Creating and maintaining strategic alignment between the learning and development function and the overall mission, vision and goals of the organization is the single most important responsibility of L&D leaders. No matter how much effort is put into developing cutting-edge, technology-driven learning solutions, the training will be useless unless it is aligned with the needs of the organization. There are four basic steps that when, followed and repeated on an regular basis, will ensure strong strategic alignment between the training organization and the business as a whole.
1. Understand the business’ mission, vision, strategy and goals.
Let’s look at each of the four steps in more depth, starting with step 1. The best sources for this information are the businesses’ strategic plan, if one exists, and the key business leaders the training organization is directly supporting. Gather all the documentation you can find about the mission, vision, strategy and goals, and then immerse yourself in the details. When you’re feeling comfortable with the documentation, set up one-on-one discussions with the key business leaders you support, and discuss their organization’s objectives and how they support the goals and objectives of the overall business. Capture the goals and objectives from both sources, and document them in summary format in a way that will be easy to share with other key stakeholders. Capture as much detail as possible so that you can bake the goals and objectives into measurement of the learning initiatives.
2. Determine where and how learning will impact the achievement of business goals.
Share the summary you created in step 1 with the other members of the learning and development team to gain their input. There may be some obvious strategies or goals that learning can support, such as launching new products, increasing first call resolution of customer complaints or improving safety. There may also be some strategies or goals that don’t make sense for the learning and development function, and that’s fine. Involve your team in this phase to build their understanding of the organization’s goals and objectives and to ensure their buy-in to deliver on the plan that they will help develop.
3. Document the learning and development plan.
Once you’ve identified the goals and strategies the L&D team can support, it’s time to move to step 3. Once again, you should approach this process with plenty of involvement from your team, but you should also build the plan with key business stakeholders in mind. It can be a document, a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation, as long as you can easily share and communicate it with a wide range of stakeholders. Include the following key elements in your L&D plan:
- Executive overview
- Definition and overview of audience
- Overview of business objectives
- Assessment of client and business needs
- Assessment of training organization’s capabilities
- Short-term objectives (12 months)
- Long-term objectives (two or three years)
- Obstacles, threats and contingencies
Keep in mind that the L&D plan is a high-level plan designed for effective communication with key stakeholders, not the detailed plan that the L&D team will need for execution.
4. Validate the alignment of the learning and development plan with the business plan.
Now that you have the L&D plan documented, it’s time to circle back with the key business stakeholders you talked to in step 1 so you can validate the alignment of the two plans. This last step is critical to gaining your stakeholders’ buy-in. This step is the time to work out any issues or misunderstandings that may have occurred or changes to the business plan that may have happened since your initial discussions. Make sure to ask for the support you need from your key business stakeholders, and be clear about their responsibilities to help deliver on the L&D plan. After this validation and commitment step, you are finished with your strategic alignment work, and it’s time to roll up your sleeves with your L&D team to make good on delivering the plan.
This process of strategic alignment will feel like a lot of work the first time you cycle through the process, just like how a farmer feels the first time he or she plows a new field. It’s a lot of work clearing all the rocks, boulders and old tree stumps, but it will be easier the next time through the field. The timing of the strategic planning process is also critical as you want to line up this process with the business’ annual budgeting and planning processes. That alignment will provide you the opportunity to gain stakeholder budgetary support as well as critical information for building your budget for the next year. A great plan without resources will have little chance of success.
Now that you have the basics of strategic alignment, don’t hesitate to jump in and get started! The effort will be worth it both for the L&D function and your credibility as the professional leading the charge.