Having a robust learning and development strategy is becoming more and more essential to meeting the challenges organizations face today.
A recent Forbes article presented the results from a survey of nearly a thousand CEOs titled, Reset and Reimagine: Surviving and Thriving in a Uniquely Challenging Business Environment. Inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain disruptions were among the top external challenges identified by respondents. The top internal challenges included retaining talent, accelerating digital transformation, developing the next generation of leaders, and modifying business models.
In such volatile times, learning leaders play an increasingly vital role in catalyzing transformation. With a well-crafted learning and development strategy, they can equip employees at all levels to face new challenges head-on.
A learning and development strategy framework
In short, what makes a learning and development strategy effective is its ability to connect an organization’s vision to a plan for its execution, and connect employees to the necessary resources for carrying out the plan. Here are five critical components to bring this to life.
1. Alignment of the learning and development strategy with business objectives
Training Industry’s research over the past 15 years has rated the strategic alignment of training to business goals as the most important L&D process capability. Similarly, 87% of companies responding to Brandon Hall Group’s recent Learning Strategy Study agreed that alignment between L&D and business strategy was either important or critical to achieving business goals.
Strong alignment is what makes leaders view the learning and development function as a competitive advantage and valuable business asset. It turns them into advocates for learning, which helps foster a learning culture throughout the entire organization.
Building the capability to execute against business objectives will involve not only reskilling and upskilling employees, but developing soft skills like agility that position the organization to adapt when objectives shift.
2. Partnership with business units
Learning leaders need a seat at the table. Without strong relationships with leaders of various organizational functions, once L&D learns about changes in direction, priorities, or capacity, it’s often too little and too late.
McKinsey and Company suggests a governance structure in which L&D leaders share responsibility for capability-building with senior executives and business unit heads. Working closely with the senior leadership team, L&D leaders gain an understanding of what drives performance in different parts of the organization.
Partnering with business unit leaders helps ensure that L&D teams have the necessary support to design and evaluate training solutions. It can facilitate the integration of learning and development with HR processes such as hiring, onboarding, performance management, and succession planning. For example, L&D teams can play a critical role in onboarding, helping new employees connect their roles to the organization’s overall mission and vision.
3. Assessment of capability gaps
The previous two components position L&D to better assess capability gaps, identifying “what is” and “what needs to be.” Organizations that undertake deliberate and systematic capability assessment on a regular basis are able to develop a competency model based on the organization’s strategic direction. They’re also better equipped to alter the learning and development strategy to maintain alignment with shifting organizational priorities.
Most organizations are already acquiring data that can be useful in assessing capability gaps. For example, feedback from business units obtained through HR’s performance appraisal process can provide baseline data for planning new learning pathways and programs. The company-wide “climate” surveys that many organizations use to measure employee satisfaction also yield data that can be helpful in assessing capability gaps.
In some organizations, HR and/or L&D leaders conduct annual talent discussions with business unit leaders to determine what capability gaps they’re experiencing or anticipating. And of course, the C-suite’s forward view of developments that could trigger a shift in the organization’s direction is invaluable.
4. Design using outcome statements
A Training Industry article cautions L&D not to begin the design process by developing learning objectives. Instead, learning design should start with outcome statements describing what learners do with newly acquired skills after the learning experience. Learning objectives should be established only after robust outcome statements connected to business objectives have been developed.
The article suggests answering the following questions prior to training development:
- “What are the business outcomes where learning is a critical enabler to realize those results?
- What data will be used to determine when business and learning outcomes are met?
- What do learners need to be able to do “out there” in their role that we are responsible for “in here” and that will impact the organization’s outcomes?
- What will learners do “in here” to demonstrate evidence of the outcomes?
- What skills must the learners master to demonstrate the outcomes?
- What concepts must the learners understand to demonstrate the outcomes?
- What issues must the learners be able to resolve to demonstrate the learning outcomes?”
Outcome statements are the touchstone for learning transfer. L&D teams need to keep them top-of-mind to ensure that learners are provided all of the necessary supports for successful transfer.
5. Measure impact
McKinsey suggests applying outcomes-based metrics to assess the impact of learning on business performance. Their recommendation is to use KPIs related to business excellence, learning excellence, and operational excellence, such as:
- How effective individuals are in their roles as a result of learning interventions
- How well L&D interventions have closed capability gaps
- The extent to which learning has improved the overall health of the organization
- Strategic alignment of the learning and development strategy with the organization’s objectives
This kind of impact assessment requires evaluation at levels three and four of the Kirkpatrick model, as explained in our article on training evaluation. L&D teams must determine what data will enable them to determine the extent to which learning interventions produce the desired outcomes and support business objectives.
Examples and ideas
What do the above components look like in practice? Google, Yelp, and Itsu are often cited as examples of organizations with winning learning and development strategies. Here are a few ways they keep their learning culture alive and strong.
Microlearning has become a key learning method at Google, especially for upskilling managers. The company’s much-lauded Whisper courses grew out of the performance review process, as a way for managers to strengthen their weakest skills. A series of emails is sent to managers suggesting specific actions to try with their direct reports. The “whispers” are brief enough to fit on a Post-it note, but assessments have shown improvements of up to 40% in targeted skills.
Another example of an effective learning and development strategy comes from Yelp, which has a reputation for promoting employees to positions for which they may not yet possess all of the required skills. Individuals placed in such “stretch roles” acquire additional skills through mentoring, lunch and learns, and presentations by experts in leadership positions. In addition to developing talent internally, these low-cost learning events improve the overall employee experience.
The British food chain Itsu provides pre-made sushi to supermarkets, restaurants, and fast food shops. When high turnover among its fish cutters threatened the company’s growth, Itsu’s training department began offering hands-on practice to new recruits for the first time. Before long, Itsu rolled out a masterclass and a “Fish Pro of the Year” competition. Within a year, over 90% of Itsu’s locations had a Fish Pro on staff. As a result, recruiting costs decreased as retention increased.
There’s no better way for an organization to engage its people and build long-term capability than to demonstrate a commitment to their ongoing development. But crafting an effective learning and development strategy can be challenging.
The HR/L&D Trends Survey conducted by the Ken Blanchard Companies aimed to identify the most pressing challenges L&D professionals will be facing in 2023. The findings included having the capacity to meet the needs of workforce development. In other words, having sufficient resources like time and budget.
To make the case for additional resources, an article in HR Dive suggests getting creative when conveying a program’s potential impact to the C-suite, and telling a story with data. “Think of your L&D budget request as a movie, with the story of why you want that fund as the leading actor and the data in a supporting role,” the article states.
Implementing a successful learning and development strategy requires L&D leaders to gain buy-in by making the value of learning crystal clear.