Business Alignment: A Critical Success Factor for L&D Organizations

by Peggy Parskey, Associate Executive Director, Center for Talent Reporting

Business Alignment
Signpost with Alignment wording

If you have attended a Learning and Development (L&D) industry conference within the past three years or listened to a panel of senior L&D leaders, it’s likely that someone has raised the topic of alignment. Numerous blogs from ATD, SHRM or even technology vendors confirm that alignment is clearly top of mind.

Given the attention paid to the topic of alignment, you might think that L&D has nailed down the principles, process, and outputs of business alignment. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. We haven’t nailed down this process by a long shot. And therein lies the problem: The L&D industry does not have a consistent definition of what alignment is, let alone how to achieve it.

Do a quick Google search on L&D business alignment and you will get thousands of articles on the topic. Click some of the links and you will find as many suggested approaches to alignment as search results. Some authors suggest that business alignment is about getting the right KPIs to support business goals. Other suggest that alignment is about doing a gap analysis between the current and future state to identify the needed training programs. Some bloggers recommend conducting interviews with business leaders as input to an L&D strategy. And a few organizations with whom we have worked view alignment as a simple mapping exercise: “We need to grow sales this year, we have a bunch of sales programs. Voila, Alignment!”

With all of these possible approaches, how should an L&D leader navigate the alignment process?

Principles of Effective Alignment

At least four principles should guide leaders who are grappling with achieving business alignment:

  1. Alignment isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must have
  2. Alignment requires engagement and commitment from both L&D and business leaders
  3. Alignment has both strategic and tactical components
  4. Alignment isn’t simply about what L&D offers but also how it offers them

1. Alignment Isn’t a Nice to Have

Strategic and tactical alignment is critical to ensure that L&D is investing its scarce resources in the right place at the right time on the right programs. When L&D doesn’t execute this process or doesn’t manage it effectively, the consequences can be significant. If L&D delivers the wrong programs to the wrong audiences, the organization will lack the needed capability to achieve its goals. Furthermore, other organizations now have to pick up the slack created by L&D. Non-L&D functions may develop shadow learning organizations, or hire external resources to fill the gap left by L&D. If L&D wants to fulfill its purpose to develop the needed capability for the current and future workfoce and improve L&D performance, then effective alignment is the critical success factor.

2. Alignment Requires Mutual Engagement

Discussions about L&D alignment often imply that the business has a peripheral role to play. L&D leaders get the strategic goals from above or they interview a few business leaders to understand priorities. At that point, the business seems to disappear from view.

If L&D leaders want to achieve effective alignment, the business can’t be a bystander. Senior business leaders must engage with L&D not only to communicate their priorities but also to ensure L&D has a role to play in achieving those priorities. Moreover, the business is an influential voice to ensure that L&D has the appropriate resources and support to deliver on its promise. Furthermore, the business will have the primary responsibility for reinforcement, without which there is likely to be little application to the job. If the business doesn’t understand its role, then it is incumbent on L&D leadership to spell it out and create shared accountability for success.

3. Alignment Has Both Strategic and Tactical Components

The alignment process must start at the strategic level. Business leaders establish strategic priorities, set goals and then allocate resources to achieve them. Based on these priorities. L&D then determines if and where it plays a role. If the organization plans to launch a new product line, L&D and the business must agree that L&D should own the process to train employees on these new products. If the organization wants to capture new demographic for its products, the business and L&D may agree that L&D has a minimal role to play. Regardless of the objective, business and L&D leaders need to clarify if L&D has a role as well as the importance and urgency of that role.

Having reached agreement on the strategic priorities, L&D must also ensure it aligns tactically. As an example, imagine that $500K is allocated to develop customer experience competencies. L&D practitioners then dive into the details to assess specific organizational needs. During this process, performance consultants discover that a primary root cause of underdeveloped customer experience capability is the lack of quality resources for call center personnel. At this point, L&D discovers that its requirements have changed. Training, while necessary, is not at the heart of the under performance. At this point, L&D may simply turn over the requirement to the business to develop the needed content for call center employees and invest its scarce resources elsewhere.

The point of this example is that what appears to be development need at the strategic level, may not translate into a development requirement when practitioners study the requirements more fully. It is incumbent on L&D practitioners to adjust their approach to ensure they stay aligned.

4. Alignment Isn’t Just About What L&D Offers

Alignment isn’t just about what programs L&D offers, but increasingly, how it offers them. In a fast-paced world, instructor-led training (ILT) has a long development cycle, is expensive to produce, and requires a large time investment for learners. Yet, according to ATD’s 2018 State of the Industry Report, ILT methods still comprise 67% of all training hours with self-paced at 29% and mobile learning a mere 2%.

Learners need content at their fingertips. They need a rich reservoir of material in different forms (white papers, how-to guides, videos, checklists, case studies) that are easy to find and easy to consume. Content must be high quality and useful on the job.

Alignment requires not simply that L&D builds capability and improves performance, but also does it in the most efficient and effective manner appropriate to the need.

Conclusion

Alignment is critical to ensure the L&D function meets the needs of the business by building the necessary skills to run the business and achieve its strategic objectives. This post focused on the key principles at the heart of alignment. In subsequent posts we will explore the importance of treating alignment as a continuous process and building skills to manage the end-to-end process effectively.

I recommend you learn more about alignment from respected industry leaders who can provide guidance on how to achieve meaningful alignment with the business. Below are four resources you should check out:

The Business of Learning by Dave Vance. See Chapter 4 which discusses strategic alignment in depth.

Attend the CTR Measurement and Reporting Workshop, which addresses the importance of alignment and how to engage business partners in the process.

Read the recently published IDC PlanScape document on the importance of L&D alignment to maximize the impact of training investment.

Read the upcoming 2nd Edition of “Learning Analytics,” which will be published in February 2020. (The current edition may be found here. Look for the second edition at www.explorance.com in February 2020. The second edition has a chapter devoted to the topic of strategic and tactical alignment.)

We’d like to hear from you. If you’re having business alignment challenges, don’t hesitate to email Dave Vance or Peggy Parskey.

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