Learning departments often function as dedicated solution providers, or even “order takers,” to the organizations they serve. In this role, the value they provide to the organization is limited, because they may put in place tactical learning solutions that are not aligned with the strategic direction or goals of the organization. If a learning function is to help drive business results, learning practitioners must become strategic partners to leaders across the organization.
What Does It Mean to Work Strategically?
Within learning and development (L&D), and other “people” functions like talent management and organizational development, work typically falls into one of three categories: transactional, tactical and strategic. While all of these categories of work are important and must be done well, if learning practitioners want to work more strategically, they must be able to distinguish strategic work from the other types.
Transactional work involves one person who meets the needs of another person, like a bank teller depositing a customer’s check. In learning, transactions often involve answering questions or making recommendations.
Transactional work is often urgent and in high volume, so there’s a danger that engaging in tactical work won’t allow a practitioner sufficient time for strategic work. As a result, we should automate or centralize transactional work when possible. ATMs and mobile apps deposit checks, while in learning, self-service online learning frees facilitators’ and administrators’ time for other work.
Tactical work meets the needs of teams or work groups within an organization through the implementation of solutions. Learning solutions might include courses, reference materials, online portals or mentoring programs. Any solution is a tactic.
One challenge with tactics are that they are costly in time, money and other resources. A greater challenge is that tactics may or may not be aligned with a strategic objective. If a solution does not solve a problem and is not aligned with a business outcome, it’s likely a waste of time.
There are a number of attributes by which we can identify strategic work. It:
- Benefits the organization as a whole (“organization” could also mean a department or a region).
- Provides these benefits over the long term (three to five years).
- Addresses at least one specific business goal.
- Typically requires more than a single tactic/solution.
- Remains solution-neutral for some period of time.
Strategic work begin as solution-neutral, because to impact the organization, practitioners must first understand the goals of the organization, the gaps between those goals and the current state, and the root causes that produce those gaps. That work takes some time and usually leads to not just one but a combination of needed solutions.
When practitioners find these attributes in their work, they are working strategically and can feel confident that the solutions they provide are strategically aligned.
What Does It Mean to Be a Business Partner?
Based on this description of strategic work, it might seem an daunting challenge, especially for practitioners who are already experts in providing learning solutions. The key is that learning practitioners cannot work strategically if they are working alone. To accomplish strategic work, learning practitioners must work in partnership with business leaders, one on one and with shared accountability.
The benefit of working as a business partner is that learning practitioners are no longer only working to provide a learning solution to the business; they’re working directly on achieving the goals of the business. (In helping learning functions transition toward more strategic work, I’ve found that business leaders are eager for this type of partnership, as I wrote in my TD at Work article “Focus First on Results,” co-authored with Beth Hughes.)
Who Is My Business Partner?
To be successful in working strategically, it’s important to pick the right partner. In this case, the right partners are leaders who meet the following criteria:
- “Owns” the business and performance goals you’re seeking to meet.
- Has the most to gain or loose if the organization does not meet those goals.
- Has the authority to make decisions and implement solutions as needed.
- Can obtain the resources needed to implement the solutions.
When working strategically, there are some parts of the work that learning practitioners cannot accomplish alone. By partnering with an influential and well-placed leader, real impact is possible.
Sometimes, learning practitioners ask, “Why would this business leader want to work with me in this way?” The short answer is, “Because it is their goals you’re partnering with them to achieve, and leaders often need all the help they can find.”
How Do I Build Strategic Partnerships?
The full answer to this last question is too long to cover here, but it’s useful to think of building partnerships in terms of access, credibility and trust, according to Dana Gaines Robinson, James C. Robinson, Jack J. Phillips, Patricia Pulliam Phillips and Dick Handshaw’s book “Performance Consulting.”
To build a partnership, learning practitioners must have access to the business leader in one-on-one time where he or she is willing to discuss business challenges and opportunities. They may initially only have access through a project; if so, that’s their opportunity to over-deliver on the leader’s requests and ask questions that demonstrate their focus on business results before solutions. Another approach to gain access is to volunteer for high-visibility projects that are important to the business leader, even if they fall outside the learning practitioner’s normal scope of work.
To build a partnership, learning practitioners must demonstrate their competence as a partner — which not only means expertise in learning but also the ability to meaningfully discuss the business of their business. For example, they can educate themselves on the various functions within the business, read the organization’s annual report to shareholders, and identify its main competitors and the challenges facing the industry in which they work. In short, learning practitioners must learn to speak their partner’s language.
Sustained partnerships are built on trust — which takes time to build but can be broken in an instant. Actions that learning practitioners can take to build trust include keeping their partner’s confidences, accepting accountability for their own actions and their consequences, and aligning their words and actions.
Becoming a strategic learning business partner is not an easy task — but it is possible, and the benefits far outweigh the effort. When your work begins to provide strategic results that benefit the organization, business leaders and learners, it also provides real meaning and purpose for you.