Centralized Training in a Decentralized Organization

Article excerpt

Centralized Training in a Decentralized Organization

To centralize or decentralize; that is the question.

Every major organization, every bureaucracy, every purposeful group struggles with the issue of how training services should be organized to best serve a complex organization with many departments and diverse employees. Whether it's the National Footbal League, a local school district, Exxon, or the government of an urban county, an organization confronts the problem of how to maintain the delicate balance between centralized and decentralized operating units or some combination of the two. A centralized unit is a single training department that controls all training budgets and decisions. Decentralized units are autonomous within divisions and can organize their own programs and do their own assessments and evaluations.

The organization of an operating unit affects all departments--purchasing, maintenance, hiring, budgeting, strategic planning, and, of course, training and development. To find out what centralization or decentralization means to the training and development function in a large organization, we took a look at the training function in the County of San Diego.

We wanted to find out which training roles and responsibilities are centralized under a common operating unit in San Diego County. Which are decentralized into separate functions or departments? How might operations be altered to better serve departments, divisions, and the entire organization? What do training coordinators think about separate operating units within a central training unit, and how do trainers see their current and ideal roles, personally and as a department? Those were some of the questions raised during the case study.

Background

Decentralization is nothing new. In 1919, Alfred P. Sloan applied a philosophy of decentralization to General Motors. Even today, GM management assigns greater and lesser responsibility to separate business or functional units, sometimes for reasons that seem capricious, and rarely with any systematic assessment of what people in the decentralized operating units think about it.

The literature of 1970s clearly favors a centralized training function. Authors such as Bowser, Hon, and Warren touted the advantages of centralization -- economies of scale, consistency in content and programs, and superior technology of instruction. In 1976, Moore and Kondrasuk presented a case study comparing clerical training under centralized and decentralized conditions. Their data show a clear advantage for centralized training in cost, error rates on the job, and performance evaluation of trainees. A 1974 study by the Bureau of National Affairs reported that, except for on-the-job training, most organizations allocate the entire cost and responsibility of training to centralized units.

The 1970s literature gives short shrift, however, to the disadvantages of centralization, such as lost local autonomy and customization. Authors tended to address those problems by recommending extensive outreach programs, combined with centralized mandates.

In the 1980s, the pendulum has swung back toward decentralization. Influenced, perhaps, by the writings of Tom Peters, Robert Waterman, and Nancy Austin, many experts believe that decision making is most effective when it is accomplished by the people closest to the job. In a 1986 survey, Ralph and Stephan asked HRD professionals to identify who was responsible for the development of human resources. Sixty-three percent said line management, rather than HRD professionals. In another example, contributors to the February 1987 "Four by Four" column in the Training & Development Journal unanimously recommended decentralization as the organizational framework for training functions.

The advantages and disadvantages have remained the same over time, but the values, and thus advice, have changed. …