Creating Consistency

How to Centralize L&D in a Decentralized Organization

By Adina Sapp

How can decentralized organizations effectively implement a centralized learning model? In a spotlight webinar hosted by Cornerstone on Demand on March 14, 2018, Kacie Walters, vice president of strategic programs (human relations) at Northern Trust, tells how her company successfully made the transition. While Cornerstone recognizes that each organization has unique needs and that this path may work for some and not others, Walters has valuable insight on the challenges and benefits of global coordination of goals and values.

Making the Move to a Centralized Model

When Northern Trust moved L&D from individual business units to a centralized or global model, the pendulum had to swing a few times before it landed on the model that worked best.

The company started with separate programs for each region. With this model, regional leadership could quickly respond to regional needs, but there was a lack of coordination among teams.

So Northern Trust swung the pendulum to the global team, and what it found was that while L&D was highly consistent, it lost a bit of connection to the business. There are nuances in the three-legged stool of regional, global and business unit that simply can’t be met by such a strictly central model.

Ultimately, Northern Trust found balance through a hybrid model. It has global programs with consistent messaging and tools, but has added a regional layer for delivery. Sometimes the needs of the various matrix offices don’t align, so the regional delivery layer enables them to effectively meet the complex needs of the organization while maintaining consistency. This isn’t always easy, however.

Keep It Simple

“Global is hard, period,” Walters says. In complex organizations that work across time zones, languages and cultures, it is essential to simplify wherever possible, such as with your word choice. “Slang and idioms are things I’m much more aware of now,” Walters says. “When you begin a meeting with ‘Good morning,’ is it really morning where the attendees are?”

With limited resources, we want to efficiently manage and maintain content the best we can. If the organization is utilizing multiple systems, consolidating content into one delivery platform helps to avoid duplications and allows you to make changes in one place rather than multiple places.

It is also essential to determine what the centralized team does and doesn’t support. The key is knowing when to apply global, when consistency matters and when it doesn’t.

Focus on the Right Priorities

There are four key areas that the global L&D team should focus on:

  • Balancing global, regional and business unit solutions
  • Governing learning solutions across a decentralized structure
  • Changing L&D operating models to address common challenges
  • Setting priorities to stay aligned to the business

Northern Trust applies a quadrant solution when determining which areas the global team should support, balancing consistency with efficiency. The question of consistency is key here. Areas that need consistency should be supported by the global team. “If flexibility is needed or it’s highly technical, we sacrifice the consistency as needed,” Walters says.

For example, subject-matter experts do training on highly complex subjects. To achieve scale, some things that need to be highly personalized are created by smaller teams but supported by the global team.

What Does This Really Look Like?

Northern Trust has applied a global vs. regional model as pictured that places programs in their quadrant model. Leadership, technology and enterprise compliance must be consistent across the organization, but the global team does not get involved in the business unit training at all. The new hire experience requires consistency, so the global team helps manage it, but the other teams own the content. In areas that require scalability but also have a lot of variance, the global team has achieved scale through templates and playbooks, but the ownership of implementing the training and processes lies with the people on the ground.

Central Learning Platform

Implementing a centralized learning platform is essential to achieving consistency across the organization. Even though Northern Trust is a decentralized organization, it is committed to having one LMS, one browsing structure, one naming convention, one metadata list, one way to report metrics and one method of survey assessment. The content provided through the LMS is area-specific as needed, but the platform is consistent. That’s the same for every program, regardless of which learning team owns it.


Keep in mind that although there are compelling reasons to move to a centralized L&D model, organizations should consider the best fit for them. When considering a move to global, the key question is determining when consistency matters to the organization and when it doesn’t. Senior leadership must strike the right balance between global, regional and business unit needs by bringing the right voices to the table. “If I’ve learned one thing across my career, it’s that one sponsor does not represent the entire organization,” Walters says. “Different sponsors help with approach, they provide debriefing and help determine how things are decided.”

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Cornerstone OnDemand (NASDAQ: CSOD) is pioneering solutions to help organizations realize the potential of the modern workforce. As the global leader in cloud-based learning and human capital management software, Cornerstone is designed to enable a lifetime of learning and development that is fundamental to the growth of employees and organizations.