Modern Learning Strategy: Becoming a Business Partner

Written By: Rich Mesch

August 30, 2023 – 4 min read

Which of the following scenarios do you think is more common?

Scenario A: A Learning team accepts projects as business requests. When they’re able, they prioritize projects based on the team’s capacity and skillsets. However, many projects are “last-minute” requests on short timelines that must be met.

Scenario B: Each year the Learning team plans its work and estimates resource needs based on conversations with stakeholders and large initiatives the company is undertaking. If there are skill or resource deficits on the team the Learning organization creates plans to address these items.

Most companies likely experience both scenarios. However, if Scenario A seems more common in your company, you’re not alone. A recent Association for Talent Development (ATD) survey of talent management professionals found that only 42% of companies have talent management strategies that are aligned with their business strategies.

But how do learning professionals not in the 42% become strategic business partners? Think about these steps:

Know the Company’s Strategy and Generate Ideas for Alignment

Staying in-the-know on your company’s strategy and major initiatives is a great first step in aligning your Learning organization. If you work for a company that proactively shares this information or have access to Leadership to discuss these items, great!

If not, consider your resources. Check out the Investor Relations tab on your website. At the very least you’ll find the financial reports. You’ll often find relatively recent investor presentations or webcasts that layout the strategy in straightforward terms. And you can always monitor your company’s latest press releases and announcements.

Use this information to think about Learning impacts. Then, start conversations and create potential solutions that enable the company’s goals.

Make a Case

If your Learning team is aligned with your company, or if you have projects where Learning is a successful strategic partner, prepare a short case study to share with your leaders and other stakeholders.

If you don’t have this information, create a case study based on an instance where Learning wasn’t strategically aligned. For example, maybe there was a year-long software implementation where Learning was brought in four months before go-live. Or maybe there was an acquisition with high turnover employees that didn’t understand their roles. Summarize what happened, the impact, and then provide an alternative scenario where the Learning team is part of the initiative from the beginning.

These case studies begin to tell your story and demonstrate the value of the Learning team. You’ll likely need to share them over time and with multiple people before you get traction, but your persistence can pay-off in the end.

Break the “Cycle of Immediacy”

It’s surprisingly easy for Learning teams to fall into an order taking cycle of accepting “last-minute” requests with little time to react.

Think about changing the cycle to one that reinforces strong consultative behaviors and thought leadership. What if the next time a client in your company comes to you with a solution you don’t think fits the issue, on a timeline that is too short, you ask more probing questions about the need and business goals they’re trying to achieve? What if you request a day or two to provide alternatives that might have a greater positive impact? This will take time, remember “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

If you can move toward a cycle where clients ask for your advice on how to address Learning for important initiatives, provide a thoughtful solution and then execute on that solution, the next step in the cycle will likely be another request for thoughtful solutions.

Step Into Your Role as a Consultant

Learning professionals are often most impactful when clients come to us with problems to help them solve as opposed to solutions they want us to execute. This requires engaging your clients in conversations about their goals, criteria for success, and expected impacts. These conversations build credibility as you help clients create effective learning solutions.

Your Learning team are experts on Learning in your company and can proactively identify challenges and solve problems. If your Field Sales Training Strategy requires delivering videos via a mobile device, your Learning team likely knows how to solve for that. If your leadership team is asking for measurement that goes beyond the capabilities of your Learning Management System (LMS), your Learning team can research and make informed recommendations.

Building alignment with your company’s business goals can feel like a steep hill to climb. It can take time to break through a company’s traditions, culture, and politics to position your Learning team as strategic partners. However, the benefits of alignment are worth the persistence.

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