TRAINING AS STRATEGIC FUNCTION

Turnaround in thinking on training is already evident – that it must move from periphery to the centre, from being a service function to partnership in the main task of the organisation. In a recent study of HR reengineering at 34 large US companies 69% respondents mentioned “repositioning of HR as a strategic business partner with the management” as a re-engineering goal. The same is true of training.

Training is concerned with increasing organisational effectiveness. So far the approach of training has been to offer/organise training for specific competencies. The movement is in the direction of training becoming more proactive, and contribute to strategic thinking of the organisation. This swing is sometime seen as abandoning the previous position and taking a new one. Repositioning does not mean taking an “either or” position. Repositioning involves expanding the role and emphasising the strategic role, of training. While the strategic role is important, the other roles are not to be neglected.

Training should attend both to the current as well as the future needs. The current perspective is more operational, while the futuristic perspectives strategic. The other dimension relevant for the role of training is that of content vs process. While the former emphasises the development of specific competencies, the latter is concerned with developing learning and empowering capability. If we combine these two dimensions, we get four training modes as shown in Exhibit-1.

Training for strategic management exhibit-1

All the four modes of training are important. However, increasingly training must move towards transformational and strategic roles. Exhibit-2 shows the foci, objectives, and postures, for these four training modes. We shall briefly discuss these, taking the four main roles of training.

Training as straegic management exhibit 2

Training Role: Training system should develop needed competencies for various role occupant. The emphasis is on making the current roles in the organisation more effective by equipping people occupying these roles with the needed competencies. Training takes current strategy and implements it in terms of development of needed competencies. The trainers should deliver good training. And to do this they themselves must have the relevant technical competencies. 

Research Role: In order to move in the strategic direction, trainers need to search what competencies are needed and will be needed in the organisation. Training then assumes two more functions: searching future competencies, and developing them. Since the narrow boundaries of roles are breaking down, a person should develop flexibility to perform various roles. Multi-skilled workers is a good example of such effort. This becomes the first essential step for developing autonomous work groups and self-managed teams. The trainers, who function as researchers, need to develop their deep insight into organisational needs and process. Trainers should develop research competencies, especially those of action research. 

Consulting Role: Greater emphasis on organisational effectiveness, rather than only on individual role effectiveness, will require more group process-orientation of trainers. Development of effective teams influence both the effectiveness of the individual team members as well as organisational effectiveness. The emphasis is synergy building, thereby enhancing effectiveness of each member. This can be done if the trainers advance with their research competencies into a consulting role – analyse problems, develop and use interventions involving concerned line people to deal with the problems, help in implementing the agreed action plan, and support it to stabilise the decisions. This is one step further in contributing to the strategic process. Training is then seen as a useful function for developing organisational strategy. Trainers should develop both sharper understanding of the organisational strategy, and consulting competencies to play this role effectively. Training function should be used more frequently for international consulting. Trainers then will also develop more hand-on experience, which will make training more realistic and relevant.

Change Management Role: This is the real strategic partnership role. The focus of training is to develop leadership at all levels in the organisation – the ability of strategic thinking, taking responsibility, creativity to find alternative solutions, and empowering others. The objective is to transform the organisation, to make paradigm shift if needed. Training then becomes a true strategic partner. This is not possible without involvement of the trainers in the main business of the organisation, and gaining relevant business knowledge.

TRANSLATING BUSINESS STRATEGY INTO TRAINING TERMS

Successful implementation of the business strategy of an organisation will require some competencies. Business strategy indicates the broad direction for the future movement of an organisation, and preferred ways of doing so for successful implementation, the organisational tasks must be translated into various functional terms: marketing, financial, technology, human resources, training etc. This helps to make strategy formulation and implementation participative.

The overall organisational or “business” strategy should provide the framework for developing the training strategy to facilitate effective implementation of the strategy. It will include detailed approach to be adopted, competencies to be developed (in what thrust, evaluation etc. Training strategy thus prepared may be reviewed by all the functional leaders preparing the strategies which must be integrated into the main strategy for better synergy.

Another way to translate business strategy into training terms may be to develop strategies for key decisions taken by the organisation. For example, if cost reduction is one of the elements in the business strategy, training may develop ways of advancing this concern and achieving concrete results. In a study of 34 large US companies, for example, 78% HR professionals listed “cost reduction” as a top goal.

Training goals get closely linked with business goals. By maintaining an independent strategy, training may send a signal that is not connected with the other functions. Regarding HR, one participant in the study said “If I had to do it again, I’d build HR strategies directly into business strategies and make them seamless”.

Working More Closely with Line Managers

People dealing with training should work more closely with line people. They are already working with line people in the areas of coaching, counseling, training, strategy planning for the departments etc. When cross-functional task forces and implementation teams are set up, training people should join these. Similarly, when teams are set up to discuss training issues etc., line people should be invited as members. Such close working together may help in integrating training with the various business groups, and making training a strategic partner.

Rosow and Zager have made some recommendations to forge stronger links between training and business strategy (as exhibited below)

The partnership in training should be based on value-added partnership of the trainers and training system. As strategic partners training people should raise serious discussion on how organisational strategy should be developed, and how it can implemented faster. Effective partnership comes out of professional competence and credibility.

MAKING TRAINING A STRATEGIC PARTNER

  1. The vice-president responsible for the training function should be actively involved in formulating corporate strategy, to ensure that:
  • Strategic goals are realistically ambitious with respect to the reservoir of skills that will be available to meet them
  • The training function will be able to help top management communicate corporate strategy throughout the organisation and to help managers translate the strategy into training needs.
  1. The vice -president for the training function should ensure that all training programs (1) are necessary to the corporate strategy; (2) are recommended by (and, if possible, budgeted to) the managers whose employees are to be trained; and (3) help the trainees progress along the career paths jointly set by them and their managers.
  2. The effectiveness of a program should be measured by how fully and how durably the trainees have mastered the subject matter.
  3. The most controversial-and potentially the largest-factor in measuring the cost of a program is whether the trainee’s time spent in training should be considered a cost. Since training (assuming that its objectives are strategically necessary) is an essential part of every job, we recommend that it not be considered an added cost. On the other hand, management should count as a cost any additional expense incurred to cover the trainee’s work while training is in progress.
  4. When an employer invites an employee to be retrained, it should ensure that the employee becomes fully acquainted, as early as possible, with the new position, work unit, and supervisor, whether the position is within or outside the firm. Such acquaintance maximizes the trainee’s ability to learn and to apply the new skills.

ALIGNING TRAINING STRATEGY WITH CORPORATE STRATEGY

  1. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and senior associates should include a training plan as a critical component of the corporate strategic plan, to ensure that all levels of the organisation will have the knowledge and skills to carry out the strategic plan. The training plan should distinguish clearly between (1) tactical programs designed to meet current needs, and (2) strategic programs designed to keep up with – and even anticipate-changes in technology, competition, and work-force standards, as well as with the rapid obsolescence of occupations.
  2. The CEO should regularly monitor the training function to ascertain that (1) program priorities match those of the corporate strategy, (2) program cost and skill objectives are valid, and (3) program cost and skill objectives are met.
  3. Employers should think of their organisations as, in a sense, institutions for continuous learning, and should make them function as such. They should, therefore, aim to involve all employees in all stages of training, from needs analysis through evaluation.
  4. Where employees are presented by unions, employers should invite the unions to share in the design and administration of training for their members. Unions should press for and accept such joint programs, but they should be careful to take on responsibility no faster than they acquire the skills and experience to discharge it.
  5. To institutionalize continuous learning throughout the organisation, the employer should encourage employees to make special efforts to learn – and/or to help other employees learn – skills valuable to the employer. Encouragement should take such forms as:
  • A clear declaration that continuous learning and helping other employees to learn are integral parts of every job and every employee’s responsibility.
  • Favorable structures and mechanisms, for example, learning by objectives, train-the-trainer programs, continuous learning centres, semiautonomous work teams
  • Appropriate rewards, for example pay raises, eligibility for promotion, recognition by peers
  • Where a union is present, a jointly administered training program and fund
  • Training, with focus of competency building amongst various organisational units, requires collaboration amongst several players in the organisation. Partnering by different key persons in the organisation is important for the success of training.

As Sloman (1996, p. 198) says “If training in the organisation is to become more effective, action will be required from trainers, academics, business schools, consultants and Government. While external agencies like management institutions, academics, consultants and the government are important for making training effective, the more critical role has to be played by the internal people in the organisations”. Below paragrgaphs summarises the various roles of external agencies as suggested by Sloman (1996, p.198). 

WAYS OF ENHANCING THE TRAINING FUNCTION

The role of the training function would be enhanced if

TRAINERS

  • developed their own clear model of the role in their own organisation and communicated it accordingly
  • participated in appropriate networks to keep abreast of the debate on the changing nature of the function

ACADEMICS, BUSINESS SCHOOLS AND CONSULTANTS

  • recognised that the place of training in most organisations does not correspond to best practice, and developed models accordingly
  • concentrated efforts on the need to produce practical instruments for translating an organisation’s strategic policy into human resource terms.

GOVERNMENT

  • recognised the limitations of public statements on the importance of training
  • introduced fiscal measures designed to ensure that employers invest at least a specified amount in the training of their workforce. Several recommendations culled out from Rosow and Zager, (1988) for aligning training with technology strategy and with financial strategy respectively. 

ALIGNING TRAINING WITH TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY

  1. The manufacturer of new technology should, in its own self-interest, take responsibility for ensuring that the user becomes capable of operating the new technology profitably.
  2. Such a relationship is advantageous to the manufacturer because (1) it binds the user to the manufacturer in goodwill; (2) it gives the manufacturer a competitive edge in acquiring marketable innovations and adaptations developed by the user; (3) it helps the manufacturer develop improvements in current technology and designs for newer technology; and (4) it minimizes the possibility of user disappointment, which acts as a drag on sales.
  3. Since formal training is an indispensable part of implementing new technology, manufacturer and user should jointly develop a training strategy that will ensure profitable operation by the user. The manufacturer should act either directly or through a third party for whose performance it accepts responsibility.
  4. The manufacturer should adopt a formal business plan that establishes the function of user training as a critical element of long-term business survival and growth.
  5. Training needs and costs should be included as an explicit part of the investment in new technology. Hopes of accomplishing training cheaply and by improvisation are doomed to failure.
  6. Manufacturer and user should jointly secure that the user’s employees learn not only the technical aspects of operating, troubleshooting, and maintaining a system, but also the scientific and technological principles on which it is based. This will enable the user’s employees to solve problems on equipment of all kinds.
  7. Manufacturer and user should pay early attention to how the new technology will affect organisation, decision-making patterns, work rules, job design, communications, and learning systems. These issues require advance planning and may determine the success of the organisation. Ad hoc or ex post facto decisions are often too little, too late, and too costly.
  8. When an integrated system is assembled from components supplied by multiple vendors, the user should seek the assistance of an organisation whose expertise encompasses both training and most or all of the technologies involved. 

ALIGNING TRAINING WITH FINANCIAL STRATEGY

  1. Senior management should require training proposals to include clear-cut information related to cost-effectiveness, including need, objectives, content, design, and delivery. Costs should be related to subject matter and performance-involvement goals. Comparative cost data should be required whenever possible.
  2. Senior management should evaluate cost-effectiveness in terms of agreed-upon objectives – specifically whether the functional elements are shaped and combined in the manner best suited to the organisation’s needs. The key elements include project management, use of in-house versus outside talent, instructional design, course development, and delivery systems.
  3. Employers should give serious consideration to the continuous learning/employment security connection as a strategy for the long-term survival and growth of the enterprise.
  4. Employers should give as broad a guarantee of employment security as they can manage, to strengthen work-force receptivity to the continuous change and continuous learning that competition demands. At the least, they should guarantee that no program for introducing new technology into the workplace will cause employees to lose employment or income.
  5. Employers should evaluate the costs of retraining career employees as compared with the visible and hidden costs of separation and replacement with the new, trained outsiders. Often the costs of retraining (combined with the advantage of stability of the work force) may be lower, and the costs of dismissal or retirement and the hiring of new people may be higher, than appears on the surface.
  6. To promote employment security, which is key to high productivity, employers should assign responsibilities and establish routines to (1) anticipate the obsolescence of current jobs and the emergence of new jobs, (2) identify current employees who can be advantageously retrained for the emerging jobs, (3) provide employees with early opportunities to volunteer for education and training, and (4) ensure that employees are ready to enter the new jobs when needed. Where there is a union, it should be involved in these activities insofar as they apply to employees in the bargaining unit.
  7. Employers should anticipate unavoidable displacements or forced dismissals as far ahead as possible and use the lead time to develop market-oriented re-training and outplacement programs. Economic supports should be built into the programs to reinforce employment security.
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