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Learning About Learning: The Organization of Corporate Training

Amy DuVernet and Tom Whelan

In our first column, we discussed how our traditional conceptions of what falls under the umbrella of “training” may represent a somewhat narrow view of the space, compared to the range of activities that fall under the purview of learning and development (L&D) functions. Similarly, conventional perspectives on how training departments are structured may also be incomplete. For example, traditional thinking often places training personnel in an organization's human resources (HR) department.

Why? Well, training logically fits in HR, as recruitment and selection are often a HR activity and intertwined with onboarding, training, and employee development. However, one size does not fit all when it comes to operational models of training, and there’s no hard and fast rules about where training personnel “should” be found within a company’s organizational chart. Accordingly, many companies opt for a separate training department or departments instead, which may or may not fly under the banner of the HR function. The actual arrangement and reporting structure of a training organization can have important implications for how training processes are enacted, as well as for the types and numbers of training personnel employed within the parent company. In this column, we will review the common structural models found in most contemporary organizations and talk about how the practice of I-O can forge effective intersections with our sometimes “long lost” L&D siblings.


Training Frameworks


Training organizations typically follow one of three common models: a centralized training organization/department, decentralized training departments or groups, or a federated model (Training Industry, n.d.; Tota, 2015; Todd, 2009). Below we provide brief definitions of each of these frameworks, offering information on the types of organizations that are likely to use each model and how I-Os can contribute within these frameworks.


 Centralized Training

A centralized training organization groups all training personnel into a single, unified department. The reporting structure is fairly simple—one main executive assumes responsibility for the entire training team and all resources related to training are managed through this department (Training Industry, n.d.). A centralized training department can be a subset of employees within a larger HR team but may also function as a stand-alone department within the company. This type of training organization is typically most effective in smaller companies with a low degree of geographic dispersion. In this type of organization, an I-O could interact with the training department as both an internal and external consultant but is more likely to provide services as an external consultant given the company’s (usually) smaller size. Here, interaction is likely to be fairly straightforward as decision making is facilitated by the direct reporting structure and most or all stakeholders are likely to be onsite. Todd’s (2009) report suggests that approximately 40% of companies employ this model. The prevalence of this model may reside in its intuitive appeal, operational efficiency, and the propensity of an L&D organization to begin with a centralized structure when a company is in its beginning stages.


Decentralized Training

In contrast to the centralized training model, Todd’s (2009) report estimated that between 10-40% of organizations use a decentralized training model. In a decentralized training model, training personnel are distributed across business functions (e.g., sales, R&D) and provide support specific to the business unit they serve (Training Industry, n.d.). These models are more typically found in larger companies with greater levels of geographical dispersion, as well as those that represent an amalgam of company acquisitions. In such arrangements, a centralized model could be too generic or inefficient, as the objectives of training need to cover a wider learner audience that exists across multiple work sites. Further, acquired companies will often come with independent training functions that continue to operate in tandem with the parent organization after the companies have merged (Todd, 2009). This model lends an advantage over a centralized model in the form of heightened awareness and responsiveness for each business’s needs. On the other hand, decentralized training functions present the potential for inconsistent approaches to training, inefficiencies, and duplicate L&D efforts across the enterprise (Training Industry, n.d.). They can also result in inequalities when business units that are directly tied to revenue streams (e.g., sales) have larger budgets than those that are not (Todd, 2009). Under this model, I-Os again may interact and add value as either internal or external consultants. Internal consultants in these organization may work from a centralized perspective, gathering input from a variety of training personnel. As such, I-Os can contribute by providing a high-level view to facilitate an understanding of where duplicated efforts occur across training groups and offer unifying strategy and communication channels. External I-O consultants may end up playing a similar role if multiple training departments within the organization look to them for services and should certainly consider all of the training departments when gathering data around their services.


Federated Training

Between 20-40% of organizations employ a federated training model (Todd, 2009), which represents a hybrid of centralized and decentralized models. In this model a centralized training organization is responsible for coordinating amongst decentralized personnel who are distributed across business units. For example, a training organization may place the resources and responsibility for training technologies, administration, and leadership development in a centralized department, but allow various business units to manage the content development, delivery, and evaluation of training programs that will meet their specific needs. Figure 1 depicts one configuration of this type of model.


Figure 1: A Configuration of Federated Training Model


Training initiatives and programs that are common across the enterprise are more likely to be centralized in a federated model. For example, leadership development and onboarding are often centralized in this model. The federated model offers an advantage of minimizing inefficiencies while capitalizing on the decentralized model’s ability to quickly address individual business unit needs (Training Industry, n.d.). This model is often utilized as a strategic solution when decentralized organizations are tasked with reducing training budgets. For example, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck recently moved from a decentralized to a federated model in response to budgetary cuts (Ervin & Milberg, 2016). Under a federated model, internal I-Os are likely to be found in or interact with the centralized training organization or corporate university; here again, I-Os can provide insight and assistance in creating efficiencies across the distributed functions. External I-Os are also likely to interact most frequently with a centralized training organization but may work directly with or find a need to gather information from one or more decentralized groups.


I-Os in L&D


To elucidate further on the role that I-O can play within each model, we interviewed four I-O psychologists working both within and external to organizations in support of their L&D departments.


Jennifer Lindberg McGinnis, Organizational Effectiveness manager in the Talent Management division of the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources (OSHR), describes an arrangement similar to the federated model: “OSHR serves as the Center for HR Expertise and provides guidance, administration, and oversight of HR functional areas and programs. So, in short, in OSHR, our L&D team is primarily housed within the Talent Management Division. In the agencies, L&D may be one of many responsibilities generalists in HR departments have, or in some instances, these are specialized roles (learning administrator, instructional designer) housed within agency HR departments.”


Red Hat also utilizes the federated model, according to Sarah Bienkowski, learning analyst with Red Hat University. “Our L&D personnel are centralized in Red Hat University, whose target learner population is Red Hat associates,” she says. “However, there are additional L&D personnel spread across the organization. For example, we have SMEs in sales and technical groups that provide product and other training to Red Hat associates. Additionally, we have an external-facing training organization that provides Red Hat certification training for our customers (and our associates).  Red Hat University has L&D consultants who work with these training partners to ensure that training is aligned with business needs and provides support, when needed.”


External I-Os are likely to encounter many training organization models. For example, Casey Mulqueen, senior director of Learning and Development at the TRACOM Group, reports interacting with L&D professionals across various organizational structures. “With our largest clients, the people we work with are usually housed in the L&D department,” Casey explains. “These are large departments that service regional or global areas within their organizations... they are responsible for the training programs within large areas and often across multiple departments. With smaller clients, we typically work with a mix of people within L&D, HR, and sales, depending on their specific needs. For example, a person may be in charge of the sales department of their organization and work with us specifically on training their salespeople to develop better relationships with customers.”


External I-Os working with public organizations in areas such as government and military are also likely to encounter a mixture of training structures. Reanna Harman, vice president and director of Consulting Practice at ALPS Solutions, stated that, “I work with training personnel and key stakeholders at all levels and often work on projects that involve coordination across groups within the same organization as well as projects which involve coordination across different organizations (e.g., coordinating with program directors from different groups).”


As we can see, training functions “in the wild” do not always neatly conform to a single, predictable framework. Engaging with these types of clients may require a fair bit of sleuthing to ensure that not only is one talking to the right people when it comes to decision making but that one is actually aware of who the right people are and under what department they sit in the first place. In short, understanding a company’s training organization model can help in understanding the role that I-Os can play within those companies’ L&D initiatives, in addition to the avenues we should pursue in providing value.


Forging Collaborative Relationships


Just as we must understand better the structural context in which L&D professionals approach their work, we must also strive to educate those who aren’t familiar with I-O of the unique skillset we have to offer. Most of the I-Os we interviewed indicated that the training personnel with which they interact are not typically familiar with and do not have a background in I-O. It should be noted, however, that the degree of exposure to I-O across training personnel does vary. For example, Sarah Bienkowski said that, “training personnel in our organization (Red Hat University) are generally more familiar with I-O psychology than our L&D business partners who are in the sales and technical domains.” This is crucial for I-Os to understand and bear in mind when interacting with L&D departments—the network of training personnel within an organization will often have varying levels of exposure to the scientific basis of what I-O represents. To some, our field is a tangled mouthful of syllables that they’ve never heard before; to others, we’re well-respected experts. Obviously, much of the time the reality lies somewhere on the continuum between those two points, but it’s up to us to move the needle in the right direction. The takeaway is that it becomes incumbent on I-Os to educate training personnel, particularly those in governance roles, on how our expertise can inform decision making when it comes to matters of L&D.


Rather than being deterred by this unfamiliarity of training personnel with I-O, Dr. Harman views it as an opportunity. “We have been the first I-Os that many of our clients have met,” she says, “and we have had the opportunity to introduce them to the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of I-O which resonates with data-based decision makers.” Don’t be misled, however, into thinking this isn’t a two-way street. As I-Os, we stand to learn a lot about what training personnel work on, which can have its own associated jargon and lingo that sounds alien to us. Accordingly, Dr. Mulqueen asserts that the “impetus is on I-Os to learn instructional design and to become fluent in the business issues that are important for clients. I need to be an expert in my own field but I also need to recognize how our training programs can make our clients more successful, and be able to speak competently on those issues.” This point cannot be emphasized enough: Just as I-Os strive to educate stakeholders about what it is that our background can offer, we have to be willing to learn and understand what they’re already doing, but more often than not we’re going to receive that information in their language, not ours. If we can’t understand the talk—much less “talk the talk” ourselves—we’ll have a significantly harder time translating our expertise into L&D terminology and making our intended positive impacts come to fruition.


In learning about the perspectives that L&D professionals hold, we have the opportunity to build lasting relationships and expose company stakeholders to aspects of I-O expertise that they may not have known about. Again, Dr. Harman highlights this opportunity, saying, “it’s great to work with I-Os on the client side and take a collaborative approach to the project. On the other hand, when my clients are not I-Os, I have the opportunity to share something new and educate my clients on the I-O perspective and approach.” It's clear there’s a lot that we can bring to the table and take away as well.


In our next column, we’ll continue our conversation with I-Os working with L&D departments to discuss the common educational backgrounds and roles of training personnel with whom they frequently rub shoulders, in addition to the benefits and challenges encountered when interacting with such personnel.




Ervin, E. & Milberg, H. (2016, May). Decentralized to right sized; A new global learning model at Merck. Presented at the 2016 Training Industry Conference and Expo, Raleigh, NC.

Todd, S. (2009). Designing the optimal organization structure and governance model. Corporate University Xchange, Spring, 1-17.

Tota, J. (2015, October). 4 keys to optimizing learning organization structure. Retrieved from https://www.caveolearning.com/blog/4-keys-to-optimizing-learning-organization-structure.

Training Industry. (n.d). Organizational models in training. Retrieved from http://www.trainingindustry.com/wiki/entries/organizational-models-in-training.aspx

Tyler, J. (2014, April 25). Learning and development job titles 2014. LinkedIn post. Available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140425173644-171314423-learning-and-development-job-titles-2014

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