L&D’s importance in driving transformation

Wendy Shepherd and Steve Macaulay explore L&D’s relationship with leaders in steering organisational change.

What is the most productive role that L&D can take in achieving organisational change? Experience of working with organisations in large-scale transformational change, challenges the traditional view of L&D, which asks line managers to step out of the change process to undertake development programmes. 

It also makes plain that L&D should not seek to dominate the change process so that they are on the hook for the success or failure of the whole of the change process.

L&D should actively stay close to line management in some very specific ways, supporting, not jostling with line management for top position. How does this approach work in practice and how can we demonstrate the way this approach fits into major change?

Making the best use of what L&D can draw upon

This is not an approach which requires huge new L&D investment or necessarily armies of outside people.

By making the best use of existing skills and resources in L&D and the insight and expertise available throughout the organisation, which are very appropriate in times of tightening budgets and organisational crisis, L&D can draw on considerable skills and experience, for example the ability to facilitate workshops and coach key people.

No top-level vision is complete without spreading the message in very concrete means throughout the whole organisation

Also, in better times L&D may well have built up a databank of resources such as contacts and online material which are available to use in targeted ways.

These provide a rich resource to draw upon when the organisational change need is great and budgets are restricted. L&D also has considerable expertise in understanding and clarifying organisational and individual need and translating this into development plans.

However this requires a shift in mindset and flexibility to deploy those resources to meet changing needs in new ways. What does this means for L&D in a changing situation?

What does ‘staying close to line management’ mean

L&D are well-placed to use their skills and insights to help steer the change process – having the ability to translate individual and organisational development needs into workable realities. This is a proactive, not a reactive role going beyond sitting and waiting until learning needs are prescribed in detail by line management.

It is a partnership approach which requires L&D to step up and spell out a whole range of technical and emotional needs and then to translate these into how best these needs can be met. It is also a creative role, going beyond simple L&D programmes and covers a wide range of needs, some hidden below the surface as well as those more obvious.

Staying close does not mean taking over the role of line management. L&D are best able to input to change processes in a supportive role to line management. Being closely involved for the whole of the change process takes away from the critical role that only L&D can play.


It also doesn’t mean being subservient to line management, in the sense that L&D should be prepared to speak up about what is needed and be open to challenge in discussion.

L&D have a key role to play using their facilitation skills in helping to set up a firm structure for cascading and implementation of change. No top-level vision is complete without spreading the message in very concrete means throughout the whole organisation.

L&D can help set up an enabling structure which will deliver the goods. This is frequently carried out by implementation workshops which help spell out relevant actions for each part of the organisation and ensuring coordination and cascade throughout the organisation.

The impact of L&D adopting this stay-close approach

A multinational organisation was faced with the necessity of significant change to its very traditional culture which was increasingly out of step with today’s needs. As part of this, it chose to break new ground with a whole new approach by relocating one of its country headquarters.

At first sight, this did not require massive technical change but did require a significant social upheaval of key people uprooting their families to a new locality. L&D shrewdly saw this could undermine the whole change process, with managers and their families in an uncertain and unsettled frame of mind for long periods.

Undoubtedly, this was likely to have a profound and negative effect on the whole of the business. In a bold and significant way L&D sought to meet this need head-on by setting up peer support groups of leaders to discuss the realities on the ground of the stresses and strains of the move and what could be done to improve matters.

L&D provided the overall support and communications structure, but also offered guidance through consultancy and coaching and also access to online development resources. The effect was that in a helpful and practical way, local solutions were found to the many problems that arose.

L&D plays a critical change role through its specialist insights and expertise and by working alongside change leaders, L&D can identify important areas of need

Leaders adapted their behaviour to fit the new realities, confident that they had the support necessary and that other people were experiencing similar issues.

One simple but effective example was that a busy line manager who tended to stay in his office continually in meetings made a point of getting out of his office and talking to others of the difficulties they were having settling in their families. These support groups made all the difference and oiled the wheels of change. They were effective because L&D responded to a real need in a creative and wide-ranging manner.

L&D supporting leaders

One large organisation working across organisational boundaries sought to advance strategic change through a small number of targeted annual projects. These were set at board level and then a series of senior level workshops formulated how to translate these into actionable projects.

L&D played a key role in supporting the next level of action through its leaders engaging in these change projects throughout the year. Each project had a very visible change leader and L&D provided critical support using a team of coaches and mentors drawn largely from specialists and the senior management population.


There was a large amount of learning as this change project unfolded, with the project leaders under substantial pressure and visibility, and the board reviewing each stage of the project quarterly. L&D provided a supportive and specialist role by directing participants to learning resources and skills development.

L&D were important coordinators and ensuring that communication took place across projects and locations.

Lessons on the role of L&D in transformational change

L&D plays a critical change role through its specialist insights and expertise and by working alongside change leaders, L&D can identify important areas of need. L&D must go beyond its traditional programme boundaries to meet real need in a flexible and creative way while their expert facilitation skills can help provide a structure to perform the essential role of cascading change.

Challenging questions for L&D

  • How willing are you to boldly look outside traditional boundaries for change solutions?
  • Are you willing to speak out and be challenged by senior leaders on change needs?
  • Do you feel comfortable working alongside managers to tackle emotional as well as technical needs?
  • Are you willing to branch out into setting up and managing a structure to cascade change throughout the organisation?


About the authors

Dr Wendy Shepherd is executive development director, at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University. Steve Macaulay is an associate of Cranfield Executive Development. Wendy can be contacted at wendy.shepherd@cranfield.ac.uk; Steve at s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk


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