Learning and development (L&D) may play a larger, more strategic role in the long-term growth of organizations than previously thought, according to a McKinsey survey from November 2020. Nearly 80% of global business leaders said that “capability building is very or extremely important” to the long-term growth of their business. Only 59% of respondents said the same was true prior to the pandemic.

Digging deeper, the numbers offer a more complex view of the situation. Roughly 63% of leaders reported that investments in capability-building have remained the same or decreased since the pandemic began. A plausible answer may be that only one-third of leaders said that their capability-building programs achieve business impact.

This disparity between the need for learning and achieving results through learning programs is a multifaceted issue. A simplified answer is that organizations have not effectively measured or communicated the connection between learning and the achievement of organizational goals.

While this survey demonstrates enthusiasm for L&D at a leadership level and may provide some breathing room for learning leaders, it doesn’t necessarily imply programmatic sustainability. To help you make your L&D programs more sustainable, this article will outline the three components that all sustainable programs have in common.

1. Alignment

Every learning and development program starts with the assumption that after the transfer of knowledge, the resulting action or actions will align with the organization’s mission and ultimately benefit the company. The program might be communicating policies or safety protocols, developing the next round of leaders, or skills development. In theory, all are intended to equip learners to perform better in their role.

It seems that making sure each L&D program passes an “alignment test” is a non-negotiable, but the reality is not always so simple. Modern L&D programs have moved beyond the top-down, prescriptive learning model of the past. Non-traditional learning is increasingly finding a place in the learning management system (LMS), often showing up as suggested or recommended learning content in a content library. Keeping tabs on individual learning is helpful in a myriad of ways, particularly in helping employees achieve their personal development goals.

Every learning objective should be performance-oriented, with a definitive result in mind that benefits the organization. Going a step further, providing structure to self-directed or informal learning programs can ensure that they are aligned with overall business objectives. Keeping a handle on aimless, scattershot learning can help focus resources on moving the business forward in a way that involves the learner. Providing learning opportunities is an important way to attract and retain talent. However, as average employee tenures trend downward, especially for rising stars, it may require a sharper focus on team goals.

2. Personalized Learning

Crafting a modern L&D program comes with a new set of requirements for learning leaders. High on that list is creating personalized learning experiences within the LMS to boost learning engagement. Creating a truly personalized learning experience requires the four Cs of learning:


Learning leaders should assemble relevant content and continually curate the library. Providing content that’s appropriate to specific groups shortens the time learners spend sifting through a content library.


Within a curated library of learning content, the flow of searchable and suggested content should feel organic. Self-determined learning comes with a higher degree of engagement, which can boost knowledge retention.


Routinely making time for L&D opportunities and discussions about learning topics helps to reinforce a culture of learning within the organization. Leaders can play a part by communicating the importance of the process and dedicating time for check-ins on learning progress at the managerial levels.


At a basic level, learning must be easily accessible and intuitive, with as few barriers to entry as possible. If it feels like a natural extension of the software tools employees use daily, it has a better chance of being successful. As much of the workforce has shifted to an occasional or permanent remote setting, the future of learning is increasingly digital and always on.

3. Another Look At Return on Investment

L&D professionals must reframe the return on investment (ROI) of learning to the overall value to the organization. Though the results of learning can often seem invisible, the alternative is far more costly. In the case of compliance and safety training, for example, the cost of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations can range from $13,653 to over $100,000 per violation. Creating a culture around workplace safety and providing ongoing training can contribute to a safer and more efficient work environment. Centralizing all training can help improve the bottom line by standardizing the quality and depth of content and by eliminating redundancies.

Learning and Retention

A common stated goal for many learning leaders is to use L&D opportunities to reduce their organization’s turnover rate. Ongoing L&D programs can help employees prepare for and understand the challenges of their role and be more engaged in the process.

Recruiting departments have learned in recent years that candidates are seeking opportunities to learn. In a 2017 LinkedIn Learning survey, 94% of employees said they would stay with an employer longer if it invested in their learning and development. Retaining talented and engaged employees is more valuable to an organization than recruiting, onboarding and waiting for new employees to get up to speed.

Building for Tomorrow

The future for the world of work is uncertain. The roles, industries, workplaces and rules are always changing. However, the need for learning and development will always remain. Using these three strategies can help create a more successful and sustainable approach to learning and development that will help organizations adapt and prosper.