The year that learning becomes strategic...

SaaS & learning - Are they strategic?
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

(Guest post by colleague Dr. Katherine Jones)

“Our IT department believes that for those systems that aren’t mission critical, outsourcing is the way to go.”

This innocuous statement may sound fine on the surface, but the context raised some real issues for us. The statement was made by the manager of global learning in regard to the acquisition of a SaaS-delivered learning management system. Two issues emerge.

The first issue is the implication that provision of education in the corporate world is not strategic. If we look at the recent acquisition of Learn.com by Taleo, SuccessFactors’ integration of GeoLearning, and the recent success Cornerstone and Saba have had with their learning solutions, we can see that learning is re-emerging as a key corporate and organizational concern. There were a good many learning providers represented at the recent HR Technology conference in Chicago (this blogger’s favorite HR conference) --vendors demonstrated the inclusion of social networking methods for educational gain, and, importantly, the integration of learning within performance management. The provision for ongoing learning and skills improvement is such a clearly required component in the overall employee performance management life cycle that it seems that it would go without saying. However, many initial employee performance rating systems focused more on isolating the delta between work objectives and their fulfillment or the gaps in the quality of performance, and they failed to include training within the performance management program. Now, all that has changed.

As corporations and other organizations try to regain their pre-recession prowess, perhaps with fewer workers, there is a need to train and re-train the existing employees to fill the critical positions within the company. Training a current employee with new skills is often far more efficient than searching for, hiring, and inculcating a new worker with those skills into the organization. Vital Analysis research shows that workers trained for their positions are more easily retained – but also improve customer satisfaction rate in two ways—the worker is well trained in the products and services of the company, thereby providing a reliable source of information, and because retention rates increase, customer satisfaction rates also increase as customers have continuity in the people with whom they associate within the organization.

In positions where new hires are needed – sales, for example—training is paramount for success, because a sales representative cannot sell what he or she doesn’t know. Think of the ramifications of having a new sales rep selling business technology he or she didn’t fully understand. The customer dissatisfaction that follows the inadvertent misrepresentation of a products features or functions can be mitigated by sales training on the product and how and when to sell it.

The Millenniums -- today’s recent college graduates -- are looking for more out of work than a paycheck. They seek and value the employer’s investment in them and their growth -- and actively look for that investment in seeking initial career positions. Emphasis on learning and professional growth in the work environment is critical to attracting and retaining workers new to the workforce. Furthermore, learning management improves the gathering of metrics required for compliance. In environments with required training, for example, on harassment or OSHA rules, one manager we interviewed said that before using an LMS system she could only tell who had taken a requisite course, not who didn’t.

The second issue with the beginning statement is the implication that if it’s not strategic, it can be outsourced—by which in this case the speaker meant provided as software as a service. This raises hackles in that many of a corporation’s most strategic business systems are either outsourced or delivered as SaaS just because they are strategic – and require the security and professional management that both outsourcing and SaaS can provide. Areas in the corporations that seek frequent innovation in their software look to SaaS systems first -- because those programs get innovation to market faster than on-premise solutions.

As HR professionals walked through the trade show floor at HR Technology, there was ample evidence that SaaS is no longer allotted to non-strategic applications.

Embedding learning management with performance is indeed strategic. If we want to instill engagement and further productivity, and hope to do so through improving performance management systems, learning has to be integrated in the design of the process. We hope that the IT Department mentioned above will recognize the business value of continued learning within the company and the added-value of software-as-a-service—and realize that both are strategic to the organization.

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