Developing a Learning Strategy



learning strategyAs more and more organisations focus on return on investment, developing an effective development and learning strategy has never been more important.

But what are the key pointers to developing a learning strategy where organisational, functional and individuals’ learning goals are all aligned for the good of the organisation? What measures need to be taken to ensure successful implementation?

In this article, I will examine what I believe to be the central tenets which underpin a successful learning strategy. While some consider a strategy as providing a broad-brush statement of intent for the organisation, I intend to drill down to look at some of the learning activities which underpin a strategy as well as the all important implementation.

Firstly, I will look at the importance of putting a structure in place for your learning strategy, the importance of being goal-driven and differentiating between short-term and long-term goals, and the need to accurately determine what the learning needs are.

Secondly, I will assess the importance of developing a strategy from the learner viewpoint where the learners – the organisation’s employees - are at the centre of the strategy.

And finally, I will examine some of the key elements of a successful, implemented strategy from the importance of focusing on outputs through to budgets, measurement mechanisms and the role of senior management.

The net result will be an effective strategy that when customised appropriately can underpin all learning and development and can be successfully implemented.

1) Structuring Your Strategy

A structure for your learning strategy is essential. The CIPD, for example, recommends that a learning strategy should have three parts

i) An umbrella strategy which will not be changed very often

ii) A set of learning initiatives that specifically support the current business needs, goals, priority and resource requirements

iii) A set of choices for how the function/overall learning process will be managed.

At each stage, it’s vital that the right questions are asked.

For example, for your umbrella strategy when you are considering the long-term corporate goal, ask yourselves what is our organisation’s mission and vision? How do we differentiate ourselves from the competition? Where do we hope to be in ten years time and how can learning support this?

And what will these goals be? Typical corporate goals would be linked to areas such as customer satisfaction, revenue growth, cost management and leadership development.

To make sure you are aligned with your current business needs (level 2 of the CIPD three tier approach), other questions need to be addressed such as what is the business trying to achieve currently? How critical is training to achieving this? What is the needs assessment of the organisation?

And in answer to your set of choices as to how the-learning process will be managed, the more tactical questions come to the fore, such as what tools will we, as an organisation, need to support the process? What should be the training resource mix of e-learning, classroom learning, coaching etc? How should this strategy be communicated?

At this level, these can change on an annual basis as a result of current business needs.

For example, a survey Cegos conducted into training practices found that many organisations planned to focus on e-learning and blended learning as a means of making training more accountable, cost effective and less time consuming.

2) The Importance of Being Goal-Driven

One of the more frequent mistakes I see organisations make in developing a learning strategy is taking their eyes off the goals and letting different training methods drive their decision making.

Moving to an e-learning environment, for example, is not a goal in its own right. It is the natural result of trying to meet a specific goal. For example in the area of cost management, e-learning and reduced expenses on classroom training courses will help meet this goal.

3) Short-Term Versus Long-Term Business Goals

While in the past, it was relatively easy to differentiate between long-term and short-term business goals – a first quarter sales target, for example, versus, a 10-year corporate plan – the recent recession and ensuing business turmoil have muddied the waters here.

Many companies will quite literally never be the same again as a result of what they have experienced in the last few years with permanently changed attitudes to risk, investment, costs and growth.

How can learning strategies reflect this? I would argue here for the need for flexibility – even in regard to the umbrella statement that the CIPD referenced in their three-part strategy.

While one doesn’t want to see a different learning strategy or a different umbrella strategy on a month by month basis, some built-in flexibility should be allowed.

4) Assessing Needs

Assessing learning needs is also fundamental to any learning strategy. It is essentially the link between organisational performance and individual performance. If we have set these goals, where are the learning needs required to achieve them?

A few recommendations: Develop employee competency profiles and identify skills gaps which can then be fed into the training needs. You might also want to undertake some customer research to find out what their perception of skills gaps are and also use tools such as focus groups and questionnaires. Line managers can also be an important source of information on levels of competence.

5) Legislative Requirements

Keep in mind any current or future legislative requirements which may need to be incorporated into your strategy. For example, for Investors in People accreditation, there are a number of specific learning requirements you will need to meet.

6) Putting the Learner at the Centre of the Strategy

The key to developing any corporate-learning strategy is to understand the relationships between the corporate goals and the people who are accountable for the results. This is why the learner – your employees – should be the core of any learning strategy you develop and the driving force behind its success.

Giving the learner control is vital. An engaged learner will lead to a successful learning strategy. Yet too often in the past, training and in particular e-learning has been technology rather than people-led, with unsupported learners overwhelmed by both the technology and the lack of a clear focus to their training.

A central part of any learning strategy is therefore for the learner to have control over the process. He or she needs to have an understanding of where he/she is now and where he/she needs to be at the end of the learning path - and how this relates to the individual’s position within the organisation.

Closely aligned to this is the necessity of creating a compelling learner experience. Training, for example, should be stimulating, engage the senses and be rooted in real-life situations that participants can take back and implement in the workplace. The learner should be able to personalise the training so that they can control progress and learn at their own speed.

Also make sure professional skills aren’t forgotten. Industry tends to spend up to five times more budget on health & safety, compliance and technical training than on professional skills development such as leadership and management skills and negotiation – skills that are proven to have a direct impact on the bottom line.

And, above all, avoid box-ticking. Learning needs to be a practice which is embedded in people’s day to day activities. Send a manager on a two-day course on management skills and he/she is not going to become a good manager overnight. Learning must be pragmatic, results and skills-focused and should address people’s immediate workplace challenges.

7) The Key to Successful Implementation

We have looked at the importance of developing a structure and goals, assessing learning needs and putting the learner at the centre of the strategy. Yet, all this could be to no avail if you don’t put the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure successful implementation.

Firstly, a learning strategy must be actively supported by senior executives within the business. They will need to support the plan fully and agree to milestones, costs, dates and deliverables. Managers also need to let employees know about their support.

As well as senior managers, it’s also important that line managers buy into the new learning strategy. With line managers taking on responsibilities which were traditionally the domain of HR, such as recruiting new staff and developing direct reports through coaching and training, they have an important role to play at the interface of any learning strategy.

Communication is also key. Too many managers simply don’t communicate about either the business or strategic learning goals. People must know what is in it for them and how the company’s learning strategy is going to affect their personal development.

A learning strategy cannot be successful unless it is properly resourced. Your budget must be realistic to implement the learning strategy and this often works best from a centrally owned budget. If it is divisional, the budget could get squeezed from opposite directions leading to the danger of a fragmented implementation of the strategy.

On the subject of money, with the current economic backdrop, thought should also go into how to get the most bang for the buck. There are a number of means of doing this and incorporating cost constraints into the learning strategy.

For example, learning specialists, Knowledgepool estimate that you can cut as much as 30% of your learning costs through areas such as improving supplier management, a greater automation of administrative costs, and a refocusing of learning away from the classroom.

What is important, however, is that you don’t look at crude cost saving measures which can directly impact the success of your strategy. Nearly half of companies who invest in staff training end up saving money in the long-term, according to a report by Cranfield School of Management and the Sector Skills Development Agency says companies that don’t bother with training at all are two and a half times more likely to fail.

So although it might be tempting to start immediately cutting budgets, this is often a mistake.

And budget is not the only resource required for successful implementation. The right processes also need to be in place such as performance management systems and competency frameworks.

8) Measure! Measure! Measure!

Measurement of return on investment (ROI) is central to any learning strategy with it vital at the outset to agree on ROI measures to ensure that the impact of training on the growth of the individual and the organisation can be tracked and evaluated.

Measurement, however, remains extremely difficult. Here, it’s important to understand what you are measuring – the effect your learning is having on employee contribution to business performance and achieving business goals.

It’s also very important that your metrics are business and sector-focused. For example, if you are in retail, customer satisfaction is a key metric whereas if you are working in the oil & gas industry where there are increasing staff shortages, productivity across the oil & gas field’s asset team is of central importance.

Establishing metrics which link learning to the bottom line shouldn’t also be the sole responsibility of HR and L&D departments. Line managers, finance directors and senior management need to be included to ensure that the value of learning and training within an organisation can be measured in terms of the effect on business goals and the bottom line.

Developing A Learning Strategy - Concluding Thoughts

A learning strategy can cover so many areas of an individual’s personal development from training through to one to one coaching, performance management systems, and the ability to learn during one’s everyday work.

What is clear is that companies who ignore putting in place an effective and structured learner-focused, learning strategy, with realistic opportunities for implementation, do so at their peril.


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