Developing an Effective Learning Strategy

Francis MarshallManaging Director, Cegos UK

As more organisations focus on return on investment, it has never been more important to create an effective development and learning strategy.

But what are the key pointers to developing a learning strategy where organisational, functional and an individual’s learning goals are aligned for the good of the organisation? What measures can you take to ensure successful implementation?

In this article, we’ll look at the central tenets that underpin a successful learning strategy. While some consider a strategy as simply a statement of intent for the organisation, we’ll look at the learning activities that support a strategy as well as how to implement it.

Firstly, we’ll examine the significance of putting a structure in place for your learning strategy – the importance of being goal-driven and differentiating between short-term and long-term goals, as well as the need to accurately determine what the learning needs are.

Secondly, we will assess the importance of developing a strategy from the learner viewpoint, where the learners are at the centre of the strategy.

Finally, we will examine the key elements of a successfully implemented strategy, from the importance of focusing on outputs through to budgets, measurement mechanisms and the role of senior management.

The net result will be an effective strategy that, customised appropriately, will reinforce all learning and development.

1) Structuring your strategy

A structure for your learning strategy is essential. The CIPD, for example, recommends that a learning strategy should consist of three parts:

  • An umbrella strategy which will not be changed very often
  • Learning initiatives that specifically support current business needs, goals, priorities and resource requirements
  • Options for how the overall learning process will be managed

At each stage, it is vital that the right questions are asked.

For example, when you are considering the long-term corporate goal for your umbrella strategy, ask yourself the following: What is my organisation’s mission and vision? How do we differentiate ourselves from the competition? Where do we hope to be in ten years’ time and how can learning support this?

And what will these goals be? Typical corporate goals are linked to areas such as customer satisfaction, revenue growth, cost management and leadership development.

To make sure you are aligned with your current business needs (level 2 of the CIPD three-tier approach), other questions need to be addressed, such as what is the business currently trying to achieve? How critical is training to achieving this? What is the needs assessment of the organisation?

Regarding how the learning process will be managed, you should ask more tactical questions, such as what tools will the organisation need to support the process? How should we mix different training resources, such as e-learning, classroom learning, and coaching? How should this strategy be communicated?

At this level, these questions can change on an annual basis, depending on current business needs.

For example, a survey on training practices, conducted by Cegos, found that many organisations focus on e-learning and blended learning as a means of making training more accountable, cost effective and less time consuming.

2) The importance of being goal-driven

One of the more frequent mistakes organisations make when developing a learning strategy is taking their eyes off the goals and letting different training methods drive their decision making.

Moving to an e-learning environment, for example, is not a goal in its own right. It is the natural result of trying to meet a specific goal. For example, in the area of cost management, e-learning will meet the goal of reducing expenses on classroom training courses.

3) Short-term versus long-term business goals

In the past, it was relatively easy to differentiate between long-term and short-term business goals – a first quarter sales target, for example, versus a 10-year corporate plan. However, the recent recession and ensuing business turmoil have made things difficult here.

As a result of what they have experienced in the last few years, many companies will never be the same again, having permanently changed attitudes towards risk, investment, costs and growth.

How can learning strategies reflect this? There is a need here for flexibility – even regarding the umbrella statement that the CIPD referenced in their three-part strategy.

While you do not want to see a different learning strategy or a different umbrella strategy on a month-by-month basis, some built-in flexibility should be allowed.

4) Assessing needs

Assessing learning needs is fundamental to any learning strategy. It is essentially the link between organisational performance and individual performance. If we have set these goals, where are the learning needs required to achieve them?

Develop employee competency profiles and pinpoint skills gaps that can identify the training needs. You might want to do some customer research to find out what their perception of skills gaps are, using tools such as focus groups and questionnaires. Line managers can also be an important source of information regarding levels of competence.

5) Legislative requirements

Keep in mind any current or future legislative requirements that may need to be incorporated into your strategy. E.g., for the Investors in People accreditation in the UK, your organisation must meet specific learning requirements.

6) Put the learner at the centre of the strategy

The key to developing any corporate learning strategy is to understand the relationships between corporate goals and the people who are accountable for the results. This is why the learner – your employees – should be at the core of any learning strategy you develop, and the driving force behind its success.

Giving the learner control is vital because an engaged learner will lead to a successful learning strategy. Yet training and, in particular, e-learning has too often been technology-led rather than people-led, resulting in unsupported learners being overwhelmed by both the technology and the lack of a clear training focus.

A central part of any learning strategy is, therefore, to put the learner in control of the process. He or she needs to know where they are now and where they need to be at the end of the learning path. This must all relate to the individual’s position within the organisation.

Closely aligned to this, your organisation needs to create a compelling learner experience. Training, for example, should be stimulating, engage the senses and be rooted in real-life situations that participants can take back and implement in the workplace. The learner should be able to personalise the training, so they can control progress and learn at their own speed.

Also, make sure professional skills are not forgotten. Businesses tend to spend up to five times more budget on health & safety, compliance and technical training than on professional skills development – such as leadership, management and negotiation skills – which is proven to have a direct impact on the bottom line.

Above all, avoid box-ticking. Learning needs to be a practice which is embedded in people’s day-to-day activities. Send a manager on a two-day course on management skills and they are not going to become a good manager overnight. Learning must be pragmatic, results and skills-focused and should address the learner’s immediate workplace challenges.

7) The key to successful implementation

We have looked at the importance of developing a structure, defining goals, assessing learning needs and putting the learner at the centre of the strategy. Yet all this would be useless if you don’t put mechanisms in place to ensure successful implementation.

Firstly, a learning strategy must be actively supported by senior executives within the business. They should support the plan fully and agree to milestones, costs, dates and deliverables. Managers also need to let employees know about their support.

As well as senior managers, it is also important that line managers buy into the new learning strategy. Line managers these days take on responsibilities that were traditionally the domain of HR, such as recruiting new staff and developing them through coaching and training. They therefore have a crucial role to play at the interface of any learning strategy.

Communication is also key. Too many managers simply don’t communicate about either the business or strategic learning goals. People must know how they will benefit and how the company’s learning strategy will influence their personal development.

A learning strategy cannot be successful unless it is properly resourced. Your budget must be realistic enough to implement the learning strategy properly, and works best when paid for via a centrally-owned budget. If the budget is divisional, it could get squeezed from opposite directions, leading to the strategy implementation being fragmented.

With the current economic environment, you should also think about how to get the most for your money. There are several means of doing this while incorporating cost constraints into the learning strategy.

For example, learning specialists Knowledgepool estimate that you can cut as much as 30% of your learning costs with initiatives such as improving supplier management, a greater automation of administrative costs, and a refocusing of learning away from the classroom.

Importantly, do not look at crude cost-saving measures that could directly impact the success of your strategy. Nearly half of companies who invest in staff training end up saving money in the long-term, according to a report by Cranfield School of Management and the Sector Skills Development Agency. The report states that companies which disregard training are more than 2.5 times more likely to fail.

So, although it might be tempting to start immediately cutting budgets, this is often a mistake.

And budget is not the only resource required for successful implementation. You also need to have the right processes in place, such as performance management systems and competency frameworks.

8) Measure! Measure! Measure!

Measurement of return on investment (ROI) is central to any learning strategy. It is vital at the outset to agree on ROI measures, to ensure that the impact of training on the growth of the individual and the organisation can be tracked and evaluated.

However, measuring these factors is not easy. Here, it is important to understand what you are measuring – the effect your learning is having on an employee’s contribution to business performance and achieving business goals.

It is also very important that your metrics are business and sector-focused. For example, if you are in retail, customer satisfaction is a key metric, whereas if you are working in the oil & gas industry – currently suffering increasing staff shortages – productivity across the oil & gas field’s asset team is of central importance.

Establishing metrics that link learning to the bottom line should not be the sole responsibility of HR and L&D departments. Line managers, finance directors and senior management need to be included to ensure that the value of learning and training within an organisation can be measured in terms of the effect on business goals and the bottom line.

Develop your strategy

A learning strategy covers many areas of an individual’s personal development, from training to one-to-one coaching, performance management systems and the ability to learn during their daily work schedule.

Companies who fail to develop an effective and structured learner-focused strategy, with realistic opportunities for implementation, do so at their peril.

Written by

Francis Marshall

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