Businesses wake up to insights from the Henley Corporate Learning Survey 2015

19 March 2015

Businesses wake up to insights from the Henley Corporate Learning Survey 2015

The new Guinness Partnership offices in London played host to a crowded breakfast meeting in February for the launch of the report into the findings of Henley Business School’s sixth and latest Corporate Learning Survey.

The new Guinness Partnership offices in London played host to a crowded breakfast meeting in February for the launch of the report into the findings of Henley Business School’s sixth and latest Corporate Learning Survey.

With 368 respondents from 39 countries, this was the largest ever sample for the annual survey, which addresses organisational priorities and management challenges.

Henley’s Head of Executive Education, Steve Ludlow, opened the event by thanking the Guinness Partnership and congratulating them on their 125th anniversary.Steve then gave an overview of this year’s survey:

  • In terms of organisational and management challenges, the top priorities are:
    • developing leadership capability throughout the organisation
    • managing costs
    • the effectiveness of management teams
  • In terms of learning & development (L&D) spending, leadership capability is the priority for senior management, with coaching and strategic formulation/execution close behind. There is a similar pattern in the L&D priorities for high-potential employees, although commercial acumen and customer engagement are more evident there.
  • When asked about people and talent management objectives, maintaining and building employee engagement and retaining talent are again cited as the top two priorities although, compared to previous years, there are significant increases in the emphasis on:
    • supporting the drive for growth and competitive advantage
    • attracting new talent
    • equipping leaders to deliver change
    • aiding succession planning, especially at a senior level
  • In response to the question regarding planned development activities for 2015:
    • coaching is again dominant, with over 85% of respondents highlighting its importance
    • coaching is also seen as the preferred delivery method of learning for senior executives and high-potential individuals, with ‘blended learning’ much preferred to purely online delivery
    • there is concern about the time senior managers spend on training generally
  • When it comes to executive development, while the overwhelming majority of respondents recognise that it helps achieve organisational objectives, there is still no consensus on how to measure the return on investment (ROI).
  • The main qualities sought from a business school remain the quality of faculty and delivering a client-centred approach, while there is a marked increase in the reputation of the school being considered as very important in a client’s choice of school.
  • For those looking for customised programmes, business schools need to show that they:
    • can have a positive impact on business/performance
    • have experienced practitioners and tutors
    • are able to demonstrate ROI
  • For clients seeking open programmes, the important factors also include:
    • a high proportion of experiential learning
    • competitive fees

So while leadership is important, the specific challenges are less predictable, in what has been termed a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business environment. For different organisations, the challenges are different. Engaging and retaining leaders is still critical to success. And executive education buyers want more impact for lower cost!


Views from the panel

Steve then joined a panel of senior figures from Henley Business School to discuss and debate the findings with the audience:

  • Claire Hewitt – Chair Panel, Head of Learning Design,


  • Professor Andrew Kakabadse – Professor of Governance and Leadership, and Chairman of the Henley Directors’ Forum
  • Dr Bernd Vogel – Associate Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour, and Director of the Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership.


Claire introduced the discussion by suggesting that the survey highlighted the growth of organisation-wide leadership, rather than just a few people at the top, and that perhaps we are witnessing the ‘death’ of the corporate CEO as the business hero figure.

Andrew commented that in his experience, capability is not generally well developed in organisations, nor is it necessarily applied in the right way. He cited the importance of ‘contextual reality’ and used the example of Louis van Gaal, whose skills as a football coach might be applicable when dealing with a squad of players at Manchester United, but might be less helpful in the boardroom.

‘We need to address the incompatible agendas for each board member in their daily life,’ Andrew added, sparking a discussion across the floor regarding the wisdom of using retired CEOs as coaches, given their knowledge of the context within an organisation.

Bernd agreed that board capability is key, but asserted that ‘it's not an either/ or situation; we also have to look at developing leadership in the rest of the organisation to make the business more sustainable.’

‘But we can't change organisational culture overnight’, he added, and asked whether bosses have the capability to listen to this argument.

Steve pointed out that if strategy execution is a problem, it could be that the strategy is wrong, and suggested that we need to get away from linear model of strategic planning, a point backed up by Claire, who noted the demand for more workshops and coaching rather than classic learning interventions.

Andrew stated that he believed there is ‘confusion about what we want middle managers to do and be; there is conflict between what is wanted, and what can be done. There needs to be a shift in culture.’

Several comments from the audience suggested the need to move towards a more holistic approach: learning agenda requires HR recruitment strategy, identifying budget priorities to influence risers to change the culture; for 25 years we've told people to work in a particular way; they can't change overnight; high potentials need to be identified and nurtured.

The point was also raised that people need to develop a ‘learning agility’, and that organisations generally have to change the way they communicate with people.

Andrew raised the issue of competitive advantage, and its critical role in sustainable business success. He recounted a number of high-profile cases in which the senior management of global organisations had taken controversial decisions, and analysed the consequences in terms of the systemic changes that had – or had not – occurred.

Bernd commented that ‘There's an illusion that with a limited amount of work you can create systemic change, but it needs to happen continuously.’

A number of audience members noted the gap between what gets measured in organisations and what is actually important, and commented that investment can be measured in terms of retention of talent, as well as in cost terms.

A swell of opinion in the audience underlined the need to mitigate risk and anticipate problems rather than respond to issues, which would give a much higher ROI. This point was reinforced by Andrew, who stated that, in most cases, managers generally know of a problem four to five years in advance, but feel unable to speak out.

So what leadership skills do we need to make it easier for managers to feel able to speak out? How can we help them overcome their fears?

Andrew suggested that more research would help, together with a focus on the real dilemmas faced by boards. ‘We need to teach people to receive upward feedback, learning to receive is a good thing, and we need to get away from the perceived weakness of leaders.’

Steve suggested that ‘good learning interventions can provide a forum for difficult conversations because they are neutral; perhaps we should offer a course on how to lead your leader?’

It was generally agreed, though, that P&L invariably ‘gets in the way of curiosity’.

Claire linked this to another topic highlighted in the survey, namely that, increasingly, business school delegates are looking for learning that is immediately applicable and delivers a quick ROI.

And Andrew added that leaders need to hear the compelling arguments before they will be willing to change the organisational approach.

Claire then raised the issue of coaching and the value attributed to it by a high number of survey respondents, noting that coaching brings out confidence and might help managers to summon the courage to raise difficult issues.

Bernd noted that ‘confidence is an interesting question. It is often assumed simply through someone’s position but the reality may be very different. It’s a classic example of the knowing–doing gap.’

Various comments from the floor put the cases for and against one-to-one coaching and peer-to-peer coaching, although Bernd felt there is a place for both.

It was also noted that coaching is ‘a long burn’ and many businesses want instant gratification.

Andrew added that in his view, coaching isn't always the answer, ‘but we need more analysis to identify exactly how coaching will help.’

An audience member then asked whether the notion of VUCA meant that leaders must be on the balcony and on the dance floor. Andrew responded, saying ‘we call it zooming in and zooming out, and coaching can help to drive the right behaviours.’ This prompted Steve to ask whether there is a danger that we expect leaders to be good at everything.

Andrew referred back to his earlier analogy, and asked whether anyone felt that Ryan Giggs should have been taught goalkeeping skills.

With the allocated time used to its full extent, Claire closed the meeting and thanked the contributors and audience. Summing up the themes of the morning’s discussions she reiterated that ‘leadership development at all levels has never been more important, while recognising time and budget constraints. Henley and other L&D providers will continue to be aware of the need to deliver a meaningful ROI in every programme, and align them ever more closely to organisational objectives.’


Post-event comments and feedback:

‘This was an incredibly useful event for me; it raised lots of issues that are particularly relevant to our situation.’

‘There’s so much in the survey that we didn’t have time to explore, so I’m looking forward to taking the survey report away and reading it in full.’

‘A great venue, a good mix of people and a stimulating debate; no less than I’d expect from Henley!’

‘I feel as if my eyes have been opened to a number of trends, topics and challenges that I hadn’t thought about deeply before. It’s been very interesting indeed!’


For the full version of the Corporate learning Survey, please click here.

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For more information about this event, please contact Lucia Proffitt by email at or by phone on +44 (0)1491 418 715.