Wake-Up Call the Real Decision Makers: E-Learning Suppliers Are Bypassing Corporate Training Functions and Selling Directly to Business Units

Article excerpt

When the administration solutions division of management consulting firm Towers Perrin decided to improve its training efficiency, the business unit researched the field and then purchased a new learning management system to suit its needs. It did so without consulting anyone at the corporate level, including the training department. In fact, it was the first purchase of a learning management system within the company, says Cher Zoltak, the units's chief learning officer who made the deal.

It often works that way now. Hungry e-learning vendors frequently call directly on business units or the executive suite, bypassing the corporate training department. And like Towers Perrin, those offices often initiate the purchase of e-learning platforms, content, and services without informing training or HR. Neither is a happy occurrence for the director of training, who typically reacts with a mixture of frustration and alarm. That executive's lack of empowerment is driven home with every outside purchase, while the opportunity to offer expertise and leverage buying is lost.

Depending on who you consult, the sale of learning software and services directly through business units and other offices amounts to a growing trend, business as usual, or simply no trend at all.

"It still looks to me like training and development are smack in the middle of the action," says Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University and a veteran training consultant. For the function to be elsewhere is an illogical way for an enterprise to fly, she suggests.

But others beg to differ. "Within the last six months, we've dealt infrequently with training managers and departments," reports Dave Egan, vice president of business development and partner strategies with THINQ Learning Solutions. Sales of the THINQ LMS platform are typically made directly to company management--sales VPs in some organizations, CIOs in others. While training directors are sometimes at the table, Egan says, "I cant point to a recent example in which they were driving the decision-making process.

That point is echoed by Lee Maxey, chief learning officer of Click2learn, where sales reps typically deal directly with business units. But he says the suggestion that vendors are actually "bypassing" training departments in targeting lines of business is misleading. He refers to it as "penetrating an account. Others prefer to use the term alternative channels.

Corporate training managers use yet another term--initiative-based learning--and it's not a popular expression. It means that someone has undermined their authority, and it suggests that their departments are considered irrelevant by fleet-footed sales and customer service units that have independently incorporated a training focus into their organizations.

Is that a hard image to shake? Perhaps. After all, the training department provides a service to an organization. By definition, it's a layer removed from the business productivity requirement. In an era in which people are asked to do more with less, and to demonstrate a return on the decisions they make, the people often in the best position are directly on the line within a business unit. But that often means that large companies end up with numerous LMSs and other platforms, incurring predictable incompatibility problems when employees transfer internally and management consolidates.

Business units move ahead

"There is no question that business units are looking closely at training and performance and asserting control over both," says Marc Rosenberg, a principal with Chicago-based DiamondCluster International, a global management consulting firm, and author of E-Learning Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age. "In difficult times, centralized training departments frequently are cut back. …

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