Aligning Learning with Strategy: Why It Matters and What It Means To You

I’m sure more than a few of you read the recent MIT Sloan Management Review article. Since its publication in September, this iteration of a common-sense approach to corporate learning has grabbed a lot of attention. The piece emphasises the importance of aligning learning with corporate strategy, and calls into question those companies focusing on learning and development methods – rather than the knowledge they transfer.

At Cognology, we’ve always championed this approach. Our learning management system integrates seamlessly with our performance management system and wider performance tools for one simple reason; aligning learning and development (L&D) with corporate strategy drives organisational success.

The importance of alignment 

Corporate strategy charts the course for a company that knows what it’s there for, and what it wants to achieve. The link between learning and corporate strategy should be obvious. It’s a concept that has become increasingly relevant, at least in part due to a response to the changes in technology innovating the field of L&D (a subject I discussed recently in this post).

Now with a huge variety of cutting-edge learning approaches, linking them with corporate strategy helps ensure businesses achieve corporate outcomes, through increasing available skills and capability in areas of strategic importance.

Alignment means you can, and should, use corporate strategy to influence learning investment. Providing the team with learning designed to facilitate a specific, profitable or behavioural outcome is common sense. It validates both the time and financial investment the learning program necessitates, gives employees a sense of ownership, and shines a spotlight on your people’s importance to organisational success.

If you read my last post you will know how I feel about promoting brilliance in individuals. People drive organisational growth – providing they have the right set of skills. Aligning learning with strategy ensures that you can target learning outcomes with the potential to facilitate meaningful outcomes.

Integrate L&D KPIs

The benefits of alignment

1. Highlighting corporate strategy

‘Corporate strategy’ is far from an exact term. It can refer to long-term goals, short-term objectives, considered milestones or vague plans.

Aligning strategy with learning brings it into sharp focus. If you are going to invest time developing skills that promote one goal, that goal must be immovable. It has to offer quantifiable benefits in some form or another. And it must be identified and locked-in far enough in advance to implement learning strategies that support it.

When learning outcomes become integrated into corporate strategy, it makes it difficult to avoid scrutinising that strategy. It brings each goal to the attention of numerous individuals, requires objectives to be thoroughly researched and justified before their implementation, and commits multiple resources to achieving one clearly defined outcome.

2. Finding more useful ways to measure L&D

The ‘method versus content’ argument doesn’t mean we should lose sight of the importance of delivery. If learning forms an integral part of your corporate strategy, any weaknesses will have a negative impact on growth and profitability.

A 2014 report by Deloitte found that, when assessing learning through online courses, social, mobile or advanced media, at least 60% of executives considered their organisation’s efforts ‘weak’.

New technologies, online assessments and a move towards gamification and ranking provide metrics on individual performance, but they give us little feedback on its value to the wider organisation.

The good news is that, by aligning learning with corporate strategy, you can effectively measure the learning function. If people can contribute to strategic goals, the connection between learning and application of that learning in the workplace stands a much stronger chance of becoming clear to everyone. That’s the time to review and strengthen strategy.

3. Identify current and future challenges

Thanks to alignment, anticipating challenges and assessing current weaknesses is no longer the sole province of corporate strategy. A good learning program takes into account the capability analysis of the organisation (based on current capability and delivery) and where that capability needs to progress to, based on the needs of the corporate strategy. Knowing where you stand today and how you’re tackling current challenges is one thing, but you also need a plan for anticipating future challenges. A close look at corporate strategy and regular scanning of the wider commercial environment will give great insights into what skills and capabilities your business will need in the future.

If businesses are going to achieve their strategic targets, L&D programs need to anticipate and identify future challenges associated with hitting those targets, and to make sure staff have the resources and training to overcome them.

4. Improve ROI 

Learning represents a significant financial investment for plenty of businesses. There’s always been pressure to qualify the ROI for L&D spend but, without benchmarks, it’s difficult to calculate.

When it comes to increasing ROI, alignment is an approach that the multinational reinsurer Swiss Re has proved works. The organisation’s key talent development plan, overhauled in 2011, operates across all management levels. Participants submit a range of learning initiatives to the CEO, who chooses those with greatest strategic value for implementation. Focusing on areas of strategic importance streamlines the entire learning process. Since the implementation of this new approach, nearly three-quarters of staff make use of new skills within a week of training, and 94% cite training as a worthwhile investment for their employer.

5. Increase employee engagement

Organisations that treat learning as a box-ticking exercise rarely get any real value from it. The skills imparted are either too broad to offer a strategic benefit, or have such little relevance to individuals that they view it as a waste of time.

On the other hand, when organisations encourage employees to take on skills essential to business growth, they’ll often notice a sense of ownership over the outcome. A recent article suggested that retention and engagement is now the second biggest concern for business leaders, and I’ve blogged about this recently too. Targeted learning that’s of real use to both the business and the individual increases their engagement, and encourages long-term commitment.

To sum up…

Corporate strategy sets a vision or direction for an organisation. When learning is aligned with corporate goals, L&D programs support the organisation to deliver capabilities and skills needed for current challenges and the hurdles of the future.

When looking at L&D in the context of business strategy, you automatically target learning budgets at areas of strategic importance. As managers and leaders in business today, we’ve really got to ask ourselves “If our L&D program isn’t aligned with strategy, why not, and at what cost?”

Reference:

Organisations that integrate L&D KPIs with senior management are 13x more likely to report profit increases. HR Review

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