The challenges of global L&D

Organisations are demanding more and more from their learning functions, but is L&D up to the job?

Over the years, I have been part of organisations that have had centralised L&D, decentralised L&D, global L&D strategies, global and local delivery mechanisms, and all the combinations thereof. What strikes me is that none of them have ever seemed to work very well. Has L&D ever got to grips with global L&D, overcome the challenges, and realised the potential of the benefits on offer?

I am often reminded of the popularity of the “glocal” concept which seemed at the time to encapsulate what we needed to do with L&D, and other functions within organisations, but which never seemed to deliver on its promise. So do the new “realities” of organisations and workforces give us another chance to transform L&D?

Change is now a given for all of us. As organisations become truly global and their functions become more integrated across geographies, more and more organisations are demanding:

  • Talent and workforce mobility
  • Consistency in approach and capabilities
  • Sharing of knowledge and information
  • Learning for all (not just for senior managers and “talent”), irrespective of location
  • Agility and quick responses to changing needs
  • Efficient use of resources
  • Reduced investment and enhanced commercial impact from L&D

These demands are made with the expectation that they will deliver an uplift in organisational performance, enhanced talent attraction and retention, as well as increased profitability.

If you combine this with the demands and expectations of the workforces of today, such as just-in-time and continuous learning, it is clear that L&D has a number of challenges to address and a major role to play in business performance.

In a recent survey of 200 senior L&D decision makers for The Open University Business School, only 20% said their businesses deliver consistent learning programmes across geographies, but:

  • 62% see global/international learning programmes as the future,
  • 94% said they would be increasing their investment in international learning programmes over the next year – they see this as impacting people, profit and performance
  • Over 50% believe that in-depth global learning programmes attract talent from across the world.

As well as the above findings, our report on the challenges of global L&D, found that although there is demand for more global learning programmes, almost 50% feel that they don’t have the capabilities to respond, and that a similar percentage don’t have the right level of leadership support to make it happen. In addition, these leaders are struggling with outdated technology and complexity in their organisations.

So it seems, as our organisations and their workforces transform, our profession needs to do so too, if we haven’t already started. The question is how? Does it mean revisiting the centralisation/decentralisation argument again? Does centralisation mean less flexibility and does it ultimately mean a lack of commitment from local unit L&D and businesses? Many of us have experienced the local resistance and lack of buy-in that so called global L&D and programmes can generate, with the response that you can achieve stoic acceptance to implementation under “duress”, or you receive the feedback that “we could have done it better for less” given the chance.

However, I do hope that we can avoid being diverted on to those age old arguments which were relevant for a different time. Of course, there will always be some element of centralisation and decentralisation required, and the balance will vary across organisations dependent on complexity, scale and need. However, we should be able to address these challenges with different thinking and, as our organisations have done, better integration and collaboration.

Now what we need to be talking about is what I like to call a learning ecosystem – so it doesn’t matter where the learning is driven from. Furthermore, it can be driven by multiple players from multiple locations. Of course to achieve that you need technology and infrastructure to deliver a consistent, well implemented social learning management system which enables access to, and curation of content. It supports user generated content from wherever you are, whether in an office somewhere, working remotely, or from home. It enables organisations to develop networks which leverage expertise from wherever it can be found to build skills and capabilities.

With the support of learning analytics, L&D can help engage, identify gaps, focus resources on specific areas of need, and support the more effective application of learning across the organisation. These systems can also support continuous learning – which the majority of leaders surveyed said was expected by most within their organisations. This allows a variety of learning, such as informal and formal, and user generated, to exist and be accessed. The role of L&D therefore becomes much more of curator, as well as “regulator”, the latter being to ensure that the shared learning and information is valid and accurate. The current phenomenon of “fake news” provides a warning of what can go wrong.

To have such a living ecosystem, which can respond quickly to changes in context and needs, means that investment in technology is of course critical, but it is not the only answer. It can help drive a learning culture within organisations, but L&D has an important role to play in this as well. As organisations move towards much more of a pull than a push to learn mentality, this needs to be encouraged and supported at all levels. In addition, there still needs to be considerable thought given to a global skills curriculum, identification of where specific learning programmes are required, and the specification of whether they need to be delivered globally or locally, face to face, online or via the so-called blend. This needs a global strategy that all are bought into, and leverages cross-organisation capabilities and expertise. All of this will impact on the L&D capabilities required.

L&D enabled by the right technology, and with vision and leadership, is in a great place to deliver the sustainable learning ecosystem and corresponding performance uplift that we hoped that previous versions of the “glocal” L&D and organisation model promised. Of course organisations will be in different positions on the road to transformation (and some will be in the lucky position of not having to), but now seems to me to be the opportunity to deliver truly global L&D.

Penny Asher is director of executive education at The Open University Business School

The Open University Business School is holding a webinar on the topic of the challenges of global L&D on Thursday 27th April at 12.30pm. Sign up here.