September  14,  2016

There is no one best model for a learning and development function, but there is a best model for your organization.

In any company, L&D interacts with other internal entities according to certain rules: who has decision-making authority, what the roles and responsibilities are, and who owns the money for training development and delivery. So what are those entities? It could be functions within a business – say, Supply Chain or Sales. For a global corporation, it might be geographic regions – North America, Europe, Asia/Pacific. In a consulting company, it might be major service offerings, like Audit, Tax, and Advisory. In a very large company, the components might be a matrix that crosses both regions and functions or offerings.

Whatever the components, your L&D organization falls somewhere on a continuum of authority and centralization. I’ll talk about the pros and cons of structures along this continuum.

The Centralized Model

How It Works

L&D planning and decision-making are driven centrally. Let’s say Jack Lerner is the head of the L&D function for a consumer products company. Jack has a training budget and a team to build a curriculum and courses for each of the functions. He and his team of direct reports are responsible for onboarding, compliance, and leadership programs that cross the functions.

Jack works with each business function to understand its training and development needs. He then looks across all the existing curricula to see whether there are materials or courses that could be leveraged. If Jack can’t find anything, he works with instructional designers – who might be part of his team or a separate service – to build courses the function needs.

Jack prioritizes course development according to the strategic needs of the overall business. For example, the Rental function might be new, and therefore have a heavier need for development than the very mature Manufacturing function.

Why Use This Model

Centralized models are efficient. Jack will have a good view of what is already in the curriculum and what the gaps are. This model reduces redundancy; without this model, each function tends to build its own courses though another function might already have it. A centralized model fosters standardization of content and processes. The model makes it easier to ensure that all training programs are aligned with the strategic objectives of the company rather than the sometimes conflicting needs of each area. Jack gets his budget from the company overall and usually has the authority of how to allocate funds.

Common Pitfalls

If the other entities in the organization aren’t communicating well with Jack or if they don’t have a good understanding of learning and development issues or if they try to circumvent the centralized function and develop training on their own, they risk creating training that is disconnected from the goals of the business. If Jack’s team isn’t large enough and/or skilled enough, they can be too slow and too removed from the business to be useful in a fast-paced functional area.

The Decentralized Model

L&D planning and decision-making reside in the business components. Jack might have responsibility for programs that cross functional areas, such as onboarding and compliance. In smaller companies, these programs might be handled by HR with little or no dedicated L&D support. In either case, some cross-functional programs are typically still held centrally in the decentralized model. The rest of the learning professionals are deployed to the functions. Each reports to the function’s leadership and develop programs specifically for that function.

How It Works

Let’s say that Alicia is responsible for the Manufacturing function’s learning program. Each fiscal year, she and the VP of Manufacturing work on the training priorities and budget to train the professionals. Alicia then partners works with her team to develop the Manufacturing training program for the year. She is aware of the central training that is impacting the people in her group, but has very little visibility to the training is being built in any other business unit.

Why Use This Model

Decentralized models can be very effective and targeted for the business. There is less coordination, as Alicia has a clear reporting relationship only to the function she serves.  With the Manufacturing team as her focus, she can respond quickly to every request. Her budget is allocated by Manufacturing, annually.

Common Pitfalls

Because Alicia doesn’t know what the other functional leads are doing, she won’t realize that, for example, each of them is building a course on communications. That means wasted development dollars. Each function must also prepare facilitators to deliver the training. And, and in some areas, they might not have enough learners to make a full class. Alicia might not know there’s a new and innovative program Luis is building for his function, so she won’t take advantage of his best thinking. Finally, since Alicia’s L&D team is relatively small (it might just be Alicia, in fact), she is less likely to grow as an L&D professional.

Finally, in the middle of the continuum is the Balanced Model.

The Balanced Model

In this model, L&D planning and decision making are driven through a central function with significant partnership from the business. Jack has responsibility for the company’s cross-functional curriculum. The rest of the learning professionals or HR business partners are deployed to the functions. They are responsible for ensuring function-specific training is built. They own the functional requirements and the outcomes.

How It Works

This is the most matrixed model. All parties must coordinate, collaborate, and communicate for this model to work well. Jack probably owns curriculum that impacts all employees. This might include onboarding and compliance training as well as professional, leadership, and/or consulting skills. Jack also owns the company-wide training schedule, and the learning management system and other development and delivery technology.

The business partners or functional designees are responsible for understanding and representing the needs of the business and the functional and on-the-job skills that need to be built. Together, the crew works to balance priorities and build an effective and efficient curriculum.

Why Use This Model

When implemented well, a balanced model represents the best of both worlds. There is a deep understanding of the business married with standard processes, tools, and governance. This model is both effective and efficient, particularly when it works within a clear governance structure. (This is a topic for a future blog entry.)

Common Pitfalls

On paper, it seems like the Balanced model should be the nirvana of organization structures, but successful implementation is tricky. It requires all parties to communicate and collaborate in good faith – weighing the needs of each part of the business with the company overall. If Luis decides to create custom communications training for his function, even though there is a company-wide communications course, the model loses some of its value.

These three models are common examples of many possible variations. Organization structures are sometimes more fluid in practice than in design. Think about which L&D organization structure you have, whether it’s functioning as designed – to take advantage of the model – and whether it’s aligned with your company’s overall objectives.