Akankasha Dewan talks to Laurence Smith, DBS’ managing director of HR and group head of learning and talent development, to find out how the firm’s corporate learning philosophy helps to drive a competitive advantage.

The hyper-connectedness and changing needs of the business have placed the training function at a pivotal point within organisations.

The best learning and development (L&D) departments are learning how to both leverage and cautiously balance the availability of technology and data to promote collaborative, global learning while being aligned with overall business goals.

“L&D has become a much more effective business partner,” observes Laurence Smith, DBS’ managing director of HR and group head of learning and talent development.

”In the best firms, learning is increasingly driven by the company’s strategy and directly integrated with the business planning cycle.

“At DBS we have learning councils in every business unit and support unit that meet quarterly, chaired jointly by myself and the head of the unit.”

This ensures, Smith explains, that all teams are absolutely aligned on priorities and achieve the key objectives for the year.

Deriving measurable results

“L&D has also become more focused on measurable results and better at leveraging emerging technologies to develop skills that are more timely and workplace relevant,” Smith says.

A possible reason for being more focused on measuring the impact of learning is that maximising the impact L&D policies have on the business, and showing proof of how corporate training is directly influencing business growth, is becoming more of a challenge in organisations.

A 2014 survey by McKinsey found that almost one-fifth of executives said their organisations did not attempt to measure the impact of training and learning programmes at all.

In addition, only 13% of respondents identified that their companies tried to quantify the financial return on their learning or training investments.

A key reason why measuring the effectiveness of training programmes often fails is because L&D leaders fail to understand what needs or skill gaps the training is trying to fulfil in the first place, according to Smith.

“At DBS we don’t audit our L&D programmes regularly, but we do work very hard at getting the objectives and measures very clear in advance as discussed above, as well as using the learning council to drive governance and a results-focused approach,” Smith says.

“Having said that we do occasionally do a deep dive Kirkpatrick level four assessment on selected programmes and have been incredibly pleased with the business impact results we have identified.”

Leveraging on the expertise of both business and L&D leaders

“But in each case the business had been a very close partner in the design and execution of the programmes – they had not been ‘outsourced’ to L&D, so any success or failure really was a shared result,” Smith says.

Smith’s strategy suggests the importance of invoking both the business and L&D teams to come up with relevant and effective training programmes which truly add value to employees’ development.

“Line managers obviously have the best insight to the business strategy and future needs of the unit, while business HR leaders are often the conduit between line managers and L&D teams,” he says.

“L&D leaders should have the solution development expertise, so when they all work in alignment the results can be powerful, but it does require that alignment and effective working relationship.”

The process is ultimately all about, he summarises, “getting clarity, setting expectations and developing processes to enable”.

To make sure this happens, Smith advises L&D leaders to really understand the business strategy and recognise what it will take from a human capital perspective for the firm to succeed.

“For example, at DBS, growth in emerging markets is critical to us, but as a foreign bank we can neither acquire a local bank or afford the time and expense to build tens of thousands of branches to compete,” he says.

“Thus our growth strategy is heavily dependent on being agile, innovative and developing a digital mindset in our leaders and staff.

“A year ago, when we looked at the single highest impact thing L&D could do for DBS, it was absolutely clear that nothing was more important than building this innovative culture with a start-up mentality.”