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Essential L&D strategies to embed into your 2022 business plan

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Building learning and development plans into a purpose-based strategy is one of the best ways to develop a hard-to-imitate sustainable competitive advantage.

31st Jan 2022
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As we enter 2022, every organisation will be thinking about how it should be planning: first to survive and then to thrive in the rapidly changing circumstances we have seen. We have all witnessed how important it has been to act quickly, learn rapidly and adapt to fit the new environment.

The importance of purpose

The best organisations have a very clear sense of purpose, understanding exactly why they exist, and that purpose is shared across all employees and the broader stakeholder community. We have seen that in how companies have responded to the pandemic. Those who stayed true to their purpose have done better than those who have thrown everything up in the air.

If your culture can provide something distinctive in the market, that will be hard to emulate

A small vineyard in the UK responded to the pandemic not by throwing out their marketing strategy, but by doubling down on it. All their competitors spent their budgets on reassuring people about their Covid precautions and lost all differentiation.   

Finding sustainable competitive advantage

Every commercial organisation searches for sustainable strategic advantage. This is one of the hardest things to achieve, and it does not come easily. Innovation does not last long; inventions, even though patented, will be copied without infringement quickly enough; massive scale is only open to a tiny number of players in the market.

Sustainable strategic advantage comes from something that is genuinely hard to copy. The best way to find this is to look at your company’s culture, because as we all know, culture is the hardest part of an organisation to change. If your culture can provide something distinctive in the market, that will be hard to emulate.

IBM, for example, believes its distinctiveness in the market is from its values. This may be surprising, because at first glance, its advantage in the market might be assumed to be its technology, its research and development or its size. Its values include ‘dedication to every client’s success’. To live up to that value is difficult, but many of IBM’s customers will buy from the company simply because they know that the employees will live up to that promise.

Integrating L&D into strategy

So how can culture become your competitive advantage? This is where learning and development strategies become part of the whole company’s strategy. Turning the organisation’s culture into its strongest asset and the hardest thing to emulate will be dependent on a huge effort to educate everyone and to develop them into the best possible fit for your strategic intention.

A learning and development strategy based on culture must therefore be based on the organisation’s purpose, as well as the broader strategy

As well as the organisation’s purpose, the existing company strategy must form a vital input to the planning process for learning and development. For example, if the strategy involves acquisitions, then the education plan must be capable of coping with a significant number of new employees. Even if the integration is gradual, there will be key elements of the broader company that they will need to understand.

A learning and development strategy based on culture must therefore be based on the organisation’s purpose, as well as the broader strategy. It must state clearly how it will develop the culture to the point where it becomes distinctive in the market and customers will buy based not on temporary factors (such as price or performance) but on long-term trust.

Do you have strategic goals?

To do this, goals for the strategy must be integral. It is no good just having a lot of warm words about learning and development. Solid metrics are essential so that the impact of the strategy can be proven to the satisfaction of senior leaders. This can be difficult.

Too many parts of companies tend to provide lists of actions when outlining their strategy, as if completing the actions is enough to make a successful strategy. However, if the outcomes of the actions are clearly defined in advance, it becomes a much stronger strategy, as well as more credible.

Goals, of course, must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART). This is not a new idea, but all too often strategic goals fail to meet at least one of these criteria. “Be the best employer” is a common strategic goal, that is not SMART in any way.

The strategic intent is all about making the choices about where to focus and where to invest

How can you build the strategy?

The temptation is often to use a template. There are enormous numbers of templates on the internet, but these are worth exactly how much is charged for them: nothing. The reason for this is that templates take away all the original thought from the process. They promise a strategy just for the effort of filling them in.

The hard work in creating strategy is the thinking. It’s putting together all the pieces of the puzzle and seeing a picture emerge. Think of building a strategy in three phases: Analysis; Intent and Actions

1. Analysis

The analysis stage is a wide-ranging review of all the historical information available about the organisation and its environment. Think of this as the ‘rear-view mirror’. This is followed by the best projections you can build about how the market will develop in future: ‘the headlights’. Getting this right will very often point the way for the strategy.

2. Intent

The strategic intent is all about making the choices about where to focus and where to invest. It must involve change and it must be clear what you will not do, as much as what you will. This is summed up briefly by a statement of the direction the organisation will head in.

3. Actions

Lastly, the strategic actions are the key undertakings – usually three to five – that support the stated intent and are key to meeting it. These will, of course, be measurable and contain milestones for progress over the period of the strategy.

Do the thinking yourself

Building learning and development plans into a purpose-based strategy is one of the best ways to develop a hard-to-imitate sustainable competitive advantage. Ensure you have SMART goals and don’t use templates – do the difficult thinking that is a prerequisite for every lasting and successful strategy.

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