10 Elements for a Successful, Effective Corporate Learning Program

By Frank Waltmann

Mar. 11, 2009

In a health care company, much depends on your drug pipeline. But there is another pipeline to consider in building a successful business, health care or otherwise, and that is the talent pipeline.

    Novartis established its corporate learning department in 1998 to provide a learning environment for its senior executives. The goal was to develop a stable of future leaders who could grow with the business. Key to creating this pipeline for the future was identifying and selecting top talent with high potential, providing them with the right job experiences and supporting continuous learning with instruction from the best institutions.

Any enterprise can draw lessons from the critical points that drive the very successful and respected Novartis corporate learning program. Here are 10 guidelines:

1. Secure top management support
Based on experiences on different advisory boards and through benchmarking with many different companies, there’s one clear message regarding the success of the Novartis corporate learning program: It’s a result of the participation and commitment of senior executives. Over the past 10 years, the senior management executive team has remained focused on all of the learning programs in Novartis, both in designing the programs and providing a presence at them.

Novartis always involves top management in the design of its training programs, right from the beginning. Corporate learning talks about content and direction, about participant profiles, and about who will make the decisions regarding content. There’s very close interaction with all the sponsors of the training programs during the three to six months of the design process.

Once the program is established, the sponsor attends the course as a participant or as a speaker. This is true for every course program. The course portion represents about 50 percent of the overall learning program; the rest is made up of video and other training elements, such as Web-based resources.

2. Focus on key initiatives
Learning must be directly aligned with corporate strategy and business challenges. Companies will struggle if their learning functions do not focus on these key issues.

Because of its mandate from the executive committee and the quality of the programs it has consistently delivered to management, corporate learning at Novartis has emerged as an excellent “brand.” Its experience, combined with a centralized budget for training, has also contributed to this status. But while becoming more known and respected is rewarding, the threat for the corporate learning team is that it could lose its focus. It is vital for the group to ensure it is aligning learning programs with the organization’s strategy, and not just creating programs for any functional group that requests one.

For instance, the corporate learning department may get a request for a program from a Novartis function that is important for only about 30 people in the company. For those 30 people, it’s really important, but for the overall company, it’s not very strategic. While it might not deliver exactly the program that’s originally requested, the corporate learning department does help other Novartis functions build up their learning programs. Like many companies, the company has limited resources. It has to be careful to focus its resources on the right programs that continually align with the overall strategy and challenges that the company faces.

3. Hire the right people
In the past, only HR people served in training departments. While the corporate learning function at Novartis, together with global talent management, is a key component of corporate human resources, an HR background is not the only knowledge needed for the learning group.

What’s needed is a mix of backgrounds—commercial, finance and marketing people with business acumen, along with professionals who have “people understanding,” such as a psychology background. We might even include a trader or a dealer, someone with in-the-trenches business experience. So, even though it is a learning department, the company doesn’t necessarily look for academics.

Novartis’ team is now a 50-50 mix of colleagues with HR and business experience. The corporate learning group has very little attrition, resulting in a considerable buildup of expertise over the years.

4. Put quality first
Novartis focuses directly on the top 10 percent of people in the organization. It’s very important for a corporate learning function to deliver programs of extremely high quality for this top tier of management. The intention is always to have these top-quality, top-level programs in place, and then it can diversify its other activities.

The most important programs at Novartis are done through its strategic partnership with Harvard Business School or other business schools. This has significantly helped the corporate learning function at Novartis to establish its reputation as an exclusive provider of training programs. Novartis does not provide Harvard programs to first-time or middle managers. It reserves these programs for top-level senior management. The corporate learning department has credibility with these leaders, who know it can deliver quality programs to align with the strategic initiatives that are driving the organization. It is important to maintain this kind of reputation and build on the momentum it creates. In other words, think of your learning group as an exclusive boutique that sets trends and draws elite customers, not as a shopping mall that offers something for everyone.

5. Manage carefully and with consensus
Novartis has a centralized learning function for the top 10 percent of the company, and decentralized learning for the lower levels. There are functions with direct reporting lines to the local HR organization, rather than to corporate learning.

Of course, cultural awareness and sensitivity must be taken into account in this type of organization. While diversity is an asset, differences present communication and management challenges, underscoring the need for respectful and globally collaborative processes. For instance, certain cultures are less likely to speak up, and others—such as Japan and China—have more formal business protocols.

6. Act globally
It goes without saying that the people working in a global organization must have excellent cross-cultural skills. But the programs that such an organization puts in place require a global standard. Novartis, for example, delivers its “Leading on the Frontline” program to first-time managers 90 to 100 times a year in 12 languages around the globe. But the basic elements of 80 percent of the content cannot be changed, because it contains the global standard for how Novartis wants to see its leaders behave.

Some customization is possible, for business or cultural reasons. If there is a restructuring in one country or region, for example, and people must be released from their jobs, the business would need to adjust its training module to place more emphasis on how to hold difficult conversations. While the weight and focus of the program can be adjusted, the central elements must be included.

In addition to Novartis programs and training, the corporate learning group is also responsible for creating strategic learning projects in the organization. It identifies growth opportunities in emerging markets, such as Latin America, and in countries such as China and Russia, where it expects significant growth in the future. With that in mind, Novartis elected to focus on China and opened a learning center in that country, where employee retention has been a problem. Novartis discovered that employee learning could greatly improve retention in a company, since employees like to feel valued and connected within a growing organization that is willing to invest in its personnel.

7. Select and partner with the best training providers
Ten years ago, 90 percent of Novartis’ training providers were Swiss or German — not ideal for a global learning function. That was changed. In your organization, too, the key is to look globally to find the best training providers wherever they are, not just in your own headquarters’ back yard. The best providers may not necessarily be in the U.S., although it has an excellent pool. At Novartis, which is now investing heavily in Asia, and China in particular, we are looking more and more to find providers in that part of the world.

In total, Novartis’ corporate learning department has about 450 different providers for its programs. This number includes its business school partners, but also individual professors from these schools. In addition, Novartis uses consulting companies, training consulting companies and individual consultants. It currently works with about 150 of these providers a year. The company’s local affiliates now ask the corporate learning experts for help in finding local sources for their training programs.

8. Fully integrate into overall processes, but focus on the business
First and foremost, the business is the most important contributor to program development. The corporate learning department conducts many interviews and a great deal of research with the business sponsors and potential participants. This level of detail and collaboration with managers leads to more valuable and relevant programs.

When it comes to selecting participants, the business is again the primary driver. When Novartis selects a participant for its top-level training, it carefully considers his or her potential and past performance. Considerable time is spent with the business functions and departments, actually dealing with the potential candidates and upper management while leveraging valuable HR information. There is no open enrollment for the top management training; the nominations are done top-down in the organization.

9. Assess learning results and align with the business
Novartis prefers to get direct feedback from participants immediately after the conclusion of a learning program. Then, six months later, it conducts random telephone interviews with the alumni to check on what they have learned, as well as what they have retained and executed. Those are the only two steps the company uses regularly to assess its programs. For instance, every two to three years it also gets the external assessments needed for certification—such as from the European Foundation for Management Development, the leading global organization in the area of management training and development.

Some advice here: If a program is good, you should talk about it, but if it’s bad you should still talk about it. At Novartis, the corporate learning function is so visible that if something is going wrong, it’s seen early. If corporate strategies change, it is nimble enough to adapt to those changes.

So the key is to use some formal assessment tools, as well as informal discussion with participants and initial follow-up with participants after the program. Obtain their input; listen, learn and continuously improve your programs.

10. Persevere and thrive
I want to take special note of the economic climate of the day. We are in the midst of a global recession, and more and more companies are cutting back programs—including corporate learning. Although that is a reality in some organizations, it’s important that learning leaders not resign themselves to such a fate. Instead, you should view this time as an opportunity to operate in a lean fashion. Trim the fat in your learning organization, then refocus and prioritize. Keep your ego in check and continue to improve programs so that they become indispensable to your organization, its survival and its ultimate success when the economy turns.

Last thoughts
The main focus of a good learning program is people management: how to manage people, how to manage leaders and how to manage middle managers as they move through the leadership pipeline. All training programs should be built around the leadership standards, values and behaviors that are defined by the company.

In other words, reinforce leadership as a core competence. Take a global view, encouraging the sharing of best practices across business divisions. Integrate and implement the 10 elements outlined here and your learning department can become a successful, critical part of your organization.

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