Is engagement really just a learning problem?

Written by Stephanie Morgan on 15 August 2017

One attitude I encounter time and again is that learner engagement is L&D's problem and L&D's problem alone. We all face pressure in work. Naturally, people get into a siloed mindset. They focus on their own role and don’t see the bigger picture. Colleagues don’t know how to help each other, or even why they should.

The key to a great learning culture lies with each of us: our attitudes to learning in the workplace, and how we see our roles and work feeding into organisational strategy. In short, everyone has a part to play in successful L&D.

L&D’s success doesn’t just mean success for the L&D team—it affects the whole business. This means that getting the best from learners is something that any organisation as a whole needs to address. However, it’s up to us in L&D to let everyone know exactly what they can do to pull together and make learning a success. But who needs to be involved?

Senior management

Research shows that one of the biggest challenges to L&D teams is getting “buy-in (and budget) from the C-Suite.”

It’s so important to have a sponsor from executive level. According to Prosci, projects with effective senior sponsorship are 3.5 times more likely to meet or exceed objectives than projects without, confirming what L&D always thought.

Business alignment is one of the most sought-after goals for L&D, but only 40% of learning leaders meet with senior management more than once per quarter.

A free flow of information between L&D and management-level colleagues means better insights – something L&D always need.

These leaders are your direct link with the business’s strategy—the ones who created it, and the ones best placed to help align learning with organisational goals and aims. These are the people you need to get on board.

They can also secure resources, endorse L&D, and communicate its message, as well as helping change attitudes and company culture—which is crucial in order to make initiatives ‘stick’.

What can we do?

We all know how tough this can be. Leaders are very busy people - so be direct. Try to gain inside knowledge on the best way to get time with them. Do they prefer scheduled meetings, or an informal call whenever they can make time?

Once you have their attention, make sure you can speak their language - sell them on the benefits of L&D by, among other things, adopting the terminology of ‘investment and return’.

Establishing a learning governance board is a great way to exchange information with different levels and areas of the business. Stakeholders get an oversight of your activities and develop their understanding of how learning can impact team performance.

And if you’re struggling to decide who to network with, and how, stakeholder mapping is a great tool to use. If you manage to make allies at C-level, ask them about their colleagues, for introductions, or a steer on how to approach them. Once you get the inside track, use your performance consulting skills to build these relationships.

L&D should also consider asking to be represented on the board. After all, “any plan for success, growth or even changing a company’s direction will require [our] input.


Managers are the missing link between learners and L&D. Although we do get to interact with learners, we generally don’t get to canvas them as much as we would like. As well as helping us gather information about their needs, managers are key to building our reputation in the eyes of learners.

If, in L&D, we want a change in culture, managers are the ones with the information we need to apply it. They are valuable agents for change. As the Harvard Business Review notes, “organisations don’t prosper unless managers in the middle ranks […] identify and promote the need for change. People at that level gather valuable intelligence from direct contact with customers, suppliers, and colleagues.”

Managers are also vital to the ongoing application of the learning, reinforcing its value. By motivating learners, and providing feedback, continuous assessment, support, and job-related experiences—opportunities to test out learning—managers can become some of your biggest engagement allies.

What can we do?

A free flow of information between L&D and management-level colleagues means better insights – something L&D always need. Again, stakeholder mapping is a great tool to use for this.

It’s also worth networking with managers. This can be great for gathering information about learners, but also influencing them to spread your positive reputation with their people—letting them know what’s on offer.

L&D must ensure managers have the skills they need to have good performance conversations, and support managers in and out of the performance review process. Helping managers engage and motivate people to value their development is central to learning success.


Managers and leaders aren’t the only ones who affect engagement - learners have a big part to play. They are the ones who drive learning. They are L&D’s end customer, our main target audience. Learners (and those who aren’t yet learners) drive organisational output and success, meaning their development needs to be everyone’s concern.

What can we do?

Learners need a complete understanding of what’s available, and passion and excitement about it. Getting them informed and engaged is key and marketing your offer appropriately can help you create a learning culture where your work has real impact.

Creating learner focus groups allows you to continuously assess learning needs, and to grow your reputation among the workforce.

Boost awareness and engagement with everyday culture building interactions - things like mentoring, face-to-face coaching and mentoring, frequent feedback and honest discussion. These interactions build relationships and trust in L&D.

Finally, consider setting up a workplace learning advocacy programme to support learning at work and turn learner success stories into promotion. Although people might try to give L&D full responsibility for learner engagement, it's all of us together that create a learning culture.

And if your senior colleagues want a workplace in which learning succeeds, drives improvement and gives great ROI, let them know they need to create a culture in which L&D can thrive.


About the author

Stephanie Morgan is director of learning solutions at Bray Leino Learning


Read more about engagement here

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