Be sure you are bringing your corporate training in house for the right reasons

Considering starting in-house training to save on costs? UCT GSB's Tim London has some food for thought.

Over the last few years, a confluence of events has led to a change in how some organisations, particularly for-profit companies, have viewed the training of their employees. Concerns about the relevance of universities generally and business schools specifically have led to many leaders questioning whether programs like the MBA, seen for the last few decades as an increasingly standard part of an employee’s career trajectory in many industries, are the go-to option they once were. 

Tied to this is the reality that many industries are experiencing not only significant change, but also significantly faster changes, which has placed a premium on the ability to upskill and reskill their people quickly, flexibly, and continuously. 

All of this has led to a push to create in-house “universities” or “schools” (referred to as “training schools” in the rest of this piece), where organisations develop their own talent. This holds many potential benefits, but can also run into some potential pitfalls if implemented poorly; herein are a few key points to consider to ensure your in-house training institutions are maximally impactful.

Experience isn’t everything 
First of all, it is essential that you do not fall into the common trap of using “years of experience in the organisation” as a primary selection criterion for who will be decision-makers in the training school. There are, of course, benefits to having people who have institutional knowledge available to provide history and analysis of how the organisation has developed over time. What can happen, however, is the type of thinking that leads to comments like “we tried that before and it didn’t work” or “that’s not how we do it here”; while each of those points might be true, when put that way, they are often killers of new thinking or attempts at new practices. 

On the flip side, not having any people with a depth of experience in the company or industry can mean you miss out on engaging some of your influential people and their insight into issues that generally only emerge over engaged experience.

Internal vs external 
The second, related challenge, is how much weight to give to internal developers of your training school as opposed to external experts. As noted above, internal staff will have insights into current and past practices, close experience with the people and processes that make up the organisation, and will be invested in the success of the training school and organisation in ways that an external contributor may not be. 

On the other hand, external experts can bring in new perspectives via their different professional or academic backgrounds, unique skillsets for training that might not exist in the organisation already, and connections with other people, groups, or organisations that can provide greater diversity to the training mix. 

It is rare that a heavy reliance on one or the other is optimal, so it is imperative that careful interrogations are made about where internal capacity can add value and also where there are gaps, which would benefit from outside contributions, either permanently or on an ad hoc basis. One area where this crops up frequently is in relation to the balance of skills training and new thinking or mindsets development.

The benefits of academic experts 
This discussion often leads to weighing internal capabilities against one, very specific potential outside contributor: experts in the form of academics. While many academics do boast practical experience, they are usually brought on board as participants in training schools because they will know the most about current and past research into issues that are central to an organisation’s development. 

This type of input is essential to developing a more diagnostic, critical approach to not just learning, but also how things work in the organisation itself. This can be, if handled well, a very effective way of blending the skills and practical insights of current practices from your internal staff with developing the thinking skills and mindsets of those on programs to equip them to challenge current practice and spot new opportunities.

One area that would bridge the academic/external/internal expertise aspect to the benefit of everyone is utilising not just the content knowledge of academics, but the course design skills of staff and faculty from the higher education environment. 

You could, for example, look to people with expertise in designing, delivering, and quality assuring courses for an Executive Education or Lifelong Learning division, or tap into those that have designed fully accredited degree programs to gain their insights in building bigger programs that also reflect the current academic requirements for degree status. Good in-house learning programmes are, after all, a good mix of content, course design, and ongoing support in and out of the classroom to connect new learnings to their current and future work situations.

Be sure of your reasons why 
Central to all of this, then, is the fact that you should only start an in-house training school when you are certain about what you want your people to learn and how you want them to develop. This means having a clear sense of what will make it worthwhile to go through the expense and challenge of getting a solid training school running; just saying “we don’t want to pay to send our people somewhere else” is likely to bring longer-term issues. So, by all means, if you think you can do it better, you should do it, just remember to

  1. Be clear for everyone why the in-house approach will offer benefits (these could be costs, time, shaping of content, immediate connection to work, etc.).
  2. Decide on what you want your people to be learning as far as new skills, new approaches, new mindsets, deeper understanding of root issues, or some other learnings; it can, of course, be designed to serve more than one of these!
  3. Based on the previous two decisions, make sure you bring in the right people to help design the school. Don’t just think in terms of curriculum content, consider the design issues, pedagogical practices, and how you will quality assure the offerings.