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How to create L&D alignment across an organization

Thoughts on learning synergy at the organization, team and individual levels

A diverse group of people are working together, looking at a computer monitor.A diverse group of people are working together, looking at a computer monitor.

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Insights from Ellen Raim, Founder of People MatterWe focus more on solving than preventing People problems.

Jason Lavender, Co-Founder & CEO at Electives, interviewed more than 50 People leaders recently to uncover the biggest L&D challenges heading into 2024.

Especially for lean People teams at growing companies, Jason discovered aligning learning and development with business objectives is a struggle. Too often learning programs are reactive with no real opportunity to measure efficacy. People leaders know it’s essential for their people to grow. Business results, employee engagement and retention are all on the line. But with limited bandwidth and slim budgets, a viable L&D solution feels elusive. 

During a recent interview with Kathy Bryan, EVP Head of Marketing at Electives, Jason explained today’s biggest L&D challenge and how Electives addresses it.

Learning program decisions need to be made at multiple levels.

Jason Lavender, Co-Founder & CEO @ Electives: One of the things I've been thinking a lot about recently is the different folks who control and influence learning in the workplace. It feels like there are three broad buckets that can decide what folks should be learning. 

The first bucket is folks who have the full business perspective — like the VP of People, the Chief People Officer or the Head of HR. They have the widest view of the entire business, and they can choose training for the entire company that they think will benefit the most people.

The second bucket is team leaders. A team leader could be the Head of Sales, the Head of Marketing, the Head of Client Success or the Head of the Boston office or leader of the Women’s ERG, for example. Team leaders don't have the full business view that the Chief People Officer or VP of People has, but they have really strong relationships with smaller subsets of people. So they know their specific needs. If the women's ERG has been talking about a specific topic, the team leader might think, “Let's bring in somebody who can teach that.” Or, perhaps, a product team has been struggling with two core things, their team leader says, “Let's dive deep on those pain points.” Either way, it is someone in a leadership position who is making the learning decision at the team level.

And then, the third bucket of who controls learning decisions is the actual employee — the end learner. The employee knows most intimately what they need and what they want. Of course, there are things they sometimes don’t realize they need. A skill gap, for example, might be more easily identified by their manager. But from a personal development perspective, the best person to know what an individual wants to learn is that person.

There seems to be a debate in the market about which one of these three buckets should make the decisions about what we learn at work. Should one person control the decisions for everyone? Should we put the control in the team leaders' hands? Or should we just put the employees in the driver seat?

The more and more that I talk to People leaders, the more I realize that all three buckets need to make decisions about learning and development. There should be a central person making some of the decisions. There should be team leaders who are making some decisions. And employees should get to choose what they want to learn, too. Learning programs should be mapped out like a venn diagram with these three intersecting circles.

The best learning cultures are aligned with business and team objectives with end-user input heavily factored. If you're missing any one of those inputs, you're missing a significant learning opportunity. 

Kathy Bryan, EVP Head of Marketing @ Electives: Outside of the Chief People Officer or Chief Human Resources Officer, do you think the rest of the C-suite should have a role in deciding what the business needs to learn? Or should they leave decisions about the learning program to the People leaders?

Team leaders have more control of learning budgets, but they don’t know how to spend them.

Jason: We’re seeing more and more budget democratization in the sense that team leaders, like CTOs or other heads of departments, are getting their own training budgets for their teams. Those training budgets are used for a variety of development purposes, including conferences and continuing education. But team leaders struggle to find the development opportunities that fit the needs of their teams throughout the year.

Where it starts to break down is when, for example, the Head of Marketing says, “Ok, our team needs to improve in these three areas.” But then say to themselves, “I actually don't know where to start! Where do I find training in these areas?” So they either do nothing or they tap into their existing network and cross their fingers.

We've seen team leaders have varying success with sourcing training, based on how solid that person's network is when it comes to trainers.

Kathy: How about managers of smaller teams – maybe with three to five people reporting to them – should they have a say in the learning program development?

Front-line managers need to have more say in what employees learn.

Jason: I don't think they have as much authority as companies probably wish they had. In fact, I believe the front-line managers have the best insights about what their teams need. 

At a lot of organizations, front-line managers observe a pain point among their people and then bubble up that theme to the Head of People. Often, a theme needs to be bubbled up from many managers before it is considered a broad business training need. 

If there were an opportunity for managers to direct their employees to the right learning opportunities, there would be immense benefits. Speaking from an Electives-centric perspective, that’s one of the benefits of Electives Membership. Managers can recommend specific classes to their employees while the employees still retain the opportunity to choose the classes they enroll in each month.

Electives Membership lets managers connect the dots (from identifying a training need for an individual employee to curating relevant learning opportunities) directly instead of bringing it up to the Chief People Officer. And, of course, when training is selected from within Electives Membership, the quality is ensured.

Kathy: What do you believe is the best way to create synergy across corporate-wide learning, team-based learning and individual learning? How do you make sure a holistic learning program comes together in a way that makes sense?

Strong learning cultures are formed through multi-tiered alignment with business objectives.

Jason: An ideal learning program is aligned with business objectives. Organization-wide and team-based learning opportunities are mapped into a learning calendar before content or instructor selections are made. And then individual learning opportunities are recommended, based on the broader objectives.

Often we see companies map out what’s happening for two quarters. Sometimes for the full year. This planning is typically reactive based on needs that were previously uncovered. Proactive training, that considers future needs, seems to be harder for most companies — especially for individualized learning. There are tools that can help companies be more proactive, and I hope we see increased use of them over time.

Interestingly, the date and time of learning sometimes seems to almost take priority over the what and why of learning. Often, we hear things like, “I want to do this session on performance reviews, but let me make sure the date we want doesn’t conflict with other things happening next month.”

It’s not that the date and time doesn’t matter. But it shouldn’t be the primary go or no-go decision maker. The alignment between organization-wide, team-based and individual training needs to take priority.

Kathy: So the venn diagram you described is maybe more like three separate circles at many organizations right now? How do you think People leaders can bring them together?

Jason: When companies know their mission and values, and they know what their business objectives are, it’s a great umbrella for everything else.

For example, if the entire company is obsessed with customer service, that can be brought into the learning program at every level. The entire organization can take a class together this week on exceeding expectations. Next week, the entire sales team takes a class on solution selling. Two days later, an individual contributor takes a class that dives into tactics on client success. And so on.

Unfortunately, this type of multi-tiered learning alignment is not common.

Kathy: Speaking of individualized learning, do you think most employees know how to source their individual learning?

Employees struggle when trying to use their learning stipends.

Jason: That's a great question. There are a few different scenarios to think about: employees with learning stipends who are given control of their learning budget, employees with learning stipends but no clarity on how to spend it, and employees without learning stipends.

Employees with learning stipends and clarity are the ones most likely to use their learning stipends. Not just that — they use their learning stipends in ways that actually benefit them, their teams and their company.

For employees with learning stipends but no clarity on how to spend it, we see a lot of randomness. For example, if I’m a manager and I tell my employees that they’re struggling with giving feedback and I want them to get training, but I don’t tell them where to go, often the employees just turn to Google. One person might buy a book. Another goes to a conference. A third person finds some classes that seem related to the topic. All of them are pretty much just out in the wild searching. The topics and quality and the results are all over the place. And if you multiply that randomness times 50 or 500 employees, there’s rarely alignment and the efficacy is hard to measure.

Of course, what happens even more often is that employees do nothing. It’s not that they don’t want to learn. They just don’t have the time or the energy or the know-how to get to the best learning. So they just shut down.

It gets worse. If employees don’t even know if their company supports a specific type of development, often employees just assume it’s not supported. And they do nothing. Or they leave for a company that more overtly supports their personal development.

Kathy: How does Electives help companies achieve the sweet spot — the venn diagram — that links organization-wide, team-based and individualized training?

Electives helps People leaders develop multi-tiered learning programs that align with business objectives.

Jason: At Electives, we offer private classes, Electives Membership and certificate programs with learning programs mapped to business objectives, content and instructors matched to company culture, and the KPIs measured to prove impact.

I'll touch on private classes first. Private classes support the organization-wide and team-based circles in the venn diagram.

For private classes, every company that works with Electives has an admin role (in most cases that is the VP of People or the Chief People Officer) on the platform that is controlling the budget and learning strategy for the company. This person works with Electives, providing us with the information we need to map out a holistic learning program.

Sometimes we work only with the People leader. Other times, the People leader invites team leaders to the Electives platform. The team leaders can share their team-based objectives to impact the learning strategy, and they can be involved as we match content and instructors to the learning program.

Some People leaders like to maintain control. Others appreciate the option to give full autonomy to team leaders to make the final decisions on what classes to bring to their teams and when they should schedule those classes. There’s also an option within Electives for team leaders to request classes that the People leader then approves. Throughout all these scenarios, the People leaders can see everything that’s happening in the Electives platform with all the analytics rolled up, including employee wish list selections and class engagement.

Electives Membership focuses on the individualized training circle, but Electives Membership also supports team-based and organization-wide training. 

Every employee who has a license can enroll in any Electives Membership class each month. Some employees prioritize personal development while others select more classes focused on professional development. Either way, it’s the employee who is choosing.

However, within the Electives Membership platform, People leaders and team leaders can influence employee selection. Managers can invite their employees to specific classes. So, for example, if someone is struggling with presentation skills, a manager can invite an employee to an upcoming class on presentation skills.

People leaders also have the ability to spotlight up to three classes at the top of the Electives Membership class catalog. The spotlight ensures employees see these classes and indicates to the employees that these classes should be prioritized because the topics are important at the organization level.

Lastly, we offer certificate programs within Electives Membership. While the certificate programs are for individuals, entire teams can enroll in these structured learning pathways. So that’s another way to keep people in sync with Electives Membership.

With private classes for the entire organization and specific teams and Electives Membership supporting individualized and team-based learning, it’s possible for organizations to execute learning programs that focus on the sweet spot in the venn diagram. Of course, it takes planning, but we support the companies that work with us every step of the way.

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