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We are seeing the culling of a sick herd. Companies are folding and falling and, as each tries to avoid becoming the next casualty, it embarks on an internal culling, cutting budgets and initiatives to conserve cash.

Everyone is nervous about current and future economic prospects. Like their ranching and farming brethren, executives who make these decisions often rely more on intuition than on robust data. As companies strip out costs and define core and non-core activities, a crucial question is whether corporate learning and development are expendable.

Maybe the answer is yes. Too many corporate learning programmes are disconnected from both corporate strategy and the lived experience of leaders within organisations. They are, frankly, superfluous. Now is a natural time to eliminate the weak from the herd.

Weak courses are a drain on precious resources. These courses are the legacy of an era when “learning” and “work” were in separate buckets. “Learning” happened only at a fancy resort, where smart people from business schools told you interesting things that you might or might not ever use; “work” involved solving problems, managing and motivating people, finding efficiencies and opportunities. Too many learning initiatives adhere to that view. If learning is made up of activities not directly connected to the business and the working life of employees, it lacks relevance and should be eliminated.

But maybe the answer to whether corporate learning is expendable is no. Most organisations subscribe to the corporate mantra that “people are our most valuable asset”. During a downturn, people, not systems, can tell you what is going on with your clients, find ways to save you money, identify critical innovations and help you manage an increasingly nervous workforce.

Some companies are investing more heavily in learning at these times. They recognise learning as a strategic lever, provided it is relevant and more immediately accessible. Those companies most likely to navigate this downturn and emerge from it stronger are removing the historical gap between learning and work and finding ways to integrate learning more fully into the enterprise’s real business challenges.

One difference between survival and failure will be the ability of a business to capitalise on learning as an integrated part and core enabler of business success.

Companies that ask important questions will be better positioned to identify the difference between culling sick animals within their organisation and losing the whole herd. Five core domains of consideration repeatedly emerge:

● Diagnostics: what is the business problem that each learning intervention is trying to solve? Are sound diagnostics being used to define the business impact of learning or are we resorting to the old world of individual capability building?

● Integration: how wide is the gap between learning and application at work? Are programmes targeting outputs and actions that make a difference in the real world? How effectively are those actions being tracked? How is learning being better integrated into the day-to-day fabric of an employee’s life beyond anything “programmatic”?

● Technology: is it being integrated and leveraged appropriately? Most companies using e-learning suffer from a tyranny of choice akin to the problems faced in the bread aisle at the local grocery: too many bland choices. Are virtual options deliberately targeted at timely issues?

● Timeliness: some of the world’s most successful companies were born in economic downturns. Is learning helping people to make sense and prioritise?

● Metrics: how do we know if a learning intervention is working? We need better answers than “return on investment”. What are the drivers of measurement and how do those drivers link back to diagnostics?

Like all parts of our organisations, learning needs to look at what it is doing to drive business performance. If it doesn’t, it should be culled like a sick animal.

Todd Warner is a managing director at Duke Corporate Education

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