Corporate Training in India: Reimagine L&D

I have had several conversations with Learning and Development managers in large companies in India, primarily in an attempt to get them to adopt the Global Business Professional credentials that we have developed. These interactions present me with some insights what the Indian Learning and Development community is doing, and re-ignite an old discussion about the need to re-imagine the profession in India.

Indeed, in most cases in my experience, Learning and Development is a non-strategic function in the Indian companies, an extension of Human Resources. The Learning and Development Manager, who, despite his/her title, mostly a junior operative, engaged in functions such as induction training and compliance related work, traditionally HR domains. Whether the company is focused on 'inner market', where Indian companies in most sectors enjoy a level of protection, or export-led, which is far more competitive, does not seem to matter such. The IT Services companies that I end up talking to are more often than not engaged in body-shopping, the business of getting low-cost operators to do various jobs for Western customers, and their priorities are mostly defined by the minimum required by the operating standards set by regulators, customers or standards organisation. In summary, strategy is not one of their main concerns.

This is indeed not atypical, and I shall find the same in many British organisations too. However, one L&D manager offered me a different reason for the profession's focus than what I imagined by default: It is, indeed, the turnover of staff. I am told that most Indian companies are struggling not just to find good staff but also to retain them. Asked whether learning and development can serve as a retention tool, the person I was speaking to was emphatic that it won't.

While this is an argument many people would be familiar with, the traditional resistance of businesses to train their people because they may leave (against which the argument 'what if you don't train them and they stay' was coined), this may be slightly different. The Indian labour market, precisely because of the shortage of skilled staff, could be quite brutal, and trained employees being lured away is indeed extremely common and extremely frequent. However, this also means that the task of recruitment and induction training is huge, a company employing 200 people is forced to hire at least 10 new staff every month and train them, and even if they employ a full time L&D Manager, that is not because of any strategic reason but simply to cope up with the workload. So, the fact that the L&D Manager does not have the time to engage into something strategic is less sinister than what one would think: They are simply too busy.

The other interesting facet of the L&D profession in India is the prestige that instructional design has among the practitioners. Again, this may be quite common in the US as well as in the UK, among the practitioners of Corporate Learning. But, as in the other example, I gather that the importance of instructional design is perhaps for a different reason than one would assume. The behaviourist focus, when the whole profession is driven by compliance training, is perhaps easily explained, but instructional design is feted, I suspect, because it is an American thing, a true marker for a professionals' exposure to cutting edge. It is therefore not one of the skill sets that an Learning and Development Professional would aim to have: Often, this is the only one. The other competencies, if one must speak that language, may lie in someone else's territory: Competency mapping may be handled by the HR, Strategy may remain firmly in the hands of business heads, knowledge management may oddly sit with the IT.

If this gives the picture of quite an industrial discipline, it is. Which is quite paradoxical, because the Learning and Development profession in Indian companies (or training for that matter) is relatively new, arising perhaps almost entirely in the last twenty years. One could indeed say that this is in line with India's late industrialisation, but professions are expected to evolve in lock-step with global advances. The real reason perhaps is that Learning and Development in India has not yet found its professional identity, its ability to contribute to corporate strategy, its champions and thinkers and its doctrine, so to say. There are some odd attempts to improve marketing through yoga and get better sales through Bhagvad Gita, but these efforts are too random, too idiosyncratic and has little mainstream acceptance.  

However, it is not that Indian businesses don't train their staff: They do, and they do a lot of it. Large Indian IT services companies recognise the limitations of Higher Education systems and often run elaborate months-long induction programmes. And, the greater the crisis of manpower, the failure of the Learning and Development professionals to contribute to corporate development, though this may be hardly be their brief, is even more apparent.

My engagements is an opportunity for me to get back into the conversation - something I dropped out of since 2011, after my brother's death - and work with the few people I know to find opportunities for a shift. There is serious work to be done, of establishing the professional identity (which is somewhat addressed by a body called ISTD, but its impact is still limited and its even hard to find its website) and more importantly, shifting the agenda to innovation. Learning and Development in companies across the developed world is moving, well mostly, in that direction. Certain mindsets, the 'Jugaad' being one of them (I did write about The Limits of Jugaad before) come in the way of establishing innovation cultures in the Indian companies; there is also the approach of throwing people to the problem rather than working with a handful of highly skilled people. However, skilled personnel is as scarce in India as they would be in the West, and there is no reason to take a cavalier approach to L&D therefore. Some CEOs I get to talk to know this, and a vast majority is getting there. In that sense, Learning and Development in India is a profession which will be transformed again soon, and there may be exciting, innovative times ahead.


Sandipan said…
Two years after writing, but still how relevant the post is. Thanks Supriyo for such an apt write-up.

Unfortunate but true, even large corporate house in India counts L&D as a subset of HR Dept. Your rightfully mentioned the Judgad mindset of ours that hinders the improvement of this crucial wing and infuse innovation into the sector. I have a serious doubt, howmany organizations rightfully implement the existing tools like LMS for this purpose. Hope in time we understandand the true importance and walk in the path of improvement...

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