· 6 min read · Features

HR Round table: Doubt over learning and development professionals' ability to deliver the skills needed for future growth?

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With a revival in recruitment still hanging in the balance (one survey finds there has been a 21% fall in the number of public-sector job postings since the General Election), it seems HRDs who have stripped their organisations to the bone will continue to rely on the skills of existing employees for some time to come, rather than buying them in from elsewhere. And yet a study of 500 senior managers by Capital Learning & Development reveals 70% fear the inadequate skills of their staff will hold them back as the UK emerges from recession. And the finger of blame is pointed firmly at HR with 46% of business leaders casting doubt on their learning and development (L&D) department's ability to deliver the skills needed to help their organisation grow.

With this shadow cast over the L&D profession, HR magazine assembled a cross-section of training and development professionals to ask them what they feel they should be doing to deal with this situation. Our panellists met last month at a special round table event sponsored by The Open University, and it was a lively affair, kicking off with the pressure L&D professionals feel they are coming under from their graduate populations.

According to Lynne Chambers, head of talent and people development at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the majority of its staff come to work for the organisation not for pay or benefits but for training. She said: "Our graduates tend to join us to gain a professional qualification. There is a specific reason for the majority of them joining us, which is that they come out as a qualified accountant. The challenge for us is how to retain them beyond that. As soon as they qualify, they are exposed to external clients. The grass looks greener, so you lose a number after that qualification period."

Chambers' view corroborates research by Orange, which found its graduates also favoured development opportunities (69%) over salary (51%) when looking for a career. It's a familiar refrain - that investing in training is dead money, that it hastens employees' departure for better jobs elsewhere. It was a situation panel members seemed to recognise.

"The next generation of staff is looking at the transferability of skills and their employability overall," said Charles Elvin, director of the Centre for Professional Learning and Development, The Open University. "We know the contract between employer and employee does not exist any more. We are all self-employed in that sense. The organisation that can ultimately make you more employable is more attractive, because you are looking not just at this job, but the one after and the one after that." Elvin blamed the L&D profession for this: "We have forced people down the path of being ultimately selfish about their skills."

Brigadier Jolyon Jackson, director of recruiting and training, the British Army, agreed. "Graduates have just been in a marvellous system that gives them a bit of education and development," he said, "and they probably do not want to break away from that. They have seen it is the only thing that helps you get on. There is a real conflict at the heart of that, because the research we have done on the generation we want to recruit next shows much more of a 'What's in it for me?' attitude."

L&D professionals are in a catch-22 position. If they fail to train at all, they are labelled unwilling to invest. If they train, they feel they will up-skill staff - and then lose them. And then, there is the problem of investing in training older, more experienced staff. Alan Warner, lead officer for communications, the Public Sector People Managers' Association (PPMA), believes learning professionals should not ignore the development of these critical, often more reliable and loyal staff. "Get real: this is 2010 and we are going to move into the rest of the century with people with different skills and expectations," he said. "My concern is that a bunch of old folk (us) is going to stop all that from happening. We should actually say: 'What is it those people are looking for? What can we do to adapt our traditional way of looking at and doing things to meet their requirements?'"

His view was rejected by Jackson: "When I came through the education system, there was an expectation it had prepared you to communicate to some extent and given you some of the skills that are now lacking. The point about how to change the organisation to best fit the needs of individuals in it is very important, but I also think the organisation should look to see what it needs to do to change the individual to ensure they deliver the best for the organisation. It works both ways. The older generation is terrified of change. Any organisation is made uncomfortable by changes to things they were brought up with."

Where delegates did agree, however, was on the need for a more holistic approach to learning that could build bridges between the development needs of the different generations of the workforce. "Older workers can learn from technically-savvy people," suggested Sandra Campopiano, chief people officer, Premier Farnell. "This matching of experienced, mature people and young people has to be a marriage made in heaven." This, she suggested, puts the onus of staff development firmly on the shoulders of the line manager.

Alan Fletcher, technology-enhanced learning manager, The Open University, added: "Responsibility is one issue, but capability is another. Are L&D professionals dealing with line managers who have got there simply because they have been there the longest?"

Campopiano responded: "I think demand (for learning and development) has increased and the question is whether we have equipped our leaders to deal with the different generations in our workforce." She said: "All of our leaders have that as an objective for their bonus. We built it into their incentives."

According to Elvin, line managers must step up to the plate. "If managers are saying, 'My team does not have the competence and it is someone else's fault', my gut response is no it is not. You should be responsible for the performance of your team and understand all the tools available to you to change that performance and address it," he added.

Given the demand for training, and employees wanting to be trained immediately, the panellists encouraged employers to take a more long-term view. Jackson said: "Many businesses are very good at short-term stuff and not all that good at the longer-term. The ones that are better at the long-term understand that, if you are a people business, you have to develop your people better. If you are only seeking a quick return for shareholders, you are probably not in the right place."

"What we need is a different approach to L&D," concurred Elvin. "If you sit down and say, 'Right, we're now going to be innovative', it doesn't work. HR directors who are challenged to transform the organisation's ability to innovate and capture innovation won't order a course in innovation. The best will ask how to generate a culture of innovation and will not only change the approach of the people who are going to be the innovators but also how to capture that innovation and use it."

Campopiano agreed. "It is about giving people the inspiration to learn, about giving leaders accountability and having an HR framework that keeps this as part of the culture," she said. "Rather than say it is the job of one person, function or department, we have tried to create the idea that it is everyone's job to be innovative. It really does not matter if you are a graduate or an engineer."

But regardless of the methods used to develop staff, whether it is formal learning, ad-hoc development or developing a culture of innovation, the panel struggled to decide on the best ways to measure the return on investment (ROI) of what they are doing, churning up more questions than answers on the issue.

Campopiano said: "We are all driving our businesses to make them strong and come out the recession. I feel I should be measuring L&D. I feel I should be saying this investment is producing this return, but I have never found a measure that shows it."

Elvin thought the problem was in the measurement itself: "The condition of ROI is that it's focused on financial return. You need to involve financial return, but ultimately you need to achieve the objective you have set out for yourself. Have you defined the objective you want and why? What value is this to the organisation? It's very difficult."

But Mari Warby, group learning and development manager, Cheval Residences, was adamant it can be measured. "People stay if you have a great L&D programme. You can see that staff turnover decreases, and you are definitely able to measure that," she said. "This is especially easy to measure, because if training has been cut, the impact is even more visible."

This was a sentiment Elvin agreed with, despite admitting there is still a problem: "If you look at the various measures that track organisations that spend more than 5%-10% of their HR budget on L&D, you see consistent growth in all those organisations compared with those that do not. That's the good bit, but the issue is you can only see it in these macro trends. You only get this feedback from very experienced leaders who know L&D makes a difference. They do not care about the ROI; they know about it. They know it makes a difference, and that's enough for them," he said.

Maybe more leaders need a better understanding that L&D is worth the effort. "Those people will have made a lot of investment in their organisations," says Warner. "You would hope they care about the organisation. But putting staff through learning programmes is still, at the end of the day, seen as a cost."

Looking forward to the next 10 years, the panellists were unanimous this 'seen as a cost' mentality needs to be stamped out, if the skills of the workforce are to meet the needs of the business. Companies, they believed, need to develop a clear, long-term perspective.

"L&D has to have a much greater impact at the strategic, organisational level," said Warner. People are starting to talk about learning as a high-impact organisational tool that can cause transformation in either service levels in the public sector or in private-sector growth and profit, depending on what your mission is. That trend is continuing and long may it do so, because it needs to have a greater impact as we move into the growth of the knowledge and information economy."

According to Chambers, the buy-in of leaders is essential for the success of any staff development scheme. "The next generation of learners will be individually-focused," she said, "so we need to pay attention to our leaders and the sort of leadership we want or need going forward. The crucial point here is integrity and ethics. This is what responsible leadership is about, and the template L&D professionals need to work towards."

- Mari Warby, group learning and development manager, Cheval Residences

- Charles Elvin, director, Centre for Professional Learning and Development, The Open University

- Brigadier Jolyon Jackson, director of recruiting and training, British Army

- Alan Warner, lead officer for communications, the Public Sector People Managers' Association

- Lynne Chambers, head of talent and people development, PricewaterhouseCoopers

- Alan Fletcher, technology-enhanced learning manager, The Open University

- Sandra Campopiano, chief people officer, Premier Farnell

- David Woods, senior reporter, HR magazine.