Last reviewed 9 December 2015

Recent research shows that the divide in Learning and Development (L&D) between the most successful organisations and the remainder continues to grow. Traditional L&D is stopping many organisations from being successful, while those L&D functions that have embraced major change are growing further and further away, and demonstrating great success in the process. Here, Judith Christian-Carter takes a look at the current state of play and what distinguishes those on one side of the divide from those on the other side.

The following was written by the author in August 2012: “Some internal and external L&D departments/providers have already changed their approach to meet the needs of their ‘customers’...The problem remains...for those who do not...start to make this move. The more L&D people who do make the move as opposed to those who do not, then the greater the divide will become. There is already a growing divide but only time will tell how great this will become...”. Three years later, in November 2015, Towards Maturity published its 2015–16 Industry Benchmark Report, the results from which show quite clearly that the divide has grown considerably.

The research

The findings in the latest benchmark report come from a detailed review of 600 L&D professionals’ learning strategies over the course of 2015 (55 countries, 60% in the UK, 69% in the private sector and 42% in multinational organisations, plus data from a sample of over 1600 learners). The characteristics of effective practice of those who were achieving the greatest business impact were defined by using benchmark values for key performance indicators. Those who scored in the top 10% on the Towards Maturity Index of Effective Practice are classified as the “Top Deck”, and these span all sectors, geographic locations and organisation sizes.

A snapshot of learning today, in all the organisations involved, shows that:

  • 90% use e-learning content

  • 86% use live online learning (webinars, virtual classrooms)

  • 79% have a learning management system (LMS) in place

  • 68% use best practice video

  • 67% use mobile learning

  • 55% of training programmes are entirely face-to-face

  • 31% use games and simulations

  • 26% of training programmes are blended learning, with 19% being online only

  • 19% of the training budget is spent on learning technologies.

In many ways, learning provision in these organisations reflects a fairly typical picture of face-to-face training, eLearning/online, mobile learning and tracking, one with which most L&D professionals would identify.

Seeking benefits v achieving benefits

The benefits to an organisation of having a top performing L&D function are easy to see/seek but achieving them is another matter altogether. It is here that the growing divide between “Top Deck” organisations and the rest is most noticeable. The research shows that:

  • 89% seek benefits related to efficiency but only 41% are achieving this — 72% of which are in the “Top Deck”

  • 88% seek improved individual processes with 39% achieving this — 73% of which are in the “Top Deck”

  • 91% seek improved productivity and engagement, with only 29% achieving this — 63% of which are in the “Top Deck”

  • 88% seek improved business responsiveness, with only 24% achieving this — 56% of which are in the “Top Deck”

  • 89% seek an improved learning culture, achieved by only 21% — 48% of which are in the “Top Deck”.

When comparing the “Top Deck” with those in the bottom quartile, this shows that “Top Deck” L&D functions are:

  • three times more likely to achieve benefits relating to efficiency and business process improvement

  • five times more likely to achieve benefits relating to productivity, employee engagement and business responsiveness

  • eight times more likely to achieve benefits relating to the learning culture in the organisation.

It is clear to see that “Top Deck” L&D functions have not only embraced change but are also providing a direction for others to follow. If L&D functions across the board wish to help build business performance and employee engagement, then a consumer-focused, technology-enabled learning strategy is an absolute must. “Those in the ‘Top Deck’ show the value that is added when L&D apply more innovative thinking, introduce new models of learning and work in partnership with senior and line managers to design business-focused solutions.” (Page 5, Executive Summary, 2015-16 Industry Benchmark Report)

Self-directed learning

Another area in which “Top Deck” L&D functions are steaming ahead is by supporting self-directed learners. Their L&D professionals listen to, and act on, what learners want. They are constantly increasing access to learning opportunities and take every opportunity to empower learners to take control of their own development.

The traditional command and control position of L&D as still seen in so many organisations is no more. Instead, it has now become one of enabling and supporting all the ways in which people learn in the organisation. This is not a small shift, it is a “chasmic shift” and the longer it takes the rest of the L&D profession to cross this chasm, the greater the divide will become.

Everyday learning

As Jane Hart (C4LPT) has said, learning in the modern workplace is far more than training or eLearning. “Everyday learning is the learning that takes place every day as individuals do their jobs — individually or working with their internal colleagues, as well as connecting with others in (online) professional networks and channels. It’s about continuously acquiring small pieces of information or skills (often unconsciously) that, over time, build up into a large body of knowledge or experience, which means an individual becomes proficient in their job and knowledgeable about their industry or profession. Although this type of learning is very different from traditional learning where knowledge and skills are acquired through a conscious process of studying in the classroom or online (eLearning) — everyday learning is essential, for it is through this type of learning that most people learn how to do their job and improve.” (Blog post, Everyday Workplace Learning, October 2015).

Recognising this type of learning and encouraging it to take place, is at the very heart of what modern workplace learning professionals believe in and do. Not only do they provide modern, relevant training but they also promote everyday learning. It is this which separates the “Top Deck” of L&D functions from the rest.

The ever-growing divide

The truth often hurts but in just over three years there is now a small proportion of L&D functions that have shot ahead of the rest. These are made up of L&D professionals who are overcoming barriers and exploring all manner of possibilities for workplace learning, be this formal or informal. The rest, however, appear to be stuck in the past, providing a menu consisting mainly of training courses, the majority of which have very little to do with what the organisation needs and learners want.

The fact is that the L&D world is rapidly splitting into two. “Top Deck” L&D professionals are letting go of traditional models of learning and finding new ways of improving their organisation’s performance. They are working with the organisation’s stakeholders to identify what is needed to improve performance, and are understanding and creating ways in which to support self-directed learners. How many more will have followed them in the next three years remains to be seen.

Judith Christian-Carter is a Director of Effective Learning Solutions Ltd. She can be contacted on 01926 614229 or through email at