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A learning and development strategy outlines how an organisation develops its workforce's capabilities, skills and competencies to remain successful. It’s an important part of an organisation's overall business strategy.
This factsheet looks at the influences on learning and development strategy: business strategy, operational and cultural factors, the human capital approach, keeping strategy updated, and the Investors in People process. It also examines the different stakeholders involved in organisational learning and development. Finally, the factsheet considers the practical elements of implementing a learning and development strategy including the role of line managers.
When effectively designed and implemented, an organisation’s L&D strategy can deliver the capabilities, competencies and skills required to support sustainable business success. Increasingly there’s a need for innovation in the delivery of skills and knowledge to support organisational change, particularly in a rapidly changing external environment. Learning professionals therefore need to be prepared to think creatively about learning and development interventions, through design, delivery and assessment, to develop a flexible strategy that meets business needs. By focusing on strategic business objectives, the L&D function can help drive change and sustainable performance with vigour and purpose.
What is learning and development strategy?
A learning and development (L&D) strategy is an organisational strategy that articulates the workforce capabilities, skills or competencies required, and how these can be developed, to ensure a sustainable, successful organisation.
Our recent research has emphasised the importance of strategic human resource management aligning to the overall business strategy. In our report Driving the new learning organisation: how to unlock the potential of L&D, we outline the learning organisation characteristics that any L&D strategy needs to consider.
The L&D strategy must reflect and reinforce the approach within the broader HRM strategy and also link with other strategies (for example, reward). Ultimately the L&D strategy has to reflect the overarching business strategy and drive success directly towards that.
When developing strategy, it’s useful to adopt the increasingly financial and operational language of business, particularly to get the language of L&D understood in the wider business. With good financial and operational ‘savvy’, L&D can also challenge decisions, where appropriate, that risk damaging organisational value and employee engagement.
A key element of an organisation’s learning strategy will target the long-term development of those identified as exceptionally high-performing or high-potential individuals (sometimes defined as ‘talent’), who are critical to long-term business success. This typically includes techniques such as mentoring programmes with senior leaders, in-house development courses and project-based learning.
While some organisations develop an exclusive focus where learning opportunities may be restricted to such key individuals, other organisations define all staff as ‘talent’ and run a broader suite of programmes to suit a broader strategy, adopting a more inclusive approach to employee development. Find out more on managing talent in our factsheet.
An effective organisational learning strategy can provide a vision which supports the management of change, enhances employee engagement and helps drive high performance levels and business success for the long-term.
Influences on learning and development strategy
The starting point for an effective L&D strategy is to understand both the internal and external context of the organisation, including the industry, business needs and the rationale that drives organisational strategy. There’re many factors governing this, but examples might be:
- the unique offer of the business and what gives it competitive advantage
- changes predicted in the business environment – the rate of growth or decline, the competition and the degree of technological change
- the need to change and adapt to economic circumstances
- how customers are served and the nature of their expectations.
The rate and pace of change in the external environment is unprecedented. Our research L&D: new challenges, new approaches in collaboration with the University of Worcester showed that key drivers of change across economic, social and cultural, and technological dimensions are having a profound impact on organisations and understanding the impact of these trends is the first step in building an effective L&D strategy.
Operational and cultural factors
As well as reflecting business aims, the L&D strategy must align with organisational culture and also address operational realities and constraints. Examples might include:
All work is a process of continual learning and improvement – this can be the starting point for creating a learning organisation.
Expenditure on learning and development is encouraged only where there 's measurable benefit to the organisation. But that doesn't always mean a ’bottom line’ commercial benefit. Engaging employees in a continuous learning journey might be seen as a means to build 'human capital' and an engaged workforce.
Learning is targeted on key performance needs. Individuals are more likely to engage with learning which addresses performance needs, but learning needs to be linked to an individual’s aspiration to advance their career.
Learning and development may cover other aims than simply a narrow definition of business benefit – they can support the organisation’s wider corporate responsibility or citizenship approach (for example, by taking community needs into account when offering apprenticeships).
Learning is a cost to the business which, though it delivers benefits in terms of productivity, has to be delivered efficiently and effectively.
Talent development is an investment for the future, so an organisation may continue to build future skills even during an economic downturn.
Personal career development is critical for retention and engagement and ideally linked to business objectives.
Learning need to be part of a wider business strategy of ongoing investment in people, ultimately with a view of benefits to customers and the customer experience.
Valuing your Talent - a human capital approach
To avoid the risk of isolation in an L&D ‘bubble’, it’s helpful to look broadly at the context for an organisation’s learning interventions via a human capital approach. This is based on quantitative and qualitative data on a range of measures to help identify which type of learning (or other HR interventions) will drive business performance. We’re exploring human capital further in our Valuing your Talent research programme.
Keeping strategy updated
Both the learning strategy and associated policies and programmes must be kept up to date as the business environment changes and as information is gathered on the effectiveness of learning interventions. This is particularly important to avoid ‘drift’ where regularly-run learning or training programmes may fail to keep pace with changing organisational needs. The L&D team needs to invest in its own development to keep up to date with current thinking and wider research to ensure the strategy is not only current for their organisation but also benefitting from wider developments within the L&D industry.
Stakeholders in organisational learning and development
Alignment is a critical issue in developing an L&D strategy. Without alignment to a wider business strategy, L&D will not achieve senior stakeholder support. Without senior stakeholder support, L&D will not achieve anything at all.
Our RAM approach puts alignment at the centre of L&D strategy development which helps to focus the analysis on the key business and organisational outcomes in terms of:
- Relevance: how the strategy will meet opportunities and challenges for the business
- Alignment: how the strategy aligns to other strategies in the business , for example HR and finance
- Measurement: how the strategy will be evaluated effectively and consistently.
Find out more on this approach in our factsheet on evaluating learning and development.
When creating, reviewing or implementing the overall L&D strategy and associated practices, it's important to involve stakeholders beyond the HR/L&D functions alone. In practice, it's likely that the following stakeholders will wish to input:
- senior management/the board
- line managers
- operational managers
- individual members of staff
- trade unions or staff representatives operate (including trade union learning representatives) - in countries where they operate. More information on trade union learning representatives in the UK is available from the TUC’s Union Learn.
In larger organisations there may be varying strategies or processes in different divisions or functions, so it may be appropriate to involve stakeholders across a range of divisions.
Allocating responsibility for learning
Only individuals can learn, and only they can choose to apply their new skills to the work they perform. However, the organisation has a responsibility to set out the aims and purposes of learning, and to give support via investment in time and resources to allow learning to happen. A company-wide L&D strategy is normally managed by the HR function or by a specialist L&D function in larger organisations.
However, not all of the investment in learning will be managed by HR professionals (especially in smaller organisations), and there will also be responsibilities for other parties such as line managers or knowledge management specialists.
The role of line managers
Line managers are critical as the gatekeepers to individual learning and development and they also need support for their own development. It’s increasingly commonplace and sensible to see people development as part of any manager’s role. Where there’s recognition and reward for these responsibilities, it’s more likely that line managers will input high-quality time towards coaching and work-based learning activities. Line manager involvement is most effective when responsibility for learning and development is integrated into leadership expectations.
Read more in our factsheet on the role of line managers on HR and L&D.
Translating the learning strategy into action
An overall L&D strategy is a statement of intent and more detail is needed to provide guidance on how it will be implemented and who will translate this intent into practice. Some of the key factors are set out below: the questions that need to be asked and the choices that organisations need to make for L&D practice to achieve its strategic aims.
Setting learning and development priorities
Organisations need to decide how often organisational, team and individual learning needs are analysed, and who will set the priorities that form the learning plan for the next period. Go to our factsheet on identifying learning and development needs.
Performance management and appraisal
Using performance management techniques can help HR and line managers achieve business targets by, amongst other things, making sure their teams have the right level of capability. Find out more about the performance management process in our factsheet.
Individual development needs may be included in appraisal or development reviews based on the setting of learning goals and personal development plans. Be sure to factor the agility to respond quickly and appropriately to regular manager meetings with staff into the L&D strategy. See more in our factsheet on performance appraisal.
Resources for learning and development
Budgets and resource planning are clearly critical to the effective implementation of learning strategy. Being open minded to what can be achieved with little or no budget is useful. Learning strategies can benefit from harnessing the knowledge within an organisation. Read our costing and benchmarking learning and development factsheet.
What kind of learning methods?
Questions that may help determine the nature of learning and development provision include the following:
Will internal staff or outside consultants deliver learning interventions?
What forms of learning – technical skills or leadership development, for instance – will be encouraged?
What methods and modes of delivery will be used, for exaample, face to face, digital or a blend)?
What relationship is there between learning and formal qualifications, for example, is learning be accredited by educational institutions?
Are any government-backed programmes (such as apprenticeships) appropriate to help meet learning needs within the organisation?
Is there a good range of formal and informal learning opportunities available?
What can learners do to enable them to continue applying the learning?
Read our learning methods factsheet.
Given that effective implementation of the L&D strategy is critical to business success, it’s essential to regularly review and assess the use of learning activities. Deciding how evaluation will be measured before the learning takes place is a sound principle of any L&D strategy. Read our factsheet on evaluating learning and development.
In mature economies, the innovation imperative is critical. Organisations are constantly seeking to innovate and find novel solutions to the challenges they face. L&D strategy needs to specifically address innovation and will need to adopt an agile approach with regular reviews to incorporate the changing needs of the business.
Fairness and equity
While learning opportunities may be restricted to high-potential or high performing individuals in some organisations, the L&D strategy needs to ensure that no unlawful discrimination occurs in learning resourcing between individuals (for example, based on gender or ethnicity). Some organisations may go further than preventing unlawful discrimination in selection for learning opportunities by making provision to offer extra resources to develop the skills of under-represented groups. Creating an ethically sound L&D strategy will encourage all to engage with learning, and is sound business practice. See more on equality issues in our factsheet on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
HOYLE, R. (2015) Informal learning in organisations. London: Kogan Page.
INCOMES DATA SERVICES. (2012) Training strategies. HR studies. London: IDS.
INSTITUTE FOR THE FUTURE. (2013) The future of learning. Palo Alto, CA: Institute for the Future.
OVERTON, L. (2016) Unlocking potential: releasing the potential of the business and its people through learning. London: Towards Maturity.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Boookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
BEN-HUR, S., JAWORSKI, B. and GRAY, D. (2015) Aligning corporate learning with strategy. MIT Sloan Management Review. Vol 57, No 1, Fall. pp53-59.
JENNINGS, C. (2016) Reimagining L&D. Training Journal. September. pp36-38.
KETTLEBOROUGH, J. (2013) Build a winning L&D strategy. Training Journal. November. pp58-63.
OWENS, M. (2014) Train to sustain. Training Journal. July. pp34-38.
SHEEHAN, M., GARAVAN, T.N. and CARBERY, R. (2014) Innovation and human resource development (HRD). European Journal of Training and Development. Vol 38, No 1/2. pp2−14.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by Andy Lancaster.
Andy Lancaster: Head of Learning and Development
Andy has more than 25 years’ experience in learning and organisational development in commercial, technological and not-for-profit organisations and has also worked in a consultancy role.
As Head of Learning and Development Content at the CIPD Andy is responsible for professional development and learning products, digital content and qualifications for L&D, coaching and mentoring, management and leadership and business psychology.
Andy also plays a key role in leading the direction and delivery of the CIPD's wider new vision for L&D. He was part of the team that developed the CIPD's new L&D qualifications, oversees the Leaders in Learning Network and is helping pioneer online digital learning at the Institute.
Andy has a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD), the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) and the Learning and Performance Institute (FLPI). He regularly speaks at conferences, write articles on behalf of CIPD and is the co-author of the "Webinars Pocketbook".
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