Blazing Their Own Trails

Training and development programs are now more flexible than ever, which makes employees happy and keeps costs in check.

Autodesk CFO Mark Hawkins counts himself very fortunate to have worked for two companies with robust and carefully structured training and development programs. Hewlett-Packard, for example, sent him twice to graduate school and rotated him through various roles, some of which were overseas. Later in his career, at Dell Inc., he continued with job rotations and further honed his leadership skills by participating in a highly selective program that brought in CEOs of other companies and top strategists like Ram Charan to deliver guest lectures.

Those experiences have inspired Hawkins, who joined Autodesk in the beginning of 2009, to press toward a lofty goal in his current position: “To give team members the best development experience they’ve ever had in their entire career.”

But when it comes to cultivating his own 300-person finance staff, Hawkins is not attempting to duplicate the formal experiences he found so valuable.

Instead, believing that training programs are more about “looking for the natural opportunity” than investing heavily in structured approaches, Hawkins wants each person to draft his or her own development plan. Those individually tailored plans can include a variety of ad hoc internal programs he is experimenting with, such as letting aspiring managers work on employee engagement strategies, along with whatever training each staffer believes is most important for his or her development.

Many CFOs are taking a similarly pragmatic and varied approach, tailoring training to the individual rather than relying on standardized curricula. There are plenty of benefits to that, including relatively low fixed costs and a high degree of relevance to the business at hand. It also sits well with the younger generation of employees, who tend to believe that “customization is king.”

High-potential employees seem to respond particularly well to “programs that reinforce the idea that a company wants to be a collaborative rather than a command-and-control organization,” says David Mallon, an analyst with Bersin & Associates. That means that elements such as action learning projects, which give employees real business problems to solve, along with unfiltered chats with the CEO and CFO, are on the hot list, as are “content libraries” with self-directed online classes that employees can take whenever they can fit them into their schedules.

Customized programs that use real-world data and situations, in fact, can result in benefits that go far beyond better-trained employees. One consulting firm, BTS, estimates there is a return on investment of 10 to 12 times the cost of its programs when company-specific numbers, strategies, and situations are fed into simulations the firm creates. How so? “People who undergo that kind of training may go back to their jobs and see an opportunity to raise prices, reduce inventory, or otherwise put the experience to immediate use,” says Rommin Adl, an executive vice president at BTS.

No CFO will have a problem with that kind of ROI, but that doesn’t mean that customized training programs are a no-brainer, at least when it comes to tailoring them to specific employees. If training becomes all about what the employee deems important for his or her career development, with each one crafting a unique plan, how much structure does a company need to put around training in order to make sure the organization gets what it needs?

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