The changing face of L&D

Ruth Stuart shares the findings of the latest CIPD research on how L&D can impact on organisational performance

The world of work is changing at a rapid pace. Key drivers of change are significantly impacting organisations, and in turn changing the landscape of people and organisational management and development. The CIPD’s Profession for the Future programme is exploring these very trends, to highlight what this means for HR and L&D professionals and the steps we need to take together to evolve practice. Here are the findings of the latest CIPD research on the L&D profession  highlighting how practitioners can impact sustainable organisational performance.

What’s happening out there?

Learning and development does not exist in a bubble and the same trends that impact organisations are fundamentally changing the requirements of today’s L&D professionals. Recent research published by the CIPD, in collaboration with the University of Worcester, has identified three key areas of global change impacting L&D.

1. Economic developments

  • Globalisation is here to stay, as economies become increasingly inter-connected.
  • Many developing countries are becoming economically stronger, potentially shifting the balance of power.
  • The need for sustainability is increasingly recognised within economic
  • development policy.

2. Social and cultural change

  • By 2050, there will be 9.2 billion people on the planet, partly due to increased longevity of life.
  • Increasing numbers of people are having multiple careers in their lifetime.
  • Education and lifelong learning are expected to continue to play a critical role, as individuals transition between careers.

3. Technological advances

  • New technologies are increasingly the product of cross-scientific disciplines, making it harder to predict where the next development will come from.
  • The speed of advancement in technology means that new developments are constantly appearing, often before previous ones have had time to settle.
  • The implications of the growth of the ‘Internet of Things’ are unknown.

The extent of these changes means it can be difficult to make sense of all developments and predict future ones. Many commentators have thus used the phrase ‘VUCA’ to describe the rapid changes in the external environment.

Volatile – The external environment is unstable and presents challenges that are unexpected at great speed

Uncertain – Unprecedented trends in the external environment mean that long-term trajectories are more difficult to predict

Complex – The external environment has many interconnected parts that can be overwhelming and confounding

Ambiguous – The external environment is hazy, with many ‘unknown unknowns’ and cause-and-effects unclear.

The business impact of effective L&D

To succeed in this VUCA environment, organisations need to develop new ways of operating. They must be:

  • Adaptive and highly attuned to the external environment in recognising and assimilating change.
  • Agile to work with new partners, alliances and strategies.
  • Ambidextrous to achieve short-term goals, whilst being ready to break with the past and explore new opportunities. 

L&D has a key role to play in helping organisations make this transition and navigate this VUCA world. That starts with being clear on the value L&D can bring and aligning learning to business needs. CIPD and Towards Maturity research, L&D: Evolving Roles, Enhancing Skills, explores how L&D practitioners achieve this in practice and identifies the key capabilities L&D needs for the future.

Towards Maturity’s highly respected benchmarking data (2014) has demonstrated that mature L&D practice does have a fundamental impact on organisational performance. Organisations in the top 10 per cent of the Towards Maturity Benchmark Index (‘The Top Deck’), are achieving enhanced revenue, reduction in attrition rates and improvements in engagement and productivity. They are also more likely to be equipped to respond faster to changing business conditions. Given the wider contextual changes outlined above and the need for organisational agility, modernising L&D practice is critical and really does have an impact.

Aligning learning to business needs

A key characteristic of these ‘Top Deck’ organisations is that their L&D strategies are completely aligned to business needs. Although this is an essential basis of L&D, it’s something many organisations struggle with in practice. The CIPD’s latest Learning & Development Survey (2015) identifies that 67 per cent of L&D practitioners consider L&D to be extremely or broadly aligned to the needs of the business. However, many organisations recognise that there are barriers to achieving alignment, primarily a lack of clarity from leadership regarding the business strategy, L&D understanding or interest in the business strategy, as well as a lack of resources and L&D credibility.

[pullquote]If L&D is to enable organisations to navigate the fast-paced nature of change, we must first overcome these barriers and have the collective confidence to prove the worth of L&D to the wider business[/pullquote].

Achieving alignment

While achieving alignment can be challenging, there are three key steps practitioners can take:

  1.     Evaluate how aligned the L&D function is to business and learner needs. How can you address areas of disconnect?
  2.     Build your networks within the business – strong relationships are the key to understanding business needs.
  3.     If L&D isn’t valued, consider how you can gain stakeholder buy-in to do things differently and demonstrate the impact effective L&D practice really can have.

Shifting our focus

If achieving alignment is the first step towards evolving L&D practice, the second is about ensuring that L&D roles have the right focus, and that changes are made now to support the long-term development of the profession. CIPD and Towards Maturity research has identified that over the next two years L&D practitioners are anticipating greater role focus on:

  • social and collaborative learning facilitation
  • online learning/delivery
  • coaching/mentoring
  • content development
  • instructional design.

While many of these changes reflect the continued influence of technological innovation, there are signs that the developments aren’t happening fast enough. Half of L&D practitioners are not expecting any change, and just 53 per cent agree that ‘the course’ is only one of the many options for building skills and performance in organisations. It’s clear that more change is needed.

Many of Towards Maturity’s ‘Top Deck’ organisations are further along this journey and have already reduced the focus of their L&D teams on classroom training and learning administration. They are now more likely to be focusing roles on coaching and mentoring, technology and infrastructure and online delivery. These developments highlight an increasing need for L&D role versatility, something which Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, have recognised. They’ve identified that working in L&D means ‘wearing nine or ten different hats’ at any one time and so the ability to play different roles depending on business needs is essential.

There are also signs that leading organisations are shifting from a training delivery focus to a performance consultancy model. For example, McDonald’s have identified the move to performance consultancy as a primary change in the focus of L&D roles. This involves partnering with the business to help identify opportunities to enhance performance, understanding the root cause of issues and recommending the right solutions to meet business needs. Solutions may still exist in the form of training delivery, but they may also involve curation of online resources, facilitation of communities of practice, or a non-L&D solution.

Developing new capabilities

The changing expectations of L&D roles and need for versatility requires development of new capabilities. Our research has identified three critical areas where development is needed:

  • business and commercial understanding
  • technological knowledge
  • analytical capability.

Business and commercial understanding

There is widespread recognition of the importance of business and commercial understanding. For example, the CIPD’s Learning & Development Survey (2015) reports business and commercial awareness as a key factor contributing to the success of an L&D professional. Likewise, the Towards Maturity benchmarking data finds that 91 per cent and 87 per cent of respondents consider stakeholder engagement and business planning a priority, respectively. However, less than half of L&D professionals think they currently have these skills in-house. If business alignment is the critical component of L&D effectiveness, we need to remedy this gap now.

Technological knowledge

We also know that many professionals don’t yet have the knowledge to really maximise L&D’s investment in technology. Although the use of technology within L&D has grown significantly, many have not yet achieved the results expected and admit this is due to a lack of relevant skills. Thirty-three per cent say they don’t know how L&D professionals develop the skills to use learning technologies in their organisation, while just 24 per cent say that they feel confident in their ability to harness technology to increase the effectiveness of L&D interventions. Unless we address this, continued investment in learning technology is simply wasteful.

Analytical capability

We know that evaluating L&D can be challenging but it’s still critical to understand the impact of L&D activity on organisational performance. Indeed, 96 per cent of L&D professionals consider programme evaluation to be a priority and yet just 41 per cent think they have the skills in-house to successfully do this. Many evaluations are extremely limited in scope, with more than half of L&D practitioners reporting that they either don’t evaluate initiatives or limit evaluation to the satisfaction of those who participate. Just seven per cent evaluate the wider impact that L&D initiatives have on the wider business and/or society. We need to move beyond these depressing statistics if we are to gain the credibility we need as a profession and develop our ability to both diagnose issues and recommend the right solutions so we can truly impact organisational performance.

Addressing the gaps

Our research identifies that the top learning organisations are actively addressing these gaps by prioritising development for L&D professionals.

For example, PwC have established a Digital Learning Academy designed to build new capabilities throughout their learning and education team and consisting of two blended learning curriculums. The first covers the key technologies and tools that can be used to drive L&D effectiveness and the second explores how to have challenging conversations and gain influence with business leaders.

McDonald’s have also introduced a new development programme designed to improve consulting capability throughout the organisation. The programme is focused on building relationships and increasing influence and teaches how to use insights and data to inform decision-making. Programme cohorts are mixed, so L&D professionals attend with other consultants, helping to ground development in business realities.

Other organisations like the University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust are using a range of informal methods to develop digital skills, such as lunchtime learning sessions. They’ve also
made this development a key objective for the L&D team in recognition of the need to invest in their own skills so they can truly leverage learning technology.

Using evidence and insight to drive change

Building new L&D capabilities requires investment and a recognition of the value that effective practice can bring to organisational performance. It also requires an understanding that L&D has a key role to play in helping to navigate the challenges ahead. Making this case requires drawing on evidence and insight to justify the need for change. This is where continued professional development (CPD) has such a vital role to play – through [pullquote]exploring the latest thinking and connecting with others, practitioners can arm themselves with the latest insight to achieve real and lasting change[/pullquote].

Tips for transforming your L&D function

L&D practice varies across organisations and industries, and many will be at different stages of evolution. There are, however, common questions to ask and areas to explore to begin to
transform L&D:

  • Work out what key drivers of change will influence your organisation in the future
  • Evaluate what evidence and data you currently have. Are you making the best use of it?
  • Think about how you can use data and evidence to make sense of change, prioritise action and engage others
  • Focus on building the skills your L&D team needs to be future-ready
  • Make continuous professional development (CPD) an everyday reality, ensuring there is as much focus on ‘L&D for L&D’ as in other parts of the organisation. The CIPD’s professional development tool, my CPD Map, is a great place to start at 

A fully referenced version of this article is available on request. 


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