Explainer: Creating a Relevant L&D Strategy

Why spend the next 15 minutes reading this? This piece is specifically for L&D professionals that are looking to create better, more effective L&D strategies for their organizations. A coherent and data-driven L&D Strategy can help you and your organization make the most of the limited resources that are available, yet attain significant progress towards […]

Why spend the next 15 minutes reading this?

This piece is specifically for L&D professionals that are looking to create better, more effective L&D strategies for their organizations.

A coherent and data-driven L&D Strategy can help you and your organization make the most of the limited resources that are available, yet attain significant progress towards professional development of employees, developing teams, developing organizational capabilities – all of this for better business performance and creation of value for the stakeholders of the company.

An effective L&D Strategy is complementary to an L&D Plan, in the sense that the strategy provides the coherence, directions and guidance that you can build the plan upon. The plan offers concrete details for implementing the strategy. Together, the L&D Strategy and Plan offer clarity on what to do next for the whole organization, for its teams and for the employees.

Investments made through the L&D Budget are guided by the L&D Strategy and are linked to concrete endeavors articulated by the L&D Plan (implementing programs, leading initiatives, offering learning tools and experiences etc).

L&D Plans without coherent L&D Strategies might lead to ineffective use of L&D Budgets.

L&D Strategies without concrete & feasible L&D Plans might lead to inefficient use of L&D Budgets.

Given that most L&D Budgets are limited, creating a relevant L&D Strategy and an associated L&D Plan is a way to invest these budgets in an effective & efficient manner.

Given that most businesses and professional journeys are going through notable changes in shorter and shorter cycles, it’s important that both L&D Strategies and Plans become more adaptive, in order to keep fit with the organization & people they need to support.

That’s why in this explainer we’re going to explore how to create a relevant L&D Strategy, how to develop a linked L&D Plan, how to allocate various investments through the L&D Budget and how & when to adjust your L&D Strategy.

We’ll focus on core questions to explore with your L&D team and your stakeholders, along with some practical approaches to put into practice. Of course, given the variety of contexts in which you might find yourself in, my aim is to offer general recommendations and insights that can be applied both by an L&D professional supporting a Tech scale-up of 100 people and by the regional L&D team, part of an HR center of expertise of a large Banking multinational of over 10000 employees.

In my work as a Strategy & Organization Adviser, I’m partnering with L&D teams quite often, in our quest of enabling together organizations that are more effective and that create more relevant value to their stakeholders. At ForBetterOrgs.com, we’re aiming to inspire and equip leaders like you to build better organizations better – organizations and people that learn and perform better together.

Hope you’ll find this explainer useful and that you will use the ideas, questions and approaches covered here during your next L&D Strategy workshop.

If you’re interested in a hands-on learning experience, where we could work together on your specific challenges, we’re organizing a dedicated learning program about Creating your L&D Strategy, in partnership with the Offbeat team. See you there!

First Things First: Guiding Questions

Any strategic exploration can be summarized through a series of questions to be answered together, questions that help you find your way forward in a specific context with limited resources and many options.

In the case of creating your L&D Strategy, L&D Plan and L&D Budget, here are 6 guiding questions that might be helpful:

  1. What’s happening outside the organization, generally and also close to our L&D radar?
  2. What’s happening inside the organization, business-wise and learning-wise?
  3. What capabilities and constraints do we have?
  4. What could be some viable ways forward?
  5. How would we put these strategic directions into a concrete plan?
  6. How would we allocate the budget to the various L&D initiatives & processes, so that we have confidence we’ll reach the desired business & learning results?

For adjusting your L&D Strategy, L&D Plan and L&D Budget, there are two questions that provide the most clarity:

  1. When would we need to adjust the L&D Strategy, L&D Plan or L&D Budget?
  2. How would we need to adjust the L&D Strategy, L&D Plan or L&D Budget?

What follows is a deep dive linked to each of these questions. Of course, there are countless variations to the questions above, depending on your specific context. There are also countless different ways of exploring and answering these strategic questions.

My invitation is to adapt these questions to be better fit with your organization’s needs and culture and to use the recommended approaches below as starting points that you can build upon. Let’s dive into each of these facets.

Making sense of what goes on outside the organization

”What’s happening outside the organization, generally and also close to our L&D radar?”

To balance an inside-out perspective that might guide the day to day work of the L&D team, when creating the L&D Strategy it might be useful to take an outside-in perspective first. Looking around and making sense of what’s happening and what might happen going further.

There’s a set of specific questions that might be relevant, pick the ones that feel suited to your own context:

  • What’s happening in the world? Are there major events or developments that are shaping the world of business and the world of work?
  • What might happen next in the world? Are there any macro trends that will impact our organization and our work? Are there any weak signals that we might want to keep on our radar?
  • What’s happening in the markets in which our business is present? Are there any impacts on the way we need to perform, to work, to learn? What is our business anticipating, in terms of future needs to address, future products and services?
  • What’s happening in the talent markets in which our organization is present? Are there any impacts on the way we need to perform, to work, to learn? What is our organization anticipating, in terms of future ways of working and workforce configurations?
  • What’s happening in the L&D space? What are the L&D trends that we want to take into account?
  • What are the various players in the larger L&D ecosystem doing? How would this affect our way forward?

A series of specific tools & activities can help answer this kind of questions:

Making sense of what goes on inside the organization

“What’s happening inside the organization, business-wise and learning-wise?”

L&D Strategy needs to be grounded also in the reality of the organization. In order to connect and serve the Business Strategy, it’s useful to understand it and have specific strategies (Sales, People, Growth Strategy etc.) as important references.

Pick the questions that are relevant to your own context:

  • Given what’s happening outside the organization, what is the overarching Business Strategy that is guiding our way forward, investments and day to day activities?
  • What are the various specific strategies that we want to take into account?

(e.g. growth strategy, sales strategy, product strategy, overall people strategy & workforce planning)

  • What’s happening now in the organization, when it comes to L&D?
  • How would we describe the Learning culture of our organization? Do we intend to evolve it in any way?
  • How well equipped are our colleagues now to perform their Business As Usual activities?
  • How well equipped are our colleagues to implement the Business Strategy?
  • How well equipped are the teams in our organizations to perform?
  • How are we spending / have we spent the L&D budget in the previous period (month/quarter/year)?
  • What new things have started happening in the organization in the previous period, connected to L&D? Are these things helping or not?

In this case, the specific tools & activities that usually help answer this kind of questions are:

  • Connecting with the people working on the Business Strategy and the People Strategy of your organization and sharing knowledge about the strategic priorities for the next period
  • Connecting with the people working on the specific strategies of your organization and sharing knowledge about the strategic priorities for the next period
  • Organizational Capability Mapping & Heatmaps
  • Learning Needs Assessment
  • Learning Plans – Implementation Review
  • L&D Budgets Review
  • Learning Portfolio Analysis
  • Learning Culture Assessment

Taking into account our capabilities and various constraints

“What capabilities and constraints do we have?”

Next, for the L&D Strategy to be as relevant as possible, it needs to take into consideration the current capabilities of the L&D team and of the other people involved in L&D activities, both internal and external partners.

Besides the capabilities, there are various constraints, like for example resource constraints, links with other people processes and programs, timing constraints, technology constraints, change readiness and so on. Clarity about these constraints will help the L&D Strategy be fit with the business and organizational context and will increase its feasibility.

The series of questions that can be helpful in this case are:

  • As the L&D team, what are we able to create as value for our organization? What can we execute well? What are some strategic capabilities we still need to develop as an L&D team?
  • What are the capabilities of our internal and external partners? What opportunities could these capabilities bring?
  • What are the links & interconnections that we are taking into account when doing L&D work now? (e.g. alignment with the HQ?)
  • What are the links & interconnections that we need to take into account when doing L&D work going forward?
  • We don’t have unlimited resources and an unlimited playground (usually). What should we take into account while creating the strategy? (budgets, current programs, current expectations from the org when it comes to L&D, current mentalities, competency frameworks, current career paths etc.)

There are specific tools & activities that might help answer the capabilities & constraints questions:

Creating the L&D Strategy

“What could be some viable ways forward?”

Here the specific questions are:

  • Given all of the above, where could we focus on?
  • In which areas should we invest more & why?
  • From these options, in which do we have increased confidence they will bring the desired business & learning results?

The beauty is in exploring multiple strategic options that might help achieve what the organization, the teams and the individuals in the company need in terms of learning & development.

The most common activity that helps answer these questions is a strategy design workshop, in which various strategic options are analyzed based on the insights provided by all the previous exercises.

The most practical way of articulating an L&D Strategy is to see it as a mix of strategic directions, woven together through a coherent story.

Some of the tests of a good L&D Strategy are that it helps you:

  • Easily remember the strategic L&D priorities
  • Have coherence and clarity for building the L&D plan based on it
  • Prioritize between competing demands of your limited resources during the day to day, week by week L&D work

Here’s a practical example of a recent L&D Strategy:

“Our L&D Strategy is to foster a continuous learning culture while focusing on upskilling the customer-facing teams, enabling better social learning through communities of practice and preparing for the future with programs in key areas like Data Science & AI.”

Hence, there are 4 strategic L&D directions that this company uses:

  • Continuous learning culture
  • Upskilling customer-facing teams
  • Social learning
  • Preparing for the future

You can imagine that this L&D Strategy is relevant to a specific kind of business, in a specific kind of market and at a specific organizational maturity. Similarly, your own L&D Strategy is useful to reflect the “story” of your business context and where your organization is in its evolution.

From the L&D Strategy to the L&D Plan

“How would we put these strategic directions into a concrete plan?”

This is one of the most straightforward activities in the whole strategic exercise, in the sense that you already have the coherence and guidance provided by your L&D Strategy and you need to create a concrete plan with elements like:

  • Initiatives & Programs,
  • Timeline & Milestones,
  • Adjustments to continuous activities that the L&D team and other key stakeholders do.

The L&D Budget as the fuel for Executing the L&D Plan and Implementing the L&D Strategy

“How would we allocate the budget to the various L&D initiatives & processes, so that we have confidence we’ll reach the desired business & learning results?”
Closely connected to both the L&D Strategy and the L&D Plan is the L&D Budget that provides acceleration for various strategic and/or required L&D endeavors.

One useful way to look at the L&D Budget is to view it as a mix of

  • Fixed allocations for known knowns, like multi-year L&D Programs or investments in development of skills core to your business;
  • Estimated allocations for known unknowns, like new L&D Programs, Initiatives and/or Technologies that come with a certain amount of uncertainty & risk;
  • And buffers for unknown unknowns, like having unpredictable learning needs to be addressed in a dynamic business context.

The specific tools & activities that can be helpful at this stage of Planning & Budgeting are:

Adjusting your L&D Strategy and Plan

“When & how would we need to adjust the L&D Strategy, L&D Plan or L&D Budget?”

Now that you have clarity on the way forward for L&D in your organization, it’s useful to be aware of various triggers that might invite you to consider adjusting the strategy, the plan and/or the budget allocation.

Here’s a selection of triggers, with the invitation to pick the ones that are relevant and to add some others of your own:

  • The fundamentals (of doing L&D in the organization) change – principles, culture
  • Something major happening outside (trends, players moves) changes
  • Business Strategy (and connected strategies) shift significantly
  • Our L&D capabilities change (e.g. we are able to do more/less going forward)
  • The constraints that we considered change considerably – e.g. budget increased or decreased significantly, other links (e.g. retention) change significantly
  • We notice that the viability & effectiveness of specific strategic directions is way better/worse than expected – e.g. investing in social learning as a strategic direction gains lots of traction or it doesn’t get traction at all, even though we experimented with various tactics
  • Significant timing adjustments affect the L&D plan
  • L&D programs get implemented way faster/slower than expected
  • Effectiveness of L&D programs is way better/worse than expected

Minimum Viable Adjustment

A specific activity to consider when noticing a trigger like the ones above is to explore a Minimum Viable Adjustment, in the sense that:

  • It’s minimal – select the minimum questions to answer from the whole strategic exercise outlined above.
  • It’s viable – you have high confidence that your adjustment will help you reach the (new) desired Business & Learning results.
  • It’s an adjustment – you usually don’t need to rebuild the whole L&D Strategy, L&D Plan or L&D Budget

For clarity about the change impacts, you could ask:

  • Would an L&D Strategy shift be needed? E.g. a new strategic direction while deprioritizing a current strategic direction?
  • Would an L&D Plan shift be needed? E.g. keeping the same strategic direction, but reconfiguring what & when you put into practice?
  • Would an L&D Budget shift be needed? E.g. reallocate budgets so that you accelerate different L&D initiatives and programs?

What could help during a MVA workshop is to put on the table some new strategic options for going forward (with estimated pros/cons), decide based on confidence of achieving Business & Learning results, adjust L&D plan if needed and/or adjust the L&D Budget if needed.

Continuously adjusting your way forward, the L&D Strategy, the L&D Plan and the L&D Budget is an effective way to keep them relevant for a continuously shifting business context and an ever evolving set of learning needs and capability development needs.

Developing these strategy and adaptability muscles is key to creating as much value as possible through L&D, with the limited resources at hand. I hope this explainer provides you some useful starting points, questions and trails for exploring further. Enjoy the journey!

Bülent is partnering with visionary Tech companies to help them address their most complex strategic & organizational challenges.

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