Who Controls The Learning Budget?

  • Dan White
  • March 4th, 2021

Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the challenging and often-thorny issue of who controls the learning and development budgets in organizations, and how to coordinate with individual managers and departments to maximise the spend effectiveness.

Control Of Learning Budgets

Who controls the learning and development budget in your organization? What is the best way to coordinate and optimise the spending on learning?

This is a knotty problem I’ve grappled with for many years. My opinion tends to swing pendulum-like between the benefits of local, market, region and departmental decisions being made to best suit a given learning cohort versus the benefits of cultural consistency and the creation of a shared language you get from organization-wide decisions.

Of course, it depends on the topic. It can be the case that both local and global control of elements of the learning budget makes sense. A line in the CEO budget for aspects of leadership development for example could make sense. Similarly sensible are divisional budgets of more technical training.

Today I’m beginning to wonder about a new direction in budget control however, one where the individual learner is in charge.

Technology is increasingly allowing us in the learning industry to tailor and bespoke learning journeys for every individual learner. People with more and more specialised skills need more and more specialised learning. Cohorts are increasingly convened not to learn together but to buddy up, coach each other, provide community and share their challenges and triumphs.

Learning practitioners are accepting that learning happens on the job, not in the conference room. And when we do need an injection of support or knowledge increasingly we are going on line or speaking to someone virtually (e.g. through a coaching app) rather than attending classes.

When we accept this and embrace the changes that advances in technology allow us to make it does rather beg the question of who is best placed to make sensible decisions about how to spend money on learning.

There are real benefits to working in a large organization when it comes to learning. Not only is it a rich and diverse environment where you can learn from many talented people, scale also brings buying power. Having a coordinated approach to buying learning allows you negotiate much better deals.

I remember repeatedly pulling our hair out as L&D buyers to discover that individual HR managers and senior business leaders were doing deals with executive coaching companies all around the organization with no reference to what was considered a sensible price. The quality and price varied considerably.

But the advantage of going to locally known practitioners was that they got precisely what they wanted, or at least they felt they did.

I wonder now if the time has come for to embrace the benefits of both. Global purchasing but with much more localised, individual even, choice. Do we need to go glocal?

Large companies can use their scale to secure great opportunities that would be unfeasible if individual departments, let alone individual learners, were left to fend for themselves. They can create equal opportunity of access to development across regions and seniority bands. But virtual means that after that the whole experience can be tailored, not just at the divisional or regional level, but at the individual level.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that central L&D teams need to create the platform, the combination of configurable components that regions and divisions can align to the challenges they face.

Once configured to the local challenge the final configuration needs to be done at the individual level, where each learner has the right conversations with the right people at the right time to maximise the learning budget’s impact on the organization outcomes that matter.

Our research has shown that what matters to organizations also matters to individuals, i.e. individuals if given the choice will choose to focus on areas that are important to the company and reflect a gap in their capability.

What remains is a challenge of engagement. Giving people the opportunity to learn is not the same as creating the expectation that they will take that opportunity. A combination of clever metrics, dashboarding, reporting, role modelling and more means that engagement in virtual, tailored, 1:1 learning can be very high as we see on our programs.

Generally, we also see that less is more. Giving people access to lots of potential opportunities to learn is overwhelming and freezes us. We find it better to use human interaction to plot a course and steer the learner to the few specifics that will make a real difference, right now. People need a learning concierge, a tailor, a sommelier even.

With virtual learning platforms the individual can take charge of their learning journey, they can pull the learning they need. Our challenge is to create an engaging, intuitive user experience that invites people in and gives them just what they need, not everything we can do.

Maybe it’s time for individuals to take control of their learning budget?

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