How to make your L&D strategy fit for the future
The role of L&D is evolving and it’s time we took a closer look at our strategy to ensure that the function is fit for purpose in today’s challenging business environment.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought learning strategy into sharp focus for many organisations. Despite this, ‘strategy’ is still a tricky word for many learning and development teams. It often seems that when L&D say ‘strategy’ they seem to be talking about tactics – the tools and ‘solutions’ they’re choosing to employ.
The key question is whether we have simply modernised and ‘digitised’ the ‘old way’?
Strategy means different things to different people so it's inevitable that we have difficulty with the idea. If the L&D function can’t put their strategy into words then others in the organisation cannot follow. From my experience there are some simple definitions that can help us to get aligned:
- Strategy explains the world as it works now and imagines a different future.
- Strategy is the path you’re planning to follow to achieve your goal.
- Strategy describes a clear set of choices and defines what is and what isn’t going to be done.
Today, the L&D strategy has to be explicit in order to get other people in the organisation to do something new. From my experiences of supporting many different organisations, the L&D ‘strategy’ is often undifferentiated, e.g.
- We build the skills people need.
- We help people find our learning solutions.
- We provide and market the learning platform.
It’s also implicit (not clearly stated), which reinforces old stereotypes and expectations of ‘learning’ and the role of the L&D function. Here are some examples of what an organisational learning strategy isn’t:
- A collection of annual L&D team ‘to-do’ lists.
- The ‘training plan’ from last year repeated (minus 10% cost savings returned).
- The learning management system implementation project plan.
- The prioritised backlog list of ‘orders taken’ from stakeholders.
- A ‘marketing and engagement plan’ for the current L&D programme.
A common challenge is the ‘interchangeability’ of terms used by the L&D team as it interacts with different parts of the organisation. A lack of standard definitions means that L&D’s overarching goals, choice of enabling strategy and connected tactics and solutions to be employed aren’t always coherent enough to facilitate the change people are seeking.
Diagnosis, policy, action
Jason Yip provides some helpful direction on strategy for leaders seeking to refocus the intent and the impact of their work:“strategy is diagnosis, guiding policy and coherent action”.
This strategy framework can also help the L&D function to reposition itself within the organisation by clearly describing how it creates value with and for the business.
Here is an example of the “diagnosis, guiding policy and coherent action” approach in this context. Not all of the statements in the three sections will be relevant in of course, but demonstrate what’s possible:
Diagnosis: what is happening in the business environment, how this might change and the opportunities and risks this brings
“This is how our business uniquely creates value for our customers today...”
“This is what’s changing in our chosen market and for our customers. This could impact the way our business creates value because...”
“These skills, connections and cultures are currently scarce and valuable, and so developing these would be a differentiator for our business in our chosen market”.
New guiding L&D policy: the principles we follow that guide our priorities and maximise our impact
“The L&D function exists to enable and accelerate change in the organisation.
“The L&D function is a professional, credible, dynamic business unit that influences the performance of the organisation. “The L&D function will operate beyond just a ‘business support team’ mindset.
“The L&D function will support and challenge the leadership team to embed learning into the way the organisation thinks and grows. “The L&D function will focus on creating the supportive environment now needed to accelerate learning at all levels of the organisation. The aim is to build the new 'social structures' the business needs to enable agency, adaptability and connected problem solving.
“The L&D function will always ensure there is alignment between its goals, their enabling strategies and the appropriate choice of tactics and tools. (We recognise that simply 'digitising' existing approaches is not enough).
"Education at work is no longer our default approach, because developing 'standardised' workers is no longer the goal”.
Coherent action from the L&D function: how we will work together to make the most of the opportunities to create a more differentiated business
“We will collaborate to agree on the type of work where performance improvement is the priority. We will all confirm the ‘performance’ gap(s) today and identify the drivers of ‘under-performance’ in our current work system and culture.
“We will collaborate to agree the balance of investments between 'productive learning' (improving existing processes, standardising and simplifying, minimising risk and errors) and 'generative learning' (creating opportunities to generate new thinking, new ideas and new possibilities that will differentiate the business).
“We will collaborate to agree on the core work process where standardisation and consistency is still the goal. We will simplify/optimise/automate our L&D support for these - in order to free up time to enable and accelerate new value creation.
In my consulting and advisory work I see three key benefits of this framework for L&D leaders and their teams:
- It enables a more collaborative and empathetic approach to planning and prioritisation, as we gain consensus on our business environment and shared priorities.
- It helps to move the L&D function away from the role of ‘internal provider’ and ‘order taker’ towards one based on new value creation and accelerating change.
- It manages expectations and shifts old mindsets by clearly defining what the L&D team will and now won’t do and why.
Without doubt 2020 has been a year of change for the L&D function. New channels, new settings, new topics and new stakeholders have dominated the conversation around corporate learning. The key question is whether we have simply modernised and ‘digitised’ the ‘old way’?
The strategy challenge for L&D is ‘where next?’ in 2021. We have a brilliant opportunity to build on the goodwill gained this year by stepping forward with new choices and defining what is and isn’t going to be done next.
Interested in this topic? Read Rebuilding your learning strategy in uncertain times.
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Paul learned and relearned from more than twenty five years of corporate senior leadership roles in Operations, Business Transformation, Marketing, Capability Building and Learning and Development in the UK and internationally.
The common thread through all of my work was how to achieve these evolving, connected organisational goals by...