The essential components of a successful L&D strategy


Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Jacqueline Brassey, Lisa Christensen, and Nick van Dam for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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The ACADEMIES framework is a useful tool for conceptualizing learning strategy.
Over the past decade, the global workforce has been continually evolving because of a number of factors. An increasingly competitive business landscape, rising complexity, and the digital revolution are reshaping the mix of employees. Meanwhile, persistent uncertainty, a multigenerational workforce, and a shorter shelf life for knowledge have placed a premium on reskilling and upskilling. The shift to a digital, knowledge-based economy means that a vibrant workforce is more important than ever: research suggests that a very significant percentage of market capitalization in public companies is based on intangible assets—skilled employees, exceptional leaders, and knowledge.1All of these trends have elevated the importance of the learning-and-development (L&D) function. We undertook several phases of research to understand trends and current priorities in L&D (see sidebar, “Learning and development—From evolution to revolution”). Our efforts highlighted how the L&D function is adapting to meet the changing needs of organizations, as well as the growing levels of investment in professional development.To get the most out of investments in training programs and curriculum development, L&D leaders must embrace a broader role within the organization and formulate an ambitious vision for the function. An essential component of this effort is a comprehensive, coordinated strategy that engages the organization and encourages collaboration. The ACADEMIES© framework, which consists of nine dimensions of L&D, can help to strengthen the function and position it to serve the organization more effectively.

The strategic role of L&D

One of L&D’s primary responsibilities is to manage the development of people—and to do so in a way that supports other key business priorities. L&D’s strategic role spans five areas (Exhibit 1).2

  1. Attract and retain talent. Traditionally, learning focused solely on improving productivity. Today, learning also contributes to employability. Over the past several decades, employment has shifted from staying with the same company for a lifetime to a model where workers are being retained only as long as they can add value to an enterprise. Workers are now in charge of their personal and professional growth and development—one reason that people list “opportunities for learning and development” among the top criteria for joining an organization. Conversely, a lack of L&D is one of the key reasons people cite for leaving a company.
  2. Develop people capabilities. Human capital requires ongoing investments in L&D to retain its value. When knowledge becomes outdated or forgotten—a more rapid occurrence today—the value of human capital declines and needs to be supplemented by new learning and relevant work experiences.3 Companies that make investments in the next generation of leaders are seeing an impressive return. Research indicates that companies in the top quartile of leadership outperform other organizations by nearly two times on earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). Moreover, companies that invest in developing leaders during significant transformations are 2.4 times more likely to hit their performance targets.4
  3. Create a values-based culture. As the workforce in many companies becomes increasingly virtual and globally dispersed, L&D can help to build a values-based culture and a sense of community. In particular, millennials are particularly interested in working for values-based, sustainable enterprises that contribute to the welfare of society.
  4. Build an employer brand. An organization’s brand is one of its most important assets and conveys a great deal about the company’s success in the market, financial strengths, position in the industry, and products and services. Investments in L&D can help to enhance company’s brand and boost its reputation as an “employer of choice.” As large segments of the workforce prepare to retire, employers must work harder to compete for a shrinking talent pool. To do so, they must communicate their brand strength explicitly through an employer value proposition.
  5. Motivate and engage employees. The most important way to engage employees is to provide them with opportunities to learn and develop new competencies. Research suggests that lifelong learning contributes to happiness.5 When highly engaged employees are challenged and given the skills to grow and develop within their chosen career path, they are more likely to be energized by new opportunities at work and satisfied with their current organization.

The L&D function in transition

Over the years, we have identified and field-tested nine dimensions that contribute to a strong L&D function. We combined these dimensions to create the ACADEMIES framework, which covers all aspects of L&D functions, from setting aspirations to measuring impact (Exhibit 2). Although many companies regularly execute on several dimensions of this framework, our recent research found that only a few companies are fully mature in all dimensions

[Here are the first three essential components.]

1. Alignment with business strategy

One of an L&D executive’s primary tasks is to develop and shape a learning strategy based on the company’s business and talent strategies. The learning strategy seeks to support professional development and build capabilities across the company, on time, and in a cost-effective manner. In addition, the learning strategy can enhance the company culture and encourage employees to live the company’s values.

For many organizations, the L&D function supports the implementation of the business strategy. For example, if one of the business strategies is a digital transformation, L&D will focus on building the necessary people capabilities to make that possible.

Every business leader would agree that L&D must align with a company’s overall priorities. Yet research has found that many L&D functions fall short on this dimension. Only 40 percent of companies say that their learning strategy is aligned with business goals.6 For 60 percent, then, learning has no explicit connection to the company’s strategic objectives. L&D functions may be out of sync with the business because of outdated approaches or because budgets have been based on priorities from previous years rather than today’s imperatives, such as a digital transformation.

To be effective, L&D must take a hard look at employee capabilities and determine which are most essential to support the execution of the company’s business strategy. L&D leaders should reevaluate this alignment on a yearly basis to ensure they are creating a people-capability agenda that truly reflects business priorities and strategic objectives.

2. Co-ownership between business units and HR

With new tools and technologies constantly emerging, companies must become more agile, ready to adapt their business processes and practices. L&D functions must likewise be prepared to rapidly launch capability-building programs—for example, if new business needs suddenly arise or staff members require immediate training on new technologies such as cloud-based collaboration tools.

L&D functions can enhance their partnership with business leaders by establishing a governance structure in which leadership from both groups share responsibility for defining, prioritizing, designing, and securing funds for capability-building programs. Under this governance model, a company’s chief experience officer (CXO), senior executives, and business-unit heads will develop the people-capability agenda for segments of the enterprise and ensure that it aligns with the company’s overall strategic goals. Top business executives will also help firmly embed the learning function and all L&D initiatives in the organizational culture. The involvement of senior leadership enables full commitment to the L&D function’s longer-term vision.

3. Assessment of capability gaps and estimated value

After companies identify their business priorities, they must verify that their employees can deliver on them—a task that may be more difficult than it sounds. Some companies make no effort to assess employee capabilities, while others do so only at a high level. Conversations with L&D, HR, and senior executives suggest that many companies are ineffective or indifferent at assessing capability gaps, especially when it comes to senior leaders and midlevel managers.

The most effective companies take a deliberate, systematic approach to capability assessment. At the heart of this process is a comprehensive competency or capability model based on the organization’s strategic direction. For example, a key competency for a segment of an e-commerce company’s workforce could be “deep expertise in big data and predictive analytics.”

After identifying the most essential capabilities for various functions or job descriptions, companies should then assess how employees rate in each of these areas. L&D interventions should seek to close these capability gaps.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Jacqueline Brassey is director of Enduring Priorities Learning in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office, where Nick van Dam is an alumnus and senior adviser to the firm as well as professor and chief of the IE University (Madrid) Center for Learning Innovation; Lisa Christensen is a senior learning expert in the San Francisco office.

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