Just how far has learning and development (L&D) come in the last 15 years? Is it any easier today to make a business case for L&D than it was 15 years ago? How can technology and data be harnessed to strengthen a business case for L&D? Here, Judith Christian-Carter will attempt to answer these and other questions using the findings of an annual benchmark report.

Every year, since 2004, Towards Maturity publishes a benchmark study on the effective implementation of learning innovation in the workplace. These studies are not only internationally recognised but they also provide longitudinal evidence to help organisations make sound learning decisions which will result in delivering real organisational impact.

This year’s report, entitled The Transformation Journey*, looks at the barriers currently experienced by over 7500 learning leaders and over 50,000 workers in 55 countries when setting about transforming learning in their organisations. While much has changed since 2004, some of the barriers which exist today are the same as those which existed 15 years ago, particularly when it comes to those who are still struggling with traditional perceptions of learning.

Learning leaders

It is encouraging to see how the goals of learning leaders have changed over the last 10 years. The percentage looking to:

  • improve access to learning was 78% in 2007 and 96% in 2018 (Improving Efficiency)

  • improve quality of learning was 41% in 2007 and 93% in 2018 (Fine Tune Process)

  • improve productivity (ie workplace performance) was 49% in 2008 and 94% in 2018 (Boost Performance)

  • respond faster to change was 20% in 2007 and 90% in 2018 (Cultivate Agility)

  • improve staff retention was 55% in 2008 and 90% in 2018 (Influence Culture).

The above are quite noticeable shifts, which the report explains as follows: “Driven by technology, the rate of change has been exponential and today’s business leaders not only have to manage risk and deliver results, but also prepare their people to thrive and survive in the face of constant disruption. Learning leaders have been constantly interested in new technologies and models since the study began, but their goals and expectations have now changed to align with what matters to the business… . However, while many learning leaders aspire to deliver these goals, few achieve them. There is a difference between what an industry talks about, what it knows and what it puts into practice.” (Towards Maturity, 2019). One of the main reasons for this lack of achievement is most likely due to the finding that learning professionals are still weighed down by the burden of feeling unable to prepare and deliver learning geared to a different future for themselves and others.

Where L&D is now

Using four traditional measures or benchmarks that learning professionals consider when judging L&D success, namely resources, technology, programmes and compliance, shows that since 2015:

  • the completion rates for compliance training are now at their highest, with 78% of employees having access to digital learning provision

  • the budget allocation to learning technologies has remained static, when seven out of 10 learning leaders expected it to rise year on year

  • the provision of face-to-face and blended learning have decreased slightly but online learning has increased from 19% to 24% in 2018. It is also worth noting that over 50% of formal learning is still delivered face to face.

This means that L&D has not been successful in achieving its goals, in fact, there has been little progress made in the last three years.

  • Improve Efficiency was achieved by 41% in 2015 and up to 47% in 2018.

  • Fine Tune Process was achieved by 39% in 2015 but down to 34% in 2018.

  • Boost Productivity was achieved by 29% in 2015 and remained the same in 2018.

  • Cultivate Agility was achieved by 24% in 2015 up to only 25% in 2018.

  • Influence Culture was achieved by 21% in 2015 up to only 22% in 2018.

Barriers to progress

The report identifies three main barriers which are preventing L&D professionals from achieving their goals, namely digital disruption, culture resistance and L&D capability. Learning leaders are concerned about the following.

  1. Digital disruption: L&D is overwhelmed and under-equipped — lack of attractive, high-quality digital content that supports business goals — lack of analytical skills to use learning data effectively.

  2. Culture resistance: Reluctance by managers to make time for learning — leaders have traditional expectations of L&D that are difficult to challenge — reluctance by senior managers to encourage new ways of learning and working — reluctance by line management to encourage news ways of learning and working — lack of skills among employees to manage their own learning.

  3. L&D capability: Unreliable ICT infrastructure/low bandwidth technical restrictions/firewall — cost of set-up, development and maintenance of tech solutions — pace of technological change.

Clearly, when making a business case for L&D, attention must be paid to all these factors which are currently preventing the necessary transformation of L&D in organisations.

Evidence-based decision making

When making a business case for L&D it is more important than ever for learning professionals to combine their own expertise and organisational knowledge with the most reliable evidence from external research. This is why the evidence available from longitudinal studies is so important.

In particular, the use of evidence-based practice does not work when trying to apply traditional benchmarks to deal with complex organisational changes required for success in the immediate future. However, certain tactics applied on a continual basis can have a positive effect on culture, agility, growth, profitability and performance. For example, actions to take when addressing each of the three barriers can be summed-up as below.

  1. Building digital success: design to connect — reduce friction — harness intelligence.

  2. Overcoming cultural resistance: tune in — transfer ownership — integrate learning and work.

  3. Ensuring L&D readiness: learn continually — orchestrate success — bring outside in.

Small changes they may be but they can serve to make a large difference. However, the evidence also shows that their simplicity does not guarantee their adoption. It is important to ensure that they all work together in an iterative manner, on the basis that success will lead to further success. They also need learning professionals with agile mindsets, people who are capable of analysing, activating and accelerating change.

A final thought

“Learning professionals have a crucial role to play in preparing today’s talent for tomorrow’s future. They are also grappling today with the same issues as 15 years ago... the issues of digital disruption, cultural resistance and L&D readiness remain particularly stubborn. The combination of challenge and change is in danger of leaving a critical profession confused and overwhelmed at a time when smart decisions are required to drive business impact. In response, learning professionals must rely on more than gut instinct and the latest trend.” (Towards Maturity, 2019).

The evidence-base that now exists will help all learning professionals to make a sound business case for L&D, showing how learning innovation can be delivered to achieve real business impact. Moreover, “in 2019 L&D can genuinely be one of the biggest change agents an executive can use.” (Sarah Lindsell, Global Chief Learning Strategist, PwC, 2019).

*The Transformation Journey, Towards Maturity CIC, London, 2019 www.towardsmaturity.org

Last reviewed 6 March 2019