Embracing L&D’s evolving role: Less control, more influence

Posted by Dani Johnson and Jen Stempel on January 2, 2018.

In talking about and presenting BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP’s latest research on High-Impact Learning Organizations (HILOs) over the past few months, we’ve seen real trepidation on the part of Learning & Development (L&D) professionals. Why? As it turns out, the research indicates that the majority of employee development is not under the direct influence of the L&D department. In fact, most of it is cultural and systemic in nature, leaving many of the more tactical, traditional practices of L&D less impactful than they may have been in the past.

This reduction in impact stems from the major finding that a “learning organization” is no longer the L&D department; rather, it is an organization that learns—setting up the conditions and cultures that encourage development for individuals, and acting as an organism itself— taking in information and data and modifying itself to better compete in the marketplace.

This finding necessitates a shift on the part of L&D organizations; in the future they will find themselves moving from being doers and keepers of learning to stewards and influencers. Many are struggling with that shift. We have some ideas that may help.

Along with asking questions that helped us determine the types of things that high-performing, or more mature, organizations were doing, we also asked what types of capabilities the L&D function in high-performing organizations has. The research indicated that high-performing organizations did a better job at leveraging three types of capabilities:

  • Conditions capabilities
  • Business capabilities
  • Performance capabilities

Conditions capabilities

Capabilities in this group are those that L&D needs in order to build conditions that are right for development. They include things maintaining the right type of learning technology stack, using experiences in lieu of courses, collecting/aggregating continuous sensing data, design thinking, and the like.

Where to start:

  • Build relationships with other business functions. Since learning and development occurs everywhere, all the time, L&D organizations should collaborate and cooperate with all functions to ensure the right conditions for learning. This includes everything from using leaders to participate in more formal learning events to working with the IT department to leverage existing software for employee development.
  • Be the voice of employee development in all parts of the organization. L&D should get smart and have opinions about employee development in every aspect of the business. L&D should represent employee development in discussions about new workflows, technologies, job descriptions, measurement initiatives, and the like.
  • Deputize managers for developing employees. Provide managers the knowledge, ongoing support, and tools they need to have useful conversations with their employees about their career ambitions and help them find opportunities to move toward those ambitions. Managers should also be held responsible for their employees’ development and engagement.
  • Where possible, encourage risk taking and learning from mistakes. Organizations that both rewarded risk taking and provided opportunities for employees to learn from mistakes tended to have higher business and learner experience outcomes. Make the sharing of stories about risks and failures a part of the culture to encourage smart risk taking and learning from missteps.

Business capabilities

This group of capabilities includes building a learning strategy, budget allocation, project management, marketing and communications, and other capabilities that help L&D run like a business. As more organizations are holding their L&D functions accountable for business results, this group of capabilities is becoming more important.

Where to start:

  • Understand where all money is spent for people development and allocate budget more strategically. More than ever, L&D functions need to understand where their budget is going and what effect it is having. L&D functions should begin to carefully consider investments that will have strong and strategic business outcomes.
  • Move from “learning” toward “development.” If organizations are putting less emphasis on tapping someone on the shoulder and sending them to a workshop and instead are investing in infrastructure and processes that help employees to develop continuously, communication and marketing messages also have to change. Organizations should know the answer to the question, “What does development look like in this organization?” and be able to clearly communicate it to employees and leadership alike.
  • Pay attention to “being” types of data, not just “doing” types of data. The research indicates that higher-performing organizations are more likely to actively monitor things like business KPIs, talent metrics, and performance metrics. Just as important is realizing how key L&D data can help the organization make better decisions.

Performance capabilities

Last but not least, performance capabilities also have an effect on business performance. While L&D has historically been seen as a cost center, more organizations are beginning to expect more from the function. In the 1990s, performance consulting was born. The new model indicates that consulting isn’t enough; L&D is being held accountable for actual performance improvement.

Where to start:

  • Start a business consulting practice, not a performance consulting practice. While many traditional performance consulting practices focus on traditional tasks controlled by L&D, some of the more progressive ones focus on business consulting—sometimes hiring business consultants versus L&D professionals. The difference really comes down to the focus. Traditional performance consultants focus on what the employees need to learn, while business consultants focus on fixing things impeding performance.
  • Find ways to provide employees with data to help them continue to improve. Providing real-time, personalized, applicable data will give employees knowledge about how they need to improve without waiting for the annual performance review. Data can be shared manually through managers and peers. There are also several good performance platforms that are encouraging ongoing conversations and data sharing.
  • Track performance. The L&D function should be fully aligned to and able to track performance—and how its initiatives are affecting that performance. New data tools, dashboards, and basic understanding of correlations can provide credible and directional data that will help the L&D function make adjustments to enable continuous performance improvement.
  • Conclusion: Less control, more influence
    In the future, L&D will likely have less direct control on employee development (and all that it entails); however, with the right skills and capabilities, L&D functions can have a much greater influence on the organization.

Dani Johnson is the vice president of learning and career research at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, designing, and consulting on human capital practices. .


Jen Stempel is a managing director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, and the Americas Learning Solutions practice lead. Her focus is on helping large, complex, global organizations optimize their learning functions and realize value from their learning spend by improving effectiveness of their programs, efficiency of their operations, and alignment with business strategies


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