Introduction

A learning and development (L&D) strategy outlines how an organisation develops its workforce's capabilities, skills and competencies to remain successful. It’s a key part of the overall business strategy.

This factsheet looks at the influences on learning and development strategy: business strategy, operational and cultural factors, keeping strategy updated, and how this translates into policy. It also examines the different stakeholders involved in organisational learning and development. Finally, the factsheet considers the practical elements of implementing an L&D strategy and policy.

The CIPD is at the heart of change happening across L&D, supporting practitioners in providing insights and resources. We are proud to be at the 'epicentre' of this changing world of L&D.

A learning and development (L&D) strategy sets out the workforce capabilities, skills and competencies the organisation needs, and how they can be developed to ensure a sustainable, successful organisation.

Our 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 reinforce the approach within the broader HRM strategy and align with other strategies (for example, recruitment). Ultimately the L&D strategy has to reflect the overarching business strategy and drive success directly towards that. We explored more on this in our Valuing your Talent research programme.

When developing a strategy, it’s useful to adopt the increasingly financial and operational language of business. This helps L&D to be understood widely across the organisation. With good financial and operational ‘savvy’, L&D professionals can also challenge decisions that risk damaging organisational value and employee engagement.

A key element of an L&D strategy will be the development of all employees. In practice, it may focus on those identified as high-performing or high-potential individuals (‘talent’), who are critical to long-term success. This can typically include mentoring programmes with senior leaders, in-house development courses and project-based learning. Other organisations have a broader range of interventions, adopting a more inclusive approach to employee development. Find out more on managing talent.

For further insights, listen to our podcasts on aligning L&D with business objectives, learning in the flow of work and today’s learning organisations.

Explore different elements of L&D strategy and policy in our new Profession Map.

Business strategy

The starting point for an effective L&D strategy is to understand both the internal and external context of the organisation. This includes the industry, business needs and the rationale that drives overall 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.

Our research L&D: new challenges, new approaches showed that key drivers of change across economic, social and cultural, and technological dimensions are having a profound impact on organisations. 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 the business aim, the L&D strategy must align with organisational culture and address operational realities and constraints. Examples include:

  • 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 performance needs and aligned to key performance indicators.

  • Learning and development may cover more than a narrow definition of business benefit – they can support the organisation’s wider social agenda (for example, by taking community needs into account when offering apprenticeships).

  • Learning is a cost to the business so, although it delivers benefits in terms of productivity, it has to be efficient and effective.

  • 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 should ideally be 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.

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 in L&D practice.

Alignment is a critical issue in developing an L&D strategy. Without alignment to the wider business strategy, L&D will not achieve senior stakeholder support. And without senior stakeholder support, L&D will not achieve anything at all. Equally important is engagement with line managers, and of course the learners themselves.

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.

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 their work. However, the organisation has a responsibility to set out the aim and purposes of learning. It needs to give support via investment in time and resources to allow learning to happen. The L&D strategy may be managed by the HR team or by a specialist L&D team in larger organisations.

However, not all of the investment in learning will be managed by people professionals (especially in smaller organisations), and others, will be responsible too.

The role of line managers

Line managers are crucial as the gatekeepers to individual learning and development and they also need support for their own development. People development is part of any manager’s role. Where there’s recognition and reward for these responsibilities, it’s more likely that line managers will give high-quality time to coaching and work-based learning activities. Involving line managers is most effective when learning and development responsibilities are part of leadership expectations.

An overall L&D strategy is a statement of intent. More detail is needed to provide guidance on how it will be implemented and who will turn it into practice. Some key factors are set out below: the questions that need to be asked and the choices that organisations must 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 for the learning plan for the next period. These priorities are often set out in a learning policy. This explains how the strategy will be implemented. Typically, an L&D policy covers:

  • responsibilities for learning and development
  • Personal Development Plans
  • the range of methods used to facilitate learning and development
  • access to a range of learning opportunities and resources (both formal and informal)
  • equality of opportunity in learning and development
  • internal and external provision
  • booking formal training and enrolling on qualifications
  • travel, subsistence and hotels if the learning involves face-to-face interventions carried out elsewhere
  • cancellation issues
  • evaluation and monitoring of learning and development.

Performance management and appraisal

Using performance management and performance reviews can help HR and line managers achieve business targets by, amongst other things, making sure their teams have the right level of capability. 

Individual development needs may be included in appraisal or development reviews and be based on 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.

Resources for learning and development

Budgets and resource planning are clearly critical to implement an L&D strategy effectively. 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 include:

  • Will internal staff or outside consultants deliver learning?

  • What forms of learning – technical skills or leadership development, for instance – will be encouraged?

  • What methods and modes of delivery will be used, for example, face to face, digital or a blend, formal or informal?

  • What relationship is there between learning and formal qualifications, for example, is learning be accredited by educational institutions?

  • Are any of the government-backed and regional funding programmes appropriate to meet learning needs within the organisation?

  • What can learners do to enable them to continue applying the learning?

Read our learning methods factsheet.

Evaluation

Given that effective implementation of the L&D strategy is critical to an organisation's 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.

Innovation

In mature economies, innovation is critical. Organisations are constantly seeking to innovate and find new solutions to the challenges they face. L&D strategy needs to specifically address innovation and will need an agile approach with regular reviews to match 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 there’s no discrimination in accessing learning resources. Some organisations may go further by offering 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.

Books and reports

BEEVERS, K., REA, A. and HAYDEN, D. (2019) Learning and development practice in the workplace. 4thd ed. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.

HOYLE, R. (2015) Informal learning in organisations. London: Kogan Page.

LANCASTER, A. (2019) Driving performance through learning. London: Kogan Page.

OVERTON, L. (2016) Unlocking potential: releasing the potential of the business and its people through learning. London: Towards Maturity.

PAGE-TICKELL, R. (2018) Learning and development: a practical introduction. 2nd ed. HR Fundamentals. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.

Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Boookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.

Journal articles

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.

FARAGHER, J. (2018) Why fresh approaches to L&D are presenting new problems. People Management (online). 25 October.

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.

LEWIS., D. (2017) Quarter of workers ‘receive no training’.People Management (online). 6 November.

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 David Hayden.

David Hayden

David HaydenL&D Consultant/Trainer

David is part of the CIPD’s L&D Content Team. He leads on the design and delivery of a number of L&D-focused products as well as keeping his practice up to date by facilitating events for a range of clients. David began his L&D career after taking responsibility for three Youth Trainees back in 1988 as an Operations Manager, and has since gone on to work in, and headed up, a number of corporate L&D teams and HR functions in distribution, retail, financial and public sector organisations. He completed his Masters degree specialising in CPD and was Chair of our South Yorkshire Branch for two years from 2012 before joining as an employee in 2014. David also has a background in 'lean' and has worked as a Lean Engineer in a number of manufacturing and food organisations. Passionate about learning and exploiting all aspects of CPD, David’s style is participative and inclusive.

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