Friday 19 June 2009

Making Your L&D Department Meaningful & Relevant

Many Learning & Development managers spend a lot of their time thinking about ways in which they can make their departments more effective and provide real value to the organisation. The question is usually ‘what can I do to ensure that the CEO or Director views L&D as a strategic business tool and not another also-ran support function’.

It’s a good question to ask.

There’s no silver bullet solution for increasing the impact and the profile of L&D. However, there are some key areas that are worth focusing on and some basic principles that can be applied.

Below I’ve listed five basic actions that every L&D and HR leader should take if they want to raise both the impact and profile of their Training/Learning & Development operations.

Action 1. Get Your Governance Model Right and Align L&D with Organisational Strategy
It’s amazing how few L&D departments have developed both an explicit L&D vision/strategy and a governance model to drive that strategy. Two years ago the CIPD survey in the UK indicated that only 56% of organisations had a written L&D strategy. Fewer had

The UK CIPD’s 2009 annual survey published in April also indicated that biggest change anticipated by L&D managers over the next five years is a closer integration of learning and development activity with business strategy (65%). However, there is no indication how this will be achieved and my guess is that many L&D managers are at a loss to know where to start. And any L&D department that takes 5 years to do this is likely to be dead meat well before then …

A good starting point in L&D governance is to establish a solid model that ties L&D activities tightly into business priorities (that’s vital for the second action, below). Governance isn’t necessarily tied to structure. Many different L&D organisational structures work just so long the body responsible driving the vision/strategy is totally focused on organisational objectives and priorities. To achieve this, the L&D Governance Board (or whatever you choose to call it) needs to be strongly represented by senior business leaders. They’re the people who should be making decisions about L&D priorities, not HR, not L&D. They’re the key stakeholders and the people who are responsible for executing the overall organisational strategy so they should know where priorities lie.

The diagram below provides a good model for establishing a governance structure. It is 3-tiered.

The top tier provides overall direction, formulates and drives the strategy. Ideally it consists of about 10 members with most being senior business leaders (EVP or Head of Department level) who have a stake in ensuring L&D delivers what the organisation needs. Ideally this board is chaired by the CEO or Director of the organisation but, if not, then the CFO, COO or HR Director. The key here is to ensure that HR/L&D is not over-represented. They should be a minority on the board.

The second tier ties the various business units into overall strategy. They feed data/information/perspectives up to the Strategic Board so it can make its decisions and, in turn, take Strategic Board decisions and work out how to execute them – how to prioritise L&D resources to best effect and how they can maximise ‘bang for buck’. Again these Councils (or whatever you choose to call them) need to be driven by senior managers, not by HR/L&D if you want to maximise alignment, impact and results from L&D activities.

Action 2. Actively Enrol Managers
Even outside the overall governance of L&D, managers in the line of business need to be L&D’s best friends. There’s a couple of simple reasons for this.

[a] Most employee development is in their hands, whether they appreciate that fact or not. The vast majority of learning occurs under their watch in the workplace. The estimates are that around 70-90% of employee learning and development occurs there. Not only that, but research results from the Corporate Executive Board show that a manager’s actions such setting clear objectives and explaining how they plan to measure performance have far greater impact on employee performance than any amount of change in skill and knowledge level (19.8% improvement for the former versus 6.7% improvement for the latter).

The 3 manager actions with greatest impact:
i. Explain performance evaluation standards. (i.e. set clear objectives and tell people how their performance will be measured)

ii. Ensure projects provide learning. (i.e. provide the opportunity to reflect and learn from tasks and projects)

iii. Provide experiences that develop. (i.e. provide opportunities for employees to take on new challenges and experiences)

Corporate Executive Board/Learning & Development Roundtable

[b] Anything L&D does will need to be supported by managers if it is to have any impact at all. Apparent performance improvement demonstrated in a formal learning environment (either classroom or ‘e’) has absolutely no relation to performance improvement in the workplace unless what’s learned formally is reinforced almost immediately by plenty of practice and, preferably, by supported practice. Managers need to be involved in this ‘post-training reinforcement’ as well as in any course or programme planning. In many cases this simply doesn’t happen and any value that may have come form a workshop, programme or eLearning course disappears without trace. And people wonder why…

Action 3. Embrace Innovation
Any L&D manager who is not casting a critical eye over everything their operation does and is not continually looking for better ways to make an impact should needs to re-evaluate their position.

Innovation leads to business value creation. Not always, but unless the L&D department is innovating it will never find the things that will drive business value. There’s plenty of evidence that the vast majority of L&D functions are still working ‘in the red’ as regards the cost/value calculation.

The world of L&D is moving in Internet time. Leading L&D thinkers and practitioners realise that learning is not about running courses and programmes. There’s enough evidence to prove that the majority of formal learning/training activities have no impact on employee, team and organisational performance at all. L&D needs to step away from all that ‘busy work’.

L&D managers need to understand that their job should be focused on working with their stakeholders to provide the tools and environments, the opportunities, and the networks to help foster a culture that will lead to ‘real learning’ and performance improvement – changed behaviour in the light of experience. If they stick to dedicating most of their time to designing learning events they are unlikely to be adding real value.

Every L&D department should have an explicit approach to innovation. Whether it is expressed as a group dedicated to innovation – a lab-type environment where new ideas and approaches can be tested without the stigma of failure (there are no successes without some failures), or whether the L&D department simply focuses on developing a culture of innovation across the entire group. It doesn’t really matter what the approach, just so long as there is one…

Action 4. Employ Technology, but do so wisely
Technology has changed almost every aspect of life. Yet much of what is done in the name of L&D is still similar to as it has been for 100 years.

eLearning has gained a foothold, but a lot of eLearning is simply the course paradigm moved wholesale into electronic format with identical structure to former classroom courses – aims, course objectives, sections, topics, lots of content, little engagement, rare attempts at collaborative or learner-directed approaches unless you consider the opportunity to follow branching trees as ‘learner directed’..

Yet there is an absolute wealth of tools to help L&D people raise their game by using technology. Just have a look at Jane Hart’s Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies site, She has more than 3,000 tools listed in her Learning Tools Directory, with more than 2,000 of them being free to use. Everything from podcasting tools, wiki tools, social networking tools, screencasting and conferencing tools, blogging tools and so on.

I wouldn’t suggest that every L&D manager dives headlong into a bucket of learning technology tools, but if you want to provide a better service and change the way you’ve always been supporting learning you'll need technology to help you do it. There’s sure to be something out there that will work for you. And it’s likely to be free or at least very inexpensive.

Action 5. Hire or Develop the right L&D Capabilities and Attitudes
The fifth action required to make L&D meaningful and relevant is to ensure you have the right capabilities and attitudes in your team. Only then will you be in a position to lead your organisation to develop a true learning culture.

You will need people in your team who can work as effective internal consultants, engaging with stakeholders and carrying out root cause analysis to help solve business problems. Don’t assume that someone who has experience in conducting training needs analysis has the right skills for this important job. This requires real consultancy skills, and the ability to work with business managers to understand whether training can even impact the problem (which, mostly, it can’t). These people need to have the skill and the acumen to guide often insistent managers away from a training solution when the root cause analysis indicates that the problem is due to something other than lack or knowledge or skill (which, mostly, it is).

And don’t be persuaded that an HR business partner can do this job for you. They can’t. I’ve yet to see an HR Business Partner who has a good understanding of the performance consulting process and had a good grasp of what works in adult learning.It requires specialist L&D skills and a basic L&D module in your HR qualification isn't going to equip you to do the job properly.

If you don’t have these consultative capabilities in-house, then you may be better hiring in external experts until you can either hire or build your own in-house capability. These people are your key ‘front-line’ troops. Every time they revert to order-taking, they will be inhibiting you from adding real value and tying you up in ‘busy work’ of no real value.

You may, of course, also need some of your team to be involved in developing and delivering courses and programmes, but this will be a shrinking number as the world moves away from the less effective model of learning ‘events’ and further into workplace supported learning processes. All of these team members should have a good grasp of ‘the art of the possible’ and the potential for use of technology.

In Summary
Every L&D department has the opportunity step up and add real strategic business value rather than continue to act as a support function and an also-ran. There’s a great opportunity for L&D to become a meaningful, relevant and indispensable part of the organisation in many more instances than currently exist.

However, without taking actions such as those discussed above it’s unlikely that they’ll make the transition. If they don’t, then the future is bleak for them. When economic times are tough, the lens is focused on areas that are not paying their way and contributing value.

I can see some CEOs, CFOs and Directors simply pulling the plug on their L&D departments and handing the budget off to others who they think will put it to better use.


  1. "Most employee development is in their hands, whether they appreciate that fact or not. The vast majority of learning occurs under their watch in the workplace. The estimates are that around 70-90% of employee learning and development occurs there."

    That's a key point, Charles, as L&D has little control and maybe less in a networked world. A directive approach just won't work and L&D must become an enabler. Michele Martin raised a similar point when she asked Who's in the Market for Learning: Individuals or Organizations?

  2. "Employ Technology, but do so wisely" - Employee development and elearning can be very expensive. But there are some softwares right now that can give cost-effective programs that are appropriate to the specific needs and are very reliable.

  3. Hi

    Tks very much for post:

    I like it and hope that you continue posting.

    Let me show other source that may be good for community.

    Source: Performance evaluation forms

    Best rgs