3 Steps Forward: Learning and Development Programs as a Strategic Business Partner

Scott Esposito

We all recognize that the velocity of business is accelerating. Changes in global markets and the competitive landscape redefine what it takes to be successful on a daily basis. Given this paradigm, it follows that executives, managers and employees operating in this environment must learn how to adapt and think differently at the same pace.
Like every other element of running an organization, learning and development programs should be closely aligned with business goals and strategies. They must also have a definable and measurable impact on the business and operate efficiently. In this article, I will highlight three basic steps that HR professionals can take in order to develop relevant, impactful learning and development programs. I also offer some red flags to watch out for that may indicate it’s time to take a second look at your existing programs and how they are managed.

Step One: Evaluate learning and development programs that already exist in light of shifting business strategies and priorities. Too often, companies revise or adapt what they use for training rather than potentially scrapping and reinventing programs to support future needs.

As an HR professional, the first question to ask concerning your learning and development programs is: "Can our programs remain unchanged in a dynamic operating environment?" To be sure, we change and adapt technical and sales training to follow new product launches, yet we may overlook the relevant capabilities of those designing our products and leading our organizations. This is not to suggest that all existing learning and development programs quickly become outdated or irrelevant, rather, there must be an objective and formal process to assess, evaluate and reinvent these programs to ensure alignment of human capability with business strategy.

Red Flag: The aggregate performance of your employee population is skewed toward the exceptional level, yet the company’s bottom line results are mediocre. While it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the bar is simply not set high enough, it’s also possible that the skills and competencies against which your employees are measured need to be updated. Excellent performance against the wrong standards will not make the business run better.

Step Two: Establish metrics for measuring training’s impact on the business to determine if the learning objectives are driving the intended behaviors and performance.

Assuming that you have assessed and evaluated learning and development programs to validate relevancy to business strategy, the next question to ask is: "How do I know programs are having the desired impact on the business, and to what degree?"

Simply stated, without addressing this question, your conclusions would be based on speculation rather than concrete evidence. A great deal has been written on measuring training effectiveness. While it’s not the intention of this article to prescribe methods, there are several considerations to incorporate in your approach.

First, consider the top level metrics that capture the overall performance of your company: measures like sales and earnings growth; quality; on-time delivery; product cost and safety are common examples.

Next, establish the linkages that tie these metrics to people activities and the incremental benefit or performance expected to result from the learning and development program. For positions that directly generate revenue (i.e. sales) or reduce costs (i.e. operations) the connection between incremental performance and outcome is more easily defined. For indirect, executive or other management level positions, the connection to hard measures may be more difficult. In these cases, core competencies or behaviors may be captured through evaluations from internal or external sources such as customers and suppliers.

Once the measures and incremental benefits are defined, they should be captured and tracked through the company’s performance management system using the smart criteria: specific; measurable; achievable; realistic and time-bounded. As an alternative or supplement, structured survey instruments can be developed and sent to stakeholders who are positioned to observe the degree of improvement.

Finally, do not be deterred from evaluating the impact programs have on employee engagement and retention— two strategic measures that are often overlooked. Although this approach will not precisely capture and measure the benefits of training, it is vastly superior to using intuition or other subjective methods to determine the business improvements.

Red Flag: The company’s basis for determining the effectiveness of learning and development interventions is limited to a post-program survey given to participants asking them to score the material, the instructor and how valuable or relevant it was to their jobs. This approach can take a more informal version through a simple AAR (after action review) where the group talks about how beneficial the training was.

Step Three: Measure the efficiency and process effectiveness of delivering learning and development programs.

Once you determine that the right programs are being offered and the desired results are being achieved, the last question to ask is: "How do I know that these programs are being delivered in the most efficient and cost effective way?" Aside from the program cost, the number trained and the frequency, determine the overall value compared with outside alternatives.

As a general rule, we are inclined to eliminate, off-load or outsource whatever we do that is not part of our core business, or that which can be delivered cheaper through alternative means. There are numerous firms that sell and deliver training programs – and some of these may be the right solution for your business. However, do not relinquish ownership and responsibility for learning and development programs that tie directly to the core competencies of the company. Like other forms of intellectual property, they drive the performance of your business. Although it may be the right decision to deliver these programs through third party providers, retain control of the design and development.

Establish a means of evaluating your learning and development programs against objectives standards for cost, quality and delivery. There are plenty of professional and industry resources to draw upon. Start benchmarking to generate ideas, compare metrics and adopt best practices.

Red Flag: Annual training programs are based on parameters connected with the financial budgeting process, and more disturbing, the mix of programs selected is based on the best compromise to meet the inevitable 10 percent cut. Learning and development programs should be self-funding in the long-run and based on the relative value they deliver to the business—not selected based on affordability. Of course, prioritizing the right ones to be delivered may be based on financial or operational constraints.

Continuous improvement and the need to sustain earnings growth drives us to evaluate everything we do. Every HR generalist or business partner should evaluate human capability and performance in light of changing business needs. The three steps outlined provide a framework for implementing a more comprehensive approach.