Learning Blog

Random despatches from places where L&D meets software and systems

Back office blues, greens and yellows

Picture the scene: lunchtime in the canteen, sorry, self-clearing restaurant; large corporate with outsourced catering; three friends talking, one an HRBP, one a financial controller and me, learning practitioner and sometime e-learning reporter; slaughtered lamb is on the menu and that lamb is me.

“The trouble with you guys is that you’re incapable of having a conversation which doesn’t degenerate into talking about modules, courses or curriculum - to the exclusion of everything else”, opines the HRBP, who is clearly having a bad day following news of yet another restructuring coming her way. Rest assured, I mounted what I hope was a stout yet balanced defence but by the time the finance guy had weighed in with “And it’s all so expensive and that’s just the stuff we can count. What about all the stuff that doesn’t get counted?” I no longer wanted any afters.

Doubtless many of you are galloping way ahead of us in the perceived value for money stakes but for us this first kind of criticism still hurts, particularly since we’ve already tried to do so much about it and continue to do so. On the balance of probability we’d still be found guilty of being content-centric even though our conversations, activities and partnerships are increasingly about doing whatever it takes to help our clients and customers solve real business problems with auditable results. We fully admit that rushing to provide content at the expense of missing the wider context is behaviour many of us have spent a long time learning and it’s going to take a while to properly unlearn it.

The second criticism is about costs, hidden costs and, more generally, accountability. If you outsource production to a supplier, you will probably know pretty much what it costs. If you do it in-house, you will have slightly less idea. But chances are you will have very little clue as the total cost of your learning operation, end to end. Very few people do; suffice to say that it’s often frighteningly more than your spend on content provision.

For the last couple of years I’ve been involved in providing what we call “transactable and professional learning services” to a small number of very big clients. Essentially we’re a learning back office operation, which seeks to run the most elegant combination of assets – people, processes and technology – to deliver the most amount of value to our clients. We’d all admit that it’s not yet 100% perfect but it’s light years ahead of where we were and it has saved us millions of pounds. So far so good.

But something I’ve noticed when people talk about learning operations is that they typically come to it from the perspective they’re most interested in (which is probably fine) but aren’t as interested in all the other possible perspectives, applications and requirements out there (which probably isn’t). So, as we continue to argue amongst ourselves about the relative pros and cons of centralisation versus federation, it’s important that we test different candidate solutions against a wide variety of requirements, not just the ones we’re personally most familiar with or challenged by. Homing in on the techno-level just for a moment, LMS defenders say how great they are for compliance applications; LMS detractors say how expensive and inflexible they are and how most of them still need to pull their various social constructionism socks up. But the truth is that clients typically have a number of rather different kinds of requirement and any solution that only plays well to one or two is destined to disappoint. 

Running a decent learning back office is a complex business because you need to be able to juggle a changing number of irregularly shaped plates – with the not so occasional Indian club thrown in when you’re least ready to catch it. At the risk of upsetting back office friends in HR, procurement and finance, a payslip is pretty much a payslip, there’s a finite number of ways an organisation can do absence management, a procurement category is a procurement category, different Charts of Accounts can cause people to get hot and bothered admittedly, but learning is a whole different world of pain cum variation with different clients wanting and needing different things and your job is to make each and every one of those clients believe they’re your favourite. Sounds familiar?

Where I work we’re up to our eyeballs in process maps, SLAs, MOUs and whatnot but at the strategic level we’ve come to realise that there a handful of different capabilities against which we really have to deliver if we are to survive – one or two simply won’t cut it for us. If you work client side in corporate land you may very well have a different set depending on the learning needs and culture of your organisation but these are the ones that are likely to preoccupy us for the next little while at least.

In no particular order, the first is around providing services that minimise the “cost of compliance”. I have written in these pages before about the challenge of sheep dipping tens of thousands of people and being able to prove they’ve understood their responsibilities so I won’t bore you with that again, suffice to say that automating the chivvying process, certification handling and having a rock solid, single version of the truth database of who’s done what – and just as importantly who’s not yet done what – are all key and can save you a fortune in hidden manual admin costs. More generally, different kinds of learning intervention will probably need to be managed differently, where “managing” could include some combination of, for example, requiring a learner’s line manager to sign off the spend, charging the relevant budget, capturing the outcomes to the learner’s records, making some interventions self-service or manager self-service, doing different levels of Kirkpatrick and so on. A couple of years into it, we’re still not tracking, for example, all the things we should while at the same time tracking a few things we probably shouldn’t. It takes time to reach a shared understanding of what really needs to be done.

A second major capability we know we need to grow is to deliver solutions that quicken our people’s “speed to competence”. As change initiatives pile up around us, we’re experiencing increased pressure to get things out “just good enough and just in time”. Rapid plays a big part here, whether in- or out-sourced, but still more important is cultivating agile thinking and behaviours up and down the value stream. Easier said than done but compromise, pragmatism, a constant eye on the relative cost / benefit of different ways forward, regular, open and honest communication and a sense of humour should all help. We’re still working on how to maintain that last one at precisely those times when we need it most. 

Thirdly, it’s not only about taking cost out of the stuff that needs to be done, it’s also about helping the organisation stop doing stuff that doesn’t need to be done or only needs to be done once and not duplicated. This is a huge topic and best left for another time but if you work in a big organisation, one hand of which doesn’t always know what the other is doing, you’ll know what I mean.

The next big challenge we’ve started work on is the seamless integration of learning, competence, performance and talent management, no mean feat. Configuring a fit for purpose technology solution we know will keep us out of mischief for quite a few months but our real challenge will be helping the organisation engage with it, enjoy using it and get the real business benefits out of it.

And last but by no means least we are dragging ourselves, our clients and our customers into the new dawn that is social learning. For many of us this can be a scary place as it threatens to tear down a lot of the walls we’ve grown very accustomed to. A few of us can’t wait but we know there are challenges ahead getting the best out of a number of different worlds, striking a balance that works now but will change over time and migrating from broadcasting to facilitating, trainers to learning business partners and control to empowerment. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens. Watch this space. Who says working in a back office is boring?