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Ten Minutes with Josh Bersin - Industry Expert

Thinking about employee development? You should be, if you’re interested in building or sustaining a high performing organization. Josh Bersin, president of Bersin & Associates, shares his thoughts on employee and leadership training and development during a recession.  You founded Bersin & Associates in 2001. Tell me about the history of the company and how the learning management market has changed since its founding. What’s the next big thing?

Our original business was studying e-learning and related technologies. We discovered that as these technologies matured, learning organizations had a host of new issues to deal with, from how to roll out training to how to measure it to how to manage the learning organization.

This led us in 2004 to conduct what turned out to be a landmark piece of research. The High-Impact Learning Organization was a study on how to manage and operate training as a function. With that, we became much more involved in business process analysis, in addition to our work on the technology side.

We use a research-based approach to solve problems. Our methodology is designed to identify what works for a corporation under certain conditions (such as industry, company size, stage of growth). We offer the best practices, data elements and benchmarks to help learning and talent managers understand where they fit in the maturity curve and where and how they can improve their own organizational effectiveness.

Today we’re seeing the biggest learning transformation in years. When corporate Internet usage became widespread, there was a rush to move classroom training online. Billions of dollars went into building tools, content and learning management systems to facilitate adoption of the many forms of e-learning.

Today, we’re going through a similar sweeping change, fueled by both the recession and social technologies. Companies are motivated to cut costs. Also, they realize they can't possibly conduct formal training fast enough to keep up with all of the certifications, learning, leadership development, and onboarding needs of employees.

With the enormous explosion in social networking tools -- everything from Twitter to YouTube - we see many companies looking at these technologies for learning. This has turned the training industry on its ear. Up to now, the training mindset has been to diagnose the problem into its learning elements, create an instructional plan, hire an instructional designer, develop content, roll the content out, manage the program, measure the program and then do it again. While this process will continue to be used for formal programs, new processes must be established for creating, managing, and measuring informal learning. To make this leap, training teams need new skills in knowledge management, information architecture, tagging, and community management.

What impact has the current economic climate had on learning and development initiatives? Why should companies be thinking about learning and development now?

Many of the companies we talk with are experiencing reorganizations and layoffs. HR and learning have been told to consolidate, cut the budget by 30 percent and eliminate anything they don’t need. Many don’t realize they can reduce spending on training without drastically reducing the actual amount of training.

Spending on employee development is a lot like watering your plants. If there’s a water shortage, you may be able to cut back on watering for a while. But, if you cut back or stop for too long, plants wither and die. Our analysis shows companies that spend within the median range on training in their industry are more profitable over the long run than those that don't. In most companies, the training budget is less than one percent of payroll. If you cut it to zero, it's still not going to have a huge impact on bottom line and you're likely to have negative consequences.

One thing to note is that companies with mature and sophisticated talent management tend to survive the recession much better than others. When you have to lay people off or reorganize a business unit, it's very easy to lose valuable knowledge assets and core competencies and damage employee engagement levels and employee satisfaction. Companies that have been investing in talent management processes for the last few years can make critical talent decisions more intelligently and often more quickly. Our research also shows that companies with mature talent management processes have experienced fewer layoffs and they have higher productivity and retention rates. Investment in talent management is a critical business priority – not something we should do only during good times.

What are some best practices for building successful leadership development programs?

Leadership development has different stages of maturity. The most basic is inconsistent management training. Managers are handed a couple of business books and a course catalog. There’s no framework, structure, or path. A more mature approach involves looking at a manager’s development needs by level or role and designing development accordingly.

But that’s not enough. The best companies look at how develop good managers and leaders as well as how to create a community and culture of leadership. These companies get the senior leaders intimately involved in the development, delivery and ongoing operations of the leadership program. Companies such as Hewlett Packard , GE and IBM have formally structured programs in which senior executives are very intimately involved – by selecting leadership candidates, teaching the courses, and coaching mentoring. They have an end-to-end approach that uses many different forms of training and they also look at activities such as developmental assignments and job rotation. It’s a much more integrated way to develop leaders.

Author Bill Vaughan has been quoted saying, “People learn something every day, and a lot of times it’s that what they learned the day before was wrong.” How does this apply to you?

Every day I see examples of the highly complex people management issues facing executives today. I learn something new from almost every conversation. You can never assume you know everything – or think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to complicated problems.