Ideas for Leaders #294

Changing Corporate Learning: 5 Ways to Make it Work

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Key Concept

Are you satisfied with the work of your organization’s learning functions? Surveys have shown that a majority of managers believe corporate learning initiatives result in little change in employee performance. This Idea proposes five important changes to the way corporate learning is approached; changes that organizations need to make to ensure their corporate learning functions work effectively.

Idea Summary

In his 2013 book titled The Business of Corporate Learning, Shlomo Ben-Hur writes that over the past 10 years, research has repeatedly shown that the proportion of business leaders who report being satisfied with their learning function’s performance has steadfastly remained as little as 20%. For an industry worth over $200 billion per year globally, that is a bad return on investment. The alarming reality is that often corporate learning does not work as it should, and this has been the case for some time now. So what needs to change, and what can businesses do to turn things around and make learning work?

Based on the findings in his book, Ben-Hur and Kinley lay out five critical changes to the way corporate learning is approached in an article published by the European Business Review:

  • Focus on behaviour change, not learning: behaviour change can be surprisingly absent from discussions of best practice in corporate learning, and corporate learning is often talked about in the same terms as traditional, academic learning. Viewing learning in this way omits the fact that it is not skills or knowledge per se that provide value to organizations, but how they are applied.
  • Focus on functional alignment: though strategic alignment with a company’s business objectives is undoubtedly important, learning functions also need to focus on how their internal systems, processes and people are functionally aligned both with their objectives and with one another, in order to translate such strategic alignment into operational results.
  • Step in and out of the business: optimise the relationship between learning teams and their customers in the business. There is the risk that learning functions can step in too far and lose their ability to be objective about what needs to happen. If learning functions are to add value they have to find a way to balance the need to be an integral part of the business with an equally strong ability to step outside it and take an objective view.
  • Apply market forces: corporate learning is basically a market with competing products and services, and so businesses need to be able to compare products and know what works and what doesn’t, so that they can make informed judgements about what they want to do, what they can do and what they need to do.
  • Share accountability for learning: the responsibility for ensuring that learning happens, behaviour changes and that performance is indeed improved needs to be shared amongst all the parties involved. If they want learning to work, businesses must not and simply cannot assume or implicitly reinforce the idea that corporate learning is only about learning teams ‘doing something’ to employees.

Business Application

The five priorities outlined above are, according to Ben-Hur and Kinley, at the heart of what corporate learning needs to do to make learning work. The jump from learning to behaviour change may be bigger for some organization than for others, particularly when not all learning practitioners agree that it is critical the shift takes place.

Businesses cannot afford to ignore how they approach learning. Firstly because downturn-driven budgetary pressures have increased demand for evidence of the impact and value of corporate learning; and secondly because coming out of recession into a rapidly changing business environment companies are entering a highly competitive phase where employee performance will be critical to sustained success.

Learning practitioners have a role to play that perhaps has never before been more prominent; skill shortages and fewer ways to achieve competitive advantage have driven more businesses to look internally, resulting in learning practitioners having the attention of their organizations like never before. By utilizing the five priorities above, they have the stage and the opportunity to put things right.

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Idea conceived

  • May 2013

Idea posted

  • January 2014

DOI number



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