Without a proper plan in place, learning and development (L&D) initiatives are just a “drop in the ocean,” unlikely to have any real business impact, says Neil Grant, owner of Focal Leadership, LLC. Follow these three tips to create an L&D plan that will ensure training initiatives are strategically aligned to the needs of the business and, as a result, will have a lasting organizational impact:

1. Assess the Needs of the Business and the Learners

When creating an L&D plan, the first step is to assess the needs of both the learners and the business to identify training needs. For example, an organization adopting a new technology may need to upskill employees on how to use it. An organization whose sales team is underperforming may need additional sales training to refresh their skills.

Dr. Steven Stowell, president and founder of the Center for Management & Organizational Effectiveness (CMOE), says, “Without that clear line of sight to where the business is going and what obstacles and challenges it is facing, L&D professionals won’t really understand and be able to deliver what the organization needs.” As a result, L&D initiatives will become “guesswork,” which, clearly, isn’t an effective approach to achieving business results.

One-on-ones, exit interviews, post-training meetings and conversations with managers can help identify skills gaps that may be holding the organization back from reaching its goals, says Dr. Kristal Walker, CPTM, principal consultant at 3C’s Training Group, LLC. Additionally, Stowell says, capability assessments, surveys and questionnaires are “extremely beneficial” ways to gather data on training needs.

When gathering this data, “it is important to triangulate by discovering what learners believe their training and development needs are, what leaders of those learners believe the needs are, and, finally, what stakeholders believe,” Stowell says. It’s also important to consider multiple perspectives, analyze critical themes, track trends and monitor how learner needs are shifting based on the needs of the business, he adds.

By assessing the needs of both learners and the business, training initiatives will be better positioned to make a lasting organizational impact.

2. Consider the Training Function’s Current Capabilities

Learning professionals must also be realistic about which of those needs they can address with their training department’s current resources, including process capabilities, technologies, tools and systems, and budget. Many L&D professionals struggle to assess what training can and cannot address with their current capabilities. Consequently, Stowell says it’s common for L&D professionals to have “too many priorities” in their plan, which negatively impacts the plan’s success. After all, “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

For training professionals working with a lean budget, Walker suggests partnering with department heads. Even if these stakeholders are unable to provide money, they may have other resources that they’re willing to leverage to “complete the training mission,” she notes. For example, stakeholders may leverage access to emerging technologies, learning materials or insight from subject matter experts (SMEs).

Grant agrees that stakeholder sponsorship is critical in expanding the training function’s capabilities — but it has to be the right sponsor. Although lower-level stakeholders might have the “strategic oversight” to determine which learning initiatives that level of the organization needs, they may not have the budget — or authority — to “take it forward,” he explains.

Additionally, there may be many goals learning leaders want to focus on, but they must prioritize those most critical to the business. “It all comes down to tradeoffs or knowing what to do and what not to do with the L&D plan,” Stowell says. “In essence, L&D leaders need to assess the team’s strength and limitations objectively and then set realistic goals.”

3. Be Flexible

Nothing is certain in today’s fast-paced business environment. Markets change, technologies emerge and turnover happens. As such, L&D professionals should create a concrete plan that they can “stick with” but that is also flexible enough to withstand change, Walker says.

L&D leaders should also keep up with industry trends so they can “make the link” between competitiveness in the marketplace and talent development, Stowell says. Then, as industries change, they can adjust their plan accordingly. “L&D has an important responsibility in helping people stay current with changing markets, conditions, products [and] customers, and [it plays] an important role in helping the internal rate of change stay up with the external rate of change,” he adds.

“There’s no perfect L&D plan,” Walker says. But, by following these tips, training professionals can create a plan that has the power to accomplish key business goals and drive lasting organizational change through learning. And, in today’s evolving digital business environment, that’s a competitive advantage any organization would be lucky to have in its corner.