Running Learning Like a Business

Running training like a business–it’s not difficult in concept, but it can be quite challenging in practice.

A lot of training professionals have never been responsible for a business or a product/service line, so some of the concepts are new.

For David Vance, Executive Director for the Center for Talent Reporting, he’s been talking about Running Training/Learning like a Business ever since he ran Caterpillar University (CatU), from 2001-2007.

He didn’t just use it for one program; he used it in everything they did at CatU. The first time he read about the concept of applying business principles to learning was in Edward Trolley’s Running Training Like a Business: Delivering Unmistakable Value.

After Dave left Caterpillar University, he wrote his own book, The Business of Learning: How to Manage Corporate Training to Improve Your Bottom Line that took Edward’s teachings a bit further.

Here’s a sneak peek into Dave’s experience with the business of learning and some “how to’s."

Q: What does "Running Training Like a Business" mean to you and how can it make organizations more successful?

A: This concept is really talking about the discipline of running learning and has nothing to do with making a profit. Issues will always come up during the year to throw your plan off track, but that’s where the discipline comes in.

There are two elements to running learning like a business. First, you have to start off with a plan, and while this might sound obvious, most people actually don’t have one.

The plan also has to have specific measurable goals–more than just generalities–i.e. “I have a plan to increase learning.” That’s not a plan, that’s an aspirational goal.

You need to be specific about what you want to do, how you’ll measure it and how you’ll know when you’re successful.

The second element of running learning like a business means that you execute that plan with discipline, using monthly reports to compare your year-to-date progress against your plan and forecast. This way, you’ll be able to know if you’re on plan or behind plan (and can get an early warning and take corrective action).

Just trying to put together a plan upfront forces you to stop and think–where you’ve been, what you could achieve and what resources you might need to accomplish that plan. So even the act of putting a plan together is beneficial.

Q. What are some of the challenges you faced when trying to get people to follow this mindset?

A: There can be a lot of resistance–most likely from your own staff–because what you’re asking people to do is be accountable.

People often aren’t used to that and some don’t like it. They don’t want to put a plan in place and then be judged at the end of the year based on the execution of the plan. It can be scary. It’s not just a list of accomplishments.

There are things you can do from a change management perspective in the first year to make sure it’s a safe environment, like saying that they won’t be judged in the first year because it’s new. They should put the best plan together with goals but feel safe in knowing that they might not know what is achievable. If the plan was too optimistic, leaders will understand.

Q: What are some of the benefits you’ve found from running training like a business?

A: To clarify off the bat, this concept isn’t a quick road to L&D success, but it will definitely set you up for success. You’ll be able to better understand what is reasonable to achieve for the year and everyone will know what they have to do.

Running learning like a business isn't a quick road to L&D success, but it will definitely set you up for success.

Running training like a business will help your department make a bigger impact and will help you in your journey to be a better measurement analyst, manager or senior learning leader.

One of the biggest benefits I see is that you’ll be able to deliver greater results and increase your credibility and confidence in the eyes of your senior leaders.

It will make it easier for you (maybe not in year one) to get more budget and staff. They’ll feel better about giving you more resources if they’re convinced, you’re managing what they’re already giving you really well.

Leaders don’t always know exactly what they’re getting from the L&D department, what’s going on with the money, how it’s being run, etc. It’s easier looking at a sales/manufacturing organization–it’s harder looking at L&D.

With this concept, you will be able to speak the language of business and give business leaders reports like the ones they’re already getting. It provides transparency and makes them comfortable that you’re managing learning with the same discipline as the head of sales manages sales.

For example, at my last Board of Governors meeting before leaving Caterpillar University, I talked about the upcoming goals for the year and presented a plan for the rollout of the Caterpillar Production System– it was like the Toyota Production System, a form of lean learning to be more efficient in the manufacturing process.

The CEO at the last minute decided he wanted to accelerate the rollout to reach more workers sooner than planned. Because of the way we had laid everything out (with a plan, with prioritized goals, with resources identified), I said no problem.

I went to the bottom goal and said, if I cut resources here to fund the acceleration, we’ll also cut results for this goal. He didn’t like that. So, we went through each goal in this manner until I asked if we should take a little off of each program in support–but again it would reduce all results.

At this point he asked– how much more do you want–one million? Within five minutes I got a significant increase in resources. I don’t think that ever would have happened if we didn’t have a plan.

We had an agreement on the measure of success, we were executing with discipline, and the leaders knew there wasn’t any slack–it was simply a business decision.