Laying the Cornerstone: Alignment of Learning

The formula for success in learning and development is based on the careful execution of three relatively simple concepts: assessment, delivery and measurement. Assess the learner’s needs, deliver the content and measure to see if it had impact. With th

The formula for success in learning and development is based on the careful execution of three relatively simple concepts: assessment, delivery and measurement. Assess the learner’s needs, deliver the content and measure to see if it had impact. With the number of commercial products available to address the latter two concepts, it is easy to lose sight of how critical the first stage of assessment is to the overall formula. Much like the builder’s cornerstone, if this first phase is not done accurately, everything that follows will be slightly off-the-mark, or worse, an altogether wasted effort.

Through the assessment phase, learning professionals should achieve alignment between company business needs and training offerings. However, assessment is only as good as the lines of visibility and communication that exist between the learning division, the CEO, senior executives and the individual lines of business. For this month’s survey, the Business Intelligence Board provided their general thoughts on and overall satisfaction with the level of alignment that exists within their organizations.

The C-Level Perspective
Despite the significant inroads learning and development professionals have made in proving their value to company success, a disparity still exists between the value learning professionals and C-level executives place on training. (See Figure 1.) Nearly half of the respondents believe that their CEOs don’t view learning and development as important to the company’s overall success.

Although achieving alignment might be possible without endorsement from the company’s most senior executives, having C-level buy-in makes it much easier. Two survey comments in particular illustrate how good or bad it can be:

The Good: “Our executives are an inspirational, enlightened group, which makes alignment much easier to attain since they firmly believe that the effective training of our people is mission-critical to retaining our competitive advantage.”

The Bad: “Our current emphasis is on production, technology and finance, so our leadership will quietly discourage training initiatives at the top. This has an acidic trickle-down effect, which corrodes our efforts throughout the company.”

It’s not surprising that “getting executive-level buy-in” ranked as one of the top three challenges the respondents identified to establishing or maintaining a link between learning and business objectives. The other top challenges are “demonstrating the impact on strategy” and “identifying, defining and implementing strategy.” (See Figure 2.) What doesn’t appear to be a challenge is getting line-of-business buy-in. This is encouraging because line-of-business visibility is essential for developing successful point solutions.

Alignment Today and Tomorrow
Despite these challenges, the majority of respondents described the state of alignment within their companies today as being good or at least consistent. (See Figure 3.) Still, 54 percent of respondents said they were not satisfied with the level of learning alignment that exists at their companies. This is not surprising given the C-level/learning discrepancies, and it also suggests that even within companies where regular communication occurs between learning and the rest of the business, the depth, richness and quality of these interactions could improve.
Although appointing a chief learning officer who works alongside other executives is one obvious solution, many companies are not in the position to appoint a CLO. Still, there are other ways to improve the quality of interactions between learning and the company lines of business. The solution lies in applying the proper mix of alignment strategies. Figure 4 shows respondents’ ideal blend of alignment mechanisms as well as their current mix. Between the two, there are a number of areas with room for further development. For example, participants said their companies spend too much effort on informal survey work and review of company annual reports and marketing materials. Nearly one quarter of respondents use these mechanisms even though they don’t consider them part of the ideal blend. Similarly, almost half of the respondents do not employ components they would prefer to use in their alignment strategy, such as advisory boards, competency repositories, formal surveys and a balanced scorecard. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: To improve their alignment with corporate strategy, learning departments need to develop more of these solutions, but doing so requires a level of visibility.

Part of the challenge of achieving corporate alignment is the amount of time and resources available to pursue these initiatives. With so many tactical requirements occupying a learning division’s efforts, there is little time left to focus on developing an alignment strategy. More than a third of respondents spend less than 10 percent of their learning departments’ efforts aligning content to business strategy. This is why a key message proponents use to support outsourcing is that in-house training employees will be freed to focus their energies on more strategic initiatives.

Despite the challenges facing today’s learning professionals, the outlook is optimistic. Sixty-three percent of respondents believe that their organizations will be better aligned within the next 18 months. Where will this improvement come from? A sampling of responses suggests a number of areas:

New leadership: The appointment of learning-friendly CEOs and other senior executives is one source of optimism for respondents for the coming year.

Learning division redesign: The imminent redesign of the learning and development structure within respondents’ organizations and the resulting outcome was another reason for optimism.
New investments in infrastructure: Substantial investments in learning infrastructure are expected to result in improved alignment. Some companies indicated that this would be the first time an LMS will be implemented in the organization.

More formal governance models: Business Intelligence Board members expect the implementation of new learning councils and other organizational governance models to provide improved communications.

What is the barometer for knowing whether your company has achieved corporate alignment? Many respondents will look for quantitative measurements around Kirkpatrick Levels 3 and 4 as well as increases in the number of employees trained, in the amount of budget given to learning and in the number of employees retained. The majority of responses described more implicit observations, such as improved communication with management, respect for the learning function or, as one respondent put it, “a business pull, instead of a training push.”

If the Business Intelligence Board’s responses are any indication, there is an air of optimism amongst learning professionals regarding the alignment of learning and corporate objectives. Certainly, acquiring C-level buy-in and demonstrating impact will always be part of the challenge, but communication with lines of business seems to be on track. Most respondents describe their state of alignment as good or at least consistent. Over the coming year, many will launch new alignment strategies in an effort to facilitate visibility and contact with essential stakeholders. It’s clear that if alignment is the learning cornerstone, it’s a “team lift” item. Although the impetus for alignment might need to come from the learning side, achievement requires both learning and business to shoulder the responsibility.

Peter McStravick is the senior research analyst for IDC’s Learning Services group, where he addresses the impact of training methodologies and business models on end-user organizations, and tracks market growth and opportunities in the U.S. corporate training market. He can be reached at