Is T&D too important for HR?

If your HR department isn’t being strategic, it could lose control of staff development
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/11/2003

Any organization with even the slightest pretense of being an employer of choice will brag about how much training and development it offers employees. But hollow boasting aside, there is a growing recognition among business leaders that ensuring workers have the skills, competencies and knowledge required to do their jobs and meet corporate goals is an important factor in organizational success.

If something is missing from an employee, they need to find out what it is and give it to them — and fast.

This appreciation for the value of good training and development has sparked a contentious debate in some organizations: Is training and development too important to trust HR with?

“I would say yes and no,” says Brendan Nagle, a workplace learning expert and CEO of Winnipeg-base Technologies for Learning Group. “In the absence of somebody else in charge of it, HR is probably the best place to put it.” But increasingly it seems organizations are looking to put someone else other than HR in charge of it, he says.

Business leaders feel learning — the pointed use of the term “learning” rather than T&D itself is an indication of a change in mindset — “is an enterprise-wide activity that affects the bottom line in a meaningful way and as a result it has to have a higher profile across the organization. Which is not to say HR can’t develop that profile for training and development across the organization,” he says. It’s just that they seldom do.

“Training as part of HR relegates it to a secondary role,” he says — just one of a long list of priorities.

In many cases, HR departments dedicate most of their time to administrative activities and are viewed as cost centres rather than playing a strategic role. In those cases, training initiatives are dismissed as another nuisance activity HR is forcing on the rest of the busy organization.

“People are trying to move away from that model a bit,” he says. They want the entire organization to view learning and development as absolutely necessary steps toward meeting basic corporate goals. To do that they’re creating Chief Knowledge Officer or Chief Information Officer positions. Creating an executive level position solely dedicated to improving the knowledge and skills base of an organization makes it clear the company views it as a priority not to be taken lightly.

“This is my view of what the ideal should be: The head of HR should be a very senior role and should report directly to the CEO,” says Jane Hutcheson, vice-president of learning and development for TD Bank Financial Group. “In that context, it totally makes sense to me to say learning and development should report to HR.”

But in many organizations that is not how HR works, and in those cases T&D should not be HR’s responsibility. This is an emerging philosophy among business leaders, she says. There is a greater appreciation among business leaders that effective training and development is essential for meeting strategic objectives. If HR is too consumed with administration and monitoring procedures, the heads of the business are more willing to take control of T&D directly, Hutcheson says. They can see there is a direct link between training and development and meeting strategic objectives and so they want to make sure it is being taken care of.

Hutcheson’s learning and development group, which does report to HR, has worked hard to prove its value to the rest of the organization by developing rigorous measurement methodologies.

Commitment to measuring training comes with a lot of responsibilities because it removes any doubts as to the success or failure of a training initiative. If something isn’t going well the numbers make it painfully obvious. That accountability is also what makes the T&D group an equal partner in the business, she says.

There is no simple answer to the question of who should be in charge of T&D, says Bob Canuel, vice-president of HR for Hallmark Canada.

For one thing, the complexity of an organization is a crucial factor.

In any organization, one of the greatest challenges to making training effective is doing an accurate diagnostic analysis of training needs, he says. In large, highly complex organizations with many levels of hierarchy, it is difficult to determine what training is necessary and where. In organizations like that, sophisticated in-house training departments may be in order and it becomes difficult for HR to manage training. But in flat organizations, like Hallmark, it is much easier for HR, he says.

Between the highest and lowest levels at Hallmark there are only four levels, he says. “As a result, you are very close to the business and the closer you are, the easier it is to do some of the diagnostics around what is needed from a training and development standpoint,” he says.

“The real value is being able to more easily make the link between what the end user needs and what needs to be delivered.” The flatter the organization, the easier it is to run training diagnostics and the more sense it makes for training to report into HR.

At Hallmark, Canuel depends upon his director of employee relations — a former director of manufacturing who has a very good understanding of the business — to do much of the training needs analysis with most of the delivery coming from third-party providers.

It’s fine for HR to take ownership of training and development so long as HR is making strategic contributions to the organization, says Jim Clemmer, author and president of management consulting company the Clemmer Group.

“I see a lot of training being embedded within HR, but often HR isn’t that strategic and training isn’t that strategic within HR.”

Whenever there is a performance problem, the person in charge of training is told to design and develop a training solution to make the problem go away when the problem may have a deeper systemic cause. A non-strategic HR department won’t be able to make that distinction and the training effort could be wasted.

Conversely, the same problem could arise if training and development is separated from HR — the root causes of problems may be overlooked.

The question is not whether or not HR can be trusted with T&D. It should be whether or not HR is ready to play a strategic role, says Clemmer.

“If HR is working with senior team rather than doing administrivia, then having training and development part of HR makes lots of sense, because many of the issues of T&D are bigger issues of people and human resources.”

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