Using Models to Manage Strategic Learning Investments

Gone are the days of technologies looking for a problem to solve. Today, technology investments must be strategic and driven by an organization’s business focus. However, not everyone fully realizes the strategic importance of technology investments

Gone are the days of technologies looking for a problem to solve. Today, technology investments must be strategic and driven by an organization’s business focus. However, not everyone fully realizes the strategic importance of technology investments to a successful learning initiative. While the human element is still the core component of the process, technology can accelerate the human impact on the initiative’s value. To maximize employee development, it is critical to harness the power of technology to drive bottom-line results.

It is clear that learning can happen without automation. Why, then, is technology at the core of so many successful learning initiatives? Technology affects the learning process, changing the way people learn and approach learning. For organizations seeking new ways to gain competitive advantage and maximize employee productivity, learning has become a corporate imperative, especially since the advent of technologies that allow businesses to demonstrate measurable results.

Learning and HR executives face the daily challenge of keeping up with the technologies designed to enhance performance and efficiency. Fortunately, it’s not a matter of determining which technologies are viable and which are frauds, as the market for learning technologies is fairly mature. Rather, the question becomes, “Which technologies are you prepared to rally around and implement to strategically impact the way learning drives business value?” The answer to this question varies based on the organizational maturity of your learning culture.

It is important to understand the role learning plays in different organizations and the needs that the learning initiatives fulfill. By defining and understanding these elements, you can gauge your organization’s learning maturity and ensure that the key technology investments you make are strategic.

For organizations like Grant Thornton, learning is a well-established driver of competitive advantage and a market differentiator that sets the organization’s world-class team of accountants apart from others. Grant Thornton reaps the rewards of an effective learning program, dubbed Grant Thornton University, through customer loyalty and employees’ subject-matter expertise. Based on the business value of learning, the company has made investments in both the program and the necessary technologies. In fact, the company is committed to becoming a “continuous learning culture,” according to Chief Learning Officer Bob Dean. The movement toward achieving this objective can be directly correlated to the company’s evolution along the learning organization’s maturity model.

Maturity Models and Learning Technologies
A maturity model is a framework that classifies the evolution of a system from a less ordered, less effective state to a highly ordered, highly effective state. Maturity models have five levels or stages, typically beginning at stage one, ad hoc (sometimes called the “chaotic” state), and ending at stage five, optimized (often referred to as “nirvana”). Throughout each stage, a maturity model tracks the evolutionary changes of key organizational characteristics based on the system being modeled. Organizational activity at the lower end of the model is very tactical, and at the higher end, very strategic. Using the model as a frame of reference, organizations can set their sights on a particular stage, assess where they currently are in relation to the model, create a strategy or plan to reach their destination and measure their progress along the way.

The most recognized maturity model, called the Capability Maturity Model (CMM), was developed at Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute (SEI). CMM was designed to help software development organizations achieve the greatest level of quality, efficiency and return on investment from their products through streamlined process, communication and measurement. You’re probably beginning to envision the application of this framework to organizational learning.

Beyond the framework, technology plays an invaluable role as both an accelerator and a foundation by which to achieve your learning vision. Just as software development organizations employ source management and requirements management systems to help standardize and formalize their ascension of the CMM, learning organizations employ learning management systems (LMSs) and learning content management systems (LCMSs). But there are many more pieces of the learning technology puzzle, including technologies for competency management, testing, assessment and surveying, collaboration, performance and talent management, content authoring and knowledge management. (See Figure 1.)










Like building a house, there is an optimal sequence for the creation of a technology infrastructure for learning organizations. For example, a contractor wouldn’t build the roof or the second story of a home before laying a foundation. Similarly, if your goal is to measure the effectiveness of your learning programs, you wouldn’t begin with an analytical reporting system. To create a learning infrastructure, tools and technologies that collect and store the information about learning programs become the core. Most organizations lay this infrastructure by way of an LMS.

LMSs can take many shapes and sizes, incorporating both technology and process. There are pure-play LMSs, rich and deep with functionality; niche solutions focusing on a specific segment such as health care’s continuing medical education (CME) records; integrated human resource management system (HRMS) modules for training record-keeping; and more common tools like Microsoft Access, which can be effective when automation is the only goal. The LMS used is dependent on the organization’s specific needs. While many variables exist in LMS selection, one thing is certain—an analytical reporting system offers little business value without a solid learning management infrastructure.

Layering Learning Technologies for Business Value
Organizations that are serious about achieving learning maturity will find that the LMS serves as the core building block for any real learning initiative. The LMS provides the infrastructure crucial for the development of a truly integrated learning program. This core technology allows organizations to identify what kinds of training people need, set processes for delivering, mandate and measure training programs, and manage the process from a central source.

Additional learning technologies, such as knowledge management systems (KMSs), performance management packages and ERP/HR applications, can be layered on top or integrated to further enhance the learning experience. For example, KMSs drive significant benefits to organizations by capturing mindshare, defining areas of expertise and managing the access and propagation of unstructured information. The backbone technology of an LMS, which manages the learning process, makes the information gathered and maintained within the KMS much more accessible and measurable, particularly since the LMS helps to identify performance gaps and optimize the delivery of information to close the gaps. Once an organization has deployed an LMS and can identify what types of training are needed, layering KMS and LCMS applications on top can drive real strategic value.

In the mid-1990s, KMSs were the talk of the information technology (IT) world, with systems being piloted and implemented across many organizations. But the early systems showed few successes, and many fizzled out as these mass repositories for all things knowledge-related were simply disconnected knowledge warehouses (i.e., technologies looking for a problem to solve). Now envision a learning infrastructure where an LMS manages the prescribed learning paths for the workforce and links to knowledge assets in the KMS, like standard operating procedures, frequently asked questions and common scenarios. Stand-alone, the KMS is like the proverbial e-commerce Web site waiting for shoppers to come. But connected with the LMS, it’s serving up knowledge assets in anticipation of what the workforce needs to know to be successful. Simply put, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can make the same claim for disconnected e-learning content libraries, LCMSs, skills and competency models and even performance and goal management systems. As a learning organization matures, so does the level to which IT supports and engages learning technologies to cultivate a continuous learning culture.

Extending Learning Maturity Through Relationships
A close relationship with IT is essential for organizations to build a solid learning foundation and move along their technology framework. Deploying learning technologies is a highly collaborative process because learning is connected to so many other enterprise systems and processes. In fact, in order for the technology elements of a learning strategy to be successful, the project must be sponsored at the executive level and must be shepherded through a number of departments across the enterprise. According to Grant Thornton’s Dean, “If you’re the CLO, you’d better be hands-on in creating the road map and implementing the learning technology. We’re all still blazing trails in this industry, and if you’re going to be successful and accountable, you need to be right in there working with your team.”

Once an organization has established its technology road map, it is easier to understand its final destination on the road to learning maturity. The early stages represent the first forays into marrying technology and learning.

As the relationship between learning and IT matures, learning “packages” begin tying into other enterprise applications and sharing information. Further advances along the framework show a more sophisticated world in which learning technologies are interoperable—not only sharing data but also providing value to other systems. Finally, technology will recede into the background, and the process of learning will become an instinctual part of the organization’s culture.

Modeling Success
Getting everyone in the organization behind your vision and strategy is a key driver of success. Sometimes it’s as simple as stating how they will benefit or showing them the importance of their role. This technique has proved successful in a number of cases, including the U.S. Navy. The Navy is revolutionizing the way training is managed, delivered and measured across the fleet. The Navy’s learning leadership facilitated this revolution by conceptualizing and building an Integrated Learning Environment (ILE), a family of proprietary and vendor-based learning and IT systems. But the ILE itself doesn’t motivate the sailors to take training or enhance their performance. It’s the Five-Vector Model, part of Sea Warrior, the Navy’s human resource initiative, that provides the sailors with a continuum for career advancement and success. Technology simply brings the model to life.

While engaging and motivating learners is rewarding, the greatest value of a learning framework may not be its organizational vision of progress, but the ways it drives strategic business decision-making at the executive levels of the organization—particularly in regard to technology investment and measuring effectiveness. Executives acknowledge the intrinsic value of learning, but rarely give it the level of priority afforded to supply-chain automation, CRM systems or other outward-facing technology investments. With a learning framework and technology road map in hand, organizations are empowered to demonstrate business performance correlations that will encourage executive teams to take another look at learning initiatives–and learning technology investments–and weight them more heavily when they are looking for new ways to enhance competitive advantage and increase market share.

Christopher Moore is president of Zeroed-In Technologies LLC. He is an advisor to THINQ Learning Solutions Inc. and co-author of THINQ’s Learning Management Maturity Model (LM3)™. He can be reached at