How to Run a Lean & Mean Learning Organization: 4 Strategies for Long-Term Success (and Profit)

I’m in the midst of finalizing the budget and strategic plan for our learning organization at Allonhill, which is pushing me to confront one really difficult question: How can we be useful for our constituents without spending extra money on more trainers? Allonhill, a third-party due-diligence and credit-risk services firm in the mortgage industry, is growing fast and hiring for a wide variety of specialized mortgage skills, so I’ll need to increase our investment in developing people to support this rapid growth. But I don’t believe throwing more trainers at the problem is a smart way to go.

So I went to my CEO and explained that in order to cover everything on our list of training issues, I’d really need two designers, five trainers and a manager — and that’s assuming the list doesn’t keep growing. But even if we were able to do a bang-up job with that team, it’s entirely likely that a year or two from now some manager would look at how much he or she was spending on training professionals and say, “Are you kidding me? I’m not spending that much on training!”

So instead, I want my learning organization to be lean and stay lean. The recession may have officially ended but the new mindset around cost efficiency hasn’t let up. Virtually every other group in an organization is asking how it can grow without adding to payroll costs, how it can launch more and better products faster and cheaper. Learning professionals should take a lesson here and try to figure out how to boost productivity and efficiency without padding costs.

So it was quite timely when new research from Bersin and Associates came out this month. I was encouraged and inspired by new data about the training industry in the United States. (Check out The Daily Mindflash’s take on the Bersin report, by Jessica Stillman.)  For instance, high-impact organizations invest significantly more on training, just over $1,000 per employee and deliver more training hours per employee, at about 20 hours per employee per year versus 15.3 hours per employees for average organizations. Most encouraging is that high-impact organizations are able to achieve this with fewer trainers than most average companies — just 4.3 trainers per 1,000 employees compared to 5.2.

It got me thinking about how we can be more innovative about how we deliver learning experiences without expanding the team too quickly or swelling to be too large. There were four themes from the research that resonated with me and that I thought were doable.

Stay Lean

Yes, expand your staff, but expand at a slower rate than the business grows. If the business is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, expand your organization by less than 10 percent and find innovative ways to support that growth. By proposing to grow at a slower rate, you’ll contribute to increased margins and be one of the company’s best innovators. Remember, high-impact organizations employee fewer trainers but invest more in training.

Decentralize Delivery Through SMEs

Training professionals are far too worried that subject-matter experts (SMEs) don’t have the chops to train workers — as if classroom training skills are un-teachable. Gimme a break. If a SME is smart enough to master their chosen discipline, they’re certainly smart enough to learn training. You’ll need to help SMEs, though: Do train-the-trainer sessions or get them started with facilitator guides, or teach them a few tricks yourself. But forget the idea that only trainers can train. You’re probably not getting the budget for another trainer, so embrace SMEs.

Stick to Your Core. For All Else, Bring in Experts

Do all the core training in-house. But for the stuff that isn’t totally central to your business — things like time-management, innovation, or leadership training — find outstanding programs and experts you can bring in from the outside. The Bersin report shows that the top learning organizations are outsourcing more and more. Off-the-shelf content or programs from outside experts can be implemented faster, and are of a higher quality than you can develop with your own resources. Not every lesson needs to be custom-tailored to your business — in all likelihood, your business isn’t as unique as you think it is. As a former boss once said to me, “Everyone thinks they’re a rocket scientist.” They’re not.

Push for More Social Learning

Social learning is happening in your organization, whether you know it or not. You might as well cultivate it. At its most basic level, social learning is just people asking each other questions. This type of learning is in the trenches — on the ground — and immediate. Social learning is likely the most valuable learning that occurs in your organization. The best learning organizations are shedding that “order-taker” role and becoming more like performance consultants, and they’re working with businesses to find alternatives to formal training. Social learning interventions are an innovative way to reach more people, with fewer resources, and in a way that’s likely to be highly effective.

Regulate yourself so others will not. In this context, learning organizations should be proactive about being more efficient, more innovative and continuously striving to do more with less. If you don’t start acting this way now, the business will force you to. And when that happens, it won’t be pleasant.

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user kenteegardin.

Bill Cushard is director of training and development at Allonhill and a learning leader with more than 12 years’ experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.