Aligning learning to the organisation

The subject of ensuring the alignment of learning with the organisation has attracted a lot of attention recently. Learning managers and professionals are becoming alert to the need to ensure that “learning” – whether it be the activity or the organisational function – really meets the needs of the organisation it supports. Learning, as critical as it is to the continued success of an organisation, is not immune from the ever-increasing scrutiny that is placed on organisational activities and costs.

What follows is a slight re-draft of an article I wrote for the Alterable website a few weeks back.  In it I propose that organisations need to think about the time and money they spend on learning as a portfolio. I suggest that those responsible for directing and managing the “investment” in learning need to adopt the same mindset (and some of the techniques) that would be applied to investments in R&D, IT, business change projects etc.  I also describe a simple process whereby a Chief Learning Officer (or other senior manager with responsibility for learning) can start to think about learning as a strategic portfolio. It provides a basic mechanism for them to analyse the “big picture” learning investment before getting into the detail of ROI measures.

Strategically aligning learning with the organisation

The aim of strategically aligning learning to the organisation is to ensure that it underpins the areas critical to organisational success, allowing you to focus resources on what really matters. You are looking to ensure alignment with the mission and goals of the organisation – developing and maintaining the key capabilities required to realise them. You are also looking to ensure alignment with the organisation’s culture – with learning underpinning either the prevailing culture or helping to drive change to a desired future state. 

This alignment tends to occur quite naturally in smaller organisations but gets more difficult to maintain as organisations get larger and more complex.

Some organisations get this very right.  Consider the highly successful retail chain whose competitive edge comes from delivering consistent and excellent customer service in all its stores and a strong brand that encapsulates these values.  A key component of this strategy is ensuring that their front-line people get the right training – not just in core skills and processes but also to promote and reinforce the organisation’s core values and behaviours. 

There are also many that get it very wrong – with resources being wasted on developing and delivering the wrong training to the wrong people.  Consider another retailer that spent millions developing its own project management approach, then educating its IT and business people in how to use it.  Consider also the organisation where the HR department became excited by the idea of the “learning organisation” and poured resources into an initiative to change the company through learning.  Although well intentioned, it was doomed to failure as it lacked support from the company’s top management.

Getting this alignment between learning and the organisation right means:

  • The organisation has the skills it needs, where and when they are needed
  • “Learning” is seen as a critical enabling function in the organisation
  • The Chief Learning Officer becomes an important and influential role

Whereas getting it wrong means:

  • Learning resources are wasted or misdirected
  • Learning provided is suboptimal – or possibly even hinders the organisation’s effectiveness
  • The Learning function becomes peripheral to the organisation – and potentially risks disappearing altogether!

It is worth devoting time and attention to ensuring this alignment is strong.

How well you are aligned?

So, how do you go about assessing whether learning is well aligned with the organisation it serves?

Essentially, this is a straightforward two-part exercise.  Part one is to identify the organisation’s critical needs. Part two is to assess how well the learning being provided matches these needs. As a Chief Learning Officer (or other manager with learning responsibility) you should be well placed to conduct this exercise yourself.

Part 1: Identify the organisations’ critical needs

A good start here is to ask yourself some basic questions … and answer them with complete honesty. Ask yourself if you truly understand:

  1. What the organisation you serve does?
  2. What success looks like for the organisation?
  3. How the organisation sets about achieving that success?

In short, you are really asking yourself, “Do I truly understand my organisation and what makes it tick?”  It is common for departmental management, particularly those in support functions, to lose sight of the bigger picture.  This is an opportunity for you to test your understanding or refresh your knowledge.

Let’s look at each of these questions in a little more detail:

Do I truly understand what my organisation does?

Are you clear about the organisation’s purpose?  What does it sell, what service does it provide, what does it make, who are its customers?  …and so forth.  Even if you think you know these things well, revisit your understanding if you haven’t done so recently and ask yourself if things have changed.  If using mission and purpose statements as source material, try and distinguish between the aspirational and the here-and-now.  For example, a manufacturer of products may have aspirations to provide “solutions” and “services” but may still derive the great majority of its revenues and profits from the former. Both the current state and the aspirational are valid – but it helps to be clear about the distinction.  The reason for this becomes more apparent later on as you start to look at how learning being provided supports the organisation.

Do I truly understand what success looks like for the organisation?

Do you understand what the organisation is trying to achieve? What are its strategic goals?  Hard numbers around profits, share prices, government targets and so forth are clearly part of the picture – but there will be other measures too. The organisation may have a balance scorecard to help provide you this wider picture. Also try and understand the underlying truth behind formal goals and measures. Is the organisation growing, consolidating its position, fighting for survival, changing direction etc.?

Do I understand how the organisation sets about achieving that success?

In the case of a commercial business, this will be case of asking:  How does the business compete?  How does it set itself apart from the competition?  What does the value chain look like?  What are the key things the organisation has to do really well?  What is special and unique about the business and sets it apart from the competition?  This could be particular knowledge, skills, attitudes, culture, patents, processes etc.

If you work in the public sector, there may or may not be the competitive market element to this. However, you should still have an appreciation of the areas in which the organisation needs to excel in order to be successful.

You may know the answers to the above really well… and that’s great! If you don’t then try to make it your business to know these things, really understand them and keep fully up-to-date on them.

It may be that there is already some form of capability and competency framework mapping that has been performed within your organisation. These are useful source material but you should probably not consider them as a substitute for conducting the exercise described above.  Why? In my experience, in their efforts to be comprehensive these frameworks often miss the essential truths. That is to say, they often seek to describe all that an organisation needs to do and the skills it requires. Thus, they tend towards being generic.  They tend not to highlight the key areas where the organisation needs to excel.  It is not a comprehensive view you are seeking to achieve here. It is the handful of vital areas where truly outstanding performance is essential for the organisation to thrive that  you are trying to get to.

I have intentionally shied away from being definitive about how you perform the above analysis – the tools and techniques that you should use. If you have an MBA or some grounding in business strategy and want to use specific techniques you are familiar with, that is fine. Equally, you could just make bullet-point lists.  It is the thought process that is important here and the exercise of confirming that you truly understand what makes the organisation tick.

As an end-result you should aim to have a short list of the key things the organisations needs to do really well in order to succeed.  The aim is also to make this as specific as possible. Very generic statements such as “provide excellent customer service” or “compete on price by tightly managing costs” will tell you next to nothing. How will the customer service be “excellent”? What is it your organisation does that other organisations do not? What processes, behaviours, skills, systems, attitudes make you different?

Part 2: Assess how well learning meets needs

The next step is to look at the learning service that is provided to the organisation. How well does it map against the key points you have above? How closely does the time, effort, money spent on developing, delivering, procuring and participating in learning correlate to those areas key to the organisation’s success?

There is no need to try and be scientific and super-accurate at this stage. This is all about getting a rough feel.

Looking at the list of elements critical to business success that you have identified, consider the following:

  1. What learning initiatives are in place that directly address developing and maintaining these capabilities?
  2. What proportion of the overall learning and development effort goes to supporting these areas?
  3. Broadly speaking, where is the other effort being directed?
  4. Are there significant initiatives in place that appear not to be correlated with this list of critical capabilities?

When doing this try to think of the broad range of learning and development initiatives that may be in place. Don’t just restrict yourself to considering the formal training that may be being provided. Initiatives such as coaching, mentoring,  social learning networks and support for action learning also count.

By conducting this exercise you will start to get a picture of how well aligned learning is with the strategic direction of the organisation.  Ideally, you will want to see a strong suite of learning initiatives underpinning the organisation’s strategic capabilities.

This is just a broad-brush exercise intended to highlight areas that require deeper examination.  For example, have you identified what appear to be gaps where it seems there is a strategic need not being fulfilled?  This is a potential red flag … but not necessarily … could it be that the organisation is opting to buy-in ready-made talent to fulfil that need?  If they are, is that a conscious, strategic decision to recruit talent rather than develop?  Could this be an opportunity for “Learning” to better serve the organisation? Another possibility (a very real one in large and/or federated organisations) is that there are learning initiatives in place here – but they are operating off your radar screen!

You may also identify that there are significant areas of learning investment that do not line up with the organisation’s core needs. This more common than you might think. Not all investment in these areas is necessarily a bad thing.  However, it should be subjected to close scrutiny. You may be investing in building a capability that is still important to the organisation, even if not critical.  In which case, is the level of investment justified and is it being applied in the most efficient way?

Through this process, you are beginning to think of the organisation’s learning investment as a portfolio:

  • There will be learning that is directed at building the capabilities and competencies that are critical to taking the organisation forward – as identified in the list you have just built
  • There will be learning that is directed at supporting the many capabilities and competencies that are necessary to ensure the organisation runs smoothly – although they confer no advantage
  • There will possibly be some learning investment that apparently supports neither of the above categories

This categorisation can then start to advise decisions such as:

  • Where is your precious learning and development investment best directed?
  • Should you be developing your own learning content or buying it in?

The capabilities that are critical to success are more likely to be unique to your organisation – or to have your organisation’s unique slant upon them. This will be particularly true in a business where these capabilities contribute to its differentiation from competitors. Whereas the capabilities that underpin “smooth running” will tend to be common across organisations.  Therefore, it makes sense to direct the time, money and energy required to develop custom learning into the former – and go to the market for the latter and buy it in at a competitive price.

This process doesn’t answer the questions for you.  It is about providing a lens for you to look at the organisation’s learning investment through. It should open up areas that you will want to dig into and ask much more detailed questions about.

To recap, aligning learning with the organisation requires matching learning to needs at the strategic level.  Before matching learning to the specific needs of individuals, you should aim to be sure the right portfolio of learning initiatives is in place to meet the organisation’s strategic needs (i.e. the individual learning need has to be framed within the context of the organisation’s requirements). This is a matter of seeking to understand the organisation’s strategic drivers and develop a learning portfolio that is in alignment.  This should be an on-going process and it  has the potential to be quite complex and involved.   However, in this blog I have described a straightforward approach to get you started along this line of thinking.

Do you agree that organisations need to adopt this type of top-down approach to managing their learning investment?  Perhaps you feel it is more a case of looking at this bottom-up – assessing the detailed business case  for each proposed investment?  Maybe you have other views?   Please do contribute with your points-of-view, ideas and suggestions.

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4 responses to “Aligning learning to the organisation

  1. I’d also add that it’s important to make sure you understand the learners’ needs – all to often I’ve seen learning programmes developed that seem to have been designed to stroke the business and faculty’s egos without considering how the learner needs to use the information you try to deliver in the learning interactions.

    Consider someone just starting out in retail, fast-food or similar environment – they probably don’t need a 2-week long instructor led course, they need something they can access quickly to show them what they need to do, or to act as a reminder. This could be something as simple as a one page job-aide, a short video, or even a mobile app. In contrast, someone working in a more technical environment, may need that more in-depth introduction, but they don’t really need to sit through long powerpoint presentations, but rather to see small chunks of information they can digest and learn how to apply.

    • Hi Learning Bloke and thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree with your point that the needs of the individual learner are very important. I would also add that the serving of individual learning needs has to be in the context of what the organisation is trying to achieve. Your example of the fast-food outlet you give is a good one. Investment in the type of job aides for front-line staff you mention should align well with the strategic needs of the organisation. Should the same organisation spend money on (say) developing in-house training for its IT staff? Maybe yes, maybe no – it would depend on how this aligned with the strategic needs of the business.

  2. Reblogged this on TALENT your PEOPLE and commented:
    Aligning learning to the organization’s needs is today more indispensable than ever to maintain the business positive and competitive in the marketplace.
    As HR is rightly assuming more and more the role of Business Partner, it is not possible to build learning paths without assessing organization’s learning needs.

    Learning is not only about training classrooms. Finding the right measure between trainings, coaching, peer-to-peer learning, on-the-job, (etc) learning methods is both HR and Management responsibility to ensure organisation’s empowerment through people’s development.

    Assessing the impact of learning activities into the business is then equally important to understand if the effort correlated to the organization’s success.

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