The Portfolio Approach to Managing Learning

I just listened to a great webinar by Cristina Hall, Director Product Strategy for Metrics That Matter (MTM), which is an organization that specializes in helping companies gather, analyze and report data on learning. They have developed a very helpful approach for thinking about and managing the mix of courses an organization offers.

At CTR we spend most of our time focusing on the key programs in support of key organization goals as well as the key initiatives of the L&D department head to improve internal efficiency and effectiveness. Consequently, we advocate the use of program reports by the program manager and the goal owner which contain detailed data on the programs in support of key company goals like increasing sales. We also recommend summary reports for sharing with the CEO and other senior leaders to show alignment of learning to their goals and the expected impact from that learning. Last, we have operations reports for the L&D department head to use in managing improvement of a few select efficiency and effectiveness measures. So, the focus is primarily on targeted programs which are actively managed on a monthly basis to deliver planned results.

But what about all of the other courses an organization offers? Some companies have hundreds of courses in their learning management system (LMS). Most are not strategically aligned to the top goals of the company and are not actively managed, although they may be reviewed periodically. While not strategic, they can still be very important, and organizations want be sure they offer the right mix of courses and that the offered courses add value. So, the question is, “How should all of these programs be managed?” This where the MTM approach offers a very valuable contribution to the field.

MTM recommends assigning each course to one of four portfolios or categories. The four portfolios are: Drive Growth, Operational Efficiency, Mitigate Risk, and Foundational Skills. The portfolios reflect the reason for the learning and force the L&D group to answer the question of why the course is being offered. Is it to improve revenue? If so, it falls in the Drive Growth portfolio. Is it to reduce cost or improve productivity? If so, it falls in the Operational Efficiency portfolio. Is it to ensure compliance with regulations or standards or reduce the organization’s exposure to potential harm? If so, it falls in the Mitigate Risk portfolio. All other courses are assigned to the Foundational Skills category which would include all types of basic and advanced work skills, from very specific job training to communications skills and team building.

The beauty of this approach is in its simplicity. We could imagine more portfolios and we could argue some courses may fall in more than one portfolio, but assigning each course to just one of four portfolios forces the question of what the course is primarily designed to accomplish. Once all the courses have been assigned, imagine a grid with four quadrants—one for each portfolio. Now populate the box for each quadrant with measures that will help you manage your portfolios. First, show the

percentage of courses and hours as well as the amount of L&D budget dedicated to the portfolio to determine if your mix is right. For example, it may be that 5% of the L&D budget is being spent on driving growth, 35% on improving efficiencies, 10% on risk and 50% on foundational skills. This may be the right mix, especially for an L&D department with responsibility for a lot of basic skills training. On the other hand, a CEO might look at the mix and be surprised that more effort isn’t being allocated to driving growth and improving efficiency. Just sharing this data can lead to a great discussion about the purpose of L&D and on priorities.

Measures could be added for each portfolio to show the number of participants, level reaction, level 3 application, and some indicators of level 4 impact or outcome. The data could also be color coded to show comparison to last year or better yet to plan (or target) for this year. This portfolio approach can also be incorporated directly into TDRp’s operations report where the four portfolios serve as headings to organize the measures.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend an approach like MTM’s to better understand the existing mix of courses and to ensure alignment with the priorities of the CEO in terms of budget and staffing. I also believe the portfolio approach will be helpful in monitoring the courses throughout the year for replacement or revision.

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