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As global practice leader for leadership and people development for Rio Tinto, and in my previous professional experience, I have been fortunate to have worked with many of the world’s leading providers of corporate education on the design and implementation of a wide range of people development programmes.
Rio Tinto has developed an integrated suite of leadership development programmes. We are also devising a complementary suite of functional development programmes.
In most cases, I have found that central to, and early in, the design process the debate regarding customisation versus open enrolment programmes has arisen. Unfortunately, it is very easy for the debate to degenerate into a circular argument.
However, at first glance there is no conundrum. The market for off-the-shelf or open enrolment people-development programmes is extensive, with quality offerings and providers spanning the breadth and depth of professional and leadership development needs.
These programmes are now available worldwide, thereby accommodating most companies in the global economy.
In the better programmes, faculty are well qualified and experienced and their material is typically relevant to the generic leadership and functional challenges most organisations face.
In this competitive market, the cost of sending participants to quality, open enrolment programmes is reasonable for the value delivered.
Yet many organisations, mainly large, multi-national companies, increasingly design and run their own customised development programmes. They invest significant effort and resources to focus the learning experience on their specific organisation and their “unique” participants. Why?
Is it simply a flight of fancy or a show of arrogance to assume that the wide range of open programmes cannot meet their needs? Surely, with the choice available, there is a suitable open programme for every participant and every learning need?
However, deeper analysis and past experience show me that there are clear benefits from customisation that cannot typically be achieved through open enrolment programmes. These benefits relate to the learning process and to the product, as well as to the impact on organisational performance. I’d like to summarise them as “the 10 Cs”.
● Capability: While the better open enrolment programmes have very capable faculty, customisation allows organisations to select the most appropriate faculty, both internal and external, for their learning objectives and employees.
● Compatibility: Different providers underpin their programmes with their own organisation’s culture and learning philosophy. By customising, it is possible to align the learning with the company’s own values.
● Commitment: In the open programme context, the business school is – by design – primarily committed to the individual participant, not to the participant’s organisation. Customisation and the customised relationship by their very definition allow the provider to focus equally on the needs of the specific organisation and its participants.
● Continuity: As the needs of the organisation and its participants change, customisation gives it greater flexibility to alter programme content, process, faculty and cost structure to ensure relevance and consistency with the organisation’s direction.
● Comprehensiveness: Participants often report that open programmes are “interesting” but that they struggled to relate the content to their specific context, or that they wished other content had been covered. Through customisation, content can be comprehensively focused on meeting both the needs of the organisation and its participants.
● Cost: At first glance, customisation “has to be more expensive”. However, by focusing on the specific needs of the organisation, more can be achieved in less time. As a result, while cost per participant per day can be higher, total cost can be less.
● Campus: The learning environment can have an impact on the learning experience. Through customisation, the organisation can match the learning environment to the programme objectives. Furthermore, for geographically dispersed organisations customisation can be logistically more convenient.
● Collaboration: Customised programmes do not typically cater for sharing experiences between participants from different companies, which is often cited as a key benefit of open enrolment programmes. But by managing the participant, faculty and guest speaker profiles, diversity of thought can still be achieved. Furthermore, customised programmes can significantly improve internal networking and facilitate problem-solving and teamwork across intra-organisational boundaries.
● Change: If designed carefully, the customised programme can be a lever for wider culture change. By customising the messages and skills to be covered, programmes can contribute directly to the wider organisation change agenda.
● Competitiveness: It is very difficult to demonstrate that people development programmes have an impact on an organisation’s competitive performance. However, by truly and effectively customising learning, the organisation can reinforce its competitive strategy and build its employees’ capability to deliver to that strategy. By contrast, if a competitor can send several participants on the same open enrolment programme, then there is little competitive advantage to be gained.
Even with these benefits, the argument for customisation remains clouded.
The corporate world is littered with expensive examples of failed customised programmes. Often these programmes fail as a result of poor design and implementation practice on behalf of the purchaser, not the provider.
In fact in my experience there are five critical success factors for customisation to succeed.
One: be very clear of the needs and objectives you are trying to meet before you go shopping for a provider.
Two: be rigorous in your provider selection. Don’t purchase simply on reputation, relationships or references. Invest the time and effort to get to know your options before making a choice.
Three: work with the provider to co-design a programme that is focused on your needs – do not abdicate the design and development to the provider.
Four: do not delegate delivery to the provider. Programme ownership is the responsibility of the organisation and programme direction and management needs to be a shared responsibility. In addition use a mix of internal and external faculty to ensure organisational relevance.
Five: integrate the programme with the wider organisation change agenda and people development systems.
For some organisations, the numbers of participants needed to justify customisation and the limited internal resources to implement these programmes may make customisation im-practical. The emerging “consortium model” is beginning to provide a level of customisation for this type of organisation.
Most organisations where customisation is feasible will still need open programmes to supplement learning in specific areas or for specific employees.
For formal development to add value, the organisation needs to develop an integrated approach where customised and open programmes meet separate but related business and learning needs.
In this way the customisation conundrum can be solved by a value-adding portfolio of programmes.
Barry Bloch is Rio Tinto’s global practice leader for leadership and people development.
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