· 4 min read · Features

Globalisation of learning and development stalls as HRDs favour a local approach, finds Global Edge study


This time last year, HR magazine revealed a home-grown success story: UK HR consultants truly were ruling the waves. In a survey by learning and development consultancy Global Edge, 68% of those polled said they sell their services to the rest of the world.

In fact, not only did more than 90% of respondents say they would be commanding at least the same (if not higher) fees in the year ahead, half of them were confident their global work would keep on coming. They believed international growth, especially in learning and development (L&D), from the likes of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – would be the main reason for this.

Fast-forward a year, though, and it seems this good news story may have stalled. For when Global Edge asked L&D heads with global responsibilities for their view on the challenges delivering a global learning strategy, heady growth was less prominent. It also appears their strategy now favours localism – instead of parachuting cost in from the UK.

According to this year's survey, while China and India are indeed showing rising L&D demand, this is no more than the rise in demand from the UK too and the majority of L&D heads still spend just 0%-24% of their activity internationally.

"This is clear evidence L&D professionals find going international a challenge," says Jeff Benveniste, founder and CEO, Global Edge, who was formerly responsible for PwC's South African training function. "Many companies don't know how to do it; there is hesitation about the risks involved."

So is global learning and development really backing off, perhaps even hitting the brakes?

In September 2011, Boston Consulting Group's Creating People Advantage: HR certainties in uncertain times report for the European Association for People Management, found most (52%) of HR processes around training/ development were of the 'guidelines with local adjustment' variety, rather then globally dictating training from a single HQ (which was less than 10%). It argued HRDs were at last becoming more concerned with adding value over saving costs first. Global Edge upholds this, finding cost-effectiveness and value for money of global L&D plays second fiddle to ensuring quality and consistency of delivery across locations (52.9% compared to 35.3%).

But what is significant is that in working out how to take L&D global, there seems to be much more reliance on local markets. "L&D heads are weighing up how to establish a global brand, while having a single set of language and tools," says KMPG's Richard Comber, responsible for global partner leadership development. "But the reality," he adds, "is that speed of deployment is favouring local interpretation. Nowadays, we need to roll out training in days and weeks rather than months, and while standards among providers vary, it is speed of delivery that matters first. There is much more of the classic 'thinking global, acting local' mentality."

Out of KPMG's four levels of partner training, only 'critical-level' training is now delivered centrally, Comber says. Co-developed training, where local providers set the direction, is by far the most common solution. "We recognise the benefit of an overall global L&D framework - for talent pipeline protection and for preserving the sort of internal thinking we are known for, globally – but tailoring is the option we choose, according to culture and business need."

Benveniste adds: "Companies are clearly saying if there is training talent locally, there is no reason to fly people out to conduct it," although he also argues that strategic-level training is still likely to become more expensive. Global Edge's findings show while 'cost- effectiveness' is behind 'ensuring consistency' as a strategic concern, cost effectiveness still matters more than, say, ROI (which in this context is not the same) and seems far from being front of mind.

"The top six drivers for delivering global L&D do not mention ROI at all," says Benveniste [they instead include 'leveraging talent globally', 'to enable international growth' and 'to have consistent standards'], "which I think is still disappointing." But global heads says this is no surprise.

"When I was at BT Global, taking training into emerging markets 10 years ago, L&D strategy was all about one company, one brand; and centralised L&D to control this," says Marc Auckland, Post Office head of organisational development and learning. "By the time I left four years ago, these core branding issues had somewhat died back. The concern was more about getting stuff done to as many people, as cheaply as possible, so that everyone was broadly on the same page to manage growth. ROI was less important than getting training done. This is the picture I see now, as companies want to know that the rough template is set up globally." Adds Benveniste: "Because global L&D is about volume, the emphasis is still on cost rather than behaviour change."

The third most important response in Global Edge's research on the drivers/reasons for delivering international learning was 'the drive to become one company or brand'.

"It is well known consistency is driven by the desire of developing 'one way' to do things," says Bruce Levi, marketing capability director at Brand Learning, which advises global businesses on their learning and branding issues. But, with only 17.6% of respondents in Global Edge's research saying their main challenge is agreeing on the most suitable learning methods, he feels this is one major aspect that is still underestimated.

"There is an expectation global L&D can do more quickly, with less resource than is the case. The hard part is not designing and launching a programme, but embedding it deeply across the business." He adds: "Going global can mean different things to different people. There are limited numbers of global partners that can deliver programmes of significant scale, so success is still more about having people on the ground who are connected with the purpose of the programme and can deliver content consistently."

Benveniste says the opening up of the market away from giants such as Accenture has been good in some respects, but bad in others. "Global L&D heads clearly worry about global standards and this is due to a mixture of perception and real experience."

Certainly, the market has expanded rapidly, to include everyone from the well-resourced global facilitators - the likes of Raytheon and Skill4 International (a Huthwaite International company), but also one-person outfits. This fragmentation is an issue heads still need to overcome. "Blue-chip suppliers would often promise global solutions, but the costs would be sky-high," recalls Auckland. "We often found the best solution was to talk to local management heads we had just recruited on the ground, and ask them who they would recommend." Today, while Auckland's responsibilities at the Post Office are UK-only, he says local training providers have got so good internationally, he now recruits them to run his own UK training. But it is likely the demands of global L&D heads won't stay still for another year. Cloud computing, and delivering just-in time training, are increasingly rising up the agenda.

"Training on demand is becoming much more relevant to us," says Comber. "We are finding accessing learning through iPhones is breaking down international barriers all the time."

He adds: "The increasingly competitive world makes it imperative L&D is joined up. Business sort of has an international language, so we are finding resources such as TED seminars (collections of speeches by prominent business leaders hosted online at www.ted.com) are an increasingly useful addition to our global learning and development materials."

He concludes: "It is hard overseeing global L&D strategies, but it is up to the LD professionals to maximise learning choices for people. There is little excuse for not making this happen."