Are you an L&D professional who happens to work for a business?
Or are you a business leader who is also skilled in L&D?
Each perspective has its benefits. But, if you are launching or restructuring an L&D department, then it will be best to adopt both perspectives.
In either case, of launching or restructuring, there are many ways to set-up an L&D function. This article will serve as a helpful guide as you embark on this project.
Many times companies tackle the building of L&D by buying e-learning content. Then they tend to wait and hope enough people watch said content to justify the initial spend.
Other times, companies will hire a learning professional or two, so as to “check the box” of having an L&D function, and hope the few L&D team members can design, deliver, evaluate, and sustain learning experiences for an entire organization.
There are even times when resource-rich institutions may buy pre-made e-learning content, purchase a learning platform, hire 10 or so learning professionals specializing in everything from design, delivery, evaluation, and analytics, to governance, and hope for training initiatives to have some kind of a positive impact.
In any of these scenarios or the hundreds of variations in between, organizations and leaders skip a few critical components of this transformational work:
If you are a leader designing or refining your L&D department, then keep in mind that implementing a transformation is an iterative process. You have the option to either design/refine the way L&D works from day one, or you can start with a few targeted pilot programs that let you iterate your way toward your newly designed L&D function as you collect feedback and observe end-users. In the first approach, you will face more noticeable disruptions in exchange for a faster transformation, while in the second approach you ensure a smoother transition steered by user feedback. In either approach, you will want to keep the following 10 components in mind:
These 10 components are how we have structured this guide.
Note that you don’t have to approach each of these components in the order listed. In fact, your specific environment may allow for, or even demand, you to pursue multiple components at the same time or completely skip some components to tackle others first.
Let’s explore each component a bit more!
To best position yourself for success, you’ll want to first have clarity on your business situation, by exploring these five areas: Organization, Competition, People, Product, and Promotion. We will refer to these five areas as OC3P; let’s dive deeper into each area.
No learning strategy, regardless of how perfectly structured L&D is, will succeed if it is not aligned with the organizational strategy. After all, the learning org is responsible for the organizational competitive advantage and must deliver on organizational growth to help the company remain competitive.
To get a better understanding of the organization, you might consider exploring these 5 areas:
Once you have a decent grasp of the answers to the questions listed above, you will then be able to pare down these organizational needs and goals to arrive at potential learning solutions.
Take an example from when I was Head of L&D at a capital markets company, one of the organizational goals was to double revenue in three years. We took this organizational goal and looked at all the levers we could push and pull to increase revenue (and decrease costs) to ultimately impact profitability!
To decrease costs, Internal Mobility and Retention were identified as two major levers at play.
To increase revenue, we had two categories to explore, each with its own levers:
1. Sales / Marketing levers were
2. Services / Features levers were
We then bucketed each of these 6 levers into two main categories; Talent and Sales Enablement. Then we added a third bucket, Leadership Development, as none of this would be possible without involving leadership. The three buckets of Talent, Sales Enablement, and Leadership Development, became the three areas that the L&D team set out to tackle by curating and creating behavior-based learning experiences. For the following year, nearly all of the L&D team’s activities aligned to one of the three learning solution focus areas which were each connected to the organizational goal of increasing revenue (and decreasing costs). Paring down organizational objectives to reach learning solutions allowed for two things; a well-articulated learning strategy and total alignment between L&D activities and organizational goals.
While organizational goals shifted, and the company was soon acquired, we were still able to show significant improvement in cross-selling and upselling metrics.
Seeing your L&D department as a business and running it like one will further encourage you to identify all the competing sources of learning. While your L&D department does not need to meet all the learning needs of everyone, it is helpful for you to best position your offerings if you have a clear understanding of the competitive landscape, internally and externally.
The various teams and departments in your company may have business goals that translate to learning solutions and those department heads may not necessarily come to you for help with addressing these business goals.
Let's say your marketing department wants to improve the written communication skills of a group of junior team members. The marketing team lead feels that asking the L&D department for help will become a drawn-out process. So, the team lead buys some basic e-learning modules and a few off-the-shelf workshops led by a “Written Communication Skills” expert.
The team lead may not be aware that your internal L&D team has a robust intake process and also provides performance consulting. Leveraging these services could have helped the team lead identify performance outcomes and established performance goals before purchasing any content. Not making the marketing team lead aware of all that L&D offers is a disservice to the team lead and the org!
It is generally fair to understand that you are going to be competing on speed, cost, and quality, on learning experiences, internally and externally. Understanding what you can compete on, and how you want to differentiate yourself, will be important.
Is your environment such that all learning requests have to go through the enterprise learning function? Should they? Do you have the resources to meet all learning needs for all people in the org?
This is something that often comes up as a significant challenge for L&D teams. As Ryan Austin, CEO of Cognota – the first LearnOps platform for L&D, points out:
“We didn’t feel it was fair that other functions—marketing, sales, and engineering—all have their own operating systems, but learning and development are relying on disparate tools and manual processes to get the job done. We streamline processes in a way that’s purpose-built for L&D so they can get the job done efficiently, effectively, and in such a way that they can demonstrate the value of their work back to the overall organization.”
Note that once you identify other suppliers of learning (vendors with contracts already in the org or others trying to enter the org) you want to consider strategic partnerships that will help you expand the footprint of the learning function, as well as help scale meeting the learning needs of the organization. Linkedin Learning, Udemy, Pluralsight, Coursera, and dozens upon dozens of others can help you increase the variety of your content library. Platforms like Cognota’s LearnOps can help with your workflow while the many virtual whiteboard options (Miro, Mural, and many others) can help facilitate workshops. L&D doesn’t have to do everything; leverage the vendors who are already integrated into your organization!
It is a good idea to review Porter’s 5 Forces to get a stronger grasp of the forces at play in the competitive landscape.
You may refer to them as ‘learners’, and some (including myself, at times) may refer to them as ‘customers’ or ‘end-users’. It is important to remember that these are human beings with hopes, feelings, and emotions. These humans are on the receiving end of the learning experiences you ship.
With that said, it is crucial for you to understand who the people you are serving. What are their goals and aspirations? Where, when, and how do they consume learning? What is or isn’t relevant to them?
One of the ways to learn more about the people using your services is by conducting empathy interviews and plotting empathy maps (see Empathy Map framework).
There are many empathy interview templates available online for free. One I have used in the past is from Mindtools - Empathy Mapping.
The goal is to gain a general understanding of the various populations of people in your organization, what they want and need, and what works for them. Knowing how and when your audience like to consume learning or the challenges they currently have with the existing LMS will help you when deciding on delivery mechanisms later.
As you gain an understanding of the organizational goals, the competitive landscape, and who your audience are, you will also need to start identifying what L&D will do.
Should it serve as a central repository of various content libraries ranging from Linkedin Learning to Udemy to Coursera to Pluralsight?
Should L&D be a content creator or curator?
Or maybe L&D should focus on creating learning experiences and cultivating social learning communities?
Does the workforce need L&D to be entirely virtual and async, live cohort-based learning, or a hybrid?
Starting to form a sense around these questions will help when designing the L&D department later.
You could develop a great L&D function, with a perfect learning strategy, but if no one knows about it then no one will become the ‘end-user’ of the services offered! Awareness is critical for the success and growth of the L&D initiatives.
Should internal comms, marketing, and raising awareness of a newly designed L&D function to be the job of the Marketing Team or HR?
The answer is a proper collaboration among both teams to ensure all people are reached through communication and that the correct metrics are tracked to monitor if communications and marketing methods are working or not.
While in this early stage of understanding the business situation, seek clarity on what communication channels have worked in the recent past with other initiatives. Here you want to look at successful but not too noisy communication channels available in the org.
An essential part of a strong relationship with the people using your services is strong brand identity. Your brand identity is not merely a logo or icon used to identify your new L&D department but it is an entire experience for the customer that is coherent and consistent across the board.
One way your brand identity helps form deep relationships with your users is through the values your brand exhibits. Your brand’s core values make it easier for you to have consistent messaging across all marketing and communication assets, and also helps you keep your brand authentic and unique.
While there are many tools available to help start developing a brand identity, one you can get started with right away is the Brand Key template. It has 9 elements that you identify for your brand. Learn more about the Brand Key and its elements here.
It can become easy to confuse your branding and brand identity. There is a very helpful post by Kim Jursa, Brand Strategist, on the differences between Branding, Brand Identity, and Brand - learn more about the differences here and how you can approach each component for your L&D department.
Before you ask for funding or an increased budget, you have to identify stakeholders and utilize a stakeholder map, like the one in the example below. Stakeholder mapping allows you to gain buy-in and execute on L&D initiatives more efficiently with support. Having the right stakeholders also allows you to increase project visibility, which in-turn equips you to ask for additional funding or added resources, provided the results are of value!
Too often L&D budgets are based on headcount, where companies will take the industry average of the ‘Direct Learning Expenditure’ (DLE) per employee and use that as a basis for what the enterprise L&D budget should be. According to the ATD 2021 State of the Industry Report, the Average Direct Learning Expenditure per employee in 2020 was about $1,300; with BEST award-winning organizations spending ~$1,000 per employee and organizations larger than 10,000 employees spending ~$700 per employee. This is to say the range for DLE varies and one can benchmark against any number of subsets within an industry to set a headcount-based budget.
There are a few other factors you want to add to your budget, or funding request.
You can think of your budget in these primary categories (with room for additional, more nuanced categories):
2. Tools and Technology
Here are four L&D budget templates you can get started with right away.
If you are operating on a smaller scale (say a team of 1) and already have a defined budget you need to operate within, then you could also very simply use a waterfall budget approach and work backward from the amount you have and allocate it to all you need to achieve.
For example, when I had a $650,000 budget for a 1,600-person firm (that’s $375 per employee) I focused on the quickest wins and also set aside some funding for (1) additional resources and (2) creating systems and processes for future wins.
We focused on manager development, and sales enablement through playbooks and role-plays.
What's important to keep in mind here is that you don’t need to come up with the final budget overnight. It will take time to understand the needs of the organization. To develop a learning strategy that will inform how many people (and which ones) you want to target. And to understand how much time you can afford to build content for them, or how much content you can buy for them.
The above is a simplified approach to budgeting. The L&D budget should not rest only on how much content to build or buy, but should also ensure collaborative peer-learning experiences.
If people don’t know about what your new or redesigned L&D department does, or how to access learning experiences, they won’t be able to take advantage of your offerings! Mere awareness is only part of the equation, though. Reach and relevance are major components of getting the word out there and enlisting action from your ‘end-users’! Remember the 'Marketing rule of 7': that it takes an average of 7 interactions with your brand before a "purchase" will take place.
Consider segmenting your learner population by job family, tenure, skill level in the role, location, virtual vs in-person content utilization, and even the challenges they face (sales quotas vs drowning in inbox). You can get this information from HR, and from the Empathy Interviews you run.
Next, take stock of all the channels you have at your disposal. You might have an intranet or internal slack channel, or maybe there is an internal forum. With ‘return to office’ (RTO) gaining momentum, you can start using posters and visuals. Also, consider communicating through employee affinity groups and special interest groups. While you can blast emails to everyone, remember that video works very well, especially if it is of good quality and is short and engaging. Whichever channel you use, make the messaging shareable.
With your audience segmentation in place and a good idea of the communication channels available to you, set up a marketing campaign. If you don’t know what a marketing campaign is, how to set one up, or what any of the above means, then you should explore the resources given by Ashley Sinclair, former CMO turned founder of a ‘Marketing for Learning’ agency called MAAS Marketing.
If you want to get much fancier as you grow, you can start to plot your audience in this RFM Analysis Chart which lets you see which learner segments are too large and which ones you need to focus on growing.
Work with your stakeholder to establish an ambitious goal or “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” for your L&D function. Doing this with stakeholders ensures you are in sync with organizational needs and are locked into delivering value.
The L&D North Star serves as the ultimate goal, the key priority, for L&D. All things should ultimately help the team move towards the North Star. In an example given in the “understanding your business situation” section, the north star for L&D was to help the organization double revenue - essentially all L&D activity helped move the team and the organization toward that goal.
Develop your North Star:
1. Revisit the ‘understanding your business situation’ section of this article to refresh organizational goals, and capability gaps
2. Ask which L&D product / service
Running the above exercise with your stakeholders will get you to develop your North Star metric for L&D!
If you want to, you could let L&D have a to-do list that won’t end regardless of how many resources you hire or how much technology you purchase.
The key to success is prioritizing what L&D will and won’t do.
What is in-scope and what is out of scope for L&D?
What will L&D curate, create, or acquire?
Is L&D going to focus on technical skills for some teams or all teams, or is that the responsibility of each team? Does that leave L&D to focus on enterprise-wide soft-skills?
What about manager development, leadership development, and employee onboarding?
One way to think about this is to look at the level of maturity for your function by referencing the Bersin & Associates High-Impact Learning Organization (HILO) Maturity Model®. Learn more about each maturity level here to see where you stand and what you should be focusing on.
If you are starting out on a smaller scale, it might be best to consider a smaller scope to begin with and grow the scope as L&D begins to gain momentum in terms of the successful delivery of learning programs and learning experiences to a growing number of audiences.
For example, when I took the role of launching a brand new L&D department I had a limited budget, limited resources, and limited time. I began by focusing on following Ram Charan’s Leadership Pipeline and targeted only soft-skills focused on leading self, which then led to soft-skills focused on leading others, and so on.
Furthermore, I focused first on in-person sessions only for sales teams, to impact sales enablement goals.
So I started with a niche target audience of non-managers in sales teams, focusing only on soft-skills that help with sales enablement goals such as improving communication, objection handling, selling with story, etc.
Over time, the scope grew into two categories, (1) learning experiences that improve Leading Self skills, and (2) learning experiences that improve Leading Others skills (see example).
Any training that fell outside of soft skills, for non-managers, in the sales function was redirected back to the team, and resources were given for that team to build or buy the learning experience needed.
Tip: to enable others in building/buying their own learning solutions during the early stages when most requests were out of scope for L&D, we helped the organization understand Bloom’s Taxonomy and how it is important to be asking “what do we want our audience / learners to be doing after they have this learning experience?” Performance outcomes should be rooted in observable behaviors and using Bloom’s Taxonomy to agree on actions we want to see after the learning is a good one.
There is profound truth in the widely used adage, “Structure follows strategy”. So, your learning strategy, your north star, organizational learning needs, and the needs of your audience will dictate the structure of your L&D department. To embark on the organizational design aspect, it is important to first note that in many organizations there will be multiple levels of strategy
You should then think of two kinds of strategy; one at the level at which your L&D department is going to operate, and the strategy at the next level up.
So, for example, if L&D will operate as a team inside the HR function then the first level of strategy will be the team strategy. The next level of strategy will be the HR strategy. Let’s say a part of the learning strategy (team level), for instance, is to enhance soft-skills for non-managerial sales staff, and the HR people strategy (function level) is to increase retention through internal mobility. Then the learning experiences being delivered can focus on collaboration and facilitating cross-functional cohort-based learning, resulting in increased connection across functions and lowering the barriers to entry from one function to another.
As you develop your L&D strategy, and ensure alignment with the strategy at least one level up, consider these perspectives, suggestions, and tips:
There is a wonderful resource by Bersin & Associates which shows a general enterprise learning framework. While this is not the intended use of it, I have many times found success by using this framework as a set of menu options. This lets me see what is feasible to incorporate into L&D. It also lets me ask what is relevant and necessary for the target audience and the organization.
Assess which formal or informal approaches make sense for your L&D team right now.
Which tools and technologies do you have and what will you need?
Which core L&D processes are needed to operationalize right away?
What do your learners want and need?
A simple way to get started, even if you are a team of 1, is to build three support systems that will let you iterate and scale as L&D demand and awareness grow:
1. A Steering Committee which will be composed of stakeholders you identified during stakeholder mapping. These stakeholders also helped identify your North Star and they should be bought into the L&D launch or redesign. The role of the steering committee is to ensure that L&D is continuing to add value to the organization and is focusing on the right things.
2. A Task Force which will serve as a volunteer expansion pack for the L&D function. The Task Force can also be referred to as “friends of L&D” or whatever else encourages people to serve as volunteers. The role of the task force is to curate necessary and relevant content, serve as Subject Matter Experts, and even facilitate workshops where necessary.
3. Develop four Centers of Excellence (CoE):
Once you have the Steering Committee and Task Force set up, you can have the task force volunteers participate in CoEs. As you start out, you won’t need an entire team in each CoE, but as L&D awareness and demand grows then each CoE can grow it’s staff with not just Task Force volunteers but also full-time L&D staff.
As you are setting up the structure of your L&D team, be deliberate about the communication methods and channels you are normalizing in your team, or with your stakeholders.
This visual shows pros and cons of the networks that tend to form among groups – with the information in this visual, you can be more deliberate with fostering the Chain, All Channel, or Wheel style of communication networks.
The Data Analytics CoE can focus on assessing four areas:
This can be taken a step further by also building an L&D Scorecard which can cover critical components such as:
5. Population segments that consume learning split by
In addition to the L&D Scorecard, there is a great framework by Dr. Ina Weinbauer-Heidel called ‘the 12 levers of learning transfer’ from her book, 'What Makes Training Really Work: 12 Levers of Transfer Effectiveness' (see image).
Lastly, Dr. Thalheimer’s Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) is an 8-tier model presented as a vast improvement on the simplistic 4-level Kirkpatrick-Katzell evaluation model. You can see the model here and read the 34-page report elaborating on the rationale behind the model as well as how to use it, here.
It is one thing to raise awareness of the L&D function, but it is an entirely different transformation to develop a culture of learning in an organization of any size.
In order to impact the sustainability of learning momentum, you will want to think about three areas:
When we can systematically move from andragogy to heutagogy we will start to see a marked improvement in learning culture.
Sidenote: Andragogy is the facilitation of learning for self-directed adult learners, whereas Heutagogy is the management of learning for self-managed adult learners.
Heutagogy is much more learner-centric and learner-driven than Andragogy, and it shifts the locus of control from facilitator/teacher to learner/student.
A heutagogical learning environment where individuals are self-managed learners is when we start to see an enterprise-wide cultural shift.
To do this, we need to incentivize learners to develop their own goals, learning paths, and learning agendas. We then need to revisit progress on these learning paths during monthly or quarterly performance conversations. Until learning is part of the performance conversation, we won’t see systemic changes in sustaining the momentum of learning.
People learn best from each other, and in communities or cohorts. In order to make learning momentum sustainable, develop learning cohorts, and enable peer-learning and social learning.
Humans are social animals by nature, and we have been learning not from lectures or slideshows but from each other since our early days as hunters and gatherers!
This doesn’t mean social learning or peer learning has to happen in synchronous groups, but more so that learning happens through the experiences and examples of others. A few ways to incorporate social learning into your organization are to facilitate sharing of expertise and experiences:
1. Launch an internal Forum where people can ask for and offer solutions. There are many options available, but you could get started by exploring MyBB (stands for My Bulletin Board), PHPBB (PHP Bulletin Board), or even Jostle.
3. Seek out experts and equip them to run Knowledge Circles where they share their expertise and answer questions live.
4. Create a points system for learning experiences or for participation in these social learning activities and offer rewards to those who contribute to the culture of learning the most!
Give visibility to success stories of people learning from each other and solving problems together. Showcase collaborative innovation when it happens. Be on the lookout for moments when unexpected collaborations take place (like sales partnering with design to come up with a new way to display email campaigns!).
Executive sponsorship is key to establish learning governance as it forms a two-way communication between the business and L&D; providing transparency to the business about what is happening in L&D and providing insight to L&D about the needs of the business.
“L&D teams should consider adopting a Learning Operations process to bring disparate tools together into a more natural workflow, making it easier to articulate to executives where L&D stand and where we’re going on projects.” — Rob Lauber, former CLO at McDonalds
Governance can mean many things, and by learning governance we typically mean to clarify operating workflows and set up accountability channels for all parties involved.
In order to get started with developing a learning governance you want to look at L&D through the lens of inputs and outputs, and place Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and accountability for each movement.
The intake process needs to be established based on what receives a ‘Yes, we can do this’ and what receives a ‘No’ from the L&D department. This depends on the L&D scope that was established earlier on!
An intake process does not need to be complicated, but it does need to exist. At a bare minimum, you simply need to record who is requesting what to be done, by when, and who is the desired audience. You can also collect a lot more information in your intake, such as allocated budget, equipment needed, etc, but it is not essential.
“Learning Operations helps with efficiency in terms of the workflow within learning. But it also gives you the ability to capture data on where those requests are coming from and what the demand is on L&D resources—and use that data to inform some of the investments that need to be made in learning.” — Dr. Sydney Savion, SVP Learning & Growth, Cityblock Health.
Once you have established an intake process, and have decided what type of requests will be passed and which will be executed, you want to decide on a Learning Framework (for a given project). There is the ADDIE model, the SAM model, the 5Di framework, and the 6D framework, to name a few. One might resonate with you more for one project and another framework might work better for another learning solution (depending on time, resources, etc). Allow your workflow to be flexible enough that you aren’t forcing yourself or your team to be using just one framework. Being agile, during this period of transformation, will help increase the chances of success for the new or newly redesigned L&D function.
“Organizations and functions that have undergone agile transformations have been shown to outperform in fast-changing operating environments, delivering higher customer and employee satisfaction, lower costs, and quicker times to market.” — Nielsen, Nicolai Chen, et al. “A transformation of the learning function: Why it should learn new ways.” McKinsey, 23 September 2020, www.mckinsey.com.
Then the RACI matrix comes in handy so you can keep track of who plays which role; essentially who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for each activity under a project.
Once you have your intake process, design framework, and RACI chart together, you can start to look at output governance.
One of the main things you can look at is the percentage of L&D outputs that are within the agreed upon timelines. Also beneficial to track how many deliverables are staying within projected budgets.
Another output component you can monitor is if the intended behavior change is taking place or not, post learning engagement.
There are many additional ways to set up learning governance, but the above will at the very least get you started.
While setting up a brand new L&D function, or even redesigning an already existing one, may seem like a daunting task, it certainly doesn’t need to be. There are tons of vendors, tools, and frameworks available that can help you along this journey. More importantly, you don’t have to launch or redesign the entire L&D function in one go — it is absolutely possible to tackle this task one part at a time and then continue to iterate and tweak as you develop momentum. Lastly, if you are operating on a small budget and short timeline with limited resources, remember that taking a decentralized approach that leverages the people in your organization as volunteers is never a bad idea — at the very least it makes you party to facilitating the increase of Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) in your organization!
Another thing to keep in mind is this guide is just that, a guide. Each of the ten steps covered in this guide could have been an article on its own. Additionally, there are still areas we have not covered. For example, how to identify the talent needs of L&D in order to hire the right people, mapping the skills of the L&D team/volunteer workforce, certifications and assessments, working norms for L&D, running retrospectives, and leading design sprints, just to name a few areas you should still learn more about.
If you remember just one thing a week (or month, or year) later from this guide, I would want you to remember this quote
“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities”, by Josh Waitzkin, author of “The Art of Learning”.
And with that, if you do nothing else, try to create learning experiences that challenge your learners and introduce a ‘point of resistance’!
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