The new realities of corporate learning

Martin Moehrle, Associate Director of Corporate Services, EFMD.

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Corporate training departments were established in the early 20th century, at first to enable the workforce to masterwork processes to deliver quality products; then, later, as corporate learning functions, to pursue one or more of the following objectives:

• Supporting individuals in improving their performance and realising their potential
• Building the organisational capabilities needed to execute business strategies
• Accelerating the growth of the talent/ leadership pipeline
• Strengthening or changing culture/ mindset/ behaviours

Corporate strategy has to, among other things, balance the following two dimensions: short-term performance vs long-term innovation and competitiveness on the one hand; and strengthening culture vs enabling change and renewal on the other hand.

In a competitive setting, there is never a stable equilibrium. For the corporate strategy to be realised, it must be translated into a corresponding human capital agenda that needs ongoing synchronisation with corporate strategy.

Traditionally, corporate learning functions focused foremost on improving the performance of individuals, teams and businesses: i.e., on exploiting current assets; and on strengthening culture and clarifying the non-negotiable core principles and behaviours. The objectives were stability and long-term employment.

However, in times of fundamental change such as we are experiencing today, organisations must become more agile and adaptive to change and more entrepreneurial and innovative. Hence, in recent years, we could witness an extension of the corporate learning function’s portfolio of activities, including, for example, design thinking workshops, innovation labs, incubators, BarCamps, hackathons and the like.

This requires the development of new capabilities within the corporate learning and development team. At stage 1, the learning function focuses on service excellence and flawless programme delivery.

Building on this capability, learning functions enter the second stage of value creation through strategy enablement with a focus on learning partnering and strategic acumen. The evolution of corporate learning, as described in Figure 2, brings it at a third level to evolve into an agent of corporate transformation. This requires a systemic view and an understanding of how learning, in concert with select other forces, can drive fundamental change in an organisation.

Where corporate learning is headed

Given the transition from the industrial age to the knowledge era with an increasing amount of self-determined knowledge workers and in view of the digital transformation of all industries and aspects of life, the future of work will be distinctively different.

Traditionally, learning was organised in a highly controlled formal learning environment outside the normal workspace. Going forward, corporate learning cannot limit its focus on formal learning any more. It must include informal learning near the job and on the job and in the flow of work.

Learners must take ownership of their own learning and become enabled to do so. The strengthening of a learning culture with comprehensive and ongoing feedback recognises the workplace as a rich source of learning and the importance of the work context for an effective transfer of learning. Learning thereby evolves from knowledge accumulation to learning by experience and reflection.

The internet provides access to information on almost every aspect at everyone’s fingertips and at minimal cost. Hence, the effective management of corporate learning in the digital age calls for the curation of this external information; to combine it with internally developed content and allow users to add their own content or to exchange information in communities across the enterprise, all within an easily accessible learning portal. Learning becomes a real-time activity.

Blended designs have become the norm in formal learning, where face to face events are combined with self-paced and social learning. Learning formats increasingly have the learner in mind, to optimise the learning experience. E-learning gets enriched through gamification and video.

The offer gets more personalised and embedded in the work context. Microlearning allows people to engage in small doses of learning throughout the day. Digital delivery channels allow a significant scale-up of learning activities. Learning analytics becomes more sophisticated.

Today’s complex and interconnected world, full of uncertainties, calls for a different way to lead. From focusing inwardly and down into one’s own area of responsibility, leadership increasingly means shifting the perspective and actions upward and horizontally, thereby linking people and units across and beyond the organisation. Leadership was expected to have all the answers but, going forward, it cannot. Organisations must mature and become more resilient to tolerate grey shades and ambiguity and effectively deal with paradoxes.

Consequently, corporate learning, in collaboration with top management, updates in many organisations its leadership model and its approach to developing future generations of leaders.

What does this mean for business schools?

Business schools must prepare their undergraduate and postgraduate students for a different world of work, which will be characterised by, for example, automation and augmentation through artificial intelligence. Professionals will have to continuously update themselves up to changing entirely their professional domain.

A focus on humanistic skills such as critical thinking, judgement, cross-cultural appreciation, creativity, teaming, empathy, intellectual curiosity but also a solid understanding of technology and data science will be the most essential for a rewarding professional life and certainly more important than knowing the latest content. Schools should design the learning experience so that these skills are developed as a by-product.

Access to graduate talent with the right skills will become ever more important, given demographic changes in most countries. Hence, the placement of students will continue to facilitate good relations with corporate clients. A holistic account management system should allow to capture all (potential) touch points with a corporation, be they on student placement or regarding professional and leadership development or even on research.

This would allow schools to recognise the mature professional as a future target audience in the context of lifelong learning in addition to young people seeking tertiary education. One avenue could be to focus on a school’s alumni and support them in their professional development.

Another avenue would be to collaborate with corporate clients in re-educating larger groups of employees, either to develop new knowledge and skills or to convert them into a totally different professional domain. Education would be most probably part-time and blended. Teaming up with other academic schools, such as engineering and science, would allow both to offer comprehensive and integrated solutions. Business schools and universities could thus evolve into employability partners of the corporate world.

In executive education, all possibilities to support the transfer of learning should be leveraged, be it through recognising participants’ development plans, the use of 360 feedback tools to define a baseline or including their managers in the learning process, or through action learning, blended learning and coaching as part of open programmes.

In customised programmes, the diagnostic phase should clarify the major transformation initiatives within the client organisation, how to accelerate them and how to become an integral element of the change agenda. The context of the participants’ work environment needs to be fully understood.

Programme designers, programme managers, and programme coordinators should have a good grasp of corporate life in general and their target audiences in particular. This could happen through regular visits, interviews, client councils on school or programme level and a strong link to alumni and learning leaders.

Business schools should become a part of the learning ecosystem of the client organisation, and co-create programmes and solutions along with other ecosystem partners. Solutions could also be digital learning bites or project support in action learning, not always entire programmes.

Should business school staff and managers be trained together with their corporate clients? The experience in the corporate world is mixed when inviting clients or distribution partners to join in-house learning programmes. It can limit the openness of discourse and critical self-reflection.

It can be very productive when innovating together or improving the customer interface. To summarise, the corporate learning and development agenda is evolving
• to include informal and on the job learning and hence, blurring the frontier between work and learning
• to help the organisation transform in developing the awareness and agility to navigate uncharted waters
• to integrate gamification, simulations, action learning, AR and VR and so on into learning experiences
• to digitise learning to enable mobile learning in a 24/7 mode and to foster blended learning
• to personalise learning through the enhanced use of artificial intelligence and learning analytics

For business schools to remain relevant to corporate partners, this means becoming an integral part of the learning ecosystem of a corporate client, which again requires
• deep insights into a client’s transformation journey
• integration of personal development and organisational development in programme design
• anticipation of the new world of work and its implications for new skills and new jobs
• ability to evolve into an employability partner offering life-long learning solutions.

For decades, Business schools have enjoyed an uncontested position within the corporate world in terms of talent supply, thought leadership and executive development. To maintain this position, business schools must understand that corporate universities are not an unnecessary fad but a consequence of today’s disruptive times. For business schools to remain relevant, they must become more client-centric, digitally savvy and entrepreneurial.

Martin Moehrle

Associate Director of Corporate Services, EFMD

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