Transforming the Learning and Training Function into a Revenue Generator

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Allen Krom

Turning Learning into a Value-Added Function: A Case Study

It was January 2002. I was participating in a corporate budget meeting and my CEO looked at my boss, the CIO and I. "Revenue is down to its lowest level in 30 years, so we need to downsize the training department within 60 days," the CEO said. "I need a restructuring plan to be submitted within three weeks." There was no further discussion and I then had to talk with my team to determine how best to restructure the learning department.

There was one immediate problem: the global company was structured into 16 training silos that operated autonomously within specific geographical areas. These 16 teams served to provide leadership and operational content training across 12 separate brands, operating in 90 countries. The teams ranged in size from one staff member in Hungary to 32 staff members in Paris.

I quickly scheduled a global conference call with leaders from all of the training centers to discuss options. On the call, numerous ideas were offered:

  • Reduce curriculum to mandatory training only. This will allow for reduced staff numbers. How do we handle single staffed centers? Limit staff travel for training.
  • Close all training centers. Reduce training staff numbers, trainers work from home except when providing training.
  • Transfer content to eLearning modality.

"What did I just hear?! " I thought. "Do they really expect the training centers to change the format of the training?" The training staff was doing a great job in the classroom. However, the prevailing wisdom existing at that time within the company was that people did not learn from the computer, they learned from discussion and conversation.

"No, we cannot do that."


Deployment of the Learning Center

This general conversation with global trainers has given rise to two avenues of thought for the learning team here in the USA to consider.

  1. What can our team do to mitigate the effects of budget reductions within our purview (North America)?
  2. What services can we offer that will allow for the integration of the global learning teams?

Luckily for us, the North American learning teams, the decision was made by the Executive Committee to build a new corporate office. Also, as the Executive Committee believed in the need for a learning department, the focal point of the new corporate office will be the learning center. To staff the center, three training teams that are currently independent of each other were integrated and centrally located at the new office. The vision of this learning center was to provide leadership training to the upper 15% of corporate, regional and brand management.

As the team eagerly awaited the opening of the new offices, leaders of the three training teams began to discuss how the integration was to occur and what must be done to address budget restraints while also addressing the leadership training needs of the new group of management students. Unfortunately, more time was spent on the team integration process than on actual leadership content development. That is not to say that the consolidated team lacked leadership training skills, rather, no new content was developed at this time— even though the student base had evolved. Following the opening of the learning center, in July 2003, the content was delivered in a classroom setting. The management attending the leadership training traveled to the center to receive training.

The Evolution of the Learning Center

Following the opening of service delivery, the North American learning center staff continued to have conversations regarding how to live within the reduced training budget, which by budget year 2 (2005) had begun to shrink even further due to travel restrictions instilled by the brands. Thus, the student population attending the classroom training was declining. Concepts under discussion included:

  • Use of a Learning Management System to track training (at the time, training numbers were being tracked via a manual system.)
  • Redesigning the content of the hotel general manager training.
  • Restructuring/reduction of the field trainer/technician positions.
  • Possible transition to either an eLearning and/or blended learning environment.

In 2005, the decision was made to begin the transition to an online, eLearning type program especially for the operations staff at the hotels. After evaluating several Learning Management Systems, one LMS was determined to best fit the learning needs of the field staff. Beginning slowly, a contract was awarded for an LMS as well as several "off the shelf" programs that allowed for reduced staff travel and learning within the local business environment. Programs purchased initially included:

  • Safety
  • Bed bug resolution
  • Office productivity
  • Sexual harassment

Although this transition to the new delivery system of training content allowed for budgetary savings, there continued to be a need for additional monetary savings. Thus began a discussion about the possibility of charging for training. However, since the learning center was being funded through prepaid training funds from the North American brands, increasing the cost per student was not a possibility. Also during this same time period, discussions were taking place at the global level for the possible delivery of online content to the global training sites. The problems remained of how, where, what content, and what would stimulate the purchase of the training content by other training sites?

In early 2007, a decision by the global Acadêmie leaders was that each of the 16 global sites should take the responsibility of becoming the leader in a specific skill set. An outcome of that decision was that the learning center in North America would take the lead in providing eLearning content across the globe. Luckily, during this same time period, the COO of one of the USA brands had come to the center to request assistance in developing a skills assessment for the revenue management program currently being taught within his brand silo.

A content development team was compiled that included the Director of Global Revenue Management (Paris, FR), a North American Revenue Manager (Phoenix, AZ) and the Director of eLearning for the North American Learning Center (Dallas, TX). Over the next few months, this team designed a 600 rotating question assessment for seven revenue positions located at both the corporate office and the hotels in North America. This assessment was provided online via the corporate online learning portal which had been rolled out earlier that year.

The initial deployment of this assessment occurred at a global Revenue Management team meeting in Roissy, France. Although the decision had already been made for the North American hotels to use this content, the availability to the assessment was made to other corporate global learning centers for their utilization.

The learning center in Sydney, Australia was the first to purchase access to the online portal from North America. The purchase of this access allowed the hotel staff in Australia not only to view the revenue assessment but also all of the other educational libraries available through North America. The Australian rollout was quickly followed by interest from the teams in New Zealand, Hungary, Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Singapore. Each learning center wanted to purchase access to the online training, but each country had specific needs different from others. Although each country wanted the Revenue Management program, each country purchased different additional content. In 2009, access to the online portal was expanded to include the brand Sales Departments in New Zealand and the USA.

In 2008, access to the online portal had outgrown the capabilities of the existing LMS and available content to the degree that a change in LMS companies was necessary. Also, a greater breadth of Leadership content was now necessary. In 2011 a change to a third LMS was necessary.

In the years that the online portal has been available, the revenue received from our customers allowed the content offerings to expand from 0 hours of learning to 50,000+ hours. This revenue, in addition to gaining the approval of the CEO, also allowed us to fund other projects within the North American Learning Center that would have gone unfulfilled.

Lessons Learned in Transitioning the Learning Function

Leveraging the learning function to be a revenue generator in the current financial environment is not only necessary—it is mandatory to keep your budgets intact. Let no idea go unexamined. No idea is too far out there.

Please keep in mind that at the beginning of our journey, eLearning was not an option and, in fact, was voted down by a majority of the global teams. You need to find one or two stakeholders willing to push the envelope. Also remember the importance of CEO buy-in and IT Dept assistance. This CEO buy-in means not only a simple yes from him/her, but actual program marketing through emails and other materials distributed from the CEO’s office.

8 Potential challenges remain, moving forward in 2011 and beyond:

  1. Lack of forward looking vision by the learning teams.
  2. Defining how the learning process help achieve the company’s business goals.
  3. Lack of relevancy of the content to the learner.
  4. Not providing the knowledge at the moment of need for the learners to do their job better.
  5. Limited ease of access to the content for the learner.
  6. Push versus pull technology: determining which is most productive.
  7. Lack of internal stakeholders.
  8. Lack of CEO and Executive Committee member buy-in.

"Change in the learning industry is inevitable"

As Elliot Masie and other learning industry professionals continue to tell us, "change in the learning industry is inevitable." For proof, simply review the past ten years of learning. From forty hours in the classroom, to four hours of self-paced eLearning content, to one hour synchronous learning, to a three minute video received on a smart phone. Technology can significantly ease the learning process. Now with the iPad, nothing can stop learning across the globe.

Learning programs must become a revenue generator rather than an expense line on their corporate financial sheets. Moving forward to provide your learners with knowledge "at the moment of need" (Conrad Gottfredson) will take time, technology, team cooperation, and money.

Resolving these challenges will not come overnight. Thus the journey, which many of us began years ago, continues today.