Learning and development (L&D) is an HR function that aims to enhance an organization’s capabilities through the growth of employees’ skills, knowledge, and abilities by utilizing a variety of innovative training methods and tools.
It’s the glue that binds strategy, performance, and high-impact outcomes across an organization.
I’ve worked on L&D teams at large, multi-billion dollar enterprises and scaling startups. From the early days of a budding business function to a well-oiled machine, I’m here to share my comprehensive guide to learning and development.
What Is Learning And Development?
Learning and development encompasses every effort on the part of organizations to help employees gain new skills and knowledge to drive behavior change and continued organizational success.
L&D roles and the development programs they design and implement vary and may include:
- Instructional designers and learning experience designers:
- Workshops (virtual or in-person)
- Self-paced e-learning
- Employee engagement specialists:
- Employee experiences and events
- Program managers:
- High-potential cohorts
- New manager cohorts
- Facilitators and trainers:
- Panel discussions
- Team-building activities
- Live workshops
- Group or individual coaching
- Learning administrators:
- Learning management system (LMS) administration
- Change management specialists:
- Project planning
- Talent planning specialists:
- Career mapping
- Job rotations
- Succession planning
Benefits Of Learning And Development
An organization finds itself struggling with poor engagement and retention. A large cross-functional change initiative falls flat. A manager receives some tough feedback on their performance and reacts poorly. An employee is upset they didn’t receive a promotion.
What do these all-too-common scenarios have in common?
Well, they could all benefit from a variety of robust learning and development (L&D) experiences.
While L&D isn’t a solution to every problem an organization will face, it’s often a piece of the puzzle.
How learning and development benefits organizations
Learning and development not only addresses individual skills gaps, but also helps companies achieve business goals such as:
Improve Organizational Culture
Strategically aligned L&D initiatives help develop a more productive, innovative, committed, and engaged culture.
As seen in the 2022 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report, employees believe professional development is the number one way to improve company culture.
Improve business performance
Increase employee retention
86% of professionals said that they would change jobs if they were offered more opportunities for professional development elsewhere.
So companies that invest in their employees’ development benefit from retaining institutional knowledge through the retention of top-performing employees, avoiding the costly process of re-hiring and re-training replacements.
Develop top talent
For top performers, access to learning opportunities is incredibly important as they are typically highly driven people looking to grow in their careers.
While total compensation is the driving force for retaining employees, highly performing employees, with the potential and aspiration to grow into more complex roles, have a stronger tendency to drive their own learning, according to HBR.
While formal training and education are highly sought after, skilled managers also frame the work a top performer does in terms of the skills they’ll add to their repertoire, therefore retaining them through their development.
Improve brand and employee value proposition
Considering that 3 out of every 4 job seekers research their potential employer’s brand before applying to a job, the role of L&D is pivotal in attracting and retaining top talent.
If a company can communicate to incoming talent that they will be invested in and developed during their time there, their commitment to the company increases.
However, if a company flaunts a learning culture and values like growth mindset and development, but fails to offer regular development opportunities in the form of workshops, e-learnings, certification programs, and coaching, then they’ll deteriorate their brand.
Increase organizational commitment
At a time when company loyalty to their employees and employee loyalty to their company is at an all-time low, investing in the development of their employees is a way for organizations to signal that they do not see employees as a limited resource to be used, but instead as renewable resources to be cultivated, cared for, and developed over time.
How learning and development benefits employees
Training and development can aid in upskilling entire teams, benefiting the people in those teams in the following ways:
Millennials are the most represented generation in the workforce today and 87% of them rate "professional or career growth and development opportunities" as important to them in a job.
By focusing on developing their skills, especially in areas they already excel at, and then ensuring they know and use those strengths, they can be nearly six times more engaged according to Gallup.
Increased job satisfaction
The majority of employees (58%) say that professional development contributes to their job satisfaction.
Employees’ top motivation to learn is to progress toward their career goals. Investing in succession planning and skill development of employees enables internal mobility and boosts career development, allowing for more opportunities to promote internally.
Learning And Development Examples
Let’s take a look at a few different examples of learning experiences solving business problems through the lens of three all-too-common scenarios.
Scenario #1: Learning and development to improve retention
Top talent is leaving the company at an alarming rate. This is highlighted by performance and turnover metrics and now leadership is scrambling to retain their top employees before they lose them to competitors.
- L&D helps leaders identify their top talent based on performance reviews and current high-stakes initiatives with single points of failure.
- The L&D team builds out a comprehensive learning program based on business talent needs. They develop a coaching program to give personalized learning and supplement it with access to online learning specific to scaling their growing business. They then cap the program off with live leadership panels to pass on learnings from executives. Managers are then invited to a coaching workshop to better support and engage their top employees following the end of the program.
- After a few months, retention rates are revisited and this cohort has improved compared to past retention metrics.
Scenario #2: Learning and development to improve onboarding
Onboarding surveys are coming back negative, with new employees not having a good Day 1 experience. Hiring managers are constantly giving feedback that the energy and momentum of new hires are being dampened, which is not a good employee experience or for the employer brand.
- L&D partners with Talent Acquisition and People Operations to review the onboarding content, which is heavily process-based with very little interaction.
- As expert facilitators, the L&D team builds out a much more engaging orientation session that is more aligned with the external-facing brand. They add interaction, questioning, and networking activities with leaders from across the organization, giving new hires a better experience and giving leaders across the organization visibility into the new content.
- After a few sessions, the new survey results are compared to old ones and hiring managers are surveyed to see how their new hires are entering their teams, showing an improvement across multiple key onboarding metrics.
Scenario #3: L&D to increase candidate diversity
An SVP is told that talent acquisition has generated a more diverse pipeline, but diverse candidates are not being hired into her department.
- L&D and DEI partner to uncover a solution and hold a joint listening session with leaders across the SVP’s teams, discovering that there is a big appetite for updated interviewing training as they currently only have a short e-learning module on the topic.
- In partnership with DEI and Talent Acquisition as subject matter experts, the L&D team develops a new live workshop on inclusive hiring practices. They pilot it on intern hiring managers, helping them develop new skill sets, before their summer internship program launches.
- They examine hiring metrics to find that this year’s internship program has the most diverse and qualified cohort compared to the past 3 years, leading the SVP to make the course mandatory for all leaders throughout her organization.
Developing Your L&D Program
Developing an L&D strategy that results in all the benefits outlined above is easier said than done. However, by following the roadmap below, you can ensure your L&D function is delivering consistent business impact.
Align with strategic business objectives
L&D should not function in a vacuum, developing content that interests them with no proper use cases.
Instead, learning focus areas should always be in support of broader strategic initiatives, enabling people with the right skills, knowledge, and abilities to better execute on that strategy.
Make data-informed decisions
Launch a needs analysis before developing your learning and development strategy. With the business objectives in mind, we must now balance what the business needs with what stakeholders and employees want.
Through a series of surveys, one-on-one interviews, and/or focus groups, you can identify the areas to focus on with high overlap between everyone’s needs and wants.
Collaborate in designing solutions
Engage as many diverse opinions as possible early in the design process. By ideating with people with different experiences, you can develop robust interventions and experiences that serve the needs of many while avoiding any personal biases.
Develop a cohesive annual and quarterly plan focusing on the key areas identified through Steps 1-2 while including the learning experiences designed in Step 3.
This plan should be focused, simplified, and communicated in a way that promotes your offerings and builds excitement and motivation to engage with your L&D offerings.
Implement and scale
While some initiatives may be piloted with smaller cohorts first, others may launch with a broad reach, while others may be slowly executed piece by piece.
Regardless of the approach required, once implemented, the ongoing management of these initiatives should be simplified and operationalized, allowing the process to be repeated more efficiently as needed moving forward.
Review and iterate
Review the success of your learning initiatives by measuring key outcomes that these initiatives were meant to impact.
If a learning experience is shown to drive key results, work to improve and expand that experience as much as needed.
If another experience is shown to be less impactful, review what needs to change or whether or not it should be sunsetted.
Technology In Learning And Development
Learning technology continues to make advances that enable learning professionals to both build and deliver content and end-users to learn and develop their skills.
Learning technologies can be lumped into a few distinct categories:
- Content development: These products enable the development of videos, slides, e-learning courses, virtual activities, and product training.
- Learning management systems: Learning management platforms are meant to increase access to learning for employees by being a one-stop-shop to access all self-paced learning and to register for live sessions.
- Knowledge management platforms: These often act as intranets, hosting useful information from around the organization all in one easy-to-find place, enhancing knowledge sharing and the retention of institutional knowledge.
- Learning experience platforms: While varied and specialized, these platforms can help build out learning paths (something many LMSs are now adding) or can connect learners to expert coaches and mentors.
- Other/emerging: L&D professionals may rely on other tools as well, such as survey platforms, event management software, and recognition tools. Also, with the emergence of AI and large-language models, dozens of new tools are emerging daily to help improve on and scale L&D offerings.
Learning And Development Metrics
The L&D metrics used to measure the success of L&D initiatives vary drastically and are entirely dependent on the purpose of the training.
A common-sense metric is overall attendance across all learning offerings, filtered out by department and team—but it doesn’t tell us much.
With that being said, there are some common metrics that are often tracked and are mostly mapped to the Kirkpatrick Model of evaluation.
It’s important to note many of these can be measured either quantitatively or qualitatively and a combination of both helps tell the full story.
Often measured by post-training surveys, learner reactions have mostly centered on satisfaction with training. However there is a better concept, utility, to measure instead.
According to a meta-analysis, affective reactions (like satisfaction) are less predictive of learning or actual on-the-job application of new skills than utility reactions (relevance and usefulness).
So think about ditching satisfaction metrics and replacing them with questions that measure relevance and usefulness because these are more correlated with actual performance improvements.
Learning aims to measure knowledge attainment. Common metrics here are scores on quizzes and assessments, or self-ratings of confidence in a specific skill area after completing a training.
While important, it still comes up short in terms of impact.
Now we’re getting to some meaty metrics. The actual application of new skills on the job is what L&D is all about.
This can be measured through self-report surveys, surveys to managers of learners asking if they’ve seen new skills demonstrated recently, or through actual observation of work products (which is very timely and difficult to do with more complex roles).
Here we aim to measure the outcomes that the training was intended for. What problem were we solving for? Has that changed now?
Examples include retention/turnover, engagement, and role-specific performance metrics.
While impossible to take full responsibility for improvements, L&D professionals can use these metrics to begin to tell a story that highlights their role in the changes observed.
For instance, let’s say we made certain changes to existing content and launched new programs. Learners report they gained applicable knowledge leading to increases in key performance metrics and business results highlighted by quantitative data and quantitative success stories.
While acknowledging the hundreds of confounding variables in our business environment, we can use these metrics to show the role we played in making improvements within the company.
Make Learning And Development Part Of Your Culture
“In the long run, the only sustainable source of competitive edge is your organization’s ability to learn faster than its competitors.”—Peter Senge
In Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, he outlines a model of building a learning organization, one where employees are seen as "the most important asset" of an organization.
Most CEOs agree, with 71% of them believing that human capital is a key source of sustained economic value.
Let’s look at three high-impact actions an L&D team can take to help develop a culture of continuous learning within their companies.
Model a growth mindset
It’s one thing to tell employees that they should invest in their learning but, if they don’t see it happening at the higher levels, then they’ll develop a mindset that work takes priority over development instead of seeing their development as a way to enhance their work output.
A useful way to role model a growth mindset is to identify leaders and employees who have successfully implemented what they learned and have them share learning success stories across your company’s communication channels.
Ultimately, leaders at all levels must model the way and set an example by talking about what they’re learning, how they’re doing it, why, and the impact of learning on their success.
Enable team learning
When people who work together learn together, they develop shared capabilities that far outweigh the impact of just one person growing individually.
They also benefit from knowledge sharing and the increased innovation that having diverse perspectives brings to any topic.
Team learning should occur both within teams and across cross-functional teams. As such, L&D should network with individual teams across their companies to provide targeted content specific to their needs while bringing teams together to learn.
Make time for learning
This may seem basic, but when people are burnt out, they can’t engage their brains with complex new ideas and ways of working.
A great way to enable the prioritization of learning is to add it to company goals.
For instance, a goal such as, “Complete one of the following learning experiences by EoY: read a book related to your role or industry, attend an internal or external workshop, or any other learning activity agreed upon with your manager.”
Another way to enable learning is to provide an annual professional development stipend so employees can direct their own learning.
Learning And Development To Drive Competitive Advantage
Overall, it’s beyond the scope of any one article to cover every aspect of learning and development as it’s such a vast topic.
Hopefully the above has given you a firmer understanding of the function and its value for hiring, retention, and skills development.
- Strategic impact of L&D: L&D is essential in aligning employee growth with organizational goals. It's not just about closing skills gaps but also about enhancing the overall organizational culture, improving business performance, and increasing employee retention. Strategically designed L&D initiatives contribute significantly to creating a productive, innovative, and engaged workforce, which in turn drives business success.
- Benefits to organizations and employees: L&D offers dual benefits. For organizations, it leads to improved performance, better retention of top talent, and a stronger brand and employee value proposition. For employees, it offers increased engagement, job satisfaction, and career growth opportunities. L&D is particularly important for top performers who value learning opportunities for career advancement.
- Align L&D to business objectives: Effective L&D programs are closely aligned with strategic business objectives and are informed by data-driven needs analysis. They should involve diverse stakeholders in the design process and be integrated into the organizational culture. This integration includes modeling a growth mindset at all levels, enabling team learning, and ensuring time and resources are allocated for learning activities.
For further advice and guidance on utilizing L&D in your organization, join the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders sharing knowledge to help you progress in your career and make greater impact in your organization.