The case for business-led learning strategies
It’s critical that learning & development strategies align with the needs and goals of the organisation they serve. After all, L&D’s purpose is to cultivate and nurture employees’ skillsets so they can perform their roles more effectively, ultimately elevating both business results and the service we provide for clients.
Yet, McKinsey report that in a colossal 60% of organisations, there is no explicit link between the learning strategy and business objectives. Perhaps more worryingly, Bersin reports that almost one-fifth of L&D functions don’t have a business plan at all, highlighting the potential chasm between L&D efforts and what is actually valuable to the business. Considering the Department for Education found that English, Welsh and Northern Irish employers spent an estimated £42 billion on training between 2018 and 2019, the disconnect between learning and business value is nothing short of alarming.
However, there is a clear solution to creating business-led learning strategies. As the great Stephen Covey taught: begin with the end in mind. In other words, L&D teams must think and act like true business partners, building their strategy around the organisation’s vision, aims and goals.
Getting to grips with business goals
How do we ensure that our learning strategy at Merkle is aligned with company aims and serves to further enhance our client service? Well, it may sound obvious but first we need to gain a full understanding of what our business’s goals actually are.
We perform a yearly learning needs analysis based on INVESTIGATE, an 11-step process which identifies new knowledge, skills and behaviours that employees require to meet their own and their organisation’s needs. Crucially, the first stage of INVESTIGATE is identifying the business’s key priorities through conversations with senior leaders. The next steps involve translating these into performance goals and then determining the skills needed to meet those goals. Only then can L&D start to make plans for appropriate learning solutions, maximising learning transfer, measuring success and so on.
At Merkle, we conduct the INVESTIGATE process annually to ensure all L&D efforts are synced to ever-evolving business goals. In practice, this means starting conversations with senior leaders a few months before the end of the year to understand their strategic business goals for the 12 months ahead, as well as current and future barriers to achieving these. At year-end, L&D analyse company and department visions for the coming year, plus information shared at All Hands meetings, so the organisation’s priorities are fully mapped out.
For example, one of our organisational goals for 2021 is to keep evolving our approaches and service lines so that we can provide even greater support for clients in meeting the demands of tomorrow’s consumers. We will use this example throughout the blog.
Transforming business aims into performance goals
After unpacking the organisation’s strategic aims, we gather a wealth of data from line managers about who should be doing what differently to meet company objectives; in other words, we identify the performance goals that need to be achieved by different segments of the workforce. To access the richest information, we recommend holding forums with managers from different areas of the business to generate ideas for performance goals in the context of organisational aims. Though more time-consuming than a medium like email, forums allow:
- More context around why particular things need to be done differently
- Emergence of themes within and across different departments and business lines
- Creation of collective insights, thereby achieving greater alignment
Examples of performance goals directly linked to Merkle’s 2021 aim are summarised in Fig 1.
Set clearer & more bespoke visions for client accounts.
Lead team ideation sessions more often and more effectively.
Develop new department USPs through entrepreneurial thinking.
Not only did line managers suggest these performance goals, they pinpointed departments and career stages where they would have the most impact on achieving organisational aims.
From performance goals to a business-led L&D strategy
Now armed with information on both the organisation’s direction and employee performance goals, we are ready to build our learning strategy.
Note that a full strategy may have multiple components relating to different organisational goals. Our 2021 L&D strategy at Merkle has four pillars, one of which is focused on our example, evolving to support clients in meeting the demands of tomorrow’s consumers. We reframed this as a pillar of our learning strategy, encapsulating in a few words both the organisation’s aim and an indication of the type of capabilities needed to support the business in achieving its goal:
Adopt and showcase innovative thinking
This simple, overarching statement sets a clear direction for L&D efforts. While the ‘adopt’ part of the pillar is intuitive, we also chose to include ‘showcase’ to further bolster our learning culture—another key element of our overall strategy—through creating organic peer learning opportunities. Connecting pillars where appropriate makes the whole strategy stronger and more cohesive.
Under the adapt and showcase innovative thinking pillar were the performance goals identified in Fig 1. We repeated this exercise for the other three pillars which support different organisational goals.
Turning the learning strategy into action
Now we have a clear L&D strategy, we must further break down the performance goals into the specific behaviours, attitudes, skills and knowledge (BASK) we want to nurture in particular strata of the workforce. This will form the basis of our L&D roadmap, which should be strongly action focused.
For our example, Fig 2. shows some of the BASK required to achieve the performance goals outlined earlier in this post.
Understand what a meaningful vision looks like & be able to create one for each client.
Use design thinking methodology to lead effective ideation sessions.
Engineer situations and conditions to maximise creative thinking.
There are plenty of approaches to developing these BASK in appropriate segments of the workforce, which is where the L&D roadmap comes in. What learning professionals now need to do is establish the types of learning solutions that will support employee development in these areas, thereby creating an actionable roadmap to fulfilling the strategy. More than one stage of the INVESTIGATE process is dedicated to planning appropriate and valuable learning solutions. Note that training sessions are just one option here; other actionable approaches include:
- Guest speakers
- Learning networks (e.g. Communities of Practice)
Finally, to ensure full alignment across the organisation, any competency matrices, career frameworks, job descriptions and so on must be reviewed to check that they incorporate the necessary BASK at each level of the business.
Conclusion: Steps to leading a business-led L&D strategy
If you’re an L&D professional who would like to build a more business-focused learning strategy, remember to begin with the end in mind and use the company’s vision as a lodestar:
- Proactively investigate the organisation’s priorities and goals for next 12 months.
- Get input from line managers to generate performance goals for specific employee segments through the lens of organisational aims.
- Write a short statement representing the organisational objective and summarising the type of performance goals needed to achieve it.
- Break down the performance goals into the employee behaviours, attitudes, skills and knowledge that need to be developed to form an actionable learning roadmap.
For more information, we’d recommend picking up a copy of the Training Needs Analysis Pocketbook, which gives more detail on the INVESTIGATE process, or reach out to us to learn more: