The digital workplace is disrupting all business, and learning is no exception. Knowledge and skills now have a short shelf life, and one-size-fits-all training is no longer adequate to meet the unique needs of learners. As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we need to respond and adapt in order to continue to stay relevant and enable our organizations to navigate these changes and deliver on expectations. This response requires that we align L&D strategy to business and learner needs, which means ensuring that there is a clear line of sight between L&D activity and organizational performance.

The training needs analysis has always been the primary approach to aggregating common development needs and delivering a standard program, but it answers the question of scale rather than performance. With the credibility of L&D at stake, we need to focus on root causes instead. A learning performance analysis is an essential part of effective learning programs.

Business leaders want learning programs to target relevant and measurable business results and do not consider those programs complete until they have achieved those results. L&D leaders must identify the specific capabilities the business requires and how they will know that the target population has developed them. Business leaders do not have the time or the expertise to identify the “where,” “when,” “how” and “why” behind the many potential investments in learning that they might make. They want a trusted advisor to clarify the decisions they face.

The challenge with simply trying to align to business needs is that just about anything can be framed as a need. Most mistakes in aligning learning investments come from being imprecise in defining “business needs” and then shifting into delivery mode too early with limited information. Instead, L&D should take a performance consulting approach, identifying the real performance problems, defining the business benefits of learning innovation and establishing the measurable value to the organization. In this way, L&D can be a true business partner — being attached to the business problem without being accountable for it.

For example, let’s say a major automotive brand is adding a new generation of electric cars (e-cars) to its current range of fuel-powered cars. Selling e-cars is a big change for the sales force, who will have to acquire the knowledge and skills to communicate the unique selling points (USPs) to customers. As current car knowledge and sales skills are no longer adequate, the company’s sales academy has been tasked with developing and deploying a global sales program. Below are 15 performance questions the academy leaders should ask before moving to delivery mode, followed by an exemplary answer from a business stakeholder.

1. What are your business plans for next year? What’s changing, and what’s new?

We are launching a new generation of e-cars in response to the automotive market evolution, concrete customer needs, competitor initiatives and expected environmental regulations that will limit the use of fuel-powered cars.

2. What are the critical workforce implications of these plans?

Sales force capabilities have historically focused on selling fuel-powered cars. Given the new focus on e-cars, we believe the sales force currently does not have the necessary knowledge and skills to market and sell the e-cars.

3. Would these plans require the development of new core capabilities?

The sales force needs to be reskilled to sell the new e-cars in addition to the current fuel-powered cars.

4. Which new performance are you expecting from your target audience (the sales force)?

We expect our sales force to market and sell the e-cars to current and new customers (and increase our revenue and margin in the process) based on clear performance objectives.

5. What’s the performance gap? Which core capabilities (knowledge, skills, mindset) do we need to develop?

The sales force needs to acquire technical and product knowledge about the e-car features, acquire the relevant knowledge to position the e-car’s USPs based on customer needs, and develop the sales skills needed to convince those customers and make sales. We can use available big data to analyze the current capabilities, including those of the top performers and what distinguishes them in terms of capabilities.

6. Do you believe that a learning solution for the sales force is the answer to develop new core skills? (Can the problem be addressed by L&D?)

Given our experience launching new cars, we believe that a learning solution is necessary to enable the sales force to acquire the relevant knowledge and skills.

7. Based on your experience and knowledge of the sales force, what kind of learning solution do you need?

We rely on L&D to provide expert advice on designing the best learning solution. Based on previous experience, we prefer a blended solution with assessment features in order to personalize as much as possible. In parallel, we want to co-create a knowledge management infrastructure and a community where the sales staff can acquire and share relevant e-car knowledge via social learning.

8. What should be the outcome of this intervention? What change do you want to see? (What does “good” look like to you?)

We want to see an upskilled sales force with the relevant technical and product knowledge and the right sales skills to market and sell e-cars. This outcome implies both a higher competence level and a higher confidence level, which we can assess. We also want our sales force to share knowledge and customer insights going forward.

9. What’s your expected timeline for developing the new capabilities?

We are launching the first new e-cars in six months. The sales force needs to be fully trained before that time to be ready for the first wave of customers, especially as marketing will start in four months.

10. Can you define the exact target audience (size) for this development initiative?

The target audience is our global sales force — approximately 12,000 people in 62 countries — and our 1,500 sales managers.

11. Do you anticipate any bottlenecks for rolling out a learning solution to your target audience?

We foresee four main bottlenecks. The first is deploying the global sales program in time. The second is the limited coaching capability at the sales management level to embed the learning. The third is ensuring that we can offer the learning solution to all new reps in the future. The fourth bottleneck is enabling knowledge-sharing in sales communities.

12. Can you identify subject matter experts to help L&D develop a learning solution proposal, including the approach, key performance indicators (KPIs), content and costs?

We have identified two e-car product managers who can work with L&D to shape and develop the global learning solution and determine KPIs for this program. L&D can also reach out to external experts for input on sales and coaching skills if needed.

13. Can you provide the learning solution budget and business sponsors to help L&D develop and deploy the learning solution?

The key sponsor is the global e-car marketing director, who will include the e-car training budget in his overall marketing and project budget.

14. How will you embed the learning solution in the flow of work, and what do you expect from L&D?

Let’s ensure that a blended learning resource is developed with most of the relevant product knowledge training made available online, via a mobile solution, so that staff can be pre-trained, just in time, before their face-to-face workshops. Let’s also organize an add-on coaching module for sales management to ensure the learning is embedded in the workplace. In terms of effectiveness, it makes sense to provide performance support tools to embed the learning in the flow of work.

15. How do you want to evaluate the learning solution outcomes and follow-up (results contract, etc.)?

We would like to be involved in the planning phase, be present at the delivery workshops, and be informed about the post-training outcomes in terms of basic metrics (i.e., number of people trained, etc.) and training impact (i.e., increase in competence and confidence). In addition, we want to offer the e-car training to all new sales staff in future.

As you can see, the answers to these 15 questions provide L&D with the direction to move into delivery mode. They secure five necessary ingredients to enable L&D to make a validated “go/no-go” decision: a performance need, learning objectives, the business sponsor, the target audience and project resources.

It’s then up to the skills of the L&D team to analyze proposed learning interventions in terms of anticipated impact and ability to deliver them. Assuming the answers determine a learning need, the next steps are to design and roll out a successful learning solution, facilitate the embedding in the workplace, and evaluate the impact. The answers to the 15 questions also provide L&D teams with the opportunity to become a true partner for the organization and deliver impact within budget, timelines and expectations.