A Hybrid Learning Model the Way to Go for a Global Corporation

By Frank Waltmann

Mar. 21, 2011

The current trend among global corporations is to centralize their training functions into corporate universities. While this can be the right solution for companies that are very streamlined and simply aligned—those with only one big market and one main customer base—it may not be the right direction for more complex organizations.

The move toward centralized learning is clear enough. It is efficient and avoids duplication of effort in learning programs and personnel. Everything is under one umbrella, which makes it easier to manage and introduce top training programs.

Centralization is also more financially transparent. Learning universities know what they spend and they avoid hidden training costs that can easily creep into a decentralized learning organization.

But in the case of complex, global organizations, the central corporate university is far from the optimal solution.

Global companies contain multiple business cultures

Global companies are usually very complex organizations, with different divisions and different business cultures that coexist. For example, there is a “marketing culture”, a “sales culture”, a “research culture”, etc. Also, global companies are just that: worldwide. They operate in many countries, each with their own specific set of societal norms. Employee learning needs and the company’s product offerings may be fundamentally different from country to country. In other words, a one-size-fits-all-solution doesn’t suit global organizations due to their inherent makeup.

In order to meet the various learning demands in a global company, training needs to be customized to match divisional needs, local needs, as well as specific business requirements. The hybrid blend of a decentralized training organization with strong central roots is a global corporation’s best option.

‘Institutionalize’ the hybrid blend with a governing learning board

Many companies believe they have a hybrid model simply because they established a corporate university and have training departments all over the world. But when a centralized system and a smaller decentralized system surrounding it simply co-exist without any governance, problems will occur.

The true hybrid model needs to be structured and institutionalized in order to make clear decisions about the two systems. It requires a decision-making, governing body—a learning board—to hold the hybrid together.

Similar to board members in other disciplines, learning board members need to have negotiation skills, project management skills, communication skills, conflict management skills, and maturity. The learning board should contain people who recognize the overall value of learning for the company and know how to keep their ego in check. They should be appointed by each division leader and be from the area of talent management, education, or human resources. There will be conflicts, so the overall leader (or chairman) needs to balance opinions and be tactful.

Case in point: Novartis’ hybrid learning structure.

At Novartis Corp., a bridge between the centralized and decentralized learning functions was created in 2010 by establishing a governing body for learning. Our learning board is comprised of 13 senior-level representatives from all divisions and all geographic regions of Novartis. Expertise is in the areas of talent management, human resources, and learning. The learning board is a decision making body that determines all key initiatives and how training is to be delivered. It determines—by majority vote—the scope and breadth of both the central corporate learning function and its decentralized counterpart.

A business division may have several learning representatives on the learning board, but each division has only one vote. The learning board’s mission and purpose is to define a company-wide, integrated learning strategy; one that is aligned with overall Novartis strategic goals. With full support of top management, board members have complete decision-making power over all learning programs.

For example, the learning board decides on the learning budget and allocation of resources for corporate learning. One of the aims is to maximize the impact of money spent on learning.

Centralized and decentralized learning programs

Broad learning programs that are relevant throughout the entire organization are created and implemented centrally, especially in basic areas like fundamental leadership skills and finance training. These are concrete global topics that apply to the whole organization and are not negotiable.

Decentralized learning includes programs that are specific to certain cultures and countries. An example might be programs around topics that are decentralized by nature, like a new country sales model. Training for that sales model should only be done in the specific country since it would only apply to that location. In other words, anything that is not globally standardized and that doesn’t need to be done by corporate (central) should be done locally (decentralized). The company will reap better results at a lower cost.


The hybrid blend of a decentralized training organization with strong central roots and a governing learning board has proven to be very beneficial to Novartis in that it works as an ‘early warning system.’ In this way, we avoid issues—cost overruns, duplication, etc. —as opposed to correcting issues after the fact. Moreover, access to divisional talent management leaders from around the world links corporate central learning management to real business issues, which can then be addressed and solved in a cost-effective manner.

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