Learning and development (L&D) professionals have long struggled to drag their function out from what they see as the sidelines of the business and into the mainstream by demonstrating how their work contributes true value to the bottom line, and is necessary for long-term strategic planning.
But after years of under-appreciation, a new type of L&D professional is entering the fray: step forward the L&D business partner (BP), a new role that is now raising the function's profile and credibility in companies including Telefonica O2, British Gas, Hewlett-Packard and construction company Skanska.
Re-evaluating the business partner model:
Like other employers using them, these early-adopter organisations are beginning to recruit and cultivate L&D BPs to align their learning and development strategy with their broader business goals.
Jim Tapper, CEO of the Centre for High Performance Development, says the linking of L&D with business plans is the adjustment organisations have needed to make post-recession. "L&D's role today is about equipping people with the specific skills that will enable them to add value and drive competitive advantage for their employer," he says.
Principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) Paul Fairhurst has just produced a report called The New L&D Business Partner.
He says it was inevitable L&D would become more integrated with organisations' commercial needs and that these new roles require people who can not only demonstrate curiosity but are also willing and able to challenge their line managers.
But just as the outlook for those in L&D has never looked better, experts also argue this requirement to 'challenge' could present a whole new set of issues. For years, HR BPs have ruled the roost; for years, L&D professionals have felt marginalised and are keen to have their voices heard.
Could having two types of BP result in a big clash of personalities as the two sparring partners battle to get the upper hand? As our interview with Bank of America (p43) already proves, simply throwing L&D and HR business partners together and hoping everything works out is not quite a simple as it seems.
"The challenge is to find someone who will drive strategy and not just respond to strategy," says the IES's Fairhurst. "They must have an interest in the business and ensure that any L&D intervention ultimately has an effect on the bottom line."
Establishing clear lines of communication and reporting responsibilities seems to be the major sticking point. Legal & General has three learning consultants who, until last month, reported to learning, development and HR operations director John Baker. However, they now answer to the head of HR.
"We needed to get L&D into a space where it is driven by business strategy and is not about particular line managers building specific team skills," says Baker. "Our learning consultants had to get closer to top managers and the HRD."
Baker describes himself as a business person who has moved into L&D, and he says he wants the function to show it can add real value. He believes the company's learning consultants can demonstrate ROI, including using measures such as employee engagement, the retention of talent and strong succession planning. This has already influenced the company's use of e-learning.
Rather than trying to bring in e-learning for the sake of it, the L&D department introduced it as a way to train sales people without taking them off the road, which would hit revenues.
Baker says conflict between LD BPs and HR BPs can be avoided with the right ground rules: "These are two very different disciplines with different skillsets," he says. "Ultimately it's about what the line manager in the business wants, and they don't care who solves their problem."
Because the role is fledgling, but requires diplomacy and line management skills as well as L&D prowess, recruitment consultant Badenoch & Clark's managing director, Lynne Hardman, says many employers face disappointment with the quality of candidates. She says she has seen a marked increase in the number of companies advertising for L&D BPs, but that "we are certainly not inundated with candidates".
She adds: "The problem is this - do clients want an L&D expert with some business experience or do they want someone with broader leadership and interpersonal skills who could come from a wider range of industry backgrounds and become skilled in L&D?"
In June, Telefonica O2 advertised for a senior L&D BP for its Consumer and Connected World division, which covers its retail outlets and call centre. The post will involve managing a team of 32 consultants. The company is looking for someone to sit alongside senior management and help analyse business plans so future staff development programmes are in line with the division's long-term objectives.
Head of talent development at Telefonica O2 Toby Foggo says the company already has five L&D BPs. "The candidate pool for this new post is small because we want someone with L&D expertise and call-centre experience who can hold their own sitting around the boardroom table and translate strategy into our L&D requirement."
Even with careful due diligence, Foggo admits there was initial friction between the L&D BP and the more established HR BPs. "We had HR BPs for different units of the business and there was sensitivity when we started introducing L&D BPs," says Foggo.
His solution was to task the individuals in each role with the job of finding a model that would enable them to work shoulder-to-shoulder for the good of their particular division. "We wanted both the HR and the L&D business partners to bring their relevant experience to a particular problem that senior management needed to solve," says Foggo.
Sarah McEvoy is CIPD centre director at training supplier DPG, which is running courses in L&D practice. This autumn DPG will oversee the launch of a Level 5 diploma in L&D management which, McEvoy says, will "include the skills needed to be a business partner by making learners think about challenges their organisation face".
She adds the shortage of candidates to be business partners is slowly being addressed. "People are not yet saying they want to be L&D BPs as a career choice but L&D is following HR in shifting from a purely administrative function," she says. "The CIPD is championing the business partner model and L&D courses do now cover in-depth areas that were not core units before, such as change management."
It seems L&D business partners - while not yet universal - are definitely here to stay. As more emerge, their discipline and working relationships can only improve. Only time will tell if, like the prime minister, David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, the two types of BP can put their previous differences aside, to work together and be true partners in every sense of the word.
BANK OF AMERICA
When Marc Whitmore took on the role of L&D strategic partner at Bank of America's Europe Card Services you could have cut the tension between him and his HR director, Gillian Taylor, with a knife. "There was certainly friction because I had been Gill's L&D adviser. When she observed me in my new role she wanted to know what I was doing with her clients," says Whitmore, whose actual title is senior vice-president, leadership development.
"She was very direct and initially we did not have a level of trust," he recalls. "I was feeling threatened because I was still establishing myself with the clients and had to push myself."
Until Whitmore's role was created last year, learning and development had not been client-facing and was still very much focused on delivering training rather than creating strategic senior leadership development plans linked to the wider needs of the business. "This had to change and clients wanted one point of contact for L&D," he says.
Taylor was understandably protective about the strategic partnerships she already had in place with the CEO and his leadership team. She remained Whitmore's day-to-day boss although he has dual accountability because he also reports to the company's L&D executive for deposits and card products, based in the US.
He explains the initial tension between himself and Taylor was down to him not fully understanding the business partner role and realising that he had to adapt his working relationship with Taylor.
"I had to learn that it is about the client's agenda and not about putting my own agenda on the client," he confesses. "I needed affirmation from Gill and from the client to show they understood the value of my role," he says. "In the middle of last year the penny finally dropped and the insecurity went."
Taylor, whose title is HR executive Europe Card Services, which is equivalent to an HRD, admits she felt a sense of frustration when Whitmore took on his role. She says they were both clear about their roles - hers as an HR generalist and Whitmore's as an L&D expert - but they were not clear about how they would work together as business partners.
"I made a lot of assumptions about how this partnership model would work, but how it actually came to life was very different," she says. "You must meet the requirements of the clients first and work together as business partners. They had to know I am not the expert on leadership development, Marc is."
Whitmore says one of his major objectives is to get the business leaders to take greater accountability for managing the talent in their own teams.
"In the past, if it did not work, the L&D department got the blame. Our role is to show leaders that managing talent and succession planning is their responsibility, but we can facilitate this."
Whitmore is also working closely with Taylor on organisational development. "The tension now is healthy. I am not at the top table but Gill will bring that work to me and I can still do the job," he says.