The purpose of learning and development (L&D) in most organizations is to upskill or reskill employees, focusing on delivery and consumption. In 2021, L&D is more critical than ever for the survival and growth of an organization — and it must refocus on improving business performance.

A Situational Analysis

With the awakening of many business leaders to the transformational power of learning and development, L&D leaders must reevaluate their approach, focusing not just on upskilling and reskilling employees but also on transformational practices that drive business performance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this need and awareness. In March of 2020, many organizations had to shift their products, product development and collaborative models, and learning programs. This change revealed the stark contrast between the skills that employees have today and what they need to support future business success. The ability to learn is quickly becoming the most important skill for employee and organizational health.

Building employee capabilities and bridging skill gaps are vital processes. The pandemic has proven that organizations that cannot learn, iterate, evolve and grow will fail; many organizations that were unable, or unwilling, to change failed in 2020. The resilient ones that come out of the storm stronger than ever are what statistician and author Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragile.” Anti-fragile organizations are successful in the long run, because unforeseen and stressful events propel them toward improved iterations.

A company’s capacity to learn determines its capacity to adapt and innovate — and innovation is crucial for long-term survival. Jim Mattis, former United States secretary of defense, writes about the “three Cs” in his book, “Call Sign Chaos.” The three Cs are unbendable rules needed for success in any organization, and the first C is competency.

Organizations must continue to focus on competency, organizationally and individually, to thrive in today’s business environment. Corporate L&D teams are central to the success of competency development — understanding that it’s not an event but a continuous process of learning, testing, iterating, applying, evaluating … and then starting all over again.

The Challenge

The challenge is the disconnect between L&D teams and organizational objectives. L&D leaders are typically focused on the metrics that Kirkpatrick’s model would call level 1 or 2 metrics: attendance, reaction and knowledge comprehension. Unfortunately, L&D leaders are often excluded from initial enterprise strategic and tactical planning, and organizations set goals, timelines and even budgets without representation from the L&D team. As a result, L&D leaders tend to focus on what is traditionally easier to measure: attendance, completions and satisfaction scores. This approach needs to change so that the focus is on the business’ progress toward goals, as measured by business metrics and key performance indicators.

The Solution

As an industry, and as L&D leaders and professionals, it’s time to redefine the purpose of professional learning and development. Here’s how:

L&D Leaders: Redefine Objectives

Training objectives should align to business performance, and L&D leaders should define them in those terms. For example, instead of reporting the number of students in a particular training initiative, the metrics the team measures and reports should demonstrate improved business performance.

This approach means that there will invariably be times when L&D leaders must admit failure as well as success. Even admitting failure is a success, though, because we can learn many important lessons from failure.

C-suite Leaders: Leverage L&D Teams for Any Change Initiative

For effective and transformational change initiatives, employees need to understand not just the “what” but the “why” and “how,” too. With that context, employees can focus on their role and what they need to change. They can apply their new knowledge in creative and innovative ways to solve problems and overcome challenges.

L&D Leaders: Focus on the Basics

Maintaining alignment to enterprise goals and strategies, L&D teams should focus on the basics: providing information in the time of need, in the flow of work, in a way that’s easily accessible. Legendary National Football League coach Bill Walsh encouraged his players to focus on the fundamentals of the game, reminding them that if they did, the score would take care of itself. It’s the same in L&D: If training teams focus on effective solutions, improved and business outcomes will follow.

L&D Leaders: Align Tactics and Goals to Organizational Strategies

L&D leaders should incorporate the business metrics and KPIs used by product and business leaders, measuring things like increased sales, enhanced quality statistics, decreased calls to customer service and improved net promoter scores. These metrics help assess the impact training has on business performance.

L&D Leaders: Evaluate Programs Based on Progress Toward Leading KPIs

Leading KPIs should include innovative iterations (failed and successful), intersecting collaborative efforts, quickly evolving production, and the diffusion of effective practices and processes.

L&D Leaders: Implement the “Learn, Apply and Practice” Feedback Loop

The process of learning, applying and practicing (with feedback) creates space for employees to continuously change their behavior in a positive way instead of falling into ineffective or inefficient practices.

Parting Thoughts

While the task of upskilling and reskilling employees continues to be important, it’s now crucial for organizations to leverage corporate learning and development as the tip of the spear in product innovations and market penetration and creation. To do so, L&D needs to focus not on traditional delivery and consumption but on targeting business performance improvement by aligning enterprise learning tactics with corporate goals and strategies and by leveraging business KPIs to measure impact.

Want to learn how to plan and strategize effective training programs for your remote workforce in 2021? Download this e-book.

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