An increasing number of learning and development (L&D) professionals are struggling to find a good balance between their global L&D initiatives and their local and business unit operations. This article aims to provide insights and a few proven answers for chief learning officers (CLOs) to handle the global-local L&D balance.

It is not news that the world is changing at an accelerating pace. In order to face these complex changes, a study by Hay Group and Z_Punkt identified several megatrends that lead to the main challenges corporate organizations face when adapting in order to stay competitive:

  • Technological convergence: New technological breakthroughs transform many areas of everyday business.
  • Digitization: Work goes remote, and people increasingly live online.
  • Individualism: Growing freedom of choice and options for work.
  • Demographic change: The population is aging and the workforce is composed of three to four different generations.
  • Economic downturn: Climate change and scarce raw materials.
  • Globalization 2.0: Economic power shifts and growing competition.

Within corporate organizations, L&D teams are being asked to do more with less, produce higher quality and achieve greater consistency, which puts them under greater pressure to redefine their roles and re-evaluate their structure.

A large international Telecom provider faced major challenges in the L&D area following a recent acquisition. L&D was managed at a business unit (BU) level (strategy, content, budget), and skills training was not consistent across those BUs with the outcome that workforce exchange between BUs was challenging in terms of skills gaps (common capabilities). Recommendations from a global L&D review included:

  • Develop and implement a global core skills curriculum.
  • Determine the optimum for design and deployment for the core curricula: What’s global, what’s BU.
  • Improve the curriculum design: Blend classroom and digital learning, and add social and workplace learning elements.

In today’s globalizing business environment, it is a risk for the L&D function to hang on to traditional structures and remain focused on the local workplace. There are opportunities in building on local best practices and leveraging these at a global L&D level, linked directly to the core business strategy. In order to achieve this, the L&D organization must find the best possible balance between global and local (or business unit).

The challenge is getting the balance right between local autonomy and global scale. In recent years there has been a swing in balance from local to global L&D. In the case of a global bank, a review revealed 12 LMS systems, overlapping technical, skills and leadership curricula, and a lack of clarity on measurement and governance. In reaction, a first-time global L&D strategy was developed and launched that implied a shift from local to global, which turned out to be a rough ride in practice. Despite the efficiency opportunities, it quickly became clear that there were downsides to centralization (e.g., loss of flexibility and commitment at a local level). It took the bank in question approximately five years to get its balance right and benefit from synergies.

Conversations and surveys with 40+ CLOs provided a high-level overview of the pros and cons of centralizing L&D. Pros for centralization include efficiency and cost savings at a global level, scale and consistency, global control, and clarity on decision-making and investments. Cons for centralization include increase of local costs (short-term), reduced flexibility, loss of local commitment (L&D and sponsors), and loss of local autonomy.

Global-Local (Central/Decentral) Assessment Model

After recognizing that globalizing L&D in a corporate environment is a long and painful journey that should be tuned to both the structure and culture of the business, it became apparent that the only answer to where optimal balance lies is covered by “as global as possible, as local as necessary.”

This does justice to both the pros and cons of centralizing, and provides corporate L&D leaders the opportunity to define the gap between reality and ambition in their business environment. A deep-dive into a professional services’ global L&D operation revealed all the described opportunities and challenges, leading to the initiative to develop a model that could be used by CLOs to identify the global-local “gap,” and as a basis to develop and implement action plans to progress. This model has now been optimized by the CrossKnowledge Learning Institute for the needs and challenges of global companies.

The beauty of the model is that it provides insights into core L&D drivers: strategy; measurement; governance; content; L&D staff, technology and its steps on the bandwidth global > local without being directive. The model provides the opportunity for each corporate organization to define both the “As Is” and “To Be” for each L&D driver and develop an action plan. The model does not have the rigor to globalize in every dimension; 100 percent globalized strategy and technology can go hand-in-hand with a more collaborative governance.

More than 20 CLOs have used the model successfully in the past two years to plot their specific L&D situation and make the present and future of their L&D operation transparent. In addition, they’ve identified where and how they could progress toward as global as possible, taking the pros and cons into account.

Managing Global-Local Strategy, Content and Technology

A topic that has not been addressed so far is how to find a global-local balance in L&D content management. Based on corporate benchmarking meetings with CLO-peers and first-hand experience, this clearly shows to be a huge challenge, not only in terms of cost-efficiency but also in relation to consistency, cultural flexibility and buy-in from the local L&D community.

Let’s explore the (real) case of an organization with 16 different onboarding programs developed and rolled-out with one global business strategy. A review showed that 80 percent of the onboarding content was similar, but obviously countless time, energy and resources had been invested to design and deploy the 16 programs. The review recommendation was to pull together a global-expert design group from different locations who drafted a global onboarding program design populated with existing best practices. The result of this was an 80 percent blended onboarding solution, which could be launched in each company location with the opportunity for maximum 20 percent local adaption to realize a perfect culture fit, if needed in terms of language and cases. Not only is this method more efficient, it also led to an increase in global L&D consistency and buy-in from the local L&D colleagues, who felt recognized rather than neglected!

Based on similar examples related to L&D content, technology and processes in corporate L&D environments, the global-local matrix framework that enables CLOs to populate this framework tuned in to their own organization.

For each content area, there’s an opportunity to consider where it makes the most sense to plot design and delivery in your organization. For digital learning, it’s most efficient and effective to design and deliver globally. In practice, identify and contract the best global provider with a relevant portfolio available in multiple languages. For personal skills, it’s most effective and efficient to design globally and deliver locally. In practice, determine the core skills curriculum and design incorporating benchmark content with the option to locally adapt. For a specific country-legal program, it’s best when designed and delivered locally, AND share this local initiative as a possible best practice with the global L&D community.

In summary, global L&D strategy and local optimization are twin goals attainable through exploring the “as global as possible, as local as necessary” balance. Local flexibility drives agility, growth, and L&D community and business sponsor engagement. All these ingredients are necessary to develop an L&D organization that is globally “fit for purpose.”