Learning and Talent Management in Europe

This week I had the opportunity to keynote the largest learning conference in the UK, the UK Learning Technologies Conference (developed and run by Donald H. Taylor, one of the most knowledgeable professionals in our industry). The title of my presentation was “Informal Learning: What, Why, and How – and what it means to You.”

The thesis of the presentation is that three converging factors have accelerated the interest and adoption of informal learning: the recession, the need for deeper skills specialization, and the proliferation of new sharing and social networking technologies. If you would like to hear the whole story, send us an email and we will send you the slides.  (To view our informal learning framework, click here.)

We had approximately 450 L&D and HR professionals at the conference, and it was clear to me that the topic of informal learning was very interesting and enlightening to this audience.  As many of you know, we define informal learning in three categories (on-demand, social, and embedded) – and many of the questions people asked were about how to build a learning culture that supports this strategy.

But one of the most interesting things I wanted to share was how European organizations differ in their learning and talent strategies from those we work with in the US.   I was there an entire week and had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with more than 30 different L&D leaders and solution providers.

A Few Differences between Learning and Talent Strategies Across the Atlantic

•  Organizations in Europe are well behind the US in the adoption of traditional e-learning technologies. As the UK Corporate Learning Factbook® will point out (we will be publishing in a few weeks), the adoption rate of virtual classrooms, traditional e-learning, LMS, and other tools is only half that of the US.   I asked many attendees about this finding and the only good answer I heard was that  “people here live closer together and they are accustomed to meeting face to face.”   Fair enough.  This points out how important it is to reflect local customs and traditions in any learning or talent program (more on this later).  I do believe this is going to change – the European organizations I spoke with are very interested in informal learning and are now starting to jump into virtual classroom solutions in a big way.

• Many organizations we spoke with found traditional e-learning to be expensive, rigid, and hard to edit and modify.  In fact, one of the most popular e-learning development tools in the UK is Atlantic Link, a toolset which blends rapid e-learning and traditional design into an integrated, server-based solution (watch Atlantic Link to come to the US later this year).   Several companies told me that they were less than interested in developing expensive “high-fidelity” courseware because they knew it would go out of date so quickly.  This points out an important trend:  the expensive e-learning programs of the last 10 years are slowly being replaced by dynamically-produced videos, virtual classroom replays, and other highly dynamic content which can be created by subject-matter experts.

• Virtual classroom usage in Europe is growing rapidly. The UK organizations I spoke with were asking questions we heard in the US several years ago: how do I train instructors to use the technology? How do I make sure people are paying attention? These issues are very solvable – and we have many case studies and research reports which detail these practices.   In response to all this increased demand, this year we will be publishing a comprehensive new study of virtual classroom practices (and tools), authored by David Mallon.

• European and UK organizations understand the need for “deep specialization.”   In our conversations with Equifax, BT, BP, BDO, and others, we heard a tremendous focus on building career-level skills in various employee groups.  In the US it is often difficult to cost-justify a career development program (but this is changing rapidly) – the European companies we talked with understand this need, even when their budgets are being cut.  They understand and embrace mentoring and apprenticeship for operational skills as well as white collar development.

An excellent example of such a program is the apprenticeship program which BT uses for its field service organization. BT found that by hiring younger, lower skilled employees and training them internally they are able to develop the same level of skills through apprenticeship and their retention rate is 30-40% higher than professional hires.

• Talent management practices in Europe are more advanced and mature than typical companies in the US. Every company we spoke with has an established performance and succession process, and they understand the need to implement a “career progression” model (aka career development).   This is somewhat driven by the various government and labor regulations which require organizations to put in place career plans and training plans for all employees.

While career development programs are rapidly coming back int he US, most companies are more likely to use what we call the “pinball” approach to talent management – hire people into the company and let them bounce around from job to job like balls in a pinball machine.

• Following this trend, the European L&D professionals I talked with have an excellent understanding of all aspects of talent management.   Nearly every L&D professional I met with was intimately familiar with the need to link their programs to development planning and career progression programs.  In the US many L&D organizations still operate quite independently from HR.

This year we are significantly expanding our global research coverage into Europe and other geographies.   In the next few weeks we will be launching the UK Corporate Learning Factbook, and we plan more european research as the year progresses.  If you work in a global organization, you are a non-US solution provider, or have research needs in your local country, please contact us – we are actively engaged in many projects to further globalize all our research subject areas.

Bottom Line:  A Global Perspective on all Learning and Talent Programs is Critical

Bottom line: while disciplines, tools, and principles of learning and talent management are similar around the world, each geography must adapt to meet its local cultural needs. Countries which have a very “local and personal” way of doing business (e.g. Spain and Italy) are likely to tend toward more personal learning and talent processes.  You must adapt to these variances in your design, rollout, and implementation.

If you are building a global L&D or talent program, we always recommend you do three things:

• First, make sure your design and development team includes participants from the major geographies you serve. Unless you have lived and worked in the local country, you are very likely to miss some significant local issues in your whole program design.

• Second, do not assume that language translation will globalize a solution. Many non-US countries now speak English as their business language – but many do not.  In most cases it is more important to use local examples, local imagery, and local dialects and traditions than it is to simply translate content.

• Third, make sure that your program has a local program manager to support employees. Just as your design process must be collaborative and localized, so must your support strategy. No matter how hard you try to “design globally” you must “implement locally.” When an employee, manager, or learner needs help – you should make sure you have a local subject-matter-expert on your team to help them.

These three recommendations may seem simple and obvious, but many organizations do not follow them. One of the most important things to remember is that the most common failure point of a learning or talent management process is not the design, but rather the implementation. No amount of excellent design will succeed if local employees, managers, and HR and L&D staff do not understand, support, and embrace the program.

In today’s globalized business environment, we all benefit from a mindset of “freedom within a framework” – design globally and implement locally.

I welcome your comments and feedback on any of these topics.

4 Responses

  1. Tak Kusano says:

    Hi Josh, thanks for this. I think Bersin does great work. Re: other regions outside the US and Europe, I think you’ll also find different countries/regions in Asia to be at various stages of maturity for Talent Mgmt. ASEAN seems to be looking at TM more proactively whereas countries like Japan are still behind the curve when it comes to establishing formal business processes to support TM. I also think many Asian-based companies are focused on designing locally and implementing locally first – they’re not ready for global design yet.

  2. Ahmed Limam says:

    Be careful not to extrapolate from the UK. The UK market is in many ways closer to the US than it is to the “Continent.” A common mistake that many US companies make when they expand abroad is to establish a presence in the UK, localize their product for it and think that, voila!, they are European. It’s more significant to be based out of France or Germany in order be at the heart of Europe.

  3. Don Candon says:

    Geat artice. Would appreciate a copy of your keynote slides.
    Cheers, Don

  4. Roopa says:

    Great Article ! i loved the 3 points you have given for the success of al global L&D roll out, very pertinent especially in organisations which are multinational but with decentralised opeartions. The local buy in and adaptation is extremely critical to the success of the program. In india what i have experienced is that the traditional “e learning ” methodology of 30-40 mts learning pieces has been very difficult to implement and people respond much better to more informal and interactive methods like blogs, smaller bite sized online learning modules, discussion forums etc