct effect on the business and on customer experience. It also may mean you have to be more selective about who is invited to participate.

Take the example of Company X, which has a significant development initiative for high-potential leaders. This program has shown visible impact for participants and their managers. As the economy enters a soft period, Company X opts to cut spending for the coming year. How will this initiative be changed to compensate for this cut? Should the program be eliminated for a year or two? Should it be adjusted so it's less intensive? In the end, a decision is made to retain the initiative as its current level of intensity, but to offer it to fewer individuals.

Let's look at the impact of this decision:
a) The nomination criteria for the program are strengthened. This results in more in-depth discussions by senior leaders and managers about who should attend and increases the value of this initiative in the minds of these influential individuals.
b) Chosen participants benefit from the same high-quality program as participants from previous years, and any feelings of being cheated by having to settle for a second-rate version are avoided.
c) Management takes the opportunity to communicate to those who didn't make the cut. They're told of the reduction in slots this year and are reassured they will be reconsidered for participation the following year. They are disappointed they won't get to attend this year, but are glad that when their turn comes they will not get a second-rate version of a program that has become well-respected.
d) Those who did make the cut are told they were among a smaller group chosen, leading to a clear understanding of the company's desire to retain them over the long term and even more accountability to put what they learn into visible practice.

In this way, a spending cut ends up positioning the company to reinforce its commitment to a development program that really makes a difference. Most companies tell their employees that they are the firm's most important asset. Company X found a way to walk that talk.

Ensure All Training Efforts Are Critical to Continued Business Success

The key issue here is deciding what behaviors, industry gatherings and activities are truly critical to business success. When budgets are cut, learning and development managers need to ensure a clear line of sight exists between training efforts and the value they provide for the business and its customers. A good example comes from the manufacturing sector: A downturn is not the time to scale back training on quality or safety technique. Any refinery manager will tell you the same thing in a heartbeat.

On the other hand, an economic downturn probably is a good time for a company expanding in Latin America to limit Spanish-language instruction to only those being deployed there in the near future. Broader training across the talent pipeline in this area can be resumed once the economic storm has passed.

In truth, a time of universal economic contraction may even be a time when expanded training efforts become necessary. Key customer relationships may cool due to less frequent in-person visits and increased reliance on voicemail and e-mail. This may happen at precisely the moment when the customer is looking for its own ways to cut spending.

Companies in this situation would be wise to invest in new or enhanced targeted sales training to ensure confidence and credibility in dealing with nervous clients. It's human nature. We all want to affiliate ourselves with the strong, the confident and those who will survive. Customers of organizations are no different. They want to know that the entities they outsource to or buy products from will still be there after an economic downturn has run its course. Such a strategy not only serves an immediate business need but also positions the company well for when the economy regains its health.

Leverage Learning From Work Experience

An economic downturn is a great time for companies to think beyond the traditional workshop format. Much can be learned on the job and in collaborative groups. Simulation-based learning, increased coaching and mentoring, and looking to company leaders to teach others based on their own experiences all can have a deeply positive impact on the leadership pipeline.
Whether the format looks like a community of practice, an action learning team or simply a facilitated discussion group, learning and development leaders can help get people talking with each other about their own experiences and what they have learned.

Look to Technology

Technology-enabled learning can extend development investment when economic times are tight. Similar program content can be delivered without the associated travel costs, and if done well, an atmosphere of engaged group learning can be maintained.

Let's look at another example, this time from a firm we'll call Company Y. This organization has professionals based in locations around the globe. These individuals gather in person twice each year to review case studies, swap notes and discuss the latest trends. Company Y anticipates a slowing economy and makes a decision to eliminate these twice-yearly gatherings to save travel and accommodation costs.

But Company Y doesn't stop there. In fact, its corporate leaders have been researching lower-cost alternatives ever since the meetings' costs were tagged for discussion. After all, the value of these best-practice exchanges are tangible and are one reason why Company Y's people are so clued in to the needs of their clients. Although Company Y eliminates the twice-yearly in-person gatherings, a quarterly webinar is instituted in its place to cover the same topics. The employees experience continuity of best-practice information flow. True, employees miss the face time with colleagues, but at least they know their needs for connection and development still matter as Company Y realizes cost savings.

Companies should look to intranets, online chat rooms, SharePoint technology or other existing resources to enable collaboration and idea exchange between teams and colleagues geographically separated from one another.
Move From 'Training' to 'Development That Makes a Difference'
Learning professionals know that, as engaging as any training event can be, the lessons learned quickly can dissipate and fail to translate into meaningful changes on the job without an effort to make the learning "stick."

To reap full the benefit from resources spent on learning and development, companies need to effectively communicate expectations to the individuals who will be taking part, as well as to their managers. Success is more than just showing up at a training event. Insights must lead to action, and action must translate into practical improvements in performance.

Taking a realistic approach to learning and development means ensuring people know what needs to be improved, they are motivated to improve and they get useful knowledge and tools to address their targeted areas. They also need opportunities to apply what they have learned, and they need to be held accountable for improvement. These strategies can help drive effective integration of new skills. They're also another example of a reaction to an economic downturn that can have a lasting positive effect on the company long after the economy has improved. Learning professionals can seize the moment to drive best practices into place.


Foster Dialogue About How Competitive Advantage Can Be Maintained or Enhanced

An economic recession is like any other type of organizational change, only this one is imposed from the outside. Employees and management can't hide their heads in the sand waiting for the recession to pass or for the "other shoe to drop." The challenge needs to be faced head-on.

Learning and development leaders can help foster dialogue among employees about what the business needs to do to be more competitive than the next company. After all, the whole industry is in the same situation. Issues need to be addressed with emotional engagement, not just a set of dispassionate adjustments. This is the time to increase communication in all directions and encourage employees to respond thoughtfully. Ask them to help prioritize how development dollars get spent. Such discussions often yield surprising and valuable insights.
Set the Stage for Increased Competitive Advantage

Recently, Personal Decisions International conducted a survey of human resources professionals and other business leaders around the globe to uncover organizational approaches to retention of key employees in the slowed economy and what tactics they have found to be most successful. Among the 530 respondents, 93 percent said retaining key employees is even more important during an economic downturn.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the survey found "accelerating the development of key employees" to be a more effective tactic to retain these individuals than "competitive pay and benefits." These responses offer real-world evidence that employees want development opportunities and will stay with the company that offers them.

Skillful learning and development leaders can foster a common vision of what it looks like to be successful, even in a recession. Those who do so will mobilize and focus energy across their organizations, both for today and tomorrow, as they become catalysts for action and learning.

[About the Author: Marc Sokol is the senior vice president and global practice leader of development solutions at Personnel Decisions International.]