Learning Goes \”Green\”

Learning organizations are starting to go green, but not necessarily in the usual sense.

In just a few years, the green movement has evolved from an ecologically conscious few individuals and small organizations on the fringes of society to very public support of environmental solutions by some of the largest corporations in the world.

Learning organizations are starting to go green, as well, but not necessarily in the usual sense. Particularly, more of them are considering how to cut waste in their operations, which often can have a positive environmental impact, but this has more to do with another kind of green: money.

“There are two ways to become green: One is to use fewer resources, and the other is to pollute less,” said Gordon Johnson, vice president of training solutions provider Expertus. “‘Greening’ for [learning leaders] means cutting the waste on non-value-added things and putting that money into delivering training and content development.”

Johnson — who hosted two recent roundtable discussions in New York City and Washington with heads of learning in various organizations — said many of the participants in these events were looking how to trim fat within their departments due to the economic downturn. According to him, they had no problem locating the waste in the learning functions.

“They could express the waste,” he said. “They could tell us what it was very quickly. When we asked the question, ‘How are you wasting money in your training organization?’ everyone could rattle off two or three things. But when we asked them how they’ve eliminated waste, the room was silent.”

Specifically, the two areas within learning that are the most wasteful are training administration and technology — operational technology, rather than learning delivery technology. These resources, which don’t directly develop employees, consume an average of approximately 24 percent and 15 percent of training budgets, respectively.

“None of it’s easy [to cut],” Johnson said. “There are very smart people running these training departments. They would have done it already if it were a no-brainer. Technology is especially difficult. That’s the high-hanging fruit. And they think differently about that. They think that if they can become more efficient and effective with technology, they can reduce costs.”

Johnson said three key ways learning leaders can eliminate waste are:

1. Centralize services to avoid duplication: This avoids redundancy in programs and solutions. However, processes can’t always be similarly centralized and standardized, as various business units are accustomed to certain people and procedures.
2. Improve vendor management: Particularly, this refers to keeping the number of outside vendors and solutions used at a minimum to avoid an unnecessary bureaucracy.
3. Optimize operations: This often can be achieved by reducing extraneous resources and outsourcing certain aspects of the learning function.

One potential problem with all of these approaches is that if they aren’t handled right, they can cause a drop in service levels. Additionally, many learning leaders aren’t equipped to make these kinds of decisions, Johnson said.

“Many training leaders have a training background,” he explained. “They didn’t necessarily come from the business side of the organization. Many of them have worked their way up through the training organization. In general, that type of personality doesn’t have a real fondness for making bureaucracy more efficient. You need someone in the learning function who does have that competency, or you need to bring in an organization to optimize it.”

If they can add value while using fewer resources, learning departments can become more of an asset to the organizations they serve. And they might wind up doing their part to help protect the environment.

“When you improve operations, you inevitably reduce paper,” Johnson said.