We are all living in interesting and exceptional times. This unique, globally shared moment in human history is bringing about unprecedented changes likes of which no living person has ever experienced. This isn’t something that plays well into any business leader’s established plans. If you could get into their heads, you’d see some are challenged as what to do to regain stability for survival, let alone success … or, do they know?

Change and uncertainty are annoyances for every stakeholder. And over recent years, or even decades, change reigns supreme causing significant consternation for decision-makers in every business and industry. It should come as no surprise that stakeholders are desperately seeking for some level of certainty and assurance. Strategic planning is one tactic that can help but, for it to work, it must be done well.

Developing an effective strategy isn’t a one-and-done process: It’s a fluid effort, and stakeholders must first look inward to ascertain how well their organization can weather unexpected events. This means focusing on operational elements they control and can leverage to meet unforeseen threats.

During times of change its often the organizational enabling activities that build stakeholder confidence. Attention is placed on the most relevant activities such as information technology (IT), human resources (HR) and, of course, learning and development (L&D). Did you notice the common denominator between these functions? These are all operational areas that enable learning and knowledge transfer.

Stakeholders who consider learning a key to weathering the unexpected may surprise you. They may not place you, as a L&D professional on a pedestal, which some practitioners expect, but know that you’re essential to their survival.

Getting Aligned

Making employee knowledge accountable is an elusive objective for both stakeholders and practitioners. Simply, it’s about improving operational performance. But before trying to address every operational need, take a step back. Discover how to align with their strategic expectations so you can demonstrate tangible operational results.

Be practical. First, study the two areas that will bring your learning efforts into focus: Dissecting your organization’s mission and then seeing how it aligns with the performance framework.

Every mission defines a company’s reason to exist. When crafted well, it communicates to internal staff direction and expected operational results. Deciphering the mission into its practical elements reveals the operational activities expected to deliver value, or improving performance, for the organization.

Next, determine the operational values that stakeholders expect the mission to deliver. This is informally known as the company’s “value proposition” and formally as its “value discipline.” The three disciplines (organizations typically seek to master one) are: customer intimacy (a focus on customer loyalty), product leadership (a focus on innovation) and operational excellence (a focus on efficiency). The value proposition should dictate where to focus your learning efforts and resources.

For example, Starbucks was first to mass-market European-styled specialty coffees. Due to increased competition, they transitioned from product leadership to customer intimacy, or focusing specifically on what customers expect.

Think about what’s involved when you order a Starbucks coffee. Consider learning’s role ensuring baristas worldwide repeatedly deliver a consistent, precise, and timely coffee. It involves more than just sending them to a course to learn how to make coffee. It’s not that simple.

Starbucks’ learning team embraces the mission and fully aligns with its value proposition. They enabled and operationalized their learning efforts.

Connecting the Dots

Respecting the organization’s mission and understanding the value proposition won’t necessarily deliver the answers you seek. Doing so only provides relevance for learning. But stakeholders expect learning to bring about measurable connections delivering operational results. This is when practitioners worry. Don’t fret, stakeholders are giving you the answers: They clearly map out specific activities leading to expected results. You just need to ask the right questions to connect the dots.

Every (successful) organization operationally maps out their mission and value proposition within a performance framework. This is called strategy mapping and is part of what is commonly referred to as the balanced scorecard.. Combined, this framework translates (operationalize) high level strategy elements into tangible key performance metrics, or key performance indicators (KPIs). This is your opportunity to get quick wins and demonstrate accountability for your training programs.

The framework typically focuses around four operational areas: financial (the impact on financial results), customer (what delivers financial results), processes (what satisfies customer needs), and learning and growth (the elements in place to support processes). Mapping it visually illustrates interdependence among the various operational activities.

Once you identify the operational interdependencies, seek out their performance objectives and what KPIs learners are expected to achieve. Next, it’s time to conduct a needs assessment to account for the skills learners already possess and may need in the future. Then, plan and develop appropriate learning interventions that correlate to their KPIs. Be sure not to overlook other operational factors and areas that may affect learners’ performance.

Leveraging the framework is like reading a roadmap: Your stakeholders have a destination (i.e., mission) and will diligently allocate resources to the value-added activities to arrive at that destination. Visualizing the operations (i.e., strategy mapping) helps to target where learning can make relevant and value-focused connections.

Next Steps

Make no mistake, every operational activity, including learning, is accountable for its resource use to deliver results. Regretfully, practitioners often cede learning decisions to internal stakeholders. This reactionary behavior (i.e., order-taking) occurs either when learning doesn’t add tangible performance value or worse, attempts to address every operational issue with ill-conceived training efforts.

It’s time to take back control. Every organization if facing uncertainty and continuous change which means stakeholders need L&D now more than ever. Answer their call by knowing the business intimately through its mission, partnering with operational areas fulfilling their value proposition, and demonstrating training impact improving their KPIs through the performance framework.

If learning isn’t delivering demonstrable value, then your efforts are irrelevant. Never forget that learning is a business within a business, and is expected to deliver business results accordingly. To make stakeholders think twice about reducing your budget, make learning relevant and accountable.

Register for the Spring Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) to hear Ajay M. Pangarkar’s session, “Develop Strategic Planning: Map Learning for Performance Results.” 

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