L&D strategy in 2016: where should you be focusing your efforts?

Strategy for L&D

With the new year very much underway, L&D practitioners should already be thinking about what their focus will be in 2016. It’s not an easy thing to do, but is an important decision to make, as the activities of the L&D function will play a huge part in guiding the direction of the business over the next twelve months or so.

There isn’t one perfect answer to the question of where an L&D department’s efforts should be focused, as every organisation has different needs to fulfil and areas it should be concentrating on. Some have suggested that companies should focus on the development of leadership for both current and potential candidates, as this is the area with the greatest potential impact in terms of facilitating broader employee success. Leaders developed in the right way can have a massive positive effect on engagement and productivity as well as securing the future of the company due to the fact that leaders developed by an organisation are more aligned to its goals and culture and are less likely to leave.

Alternatively, L&D practitioners may choose to concentrate on refining and evolving e-learning processes in order to take advantage of some developments which have been introduced within that sphere. This will allow them to adapt to the way in which employees’ interaction with learning has been changing in recent years. This might mean phasing out some “traditional” learning methods and bringing in techniques such as gamification to achieve a blended L&D philosophy.

However, while these might be the right L&D areas to focus on for some businesses, they won’t be universally applicable. Depending on goals and current situations businesses might want to prioritise other areas, or they might not be able to get the budget or buy-in from other departments to concentrate on those areas.

While there will certainly be differences between specific areas of focus in different organisations, there do remain some areas that need to be on the agenda for almost all L&D practitioners.

Ensuring L&D is linked to the business strategy

The first thing all L&D departments have to do is ensure their actions are linked to the goals of the business as a whole. This should ideally be the case every year, but frequently L&D functions are forced into a reactive pattern, only able to respond to the learning needs of employees, rather than helping to direct them. However, with budgets tightly constrained and L&D continually forced to demonstrate its value, everything the L&D department does has to be relevant to the goals of the wider business and quantifiable in terms of the benefits they provide. This is only achievable if L&D becomes more closely linked with these goals.

Forging a robust partnership with HR

The relationship between an organisation’s L&D and HR departments should be a close one, as the actions of one often directly impact the actions of the other. Where an L&D department is tasked with developing the company’s existing talent, the HR department is usually tasked with hiring new talent to fill gaps. This is often not the most effective or efficient path to go down – it costs more money to hire a new person as opposed to promoting from within; it can be disruptive to a company’s culture; and it can take a long time to find the right person.

One of the key things L&D and HR departments should therefore be collaborating on is the creation of a talent map at the start of the year which can be used to identify the talent gaps in the organisation and determine whether those gaps can be filled by developing internally or recruiting externally. This will also require collaboration with the wider business to ensure both HR and L&D fully understand the need and identify the best strategy to fulfil it.

Identifying areas of poor performance

In a lot of organisations, there will be a particular area in which performance has been consistently poor over several months. Depending on the systems within a business, part of the L&D department’s job may be to monitor these areas at the beginning of the year and, in partnership with relevant stakeholders, devise and introduce schemes which are designed to develop employees and prevent further decline in performance. L&D practitioners are an essential part of this process and have responsibility for explaining to teams in need of training why they are required to fulfil it. This is linked to L&D departments ensuring their actions are linked to the business strategy. Can the organisation meet its goals for the year if this team doesn’t receive this training? If the answer is no, training must be implemented.

Of course, in certain situations, it may be HR’s role to take firmer action, but it is preferable to employ the former rather jumping straight to the latter.

Devising effective impact measurements

One of the biggest traditional problems as far as L&D is concerned has always been showing a return on investment and justifying its existence, which frequently brings the department into conflict with senior management figures, and in some cases, the workforce at large. Because training a sales team in better phone technique can’t definitively be shown to have influenced higher sales figures over the quarter, for example, it’s difficult for L&D practitioners to highlight the good work they do in terms of a company’s overall achievements.

However, more businesses than ever are prioritising the measuring of L&D’s ROI a priority. While there are fiscal measurements that can be made, there needs to be a change in focus away from the direct, financial outcomes resulting from L&D which are extremely difficult to measure. Instead, businesses should focus on whether L&D activities have facilitated a return on expectation.

Measuring this comes back to the goals laid out in the overall organisational strategy and whether training programmes have helped move the business towards them. Questions like “what does success for the company/department/team look like” will be more measurable, valuable and insightful than trying to assess how much money the sales team made as a result of training. Once you have the relevant parameters, you can begin to work out the ways in which you will measure the success of the programme against those intended outcomes.

The focus of your L&D strategy in 2016 should ultimately be driven by the specific areas your business needs to improve on in order to meet its overall goals. The above are some general things that most L&D functions need to continue to address, but your strategy may differ wildly from that of another business – concentrate on what you want to achieve and how you’re going to do so, and you’ll have an effective and productive year ahead.

Find out more about L&D strategy in our guide, The Sceptic’s Guide to Learning and Development, here.