If you do nothing else this year, do this.

by | Oct 2, 2014 | Articles

The one ingredient that will turn a mediocre learning strategy into an outstanding one.

Thinking strategically, enabling performance, embracing mobile, facilitating collaboration, engaging learners and building talent were all key themes at this year’s World of Learning. It is clear that L&D leaders around the globe realise that learning is no longer about delivering great courses but playing a key role in supporting individual and corporate performance. L&D leaders are under pressure to deliver a new, modernised learning strategy that is suitable for the fast changing world of work.

We get the vision, we talk about it endlessly but how do we deliver a modernised learning strategy in reality? When we go back to work tomorrow, where is the best place to start?


Is it about getting to grips with the latest authoring tools or learning management systems? After all, big data is big news! Should we first concentrate on updating the skills of L&D staff? Or is our best bet about choosing high profile programme in which to ‘big up the blend’ and illustrate the impact of delivering learning in new ways?
All these are good tactics for taking your modernised learning strategy forward, but I believe that there is one thing that is even more critical for success – alignment. If you do nothing else this year, concentrate on aligning learning with business strategy. The rest will then fall into place.

What is alignment?

The dictionary definition for alignment has two aspects to it. The first is “to arrange in a straight line or in correct relative positions,” the second is, “to create a position of agreement or alliance.”

So when it comes to aligning learning to business, we need to ensure that our learning provision clearly supports the priorities of business, but also, when it comes to learning, ensure that both business and learning leaders are in a mutual position of agreement. As Jonathan Kettleborough puts it in his book Seeing Eye to Eye:

“Alignment is not a one-way street. It’s not just about making sure that you have all your ducks in a row; it’s also about making sure your business and customers recognise this fact and recognise that you have real value to offer; it’s about seeing eye to eye.”

What difference does alignment make?

Last year Towards Maturity started to dig deeper into the behaviour of the top learning companies within the Towards Maturity Benchmark to identify what constitutes the ‘well aligned’ learning and development function. We isolated seven habits of highly aligned L&D teams and used them to define a new Alignment Index to consider how well organisations are aligning learning and business priorities.

We found that those organisations that scored highly in the Alignment Index are more likely to report achievement of a range of business and staff benefits and that their managers agree that online learning delivers additional business benefits.

Compared with those in the bottom quartile, those in the top quartile of the index are at least four times more likely to see:
  • Increased organisational revenue
  • Improved productivity
  • Improved staff engagement
  • Reduced staff turnover

Aligning learning and business: what progress are we making?

In 2012 we found that fewer than 2 in 5 L&D leaders were not confident that their learning initiatives supported the skills that their business needed which was perhaps not surprising given that just over half actually analysed the business needs before recommending a solution. Two years on, we see little or no change in these findings, despite an incredible hunger in L&D professionals to align learning more effectively to business needs.

Alignment clearly is the BIG opportunity for L&D in 2014 but the evidence shows that we need to do things differently, not just debate the merits. Turning our talk into action will ensure that L&D add bottom line value back to business and top performing L&D teams highlight that this is just the beginning of a virtuous cycle of building stakeholder engagement.

Three key ingredients for improving alignment

1. Remember it’s a two-way conversation.

When it comes to aligning learning and business, you are not alone. Our research has shown that top learning companies are more likely to engage senior business leaders in conversation: mutually agreeing the business results that need to be addressed through learning and sharing the responsibility for the delivery of those results. Often it is difficult to start a two-way conversation with business leaders so why not use independent evidence already shared in this article to open up new opportunities to connect?

2. Clarify contributions.

Alignment means that everyone is clear about what needs to be done, who is doing it and why. For example, if a critical part of your new blend for induction training is about line managers encouraging their staff to apply new techniques, those managers need to be clear about how to do that and what tools and resources you have made available to them and to their team members as part of the process.

3. Focus, focus, focus!

Once you have mutually established what you are trying achieve and clarified the roles of L&D, Individuals and business leaders in achieving those goals then everything else is a distraction! In all of your activity, keep the end in mind, stick to your side of the bargain and continually communicate your mutual successes!

Aligning learning to business isn’t about getting stakeholder buy in to your latest ideas, nor is it about increasing your budget or headcount (although those often follow). Aligning learning to business is about L&D working hand-in-hand with both individuals and business leaders to help them respond faster, improve performance and deliver results. If you do nothing else following WOL this year, do this, and success will follow.


View the keynote Laura Overton gave at World of Learning Conference in Oct 2014.

This article was first published in Learning Magazine, Issue 26.

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