The role of L&D: aligning business objectives with learner needs
L&D often finds itself trapped between the demands of business objectives and individual learner needs, but there is a way to align the two that ensures a beneficial outcome for all parties.
It’s not unfair to say that L&D professionals often find themselves pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, there is the obligation to provide learning resources that specifically align with business objectives.
On the other, there’s an increasing need to satisfy employee appetites for skills development that helps them perform better.
With these two forces regularly in opposition, it’s easy for L&D to fall into a form of existential crisis. What is its role? Who is its master?
If business objectives are the rocks, then learning is the river that flows over and around them. The trouble starts when learning objectives are built too tightly with business objectives. Then they become a dam, restricting progress.
Let’s first consider the business objectives. Typical business goals such as ‘increase profit’, ‘improve the customer experience’, ‘tighten operational efficiency’, are handed down to the L&D team with the expectation that people will be trained in the necessary job-specific, compliance, and management roles to achieve these goals in line with targets.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to link business objectives with learning objectives. Indeed, recent research by Brandon Hall (Learning Strategy 2018 report) found that three out of four organisations believed that aligning their learning strategy with business goals was a top priority.
That same report found that only 5% believed they had already achieved this effectively, however. Why such a disparity between desire and success?
To answer this, we must look at the trends emerging for individuals in workplace learning – trends that have already been well documented by Bersin, Glassdoor, and others.
A learner-centric approach
Employees are looking to be developed for the roles they are doing now, but they are also expecting development for wider responsibility, transferrable skills, and the freedom to self-learn, reflect, and innovate.
The era of a ‘job for life’ now seems a distant memory. People who have undergone formative and vocational learning over many years to become subject-matter experts have been challenged on several fronts, both geo-political and technological. One example – the rise of AI and automation in the legal profession – has resulted in many skilled roles being made redundant. Affected individuals without a sufficiently well developed alternative skillset to draw upon have found themselves side-stepped.
If all learning is purely business-aligned, then the business might be happy but, eventually, talent will migrate from the organisation, leaving behind a wasteland of abandoned ideas, disconnected technologies, and unrealised potential.
Consequently, many people are now choosing employers that value soft skills and offer ‘future-fit’ learning and development far beyond the original job specification. Recent research by PwC found that 74% surveyed were willing to learn new skills or be re-trained to remain employable in the future. Employers who recognise this can attract and retain people who are hungry to learn new things and not afraid to move outside their comfort zone – essential attributes in a fast-moving, competitive world.
When the people inside an organisation are more versatile, more dextrous and more insightful, then the potential for increased performance through learning is vastly increased.
L&D, therefore, must also become more versatile. If business objectives are the rocks, then learning is the river that flows over and around them. The trouble starts when learning objectives are built too tightly with business objectives. Then they become a dam, restricting progress and stemming the flow of creativity. It is impossible for any business to truly know the minds of its employees – to know the limits of their talents and their ability to innovate and contribute.
Learning objectives that are exclusively mapped to business objectives will always be two-dimensional. The third, vital, component is the learner – and for true performance to happen, there must be a symbiotic relationship between the three. Organisations that have recognised this, and in response fostered a culture of self-development and exploration, have excelled.
Finding the balance between learner and business objectives
What behaviour, then, does L&D need to encourage? How can it successfully serve these two masters?
Firstly, it needs to nail engagement. Not just in terms of the learning resources it provides, but also in helping the learner to understand what the business mission is, their place within it, and their potential for contribution.
Secondly, it needs to form strong leadership alliances with business influencers, advocates and supporters.
Thirdly, it needs to foster a culture of self-discovery, new experiences and curiosity. It needs to provide space for people to reflect and explore, to share ideas and build communities, to lead by example and learn from mistakes, and to expand into new roles and develop mentoring capability. These behaviours drive the business objectives, not by being perfectly aligned, but by creating a workforce that is empowered and eager to tackle challenges.
People want to do things they couldn’t do before. If all learning is purely business-aligned, then the business might be happy but, eventually, talent will migrate from the organisation, leaving behind a wasteland of abandoned ideas, disconnected technologies, and unrealised potential.
Organisations that help people to learn to do things better – even things that are not necessarily their job in that company – have the foundation in place to achieve sustained business performance.
It’s important to stress that this is a Utopian viewpoint. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for L&D because every organisation has a different culture. So there will always be a need to create learning resources for specific business objectives. There will always be requirements for L&D to develop resources for compliance against industry standards; for safety training and mandated processes. L&D has the potential, however, to influence organisations to adopt a more entrepreneurial learning culture that benefits everyone. It will take courage and there will always be risks – but the rewards are indisputable.
When the fluctuating forces of business, L&D, and learner are aligned, a dynamic performance culture can emerge that not only achieves business objectives, but also transcends them.
Interested in this topic? Read Helping change the role of L&D by changing roles in L&D.
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Edmund Monk is the co-Founder of the Learning and Performance Institute, the leading body for workplace learning, globally. He has over twenty years experience of research into learning trends, and is responsible for Learning Live, Learning Live Networks, Learning Awards, the Global Capability Map and numerous best practice certification...