Editor’s Note: A recent research report sheds light on common challenges learning leaders face. These challenges were discovered through research and surveys conducted over the course of a decade. In this series of articles, we will explore these challenges and how learning leaders are responding. This article is the last of an eight-part series.

Learning and development (L&D) leaders are well aware of the value learning brings to an organization, from closing skills gaps to creating professional development opportunities for employees to improving organizational agility. However, getting executives to see that value, and getting individual contributors to make time for learning in their everyday lives, is a different story.

Training Industry research found that almost one-third of learning leaders find the “prioritization of training” a challenge. Dr. Tom Whelan, director of research at Training Industry, Inc., says the prioritization of training is “all about a company being able to foster and develop and nurture a learning culture.” This process, he adds, is not fast, not easy and “very likely to fail,” as it takes time for an organization to shift its view of the training function and often requires the help of an internal champion to do so.

To conquer this challenge (and avoid that failure), learning leaders must prove the business impact of training to combat misconceptions and begin to build a culture that views learning as a competitive advantage.

The Root of the Problem

“Training is a cost.”

“There’s not enough time for learning.”

“Training is not a driver of business success.”

These statements are some of the most common reasons leaders give for failing to prioritize training and, as a result, failing to create a learning culture at their organization.

But the issue isn’t that leaders don’t think L&D is an important ingredient in their organization’s recipe for success. In fact, in additional Training Industry research, 84% of executives reported that, to a large extent, L&D is critical to business goals. However, only 28% said that the training their organizations provides to employees is always effective. To close this disconnect and convince executives to prioritize training, learning leaders must work to prove its impact on the business.

Proving the Business Value of Training

“Training means something,” says Steve Couchman, CPTM, CSM, training and communications manager at Iowa State University. “We want to show leadership that we have value in what we do.” Proving this value starts with strategically aligning training initiatives to key business goals. Then, learning leaders must determine the “value proposition of training” — how the training can directly help the business achieve those goals. Lastly, when presenting training initiatives to an executive, learning leaders must align their value proposition to each executive’s individual goals to increase its relevance, Whelan says.

Couchman agrees that learning leaders should position training in a way that’s relevant for leaders: “We all love to get into our trainer learning and performance speak and use lots of great terms because that’s what we’re engrained to do, but take it back, show your leadership [training’s strategic value, and] talk to them in terms that they understand.” By effectively determining and presenting the value proposition of training to executives, learning leaders can better prove L&D’s impact on major business goals.

Proving the impact of training can be more difficult for learning professionals in newly created L&D departments. This is the case for Jessica Jones, CPTM, learning and development manager at CivicPlus, who says, “In my example, I’m the first learning and development manager at our company, and there’s not a whole lot of historical data for me to go back and take a look at and say, ‘This is what we’re accomplishing.’”

To prove the impact of training without data on past training initiatives, Jones puts together “some type of analysis initiative” that she can deliver to executives after each individual training initiative at her organization. This way, she explains, “Even though I don’t always have that comparative feedback analysis, I can do an analysis of what’s happening right now.”

Building a Learning Culture

Proving the impact of training is only the first step in solving this challenge. Learning leaders must also build a learning culture within the organization. Although this process takes time, it’s worth the investment: A strong learning culture offers organizations a competitive advantage by keeping employees’ skill sets sharp. And, as markets change and new technologies surface, having a learning culture allows an organization to “be more agile” and “pivot and shift” when necessary, Whelan says.

Thus, creating a learning culture can help organizations ensure their workforce is prepared for whatever the future may bring — which, Jones says, is part of what it means to prioritize training. “I think that for an organization to prioritize training, it really means they are making the time and the money investment that is required to give people the training that they need in order to do their day-to-day job today, and then to prepare for what their jobs will turn into a year down the road,” she says.

After all, “Not prioritizing training today is definitely going to increase that skills gap in the future,” she adds. By making it clear that training can greatly benefit the organization into the future of work, both executives and individual contributors are more likely to make it a priority.

One major hurdle in creating a learning culture is helping employees make time for learning. Couchman notes that for many organizations, learners are “subject matter experts who have four or five other responsibilities … unfortunately, training is probably the fifth one on their list.” One way to approach this task is by helping learners understand that investing in training up front “can potentially save some time down the road,” Jones says.

Another reason employees may be hesitant to integrate learning into their daily routine is that they simply don’t know what they should be learning. For a learning culture to be successful, L&D professionals must pinpoint where employees should focus their learning efforts. Jones says, “I would say the biggest thing that has helped with making the learning culture of interest to individual contributors here is taking the time to do a learning needs analysis [up front] and find[ing] out what it is they specifically want to learn or what it is they feel like is holding them back.”

After identifying areas that need sharpening, training professionals can focus their learning efforts accordingly. By delivering training specific to learners’ current needs, learners are more likely to advocate for training initiatives in the future and “explain to other people why it’s beneficial,” Jones says. This advocacy is significant, as securing an internal champion — someone who can “talk to an executive team or leadership team about the need for training” and why it’s a “good investment” — is critical in developing a learning culture, Whelan says.

Elevating the training function on an organization’s priority list is no easy task. However, by working to prove the impact of training and taking steps to build a lasting learning culture, learning leaders will be well on their way to gaining the buy-in, executive support, engagement and, perhaps, excitement their learning initiatives deserve.

Learning Leader Challenges