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Reflections on the current state of Learning & Development: Summary Notes

The HR Think Tank recently hosted an open discussion in Johannesburg and in Cape Town to unpack ways to improve learning and development in South African organisations. The two sessions were attended by HR Think Tank members as well as other organisations.

Following is an integrated summary of the two discussion sessions along with some key learnings and recommendations.

5 June 2018 • Johannesburg


Marius Meyer, SABPP

Portia Heynes, Group Learning & Development Manager, Sun International

Suretha Esterhuysen, MMI Holdings Group Head: Learning Initiatives

12 June 2018 • Cape Town


Liesl Damain-Harris, Head: Learning & Development, Ogilvy South Africa

Judy Robison, General Manager - HR, WNS Global Services SA

Robynne Schneider, Group Learning and Development Manager, Oceana Group Limited

Germinah Nyikana, Learning and Development Manager, Clicks Retailers

Delegates represented corporates, higher education and consulting.


Staff training

South Africa’s rank on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report

2016-2017: Rank 19th (out of 138) Score 5.0 (out of 7)

2017-2018: Rank 39th (out of 137) Score 4.3 (out of 7)

(Executive opinion survey answer to the question “In your country, to what extent do companies invest in training and employee development?” [1=not at all; 7=to a great extent])

South Africa’s ranking on INSEAD’s Global Talent Competitiveness Index

2017: Rank 44th (of 118) Score 44.06 (out of 100)

2018: Rank 40th (of 119) Score 44.06 (out of 100)

(Score based on World Bank survey of firms – share of firms offering formal training)

Quality of management schools

South Africa’s rank on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report

2016-2017: Rank 21st (out of 138) Score 5.4 (out of 7)

2017-2018: Rank 45th (out of 137) Score 4.5 (out of 7)

(Executive opinion survey answer to the question “In your country, how do you assess the quality of business schools?” [1 = extremel


Opinions on South Africa’s ranking on the “staff training” indicators:

  • Consensus was that the results from the surveys are partly true. The economic downturn would naturally have an impact on the spending on training – L&D gets cut first because businesses often don’t see it to be as important as other functions. With vacancies not being filled, there are fewer people to train, and remaining staff often have to take on responsibilities of vacant roles in addition to their own, so that they have no time for training.

  • Rather than a decline in spending, there has been a shift in spending, with less spending in areas that do not work, and more targeted spending on successful interventions – for instance there has been a shift to use leaders as teachers instead of hiring outside consultants, and many organisations have established their own accredited academies to make sure their training needs are met.

  • In many companies, L&D budgets have not decreased, but have increased (by more than 5% for the majority of the attendees at this discussion) and in some cases this is because the L&D function has been coupled with the BBBEE compliance function.

  • It was also mentioned that companies do spend a lot of money on training, but in some ways this is akin to throwing money at something, which isn’t necessarily the right move.

  • It therefore seems that the Executive Opinion Survey does not provide enough depth and context for a proper evaluation of the learning and development situation. Learning takes place in many different contexts that don’t always translate into Rands and Cents (for instance in a conversation over coffee). Establishing the ROI on L&D is more complicated than that.

Opinions on South Africa’s ranking on the “quality of management schools” indicator:

  • Training is regressing in South Africa, and business schools face the challenge of providing training that is relevant.

  • The quality of business schools has not dropped across the board, there are still pockets of excellence. Some business schools are actually doing a lot of impressive innovative things.

  • A survey that only collects responses from executives is necessarily limited in its findings.

  • Getting C-suite into learning is problematic, so when the executives ranked quality of management schools it could be that they based their opinion on their experience many years ago.

  • However some felt that there has been a clear lowering of standards, and every second person can now obtain an MBA. Not all executives are as competent as we would expect them to be.

What have been some of the major changes you have experienced over the last 3-5 years?

  • Many of the changes have been driven by regulatory requirements (especially in the pharmaceutical industry).

  • L&D strategy has become more closely linked to business strategy.

  • There is a greater recognition that we are better off forming partnerships.

  • The greatest impact is often not to focus L&D on executives, but on middle management and other employees.

  • Big changes are increasingly experienced on a monthly basis, which requires flexibility and agility.

  • To better support the company’s requirements, many organisations are establishing their own academies or accredited courses rather than trying to get outside agencies to cater for specific needs.

Are we spending in the right areas? Is our focus on ICT for instance sufficient? Are organisations spending enough to prepare their workforce for the 4th Industrial Revolution?

  • Our focus on ICT and use of technology is not sufficient, but we are hampered by the capacity of employees we train – many of them require training at a very basic level, because they only have a Matric.

  • The degree to which a shift is happening toward preparing for 4th Industrial Revolution varies by industry, because the 4th Industrial Revolution will impact some faster than others.

  • Most South African organisations are not spending money in training that prepares the workforce for the 4th Industrial Revolution. It seems that learning and development practitioners still do not have their heads around what this means for them, they are bogged down with the day-to-day training that takes priority. Urgent attention needs to be given to the questions: “how do we take it forward?” and “what does it mean?”

  • As a country we are lagging in terms of a focus on ICT and we should adopt a future-centric approach, to imagine where we want to be in 2030 and work backwards from there. We are 20 years behind (with what we do in schools) if you compare us with the Netherlands for instance.

  • A major problem is that our education system is completely outdated. That is where we need to incorporate more technology and new ways of learning and this will then feed through into business.

  • Investing in “bodies” to support teachers is old fashioned. There needs to be a shift to create self-directed learners. The notion of a learning environment needs to change and primary-, secondary- and tertiary learners should be taught what self-directed learning is.

  • In other countries the movement of changing to accommodate the 4th Industrial Revolution is driven by government, and rightly so. Governments can plan/ look ahead 30 years from now. Whereas business tends to focus on the current and immediate challenges. For example, 25 years ago Singapore implemented an initiative to dramatically up skill their tertiary educators. Every lecturer was required to complete a PhD study but at an international institution. The government paid for all the expenses (tuition, accommodation, family to relocate etc.). In addition the lecturer was guaranteed of a job upon return.

  • Businesses also have a responsibility to influence their SETAs to stop investing in outdated skills and update curricula.

  • The fact that ROI on L&D is used to make the balance sheet look good is a hurdle to incorporating more 4IR-focused learning, because it’s difficult to motivate for spending on this type of training.

Disconnect between higher education and the requirements of business

  • In order to remain relevant, our business schools should place a premium on lecturers with current business experience, and both the content and faculty need to be updated to ensure quality training. If lecturers do not have business experience they lack relevance. University education is felt to be not fit for purpose.

  • School leavers need more work experience. A suggestion was made that school leavers complete internships/ apprenticeships whilst completing B-degrees online. Learning the relevant business skills and completing short-courses necessary for specific project will accelerate skills development in South Africa and provide organisations with young talent with the relevant skills. But for this to work there needs to be tax incentives.

  • There is too little interaction between industry and higher education. To transform an education system takes a considerable amount of time. It is difficult to influence the system from within. It takes anything up to 7 years to change a university’s curriculum and by the time it’s formally changed it’s already outdated. Lecturers at universities are pushed and incentivised to focus on post-graduate students. There is no growth opportunities for under graduate lecturers. Lecturers inherit poorly educated students from a failing basic education system, and at the same time need to meet the demands of industries into which they will send students.

  • More and more universities are introducing online qualifications to accommodate the increase in enrolments. What we should be concerned about is the influx of enrolments yet to come as the population pyramid corrects itself after the impact of HIV/ AIDS.

  • It seems that shorter courses are more relevant, for instance school > work > school > work and so on. This makes sense if our future generations are to make at least 7 career changes in their lives. You can no longer afford to study for 3 years if you want to make a career change, things are changing too rapidly.

  • Chunks of learning is much more effective as we see the timeframe of working increasing. Unfortunately the way the SETA system is structured does not supporting the creation of learning spaces. SETA initiatives are driving people toward university qualifications, rather than a more pragmatic approach that guides them from concept initiation through to commercialization.

  • Success in learning and development lies in how many different learning platforms people have access to, because we all learn in different ways. People still struggle with self-directed learning. One company noted that they see a low level of participation. There needs to be a facilitator of learning otherwise they lose too many people along the way. The need for face-to-face interaction is also very real, and we shouldn’t forget that.

  • There’s also a need to cater differently to different generations – e-learning and gamification may not work at all on older generations.

  • The solution is having different platforms and a combination of options.

Have we become too compliance driven in business in terms of training? Is this killing innovation?

  • There is a place for compliance (for instance medical practitioners) and there is a place for learning just the skill, we need to take a more agile approach.

  • Compliance should be at the minimum level in order to manage risk, everywhere else, we should be pursuing innovative methodologies of learning and topics. Qualifications are overrated, and learning takes place in many different settings in different ways.

  • We need to take advantage of what technology can offer us, and introduce new learning channels, like those relying on gamification (for example the ‘pink room’/games room at Ogilvy, where staff are encouraged to go and play with new gadgets and software).

How does the L&D fraternity make the changes that are necessary?

  • L&D practitioners are often too stuck in their ways and subscribe to their views of what people need instead of the reality. We also don’t meet often enough to learn from each other and collaborate.

  • A problem is that HR Directors often lack the necessary skills themselves, or are not actually people specialists or passionate about their field.

  • We can’t rely on our government to take the lead as is the case in Singapore, instead, we should start informing government what it is that we need.

  • We should realise that a lot of students are already fully aware of what they need to learn to stay abreast of developments and many have a “side-hustle”, so that in reality L&D is fighting to remain relevant.

  • One of the biggest challenges is the quality and relevance of education that incoming employees have, universities are pushing through large numbers of graduates but they’re not employable.

  • University education is not completely irrelevant. Studying provides students with meta-skills.

  • As L&D we also let people get away with shortcuts, we should stand our ground more in general.

  • We should also implement more measures to make people demonstrate a learned skills, even if just through a conversation.

Wrap up: What should the L&D fraternity do to up its game? And the business schools

  • In L&D we need to stay passionate and ensure that we have enough mentors. In shifting more toward using technology, it’s important to remember that we need to integrate tech, people and fun – people should be rewarded for learning!

  • L&D urgently needs to take a more modern approach and make sure there is alignment to the business strategy.

  • The L&D community needs to think out of the box and take the initiative to keep abreast of what is happening elsewhere and the latest developments. L&D practitioners need to have a learning mindset themselves and read and research. Treat others as you want to be treated in terms of career development. Being in L&D is a calling if you are there for other reasons you are damaging thousands of lives.

  • In terms of business schools, we need to break down the barriers between businesses and business schools – have business people be active in the schools.

  • We need a more detailed assessment of the shortcomings so that they can be addressed.

  • The business schools need to do more to ensure that they are providing quality, relevant learning – they should undergo a training needs analysis themselves, don’t cut and paste programmes.

Conclusion and recommendations:

  • In conclusion, the L&D and business school situation is not as negative as the figures suggest. There are however systemic problems and many of them are inherited from our education system. But the show must go on.

  • Partnerships are vital – with executives, with managers, with training providers, with other L&D professionals and also with trainees – to decide on expectations and rationale together.

  • Context and organisational culture are extremely important – what works in one setting may not work in another (be it industry, business or even department). In-house training and mentorship are valuable because it will already be aligned with the organisational culture, where outsourced training may not always be able to add this element.

  • Self-directed learning is key but should not be laissez faire.

  • An important role for L&D is to create an environment where people can learn and grow.

  • The structure of L&D needs to support what the business needs.

  • There should be follow through – what happens when training ends – are lessons being implemented, has the training been relevant and enabled performance.

  • L&D fraternity need to up skill themselves to remain relevant and useful. We can’t talk the talk if we don’t walk it, especially in terms of preparing better for 4th Industrial Revolution.

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