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January 23, 2019

Staff training should be on CEO’s not HR’s agenda

I am often surprised by how much irrelevant training goes on in East Africa. I don’t mean lacking in general value. I have no doubt that people need to be taught customer service, be qualified on specific technology or given management training. First aiders, no doubt, must be developed and teams must be built.

 What puzzles me, however, is how often training goes on in a vacuum. It is decided upon a whim, budgeted for without any wider reference than hoped for annual increments in the HR budget line. What astounds me is that CEOs don’t query this. If they did, they might cause their investment in training to be focussed on developing their people to help them. By which I mean aligning them to the CEO agenda.

Shlomo Ben Hur, Bernard Jaworski and David Gray of MIT Sloan (the home of thought leadership on organisational culture) recently asked the question: How can corporate learning programmes more effectively develop leadership talent?

They noted that every CEO survey on the planet points to a shortage of leadership and management talent as a leading concern. In 2012, companies in ‘developed’ economies spent nearly $400 billion (about Sh40.75 trillion) on training. And yet, at least one study concludes that most leaders believe employee performance wouldn’t suffer if their own company’s training function were eliminated altogether!

They suggest that expenditure on learning is focused on the wrong things. For example, the proliferation of online courses has prompted organisations to re-think traditional approaches to learning. Vast menus training content are now available online. So, it’s easy to assume that more learning opportunities for more people are a good thing. But, says the MIT Sloan trio, breakthrough advances will only be possible when learning is linked to business goals.

Jaworski highlights three important steps:

1.Align the learning agenda with the CEO’s strategic agenda.

2. Create governance mechanisms that link learning to the rest of the business.

3. Direct capability-building efforts at the things that matter most to the company.

 The first of these requires real clarity on what the CEO sees as the priorities within a complex business plan. That may mandate expansion into new markets; but the CEO may realise that ,within this, the priority is to harmonise competencies between colleagues in different markets.

I recently saw this in an expanding East African business where the financial heads in markets A, B and C were at different levels of qualification and experience. To train up B and C to match A was inappropriate: it would take years and might not work. Instead the HR team was challenged to provide personal development activities that enabled the three to collaborate and support each other’s weak spots with their strengths.

Were I a forward -thinking HR professional, I would now be booking time with my CEO and asking her to expound on her agenda. I’d be taking a blank sheet of paper headed: New Training Programme. 

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