Running Learning Like a Business: What Does It Mean and Is It Still Relevant? By Dave Vance

Running learning like a business simply means applying business discipline to the learning field. More precisely, it means creating a plan with specific, measurable goals and then executing that plan with discipline throughout the year. That’s it. Most organizations already do this at a high level. They create a business plan for the year and then create and use reports on a monthly basis to manage their activities to come as close to plan as possible. At a lower level many other departments already do this as well. Think about a typical sales, quality, or manufacturing department. They establish goals at the start of the year and then they compare their progress each month against those goals, taking appropriate actions as necessary to stay on plan or get back on plan if they are behind. The point is they have a plan and they manage to it.

It is my experience that fewer than 10% of learning departments manage this way. Most would say they work very hard and accomplish a great deal. And they do work hard and they do accomplish a lot. (And most produce activity reports to show just how busy they are (number of courses, participants, etc.)). But they could have an even greater impact on their organization if they worked smarter. They might not deliver more courses or reach more employees, but they will make more of a difference in their organization’s performance. So, what does it mean to work smarter? Well, it means that you plan your actions more carefully and then you execute your plan with discipline. The upfront planning means that you think carefully and critically about what you want to accomplish, why you want to accomplish it, what you will need in terms of resources to accomplish it, and what measures you will use. Invariably this will involve tradeoffs and prioritization since resources are always limited. So, what is more important for you to work on this coming year? Where can you make the greatest difference or add the most value? Once you have some ideas (and they may be different than what you have been working on!) the next task is to settle on a reasonable and achievable goal which means you must think carefully about what resources will be required. It simply may not be possible to accomplish the goal with your resources in which case you need to set a more realistic goal. And this will force you to think about measures to use in setting the plan and lining up your work effort.

While this does require work, I would argue that a disciplined planning process culminating in specific, measurable goals will help ensure you are focused on the right goals for the right reasons with the right resources. In essence this is a learning process and if you don’t plan this way you deprive yourself of this very important learning opportunity. I think many leaders would say they do think about goals and resources but they stop short of setting specific, measurable goals. In this case they have not thought critically about the level of resources required (without a specific measurable plan how do you know how resource will be required?) nor have they created reports with a column for plan to use in managing the learning each month. Theoretically, it would be possible for these leaders to accomplish the same as those with plans but practically speaking it is far less likely. After all, why do you think your colleagues in other departments go through all this work? They wouldn’t if it didn’t lead to better results. Simply put, running learning like a business will ensure you are focused on the right learning with the right goals, measures and resources to deliver the greatest value to the organization.

While I believe more learning leaders are running learning like a business, most are not. One objection I hear is that this focus on planning and executing is no longer relevant. Some tell me that their organization’s goals change every two or three months and thus it makes no sense to plan. This is ridiculous. I don’t think the company’s goals change every few months and, if they do, I would question senior leadership’s abilities to manage the company. It may be that priorities shift during the year but goals like increasing sales, quality, and employee engagement are not going to change every few months. (They may mean that their own projects or work assignments change frequently which may actually be a result of not having a good business plan for learning.) Others say they have stable goals but their company’s products (like cell phones) change once per quarter and thus there is no way to plan. Of course there is. Focus first on the goal of increasing sales and let this be your guide in planning programs. True, new models will come out and you will have to design training programs around them but you don’t need all the specifics at the start of the year. You have an idea of what is required for each product launch so use that to plan. Your specific, measurable plans for reaction, learning and application are probably the same for all your product-related learning and you have ideas about the size of the target audience. So, plan based on what you know and refine them as you get better information through the year.

Bottom line, running learning like a business is simply applying time-tested basic business skills to learning. Outside of learning, it is nothing new. And, outside of learning it is still very much relevant. So, let’s move that percentage up from 10% and see what a difference it makes to manage learning this way. Give it a try and see what results you get. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

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