Alignment Revisited

Tim Harnett in a recent Human Capital Media Industry Insights article (undated) reminds us of the importance of aligning L&D initiatives to organizational goals. He shares some sobering research indicating that “only 8% of L&D professionals believe their mission is aligned to the company strategy” and “only 27% of HR professionals believe there is a connection between existing [learning] KPIs and business goals”. So despite perennial intentions to do a better job of alignment as a profession we still have a long way to go.

I am afraid, though, that he does not go far enough in recommending the actions we need to take. He suggests that “identifying and tracking KPIs related to L&D initiatives is the best way to align L&D to organizational goals and make the business case for development programs”. For KPIs (key performance indicators) he is thinking of measures like level 1 participant satisfaction, learning hours, level 3 application and employee satisfaction. While these are all important measures and can indeed help make the case for learning, they actually have nothing to do with alignment.

Here is why. Alignment is the proactive, strategic process of planning learning to directly support the important goals and needs of the organization. Alignment requires L&D leaders to discover the goals and needs of the organization and then go talk to the goal owners to determine if learning has a role to play. If it does, the two parties need to agree on the specifics of the learning initiative including target audience, timing, type of learning, objectives, cost, and measures of success (ideally the outcome or impact of the initiative on the goal or need). They must also agree on the mutual roles and responsibilities required from each party for success including communication before the program and reinforcement afterward.

Measures or KPIs will come out of this process but the measures are NOT the process. It is entirely conceivable to have a learning program with great effectiveness and efficiency measures indicating many employees took it, liked it, learned it, and applied it, but the program was NOT aligned to the goals of the organization and should never have been funded. This is true even if it had a high ROI. Great numbers do not take the place of a great process, and alignment is not determined to have existed by looking back on measures or KPIs.

Conversely, you can easily imagine a program that is definitely aligned to one of the organization’s top goals but was executed so poorly that its effectiveness numbers came in very low. So, alignment is about the process of working with senior organizational leaders to plan learning initiatives which directly address their goals and needs. It must start with the organization’s goals and not with existing learning initiatives.

Last, there is much discussion these days about using employee engagement as an indicator of alignment. It is not for all the reasons discussed above. It is simply another measure and not a process. For engagement to be an indicator of alignment you would have to assume that employees know the organization’s goals, as well as the senior leaders do and that learning about those goals is the primary driver of engagement. Both of these assumptions are likely to be false. A focus on employee engagement would be appropriate only if engagement is the highest priority goal of the organization. In most organizations business goals like higher revenue, lower costs, and greater productivity are more important although higher engagement is always a good thing and will contribute indirectly to achieving the business goals.

In conclusion, I am happy to see a focus on this important topic of alignment, but success will require us to work the process of alignment with senior leaders. At the end of this process, every L&D department should have a one-pager listing the organizational goals in the CEO’s priority order and, whenever it is agreed that learning has a role to play, a list under each goal of the key learning programs that are planned. This is how you demonstrate alignment, not through KPIs or measures.


  1. David has shared a very insightful article–especially with a lot of focus these days on employee engagement and how that can seem to be the overarching outcome that so many business leaders seek.

    I like the emphasis on the dialogue that learning leaders can and should have with senior leadership–to be sure that any learning initiative or program is first aligned with the goals of the organization and what senior leaders are seeking.

    If you have your “ladder” not aligned and leaning against the wrong wall, you can reach great heights, but you may not get to the right destination.

    Well done David. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Vanessa Blewitt says

    At Nestle, our Learning Effectievness Approach applies to Design + DElivery (L&D) as well as Prepare and Participate (Business).
    Alignment is one of our Learning Effectiveness Levers – so called as it is “adjusted” depending on the strategic value of the development solutions.

    *Alignment (for high strategic value) is measure in the Pre phase – ie how aligned is each “course” development objective to the indivudal’s development goals.
    *This is measued again at the of During.
    *The DIFFERENCE between the 2 points in time tells us how well the objective was understood
    *The insight at the end of During and more importantly, tracking the TREND helps us ensure we have actionable insights about the changing needs of our business.

    From a design perspective, we aim to design with the business for the business. This is where our “Results” Lever comes in as well. Apart from “How does this align to business needs and objectives”, Results is about focussing on “6 months from now, we will ask you if learning was “sucessful”. What will you think about before answering? What should have been OBSERVED and / or MEASURED?”.

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