Creating an Actionable Learning Strategy

How do learning leaders ensure their efforts align with organisational priorities?

Part of the learning leader’s job is to develop organisational learning strategies. Yet, the results of the efforts to achieve this goal are not encouraging.

For one thing, organisations aren’t reviewing their learning and development strategies very often. A study from Brandon Hall in 2014 revealed that less than 18 percent of organisations reviewed or revisited their learning and development strategies at least annually over the past five years and 28.8 percent revisited strategies once or not at all.

For another, when they do review and/or develop learning strategies, those strategies don’t always mesh well with business priorities. A ‘Bersin by Deloitte’ report showed that only about 10-15 percent of companies possess learning and development programs that are properly aligned with strategy and outcomes. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development’s 2015 learning and development survey offered a similarly dark picture: Twenty-five percent of respondents indicated their learning and development efforts were aligned with the business needs of their organisations. In some sectors, alignment was less than 10 percent.

The bottom line is that even though the need for strategic alignment with organisational strategies is acknowledged as very important, it isn’t being done very well. Why? There are five possible causes for failed alignment and results:

Ineffective reporting structures for learning functions:

According to the CIPD report, alignment is lower in organisations where learning and development is part of generalist HR activities. It’s higher where all learning activities are separate from the HR function with different reporting lines to the C-suite. Organisations where the CLO reports to the CEO are more likely to help the business to increase employee productivity, but few CLOs report directly to the CEO.

Inappropriate focus:

In a learning and development world being shaped by technological advances, it is not surprising that learning leaders concentrate on delivery and e-learning strategies. But too often they invest too much time and effort on the wrong things. Learning delivery is important, but strategic alignment between learning and the business should be a key focus.

Lack of in-depth understanding of corporate strategies:

Many corporate strategies are stated in generic terms, such as “capture 15 percent of the industry’s widget market.” Or, “generate 1,000 more leads a month.” Tactics to achieve strategic objectives need to be more detailed. However, learning leaders may not fully understand strategies and tactics in depth.

Failure to relate effectively with stakeholders:

Learning leaders communicate using learning-centric terminology such as learning objectives, instructional modalities and course completions, instead of business terms. Further, CLOs need to know how learning drives business-centric concerns like revenue and market penetration, not to mention waste reduction and efficiency gains. Employee engagement and satisfaction are important, but those common learning metrics make it difficult to relate learning efforts to business objectives.

A focus on learning objectives versus business objectives:

Learning leaders should use training needs assessments to identify skill gaps and pain points. Then, if the identified needs don’t gel with specific organisation or business objectives, don’t create elaborate learning interventions to address them, as they are not likely to advance key business priorities.

An organisation learning and development strategy should provide a road map of sorts to help leaders align and leverage learning resources to improve the organisation’s overall human capital related capabilities and systems; this helps the organisation to achieve competitive advantage.

Learning resources include:

Skilled trainers: Each trainer may have specialised competencies or areas of expertise.

Engaged, accountable employees: Employees should demonstrate something called organisational citizenship behaviour. That’s when employees go above and beyond what is normally expected. Engaged employees are proactive, supportive, willing to teach others and help them learn.

Open social networks: Most learning takes place socially, through daily interactions with peers and others, outside of formal learning events. Work teams are the primary source of learning about norms, values and expectations.

Supportive learning technologies: According to ATD’s 2015 “State of the Industry” report, slightly more than half of all organisational training takes place in a classroom led by a facilitator/instructor. However, learner-directed e-learning, webinars and other online delivery methodologies increase annually.

Supportive leaders: Executive support is essential to create a learning organisation. Executives provide the finances and direction necessary to guide the organisation’s learning efforts. Leaders also can be valuable mentors and coaches.

Subject matter experts: Every organisation has highly experienced, talented individuals who are content and process experts. Their expertise can be incorporated into learning programs.

Accurate, up-to-date documentation: Policies and procedures establish the standards for acceptable behaviour and business practices. They provide valuable reference materials to support learning and development efforts.

External vendors, consultants: Myriad external learning and development resources are available, some at little or no cost.

Once learning leaders have the right tools, to make the most out of the resources available they can combine, recombine and restructure resources in innovative ways. But, the aforementioned Brandon Hall study reports that strategic leveraging of learning resources must be done consistently.

Consider the following seven steps to help develop a strong, actionable organisational learning strategy that will have an impact on the business:

Understand the business: Learning leaders must understand the business, its structure and key processes in the organisations. They need to know how profits are generated, how front-line employees interact with customers, how front-line leaders interact with front-line employees, how different teams function in various parts of the organisation and more. They also need to build relationships with key leaders and influential employees throughout the company. Finally, they must be conversant in the lexicon of the organisation to gain credibility and trust.

Internalise the organisation’s strategic objectives: The learning function must be viewed as a business partner that understands what the organisation is trying to do. Its strategies must readily demonstrate how learning and development will help employees accomplish business objectives.

To understand the strategic issues affecting various parts of the organisation:

  • Identify the strategic objectives for key departments to ascertain what progress has been made, what’s working, what isn’t.
  • Identify the major concerns for department heads and their employees.
  • Identify the competitive advantages and disadvantages the company has compared to competitors.
  • Conduct a force field analysis to identify the strengths and weaknesses in various departments
  • Develop a detailed understanding about the organisation’s customers.
  • Learn about future growth intentions.
  • Review productivity and other reports to determine how well various departments are functioning.
  • Evaluate existing technology to learn if new purchases will be made.
  • Determine competency levels for existing personnel.
  • Determine what is expected of the learning and development department.

Assess the learning department’s current capabilities: Before committing to anything, understand the capabilities and limitations in the learning function.

  • What are the capabilities of the learning staff?
  • What is the current state of learning technology?
  • What learning resources are available?
  • What is the learning department’s reputation among executives, management, employees, outside contractors and suppliers?

Evaluate the organisation’s available learning resources. They determine what can and cannot be done. The key is to be creative. Think about ways to combine and recombine resources to increase capabilities.

Supplement steps 1 and 2 — an operational organisation assessment — with a training needs analysis. To accomplish this, focus on the departments that need the most help to make the company financially successful; identify the mission-critical knowledge and skills that need to be improved to better achieve business objectives; provide specific, tangible, measurable key performance indicators, KPIs, with a process to measure and report results; and provide individual development plans for individuals within targeted departments.

Share identified training needs with department heads to ensure understanding and alignment with their goals and expectations. If the needs are focused on mission-critical competencies that deliver financial results, and the KPIs are in terms the department heads use, support will be readily offered.

Determine a visionary organisation learning and development strategy.

  • Ensure everyone in the learning function is aware of the identified training needs, KPIs, and engage them in the strategy development process.
  • Develop a training curriculum for each targeted department/function.
  • Establish a blended learning strategy to ensure effective allocation of learning resources.
  • Communicate the plan throughout the organisation.
  • Implement, evaluate, readjust, report on results

The process above is not easy. But if done thoroughly, with vision and creativity, it will deliver significant learning and productivity results.