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?”


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

3 Key Trends in Learning & Development

Discover the emerging technologies influencing L&D, the brands already utilising them and the how these key trends can work to your benefits.

3 Key Trends In Learning & Development

The business environment is developing almost as rapidly as the technological landscape, and I’m sure you’re feeling the pace as keenly as anyone. In the L&D context, learning practitioners are working twice as hard to develop and deliver relevant content to provide tangible, bottom-line benefits.

I’m interested in exploring three trends in L&D that have been creating quite a bit of buzz lately: gamification, social learning, and how measuring the impact of workplace learning is changing.

L&D technology response

1. Gamification 

With Forbes citing 2015 as the year gamification goes mainstream, it’s little wonder that this under-utilised element in instructional design is gaining momentum. Brands such as Nike, Nissan, Coca-Cola and Walmart have all turned to gamification as a means of increasing employee engagement, productivity and development.


Speeds up development

In 2011, a crowd-sourcing game called Foldit allowed 40,000 HIV researchers to work together to complete a project that had been ongoing for the last 15 years. Foldit is an extreme example of how effective a collaborative environment can be at encouraging innovation. By focusing on learning and continued improvement within a team, gamification facilitates faster individual development and encourages a productive working environment.

Provides real-time feedback

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big advocate of real-time feedback mechanisms. These strategies are effective in changing behaviour and have grown in popularity recently. With scoring systems, ranking boards and peer reviews, gamification utilises all of these benefits and more, giving HR managers an efficient measure to evaluate employee progress and productivity.

Increases engagement

Difficult to measure, with the potential to negatively impact your bottom line, employee engagement is a thorny subject (and one I’ve previously covered in detail). Allowing you the flexibility to integrate engagement strategies into workflow, gamification encourages an open and collaborative exchange between colleagues. Adding a competitive edge and providing an easy talking point, it can impact positively on engagement, providing a social environment that encourages productivity.

Gamification and Walmart

A widely dispersed workforce can be difficult to train and monitor, so Walmart turned to gamification for the solution. By gamifying its safety training, the company ensured that 5000 employees split across eight distribution centres adhered to safety protocols on the job.

The game was embedded into workflow (it’s delivered periodically and lasts just three minutes), enabling Walmart to use the scheme to reinforce the importance of safety protocols. The emotional connection the team developed for the game (i.e. the competitive element of who’s ranking where) helped to sustain long-term behavioural changes in employees, and is credited for a reported 54% decrease in incidents in the eight centres piloting the scheme.

Take home message Gamification is widely considered essential for engaging a new generation of learners. It provides benefits for large and small teams across multiple sectors and effectively promotes behavioural changes. By turning the learning experience into a game, you can increase collaboration, motivation and productivity.

2. Social Learning

With 1.5 billion of us tuning into social media daily, it’s hardly surprising that social media is beginning to feature in a number of corporate L&D strategies (ours included). In a 2014 article in HR Review, Al Bird said that while employees welcomed this approach with open arms, employers were more reserved about officially including social learning in their development programs.

For many, using social media tools in a corporate environment requires a shift in the way businesses think about learning. While e-learning techniques dominated the ‘90s, employees now want microlearning experiences; smaller insights delivered just in time.

L&D Importance


Increases learning speed

L&D must keep pace with technology and business strategy to remain effective, both of which are evolving at an incredible rate. By providing instant access to necessary information and encouraging a collaborative, open working environment, social learning makes it much easier to communicate changes in real-time.

Provides information on-demand

Social learning strategies recognise that knowing the right people, and being able to approach them with queries, is essential to an individual’s development. Employees are more likely to succeed if they can seek knowledge as they need it (instead of being granted sporadic access to closely held information).

Increases organisational performance

By its very definition, social learning requires a network, an essential component of organisational performance. It promotes improvement at both a team and individual level, without limiting the context in which information can be relayed, and promotes organisational performance by increasing team cohesion and the availability of information.

Social Learning and Virgin Media

It won’t surprise you to find that Virgin Media has relied on social learning for a few years now. Designed to do away with email overload, and duplicated and irrelevant learning materials, Virgin introduced its workforce to a suite of social and remote business tools.

The pilot scheme, preceding the full strategy roll-out in 2012, produced some impressive results. Virgin Media reported a 6% increase in its annually measured engagement-index (interesting if pulse surveys excite you), and increases in productivity and flexibility. But the biggest impact was from the creation of one communal space where information could be shared across departments: the strategy led to clearer communication and reduced misunderstandings.

Take home message Encouraging the open exchange of information, social learning allows individuals to connect and collaborate. It provides training and development in real-time, increasing productivity and performance at individual, team and organisational levels.

3. Measuring the Learning Impact

As with any activity that requires investments of time and money, there will always be a huge pressure on L&D to demonstrate an acceptable return. You need to be able to quantify ROI to establish realistic budgets for, and justify the expense of, these strategies.

Learning practitioners must design, develop and deploy solutions that align with organisational outcomes, and provide a noticeable contribution to profitability, to remain relevant. Thankfully, the new trends and technologies revolutionising L&D provide a wealth of data to help support these learning strategies.

Organisations ready for L&D

Emerging Learning Impact Metrics

Social ownership

Going hand-in-hand with social learning, social ownership is about identifying the learners who can articulate their knowledge and share it with colleagues. It demonstrates an ability to apply learning to real-world concepts and provides potential benefits that include ad hoc learning experiences and reduced learning expenses (since employees educate each other). Social learning platforms make tracking and quantifying this sharing of information possible, supplying metrics on the most competent learners and educators.

Skill assessment

Gamification provides a wealth of information that can be used for skill assessment. From current ranking boards to past performance metrics, both managers and employees can access real-time assessments of an individual’s skill set, making the assessment process open and easy to assess.

Take home message From an organisational perspective, measuring the impact of L&D strategies is the biggest challenge facing learning practitioners today. Without the ability to quantify success, you will, unfortunately, face an uphill struggle persuading your business to invest in emerging development trends.

Are you noticing the impact of these trends in your business? How are you driving change around L&D effectiveness? Let me know how you’re doing things differently in your business.

Why new managers should always start by managing freelancers

Learning how to manage is difficult. Overnight, you’re given responsibility for a bunch of people and somehow you need to deliver a result. It’s stressful, scary and can end in failure – for the manager, the project or both.

I don’t think the process needs to be this difficult. There’s only a few skills – though I admit some will want to differ – that you need to be an effective manager of people. And all of these skills can be learnt and honed very effectively through managing small-scale projects with freelancers. With more freelancers in the economy than ever before, there’s plenty of opportunity.

What is the role of a manager?

At the core of a manager’s responsibilities is helping their employees to learn.

Employee learning is critical, because fundamentally every business result happens as a consequence of employees learning and refining their behaviour over time. Happy customers, financial results and high performance are all consequences of successful managers facilitating employee learning.

Put simply, you cannot be an effective manager if you can’t help your employees learn. (Or, if you can’t facilitate learning, you will be an ineffective manager).

As a result, the critical success factor for a new manager is how quickly they can build the skills to help their team learn effectively.

How do you help others learn?

Facilitating learning doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ‘teach’. But it does mean that you must partner with employees to foster, and even drive their learning. Doing this requires two things:

  1. Setting expectations, and
  2. Giving feedback

When you break it down, this two-part ‘expectations / feedback’ process (repeated frequently over time) sits at the heart of all employee learning.

The learning loop and process

So in terms of skills, the first two things that a new manager needs to learn are:

  1. How to set good expectations, that are easily understood and actioned; and
  2. How to give good feedback, to make sure that expectations (and relative performance) are understood

In my view, an A1, gold-medal way to learn these two skills is through managing freelancers on small projects.

Why freelancing is such an effective tool for teaching managers how to drive learning

In order to deliver a successful outcome with a freelancer, you must set clear expectations and provide frequent feedback. Because there’s no broader context, the success of the entire project is contingent on the manager’s ability to communicate expectations that can be well-understood, and feedback on the project deliverables. Put another way:

If the project manager fails to set good expectations (that are easily understood and actioned) – then the project will fail.

If the project manager fails to provides good feedback (that make clear actual performance versus set expectations) – then the project will fail.

The success or failure of the freelance project provides an immediate feedback mechanism for the new manager. In a relatively safe and quarantined learning environment, the new manager can see the consequences of feedback and expectation setting for learning and project delivery.

In conclusion

At the simplest level, to manage means you must be able to bring out the best performance in others, and drive learning in those around you to do so. In teaching someone how to manage, you must first teach them how to facilitate learning.

As I’ve mentioned in this article, teaching emerging managers how to drive learning is extremely effective when they are managing freelancers on small projects. To deliver the project, new managers must learn how to drive learning through the expectations / feedback loop. It’s an investment that you’ll see pay off for the rest of their management career.

Have you used freelance projects to teach new managers how to drive learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Jump into the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter (@cognology).

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.