Saturday, April 30, 2016

Opportunism of Learning versus Opportunity of Development: The Paradigm of Perpetual Learning Bench

In recent years, Learning & Development (L&D) has become an important function of Human Resources Management (HRM) in a company. What used to be a small training cell, has now become equal in importance to other HR functions such as recruitment and performance management. L&D is an important bridge between recruitment from the marketplace and delivery in the workplace. L&D can play a vital role in the overall talent management of the company, receiving and providing inputs from the other HR functions. Previously viewed as a corporate function, L&D is now viewed as an important site and business function. However, its importance as a function that could bridge the gaps between academic education and industrial needs for young entrants on one hand and reskilling and retooling of the aging workforce on the other is yet to be appreciated to the full potential. There are, however, reservations as to whether the function is living up to the expectations. 

The reasons for such doubts are many. Firstly, there is no clear body of knowledge as to what constitutes the right methodology for L&D. An overwhelming number of CXOs would still vote for on- the-job development, largely because the L&D specialists have been unable to make an effective case for dedicated learning streams. Secondly, L&D is often seen as a soft-skill initiative (based on generic outsourced canned programmes), leaving the line managers to grapple with the challenges of technical development (that require company-specific customization). Thirdly, despite having one of the world’s largest educational infrastructures in the world, L&D departments have been unable to forge viable academic-industry collaborations. Fourthly, it is unclear if L&D function is regarded as a mainstream HR function that can throw up future heads of HR function or the businesses themselves. Fifthly, the metrics to determine the effectiveness of L&D are yet to be developed to any appreciable extent. As a result, L&D continues to be a function of high potential but beset with unclear delivery.

Opportunism of learning

It is interesting that most functions in HR are not exactly the functions that provide ‘universal joy’ in organizations, given their requirements to be objective in business partnering. Recruitment, for example, has to bring in new talent to make businesses and operations competitive, even at higher salaries; this certainly is not a matter of joy for internal aspirants. Rewards management has to structure compensation within the means available to a firm, notwithstanding what industry pays or what staff believe they deserve.  Performance appraisal introduces relativity amongst employees with all its disharmony; bell curve or no bell curve. Succession planning is a function that demands hard (perception-wise harsh) choices; many top level separations are caused by succession battles. Industrial relations in traditional companies (and right sizing in new generation firms), of course, has been the cauldron of strife and disharmony in established organizations. In contrast to all these HR functions, L&D emerges as a relatively welcome function that brings forth no hard feelings!

In-house learning has, therefore, been quick to grab for itself the joyous characteristic of non-graded learning. Sponsorship to learning programmes is seen as a relief from the day to day work drudgery. If the sponsorship is to off campus and overseas learning programmes, the joy is even higher. Usually company learning programmes have neither the rigour of institutional teaching nor the challenge of end-of-the-learning gradation. Fun though such limited company learning is, firms can hardly become competitive just based on the joy of such non-demanding learning processes. In-company learning needs to be as studious and demanding as an academic programme of a top-notch institution tends to be; this is the only way to develop the needed skill sets. L&D has to be a mini HR system; from selecting the right candidates to providing the needed inputs, and from measuring learning to rewarding learning. L&D professionals should be willing to become gentle but tough taskmasters who would be both facilitative and objective.

Opportunity of development

The real joy of learning must come from the fulfilment of the accompanying development process. Learning and development are the two sides of the same coin. There can be no development without learning and learning sans development is infructuous. Just as a student who leaves the portals of a college is expected to be decidedly better than the one who enters, every employee who leaves a learning programme must be a better performer than the one who enters. The learning programmes could be simple ones such as fortifying one’s known language skills or challenging ones such as learning an absolutely new coding language. The joy for the learners as well as the teachers of such company programmes must be in terms of measurable increases in individual competence, and hence in organizational competitiveness. L&D professionals must impart seriousness and objectivity to the process of ‘learner-teacher match’ to focus on competencies and competitiveness.

Many times, the relative short span of internal programmes is held to be working against the objective of enduring developmental impact of the programmes. The fallacy lies here itself; why should a firm undertake learning programmes that are deemed suboptimal as a design itself? Are L&D professionals giving importance to form rather than substance, operational managers giving precedence to current work rather than future potential, `and corporate managements getting bogged down by budget impacts rather than by competency needs? It is important that firms decide on a few core themes and work towards programme structures and contents that reshape the skill sets in a decisive manner. This requires that L&D professionals become a part of value chain in the laboratories, plants and markets, list out the needs and develop customized programmes. A panel of line and HR leaders must vet the programmes, oversee coaching and evaluate the outcomes.

Accessing the infrastructure

India has such a large educational infrastructure that firms can indeed develop very effective programmes in collaboration with leading educational institutions. Rather than consider expensive executive education programmes, which are again general in nature, L&D would do well to tie up with colleges and universities to provide full course programmes such as Bachelors for Diploma holders, Masters for Bachelors degree holders, and Ph D for Masters degree holders. Many public sector undertakings such as HAL, SAIL and BEL (and some leading private sector companies such as L&T) had taken the lead, decades ago, in structuring such company specific academic programmes with intensely practical slant. With newer fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, mechatronics, sensor technologies, Internet of Things, bionics, nanotechnology, epigenetics, and wearable technologies set to transform all industries, it is important that middle level employees are reskilled in such domains so that organizations can stay contemporary at the minimum, and futuristic as a target.

There is a dilemma here though. On one hand, so much investment has been made in India by private agencies and the governments on colleges and institutions as well as teaching staff that it makes sense, at least for mid-rung companies, to utilize the investments. On the other, there does exist a criticism that Indian colleges and academic programmes are not known to be up to date in terms of knowledge base and pedagogy as a result of which the graduates do not have readily deployable skillsets, forcing companies to resort to on the job experimental development. Consequently, the confidence with which the industry can approach the academia is yet to be built. The paradox can be resolved to mutual benefit only if industry and academia decide to move together for collaborative programmes. Scale is necessary for making such programmes meaningful for companies as well as for institutions.

Learning bench

The concept of learning bench is relevant in this context. Depending on the nature of business and the technologies deployed, each firm should predetermine the number of executives in each cadre and each function that should be constantly learning. As a matter of hypothetical example, a pharmaceutical company could decide that 20 percent of its staff should constitute the learning bench at all times, so that in a span of five years the entire organization would be reskilled. Depending on the business model (whether it is research, manufacturing or marketing oriented), the relative percentages of staff in those and related domains and the nature of programmes could vary. Once a learning bench concept is embedded, selection of staff that need to qualify into the learning bench must be an annual feature with well specified criteria.

There should be a three tier approach to pass the learning bench through academic collaboration. The first tier would comprise the IITs, NITs, IIMs and other top ranking autonomous institutions such as BITS which can take the lead for creating industrial laboratory based research as well as advanced masters programmes. Entry into this tier must be based on proven potential as well as open competition. The second tier would comprise the large number of colleges and institutions which can impart academic programmes after learning industrial needs themselves. Entry into this tier would be open for the large numbers of young, operating staff who need their academic capabilities customized to industry needs. The third tier would comprise in-house programmes which are led by domain experts of the industry and institutions together with the learning bench staff that has already gone through tier 1 and 2 learning and development processes.

Companies baulk at making such huge investments on L&D as they are uncertain that executives so trained would remain in the company. The author is reminded of what an executive of Telco (now, Tata Motors) told him in 1976; he said that Telco, and for that matter all Tata Group companies invest a lot in training engineers under the Graduate Engineer Training schemes or in sponsoring middle level executives to XLRI three year evening programmes, fully aware that not all would stay. Yet, it has been the view of the Group that by training graduates and developing them and others in their companies the Tata Group is, in fact, building national competencies. That such a progressive concept was integral to Tata organizational development four decades ago, and could be articulated so clearly at a time when the fancy concepts of L&D were not in vogue in Indian industry, speaks of the visionary mind-set of Telco and the Tata Group. It should not be too much to expect the more enlightened companies of today to view learning and development as an immersive commitment, for their companies’ competitive advantage and India’s comparative advantage.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 30, 2016      

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