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Training & Learning

Centralized vs. Decentralized - Which is the Right L&D Approach for Your Business?

As L&D managers, one of the most important questions you have to consider is the degree of centralization vs. decentralization in your company’s learning strategy.

Should you have a single standardized learning approach across your business? Or should you give your teams and individual learners the freedom to customize their own learning experiences and determine their own priorities?

Recently, I spoke with Lauren Fernandez, Senior L&D Manager at digital freight forwarder Flexport, to discuss how she achieves the right balance between centralized and decentralized L&D systems. 

Not all learning cultures are the same

As Lauren explains, the starting point when considering centralization and decentralization should always be company culture. Each business has its own values, priorities, and ways of working, and your L&D approach needs to reflect these factors.

“At a lot of massive enterprises, L&D is centralized,” says Lauren. “It’s all organized in one team, because consistency is important. For smaller companies, this approach doesn’t always work.”

“For us at Flexport, we’re using a hybrid approach between centralization and decentralization. Most of our L&D functions are decentralized, but some parts are centralized, too.”

This hybrid approach is crucial for fast-moving companies like Flexport, as it offers the flexibility needed to cope with growth and expansion. 

“We’re fast-moving, and we’re in a state of hyper-growth,” says Lauren. “For us to have a centralized learning team, and for us to make decisions for the whole company, wouldn’t work. We want to build courses quickly and ship them quickly.”

Related: How We Use Peer Learning to Keep Our Company’s Competitive Edge

“That’s why we have a hybrid approach. We have a central team focusing on resources, programmes, platforms and tools that touch all of our employees. We develop best practices for learning, and we take these best practices out to the rest of the business.”

One key strength of this approach? Empowering functional teams to be in charge of their own learning processes and priorities. 

Empower functional teams to manage their own learning

In L&D, some learning should always be centralized, such as introductions to company culture, legal requirements, and other core systems.

Specialized learning needs, however, should be organized at the team level, and course design should be a collaborative exercise.

“Each of the functional units, like finance, engineering, sales, operations, compliance - they all have their own L&D needs,” says Lauren. “We advise them and give them the tools and resources they need, but we don’t have a solely centralized approach.”

In this context, the L&D team takes on more of an advisory role, instead of setting the agenda for the whole team. “In each functional team, the subject matter expert determines the team’s learning needs. We come in as an advisor, but they’re closer to their business. They know what needs to happen now, and what the long-term goals should be.”

“We have influence and give them the structure, but they’re the ones who actually do it,” says Lauren. “We’re talking about program managers, project managers, essentially anybody who has a bird’s eye view of what’s going on and what they need.”

Alongside this kind of collaborative learning content, a hybrid L&D approach also allows for teams to oversee their own function-specific learning metrics. 

Related: The Right Way to do a Training Needs Analysis

Track learner progress with function-specific metrics

Great L&D is all about offering tailored learning content, but it’s also about tracking learner development with the right metrics. With a hybrid learning approach like Flexport’s, each team can develop metrics to suit their specific functions.

“We provide an LMS to our teams, and we advise them on how to build learning paths,” says Lauren. “We give them the analytics and dashboards they need, but they tell us what the specific metrics are. For engineering, this could be product release cycles. For sales, this could be time to meet quota. These function-specific metrics make all the difference.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean metrics are unique to every team. According to Lauren, sometimes it’s more efficient to share metrics and learning material.

“This is where the hybrid approach makes so much sense. You can avoid the pitfalls of full decentralization, where you have duplicated efforts and overlaps, without the downsides of centralization, where things move much too slowly.”

“In our L&D team, we’re able to see trends across the business, and across regions. This helps us get to one solution instead of four. In big companies, you can find the same learning content on an LMS, but developed by different regions. We don’t want this to happen. We want everything to be nice and clean and organized in our LMS.”

Find a balance between centralized and decentralized learning

In fast-growing companies, L&D leaders need to strike a balance between centralized and decentralized learning, and need to demonstrate the impact of training through tailored performance metrics.

“We want to move quickly, but be structured at the beginning,” says Lauren. “This avoids overlap, and avoids a confusing learning experience. This is an educational process, to say ‘let’s go slow now, to go fast in the future’.” 

“We’re a new global L&D team, and we’re setting expectations around the foundations - governance, guidelines, standards and best practices. The goal is to offer an L&D toolkit and guidelines, and to help them build what they need to get their courses out quickly.”

Another useful strategy for L&D teams? Make sure you have regular touchpoints with leaders across the business.

"We're meeting constantly with functional leaders. This gives us a great window into the learning needs of the business, and lets us react faster and deliver value.”

“We’ve made learning a company-wide initiative at our company. This means we meet with our global executive team every month. This is a regular touchpoint, and lets us know exactly what our business leaders need in terms of L&D.”

For businesses wondering how to achieve the right approach between centralized and decentralized learning, examples like Flexport can be incredibly helpful. 

Thanks again to Lauren for sharing her time and expertise with us!

Want more insights to #GetReady for what's next? Check out our series of interviews with L&D experts on how learning and development should change and strategies to train teams given the current climate.