Should HR Control Training?
The debate over where the training department should reside within a business is much more than a mere managerial territory dispute. Organizational structure, it seems, can make or break a training and development strategy.
By Joel Schettler
Ask a certain question in a room full of training professionals and you’ll likely receive a few responses akin to dropping a lit match into a pool of gasoline. The question: Should the corporate training function reside within human resources?
This straightforward inquiry sparks a heated debate covering a wide range of considerations, particularly in larger organizations operating in fast-changing industries. At issue is who makes the training decisionsâ€”training professionals or HR executives? Does corporate management dictate policy or are those professionals close to the business in the field allowed input? And what actual effect does the organizational structure play on how training is managed?
At times, the debate strikes to the very heart of training’s value to the bottom line. Proponents for the HR department cite strategic partnerships with other business units and consistent, enterprisewide training operations among the reasons for such a corporate structure. Opponents, meanwhile, believe training that falls under the HR realm fails to receive the full attention it deserves. Such a corporate structure, opponents argue, also tends to promote a more centralized design, keeping key employees in the field from identifying and responding to training needs in unique and fast-paced business environments.
Training magazine asked training and HR executives, chosen at random, for their responses to the ongoing debate. In addition to the pros and cons of the HR structure, the nature of the resulting discussion also focused on centrally located training vs. training dictated in the field, as well as organizing corporate structures that best meet specific needs.
Some executives hold firm to a belief that training is most effective when closely tied to HR, while others strongly support an independent department. Most, however, believe the answer lies somewhere in between.
Always â€¦ Never
To further enhance an entire “people management” system, many companies view training as a natural fit within the human resources department. “My responsibility includes the whole area of employmentâ€”how we recruit, how we hire, how we train and how we terminate,” says Allison Pierce, senior vice president of people development at Life Care Centers of America. “I think you gain a lot of synergy, because you can see the overall view of what’s going on and what you need. And I am able to use training and development to fulfill those needs.”
Like many other HR executives who are responsible for directing training departments, Pierce strongly believes that training is best deployed from a central department. A large portion of the course materials for the Cleveland, Tenn.-based company, which operates 250 elderly care facilities across the United States, includes healthcare compliance as well as customer service and supervisory skills training. Subject matter experts possess the knowledge and experience to share with trainees, says Pierce, but they may lack the skills to build training programs, write the curriculum and evaluate learning. “That’s why training and development should be rooted in HR,” she says, “because it is part of your expertise.” Plus, if the training department reported directly to the CEO, Pierce argues, training would be viewed as another corporate “silo” and would be underutilized.
Patrick Hernandez, vice president of organizational development for Denver-based Time Warner Telecom, points out that a training function firmly planted in an HR department makes the best use of resources. Basically, it boils down to what he calls “economies of scale.”
“I don’t think that people can be as productive unless [training] is in one central organization,” Hernandez says. And when measuring training’s effectiveness at the highest Kirkpatrick levels, he argues, overall corporate objectives also must be considered.
“The training function really should partner closely with other areas of HR, especially areas such as employee relations and compensation. No matter what people say, it is much more difficult to partner when you are not in the same organization,” Hernandez says. “To be successful as a support organizationâ€”let’s forget whether you are HR, ER or whateverâ€”if you cannot partner with your peers to get the overall job done, then you are going to fail anyway.”
Operating a centralized training department closely tied to human resources also saves money, says Hernandez, who is looking for ways to best use technology for training to save on employee travel costs. Yet even the best-made strategy to save expenses shouldn’t stray from achieving overall goals. “You can use technology, but if your learners don’t learn, that’s a smokescreen,” he says, “You’re saving money and you’re using technology, but are your people really reaching proficiency? In that arena I’d like to be further along, but structure-wise we are on the right track.”
Hernandez considers himself lucky to have worked with HR executives who value training. “If you don’t have the right executive, then training isn’t really heard at the top, and that would be one of the biggest disadvantages of being in HR,” he says. “I have seen it work that way in other companies, where training is the stepchild.”
At Pitney Bowes, leadership training also resides under centrally organized corporate human resources. “The reason was to get a common language and common management culture across the whole enterprise,” says Chuck Presbury, director of executive learning and development for the Stamford, Conn.-based mail and document management firm. Yet not all training is directed from a central training department, even though it is managed under human resources. Sales training, for example, falls within the purview of the sales management office, which operates one of the company’s largest training facilities.
“The benefit is that people can be very nimble in developing their skills to do their jobs every day,” says Presbury. “They can get it quickly, identify it very finely and tailor it individually on a local basis.” Because of such a structure, however, resources are not fully tapped from one unit to the other. “Employees may see the course and know training’s available,” he says, “but they don’t make the best use of it because they don’t have the other resources that go along with itâ€”be it coaching or anything else.”
Among those who believe that training should operate independently of HR is Frank Santora, director of planning and training for the Department of Civil Service for the State of New York. While Santora’s department works closely with the office of human resource management, it remains distinct in its mission. “I look at HR as responsible for putting people on payroll, looking at legal mandates for the hiring process and maintenance of records,” says Santora. “We are separate because of our tie to organizational improvement. We link some of the objectives of other divisions to our training and development to enhance the skills of our people. We all know what our function is. We are not personnel people; we don’t want to be involved in that.”
Yet, to operate efficiently, the planning and training division must coordinate with the HR department, particularly when sharing database information and dividing duties for new employee orientation programs. “We must be aware of all things that are available to us, and if we don’t know then we duplicate; we waste, and we end up running our own domains, if you will,” Santora says. “We need to ask if that is what we want to happen in our organization. Everybody talks about balance, but if we can balance the functions so that we can both be involved and not step on each other’s toes, we all achieve the objectives the commissioner would like us to achieve.”
Maybe: A Better Mix
When executives search for the best way to organize training in their corporate structure, they find few easy answers. Regardless of whether training sits within an HR department, one dilemma executives face regarding organizational structure centers on whether making decisions at a single office at corporate headquarters is the most beneficial. One financial service institution has learned to navigate this often-confusing terrain: Bank One.
Over the past few years’ Judy Albers, Bank One’s first vice president of national learning resources, has led her company through a training department restructuring. The product of several mergers, Bank One has steadily grown in staff, inheriting multiple business units along the way. Following the merger three years ago with First Chicago, Bank One had accumulated 61 independent training units, each with its own training managers. “Even within each business unit, it was just all over the board,” says Albers.
After much research and hard work from Albers and her team, Bank One emerged with a renovated corporate training structure that captures the breadth and depth of a centrally operated corporate HR program aligned with overall business strategyâ€”while maintaining the independence and flexibility of a stand-alone training department. The company still operates the same number of business units (six), but now one head of education leads each business unit.
Albers also formed the Education Planning Group, on which each head of education serves along with Albers and a representative from HR, to establish policy and make training decisions. “When your reporting relationships are different, there’s just something that you lose by not having a manager who is accountable for the performance of that line of business,” Albers says.
Even though training is firmly entrenched in HR, it does not mean that policy is organized solely inside corporate headquarters. “We just gave up on the idea of a chief learning officer,” Albers explains, “because we said you can’t centralize anywhere and be close enough to your customers.” Rather, Bank One “centralizes” those courses that may be needed across the entire company. But when it’s a niche need, the people who are closest to the customer should offer training, she says. Each line of business, such as retail banking for example, has an education unit that’s consolidated at the business level and is given the freedom and authority to create and adapt certain specific training programs as it sees fit.
Certain things must be accepted when training is organized the way it is at Bank One, says Albers. For instance, certain decisions and processes could be made faster if a department is organized under a chief learning officer. “We have been willing to sacrifice that for the sake of making sure that we are making the right decisions and being tied to our business objectives. We opted for a model that was a little bit closer to the customer rather than being more efficient for our own purposes,” Albers says. “Centralized training would have served us wellâ€”it’s easier to operate that wayâ€”but it wouldn’t have necessarily served our customers better. I don’t know anybody who is working together as closely as we are, but isn’t centralized.”
Much like Bank One, Pitney Bowes also adopted a committee approach to govern a portion of its training. Much of training was once accountable directly to the chairman, even though HR managed it. Now, the Leadership Advisory Council, comprised of the chairman and other business unit leaders, directs training policy. “The short answer is there is no perfect model,” says Pitney Bowes’ Presbury. “Both HR and training have to work together. That’s the trick.”
If training is to operate successfully, department leaders must learn to trust HR, he says. “It’s a catalyst. They are both parts of the perfect solution. They bring different expertise. You have to read what is happening with the culture to determine how it should be organized.” So while organizations must attempt to maintain this balance, every activity must align with business strategy first. Some managers fail to think of training in such terms, says Presbury. Instead, they often think about the technology of training without considering what it is supposed to deliver in terms of results.
“That’s why there is an endless debate on whether training should be under HR or should be decentralized,” says Presbury. “If HR or training thinks of it as a business function, I don’t think it becomes an issue where training is in the organization. It’s only when HR can’t do that, they lose credibility and that’s when the controversy comes up.”
Meeting Business Demands
Today, most company leaders realize that training must be flexibile to respond to changing conditions. Ellen Kamp, global head of learning and development at Morgan Stanley, New York, oversees a training program that is varied in structureâ€”some responsibilities falling within HR’s purview while other programs remain separate. While she prefers a more centralized training environment, she acknowledges a need for training to be handled flexibly.
“It is important for us to be nimble, to be able to meet everybody’s needs but also to drive the firm in the direction it needs to go,” says Kamp. “The business is changing dramatically. The market conditions are changing. The client requirements are changingâ€”of course the complexity has increased, yet the turnaround time has decreased.”
Even at Time Warner Telecom, where Patrick Hernandez has maintained his belief in strong central control under HR, professionals in the field provide input regarding training. At the company’s busy national operation’s center in Denver, customer service personnel continually process orders and handle billing operations. Because of the high demand for training, two trainers attend to training staff full time. “The reason we did that is because those employees live with the customer,” Hernandez says. “We have gained a lot of leverage with our customers by doing that.”
And while companies attempt to remain responsive to business demands for training with decentralized corporate structures, the key to making the process work may be contained in a single word: trust.
“The important thing is that the centralized and the decentralized units value and support each other,” says Mary Ann Donahue, an executive coach who worked for 25 years in training and operational development, most recently at Minneapolis-based Medtronic where she served as vice president of HR. “Many times there is competition between the twoâ€”based on scarcity of resources or ego-recognition needs. The result is that energy is wasted in the competition, and training outcomes for the business are less than they could be. It’s too bad, but all of us have heard it or done it in training: ‘My project management course is better than corporate’s,’ or ‘Let’s do it ourselves instead of waiting for business units to get their act together.'”
The real debate ultimately may boil down to finding a seat at the decision-making table, says Time Warner Telecom’s Hernandez. The only solution is to end the debate altogether. “Don’t whine about it,” he urges. “Put yourself in a position that you need to be successful. Regardless of where training sits, you have to get in front of your core management team. You have to make it happen, otherwise you are not going to see any value.”
Morgan Stanley’s Kamp attributes much of the debate to a concern that training professionals will not have control or that decisions will not be nimble enough to meet the training needs.
“What’s most important is leadership at the top and how well you can actually leverage people and make them feel connected regardless of where they sit in the organization,” says Kamp. “You really need to organize it not just with the boxes on paper, but instead ask: What kind of leadership are you putting into place? And how can they build the relationships that become seamless across the organization, regardless of where people sit?”
It’s not really an organization issue, Kamp says. Rather, “learning is much more about relationships. Building relationships, building the constituency and getting the good strategy in place can offset many of the debates. Debates are often symptomatic of much larger issues.”
And no doubt, this debate will continue as companies continue to align training to business strategy.
Executives aim for the heart of the matter in the ongoing debate about training’s spot in the organizational structure.
By Joel Schettler
Training magazine asked a random sample of training and HR executives working in a variety of industries to weigh in on the debate regarding training’s home in a corporation: What’s at stake? What difference does it make whether the training function is housed in HR or not?
“It’s the dilemma between HR often being the repository of technology of how humans learn and learn fast, and being able to get the business to focus on using and applying that well. So, when it’s in HR, you’ve got the processes that help to design it right, but the businesses have the content. And more importantly, the businesses by all means should be the people who put that knowledge to work.”
Director of Executive Learning and Development, Pitney Bowes
“I don’t think it means a damn thing, depending on who your boss is. If your boss understands the value of training-in other words understands that you can have all of the same strategies that ABC Company has, but if you can get your employees up much faster, it’s called speed to proficiency-then you are going to win the ballgame. Now if they understand that concept, it doesn’t really matter. I think it is really driven by the leader of the HR or training organization. Because if you report to the CFO, that is going to go nowhere as they often think training doesn’t bring any value. So, to me [the debate] doesn’t mean anything.”
Vice President, Organizational Development, Time Warner Telecom
“I think it’s part of coming to the table. What does the primary officer in your organization want and how do we get them there? Who drives the bus? Once you figure that out, you have to ask: Where do I sit on the bus? How do I get the programs that [executives] want delivered in a cost-effective and professional manner?
“I always think an organizational structure is set up to convey the philosophy of that organization. And if people don’t communicate, I think it’s a management situation. People won’t do anything unless there’s value. Why should I communicate with you? Why should I work with you if there’s no value or benefit to me?”
Director of Planning and Training, Department of Civil Service for the State of New York
“I’ll tell you my honest perception. In many companies HR gets a bad rap. And it is fascinating to me because HR had a different reputation in different legacy companies that have come together to form Bank One. We had different pockets of the organization-some of whom said that training is completely respected if it’s part of HR, and others that said if you are part of HR we are just going to write you off and decide what you offer is of no value. Much of it depends on HR’s reputation within a company and how bureaucratic it is being perceived. If HR as a whole is being seen as adding a lot of value to the company, then training is going to benefit from reporting to it.”
First Vice President, National Learning Resources, Bank One
“That’s a million-dollar question. I think it’s important in this company that it be a part of HR because I am very territorial when it comes to training. I want to help promote it. And it took us a long time to get to the point where other departments would really utilize us … If you had trainers in another area, or if they were separate from HR, I don’t want to say you would lose your expertise in training but your focus may not be 100 percent dedicated to training. If training and development reported directly to operations, let’s say, training to them is just another part of the puzzle. If training goes away, it’s really no big deal to them. But to me it is a big deal. I want to protect it. I want to promote it. I want to make it effective.”
Senior Vice President of People Development, Life Care Centers of America
“I think the whole debate is: How close to the business is learning? If an HR organization is not close to the business and is not viewed by the business leaders as strategic-and if learning is buried in there-then leaders will not think of learning as a tool to help them in implementing strategy.”
Chief Learning Officer, Ernst & Young
“I’d say it’s probably a couple of things. Part of it is perceptual in terms of ‘Can you be viewed as integrated to a business if you are sitting in HR?’ I think it’s a relevancy issue too. If you get too big, I think decentralized training tends to be closer to the business than you can be at the corporate level. I think it’s a generalization, but one could make that argument. But you can run into lots of issues around redundancy or inconsistency and fail to leverage those kinds of things. So to me it’s not an either/or. It’s how you create both, quite frankly.”
Global Head of Learning and Development, Morgan Stanley
“It depends on the credibility of the HR leader. If the HR function is seen as purely administrative and as the ‘policy police,’ then the training function is likely to be lumped into that perception as well. Training will fall into the trap of valuing itself for the number of participants it gets through training and the number of offerings it has in its calendar, not really impacting the business in a substantive way.”
Director of Performance Development, Life Fitness
Franklin Park, Ill.
“What’s at stake? A sense of ownership and a sense of functional excellence and accountability.”
Vice President, Restaurant HR and Training, Yum! Brands
“HR is focused on very important organizational issues that eventually drive productivity and performance-like diversity, staffing and compensation. Independent learning departments can serve HR while serving line organizations with real-time performance issues.”
Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer, Century 21 Real Estate Corporation
“The effectiveness of the training that organizations do, and therefore, the consistent skill level of the workforce and leadership [is at stake]. I think that training has been housed in HR for several decades now, and we should give other models a chance. The question is whether HR would be willing to give it up. Training is a visible entity. It can be a ‘plus’ for HR’s image. Why would they want to give it up?”
Mary Ann Donahue
Executive Coach, LeaderSource
Former Vice President of Human Development at Minneapolis-based Medtronic and Corporate Director of Training at Honeywell
Training, July 2002