Learning leaders, let’s turn the tables for a moment. If you had to evaluate your training and development effectiveness, what grade would you say is fair?
Be honest. Is your team’s score less than stellar? Unfortunately, sub-par learning program performance isn’t unusual. For example, according to recent L&D benchmark research by UK-based Towards Maturity, while about 90% of learning professionals have high aspirations for their role, most still fall far short in achieving desired levels of efficiency, engagement, productivity, business responsiveness and learning culture.
On the other hand, many top-notch learning organizations are exceeding expectations. So, here’s a more important question. What separates these high-flying “top deck” L&D organizations from those that are only getting by? The answer is simple — but closing the gap takes serious effort.
Distinguishing Business Relevance From Alignment
Many learning practitioners assume that the latest training tools and techniques will magically lift their L&D game, but those tactics aren’t sufficient. What else is necessary? The truth is, high-impact training teams ensure that, from the outset, every initiative is carefully designed to be:
a) Highly relevant, and
b) Closely aligned with the business.
Sounds good. In fact, the legendary Kirkpatrick Model of Training Evaluation would say that both of these two factors are necessary to achieve “Level 4” outcomes. But what does this mean in the real world? To see how they work together to create high-performance learning, let’s look at several examples.
Case 1: Wal-Mart Core Competencies Inform Learning
First, consider Wal-Mart. This company is famous for its industry-leading supply chain management process. If you could speak with Wal-Mart’s top learning executive, you would quickly discover that the company’s senior leaders focus significant time and resources on developing, sustaining and improving all the facets of knowledge and skill for everyone associated with supply chain management. This is “business relevant” learning.
“Business relevance” indicates how deeply learning efforts match an organization’s motivation (its strategy). On the other hand, “business alignment” is about targeting an organization’s essential functions and needs (its operations).
Sounds simple enough, but this is actually where most learning professionals stumble. Too often, L&D specialists focus solely on developing and delivering a relevant learning solution. They assume employees and managers will naturally embrace it, and figure out on their own how learning aligns with their particular business needs and objectives. But this is only wishful thinking.
To be truly effective, learning professionals must help their organizations make the connection between a relevant training solution and its application within the business environment. This requires an L&D to work as an operational partner, rather than a separate functional department.
Operational partners don’t wait for business units to request solutions. Instead, they proactively build relationships across the organization, so they can identify the issues and objectives directly tied to workforce performance. They focus on discovering managerial “pain points,” and work closely with business leaders to identify specific learning requirements associated with those challenges. This needs analysis becomes a foundation for performance expectations that align with business.
It’s important to keep in mind that business leaders don’t care how you improve employee performance (Kirkpatrick Level 3). What matters most to them is that, performance ultimately improves, so people achieve appropriate business objectives (Kirkpatrick Level 4).
To understand how learning can better align with business, let’s look at another example:
Case 2: Training Reinforces Apple Customer Support
Apple works diligently to maintain its reputation for customer satisfaction excellence — as reflected in the ratings of well-known publications like Consumer Reports. To achieve this, the Apple learning organization does much more than engage the AppleCare support team in training that helps them understand product features and develop hands-on product skills (Kirkpatrick Levels 1 and 2).
They also strive to ensure that learning processes meet standards for product and customer success, and they focus on specific learning needs that elevate AppleCare group performance (Kirkpatrick Levels 3 and 4).
The Apple learning department does this by embracing “customer satisfaction” as a business objective. But unlike other companies only that preach customer satisfaction, Apple actually specifically defines what it means to support their customers. They conduct real-time skills assessment through employee testing, and working side-by-side with the AppleCare group to keep representatives current on explicit performance expectations. This is learning that is “business aligned.”
How Will You Improve Learning Performance?
No doubt, your organization hired you for your expertise in designing and delivering learning programs. And you are probably pretty good at it. But you can have a much more profound impact on your organization.
The learning community may expect that business leaders will come around and see the intrinsic value they provide. But here’s a secret few learning professionals know: Leaders already know you are working hard to provide value.
What more do they want? They want proof of your value-add. That means learning departments must rise to the challenge, learn how to assess what is most relevant to your organization, and articulate how learning and performance solutions directly contribute to business needs.
It’s time to stop assuming attractive learning interventions are sufficient. It’s time to think and act like world-class learning organizations. It’s time to become business proficient, and create performance-focused solutions that business leaders are relying upon you to deliver.
Have you been thinking of ways to elevate your learning organization’s business impact? Is something holding you back? What kind of information, expertise or support do you need to move forward? Please share your thoughts in the comments area.
About The Authors: Thanks to our guest contributors, Ajay M. Pangarkar CTDP, CPA, CMA, and Teresa Kirkwood CTDP, founders of CentralKnowledge and LearningSource AMS. They are employee performance management experts, award-wining learning assessment development specialists, and three-time authors who most recently published The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy. To read more of their insights on learning strategies for today’s business environment, follow their Workforce Revolution blog. Also, you can connect with Ajay on Twitter, on LinkedIn, or by email.
Photo credits: Pixabay