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A transformation of the learning function: Why it should learn new ways

Companies rely on their learning-and-development functions to help workforces learn fast. But often, the function itself needs a transformation.

Organizations are acutely aware of the importance of learning in today’s business environment. They understand that technology is changing the nature of work and the roles within it. They also understand that the ability of the workforce to learn new skills, model new behaviors, and adapt continuously is key to sustained success. Hence the elevated role of the learning-and-development (L&D) function, which must work together with business leaders to enable an organization to learn effectively, at speed, and at scale.

Learning needs to be deeply integrated with an organization’s strategy and core talent processes, such as performance management. Yet many companies feel their functions are ill equipped to play such a role. Rather than being regarded as one of the most forward-thinking functions in an organization, leading it through a learning transformation, many feel that their L&D functions struggle to keep up with the needs of their businesses. 1

Not so the L&D function of a US healthcare company that played a pivotal role in helping the organization respond to the COVID-19 crisis. When 90 percent of the 55,000-strong workforce suddenly began working remotely, within 24 hours, the function produced and posted online videos and learning modules to help workers set up equipment at home and log on securely (relieving a severely overstretched IT department that was already taking thousands of daily inquiries). And it curated new “playlists” of learning modules for employees on its digital platform, tailoring them to help workers find the information they needed quickly and navigate the crisis more effectively.

That burst of activity did not divert the function from continuing to support the company in achieving its strategic goals. The company’s hiring program went ahead, thanks in part to the L&D function helping onboard 200 new recruits virtually. The function also converted critical leadership-development programs into digitally enabled sessions, facilitated calls for 1,400 leaders to help them build the behaviors required to manage teams remotely and ensure that productivity did not drop, and helped business teams learn about the latest technologies required to serve their clients in new, digitized ways.

“It all came together,” said the global head of the organization’s corporate university. “The online learning platform, the L&D operating model, and the function’s capabilities—all of which we have been building since 2017—allowed us to meet the needs of the business in real time.” That key observation helps explain why few L&D functions excel in their new roles. It is because most focus on the learning programs and how to deliver them on a digital platform, overlooking how the function is organized and its capabilities.

Good learning programs are, of course, critical. But the utility of even the best will be limited if not based upon an intimate understanding of an organization’s needs and an ability to forecast and respond to them rapidly—just as the US healthcare company did. And for that to happen, the L&D function must itself undergo a transformation and adopt an agile operating model.

The learning function of the future

Organizations and functions that have undergone agile transformations have been shown to outperform in fast-changing operating environments, delivering higher customer and employee satisfaction, lower costs, and quicker times to market. Such a transformation entails adopting an operating model whereby every element of an organization or function—its strategy, structure, people, processes, and technology—becomes more dynamic, with support from a stable backbone that ensures efficiency and consistency where needed.

In our experience, most L&D functions today are overly stable—to the point of rigidity. Staff in course-design, content-management, program-delivery, and digital-platform support often work in different departments that have their own key performance indicators, which are not necessarily linked to overall business goals. For example, the performance of those in design and development is typically judged by the velocity at which they can produce error-free content and the number of training hours undertaken by learners, not necessarily the quality of the training and its impact. In the delivery of a learning program, the key metrics are typically efficiency (the numbers in a classroom), faculty utilization, and feedback from participants rather than any measure of the degree of learning or behavioral change. And content management is evaluated by how quickly material is updated rather than its relevance to business needs.

Those factors mean that L&D staff struggle to collaborate well as they focus on what is meaningful to them rather than on broader organizational goals and associated key performance indicators, such as whether programs help people improve in their jobs and provide a positive business impact. L&D employees can also be reluctant to change systems that worked well in the past but that do not support next-generation learning. Protracted, linear project life cycles; extensive template catalogs with standard operating procedures; and cumbersome legacy platforms and systems slow down the response rate to changing business needs.

The antidote to those challenges is not complete laissez-faire. An L&D function would be directionless without a long-term strategy, learners confused if design principles were inconsistently applied, and a company’s finances at risk in the absence of disciplined guidelines for expenditure and vendor relationships. Rather, an L&D function needs to strike the right balance between stability and dynamism, assembling the components that will create a stable backbone as well as the dynamism needed for the function to keep pace with an organization’s learning needs.

Stability and dynamism

The exhibit shows how organizations can build both stability and dynamism into all elements of an L&D function: its strategy, structure, people, processes, and tech and systems. For instance, stability comes with a clear mandate, strategy, and budget linked to strategic priorities to guide the function’s work, but the function must also assess the learning needs of the business regularly so it can keep realigning resources. And for that, it needs a more dynamic governance structure whereby its steering committee meets regularly—perhaps quarterly—to review budget allocation.

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Similarly, an L&D function needs a solid bench of experts in fields such as experience design, multichannel delivery, curation, and analytics. Those areas will add significant value to the work of the function and the organization. But there should also be a “flow to work” pool of resources that can staff priorities rapidly as required—for example, a group of instructional designers who can work across different content areas and support different business units as needed.

Importantly, L&D team members will often work as part of cross-functional project teams that have end-to-end ownership and decision-making authority, which are key elements of an agile operation that strives to deliver fast. To stay relevant, the function will also need to keep updating its skill profile.

When it comes to technology and systems, the L&D team has to set high cybersecurity and user-experience standards for stability. But for dynamism, it should also build partnerships so that its delivery capabilities are always cutting edge.

How to get there

Sidebar

The time it takes to transform an L&D function and the actions required will vary by organization. A 12- to 24-month journey is not uncommon, depending on the starting point, complexity, desired speed, and boldness of an organization. Most transformations, however, require the following groundwork:

  • Set the learning vision. Establishing an L&D “North Star” linked to an organization’s strategic priorities (that is, making clear the goal both in efficiency—the time it takes to create a learning asset, for example—and in improved business performance) is a hallmark of a successful agile transformation. Everyone knows what success will look like. The goal should be ambitious, so it is important to understand what leading-edge practices can achieve (see sidebar, “The art of the possible”). But it is important that business leaders help set the goal so that L&D stays anchored to unlocking value.
  • Assess the point of departure. An honest assessment of an L&D function’s current capabilities and readiness for change will help determine the appropriate interventions and priorities. The assessment should include input from learning professionals, end users, and business leaders and cover the five elements previously outlined. “Performance grids” can help organizations gauge how their L&D functions measure up against best practices and thus help identify goals and priorities.
  • Design the operating model and the way ahead. With a clear understanding of a starting point, an organization can plan its L&D function’s structure, processes, and required capabilities; set a budget; and decide on initiatives and their sequencing. It is important to begin with initiatives that will capture significant business value—perhaps large-scale reskilling if a company is transforming in response to automation and new market opportunities—while incorporating quick wins to maintain momentum. Those could be pilots to shift to a digital customer-service model within certain business areas or ongoing programs, such as for onboarding and leadership development.

As in any agile transformation, implementation is an iterative process. Some companies might choose to change the way their entire L&D functions work from day one, willing to bear the short-term disruptions that will likely cause in return for a faster transformation. Most, however, start with one or more pilots and learn from them before further extending the new ways of working. Either way, continuous improvement is critical. As business and external environments change, so must L&D functions, their strategies, and their operating models.


L&D functions have unparalleled access to data and research that reveal how workers grow and improve, and they have long experience helping workers to do exactly that. If they can combine that knowledge and experience with an ability to understand and stay ahead of the changing needs of their organizations, they can deliver learning programs accordingly. That will help lead organizations forward at a time when talent is so critical to success. For many L&D functions, however, that goal will mean transforming the ways they operate.

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