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Learning and Development – A Support function or a Strategic one?

Published on: 5/23/2022

In today’s disruptive times, businesses that emerge winners are those that are powered by people who can quickly Respond to change, Ride the wave of change and at times, even Drive it. In practical terms, this translates into having manpower that can not only cope with but also master technological, economic commercial and most of all, behavioral change.

The biggest tragedy of today’s times is that while drastic changes in business environments are the norm, the function that can empower employees to be the change is brushed aside and put on the backburner – Learning and Development (L&D).

Unfortunately, L&D as a function is still looked upon as a Support function, to be undertaken periodically, when the going is good, and its importance as a Strategic function and a business tool has been severely undermined since its very inception.

Why has the potential of L&D to create business transformation remained unharnessed? Why is it still considered a Support function and not a Strategic one?

It is true that the inherent potential of L&D to be the game-changer of the destiny of progressive businesses has largely remained untapped, and there are several reasons for this.

I. L&D and the Human Resource Development function For long, L&D has remained under the aegis of the Human Resource function, which itself is looked upon as a Support function. Although the term HRD, stood for Human Resource Development, the role of HRD professionals in many organizations has been limited to managing paperwork, filling up vacancies, creating compensation & benefits policies and undertaking most of the tasks that came under the aegis of the erstwhile **Personnel **department. In my experience, utilizing human resources optimally, and enhancing their knowledge and skills keeping in mind organizational needs in order for them to achieve business objectives, is not the focus of HR in most organizations.

Even the people recruited for L&D and HR, are hired keeping in mind that these are Support functions, and so, their performance is measured according to those parameters. Barring a few honorable exceptions, in majority of organizations, L&D professionals are looked upon as training program coordinators! Neither do the HR/L&D leaders tend to take the connect between expected business results and HR/L&D function’s activities seriously, nor do they make any specific contribution towards developing business result-oriented people capability. It is no surprise then that the HR/L&D function is looked upon as a Support function and a Cost Centre.

For these leaders, the need is to change their orientation and focus on how they can contribute towards the accomplishment of the organization’s business objectives and thereby become an indirect maybe, but a Profit Centre nonetheless.

2. Failure to Finalize Measurable Learning Outcomes and Measurement Metrics In most organizations, the HR department creates a yearly training calendar for employee training and development with generic programs for which, functional managers nominate their people. The learning needs identified during the Performance Appraisal cycle also form part of this calendar. However, there aren’t any specific, measurable objectives that such training workshops need to achieve and moreover, they are hardly aligned to the business objectives of the organization. For all the time, money and efforts spent on training, there is no clarity on the expected outcomes of the training that will impact business objectives. In my opinion, L&D outcomes are not measured because L&D professionals are unaware of how to measure them or what to measure. Another reality is that when HR/L&D professionals fail to establish the link between the learning objectives and business results, the organization doesn’t even make necessary budgets available. If training or Learning & Development is undertaken without expecting specific, measurable outcomes to achieve business objectives, surely no business objective can be achieved.

Moreover, there is no accountability for the results of the training and L&D initiatives that are conducted. Most training programs are just “Band-aids”; that too, stuck at the wrong place... Needless to say, one cannot expect year-long performance out of such staff development programs. Most of the times, it is found that there are no conceivable results that are delivered by people who undergo such learning, and so the perception that there is no value addition to business goals/results through the L&D function is strengthened. This is a vicious cycle.

3. Cost Vs Return on Investment L&D is not considered as an investment of the organization. Rather, it is considered a cost and so, the concept of Return on Investment (ROI) is not applied to it. Lip service to this term called ROI or ROTI (Return on Training Investment) is provided in abundance though. Till the time HR professionals and business leaders look at L&D as a cost center, they won’t be able to see any positive results. This is because, as a cost center, the focus is on controlling L&D costs, leading to cutting corners while selecting training companies, doing more of a disservice to the organization. On the other hand, in organizations where L&D is considered an investment, the quality of learning imparted becomes the cornerstone of the choice of a training partner and cost does not become a stumbling block.

4. HR and L&D Heads are not part of Business Strategy Decisions and Discussions In many organizations, HR and L&D heads do not participate in business strategy meetings. Business objectives and goals are set by business leaders, but HR heads neither give insights, nor do they try to get insights from business leaders about the kind of people required to produce those business results. There is no discussion between HR/L&D heads and business leaders about whether the people in the organization are capable of delivering the results required to achieve business goals, and if they aren’t, what efforts are required to make sure that they become capable enough. Since this does not happen, the L&D and HR functions are far removed from business decisions and hence, their actions are not seen as impacting business results.

5. Business Dynamics In many organizations, the message conveyed to HR and L&D people by business leaders is that they do not understand business and the only tasks that they need to perform are those of a Support function. Hence, they rarely participate in corporate strategy meetings. This is because, most L&D and HR people indeed do not understand business dynamics. The primary reason for this is that the HR/L&D professionals seldom have business/operational experience. The lack of business functional experience and lack of knowledge of business nuances don’t allow them to add value in the true sense.

However, it has been observed that wherever HR and L&D professionals have taken pains to understand the business and are focused on business objectives, they are given respect and their opinions are sought after by other functions. When HR and L&D professionals are focused on business objectives, they are equipped to ask and seek answers to the following questions:

  • What kind of job performance is needed from employees to achieve business objectives?

  • What kind of knowledge, skills and attitudes do people need to have in order to achieve the expected job performance?

  • Do our people have those skill sets, knowledge and attitude? If not, where do the gaps exist and what are the actions that the L&D function needs to take to empower people to achieve the required business objectives?

  • Are our people willing to undergo the attitudinal change/shift in their thinking that is required?

  • What are the kind of change initiatives that are required to ensure that this happens?

  • How are the business function stakeholders going to not only support but also own the learning imparted?

  • How are the line managers going to take the learning forward?

The reality that all the business leaders and HR/L&D leaders need to take into account is that Learning Results is a three-legged stool. One leg represents the Learning Imparter (a trainer or a coach), the second leg represents the Learner and the third leg represents the Learner’s Manager. If any of these three legs do not do their job, the stool will neither be stable, nor will it stand. All these three legs must do what is expected of them in order for learning to be effective.

Effective HR/L&D leaders are successful in convincing the business leadership of the above analogy and get commitment from them to that effect. This commitment and actions from the business team supporting this commitment is the hallmark of a successful and result-producing learning initiative.

Any learning initiative demands change in behavior. The learning initiative is focussed on motivating people to adapt to the new behavior. Any HR/L&D leader worth his salt will appreciate the fact that the cycle of achieving business objectives starts from an individual being motivated; goes on to him/her achieving competence; resulting into good performance, which finally results in the achievement of the desired business results.

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However, in my experience, not many L&D and HR professionals think or work in this manner. Also, only undertaking this process is not enough. It also needs to be tracked, monitored and measured effectively.

For L&D or HR people to establish respect and a reputation as a Strategic function, they must prove to the business leadership that their approach towards training, coaching or mentoring their people is indeed impacting business results. Unless they create that impact, they will never be taken seriously as a Strategic function.

How can School of Inspirational Leadership (SIL) empower you to establish the role of L&D as a Strategic function in your organization?

SIL’s proprietary process – FLOAT®, covers the entire range of activities from Finalizing the Learning Objectives to Testing Effectiveness of the Learning Initiative. The following graphic should give you a clear idea about how comprehensive this model is, and how it serves the basic purpose of ensuring the desired change, both in behavior and results.

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FLOAT® can not only create wonders in the actual Learning & Development of people, but can also help L&D professionals in your organization to prove their utility as a Strategic function.

SIL is rightly positioned to help you by working with you to prove that the efforts taken by L&D can indeed bear fruit and demonstrate Returns on Investments made in L&D.

Team SIL will work with you and help you change your perception in the organization. SIL can empower you so that the L&D function becomes an important part of any strategic decision making by business leaders. This will create value for you in your own organization. With SIL’s intervention, the role that you play in your organization will become more comprehensive in terms of delivering results at the marketplace.

In order to achieve this, you will need to allow SIL to play a detailed and a trusted partner’s role in the organization on your behalf. To know more about how SIL’s proprietary FLOAT® model can make a difference in the way the L&D function is perceived in your organization and help it become a critical component of the leadership team, write to us at:

Blog Contributor

Neeraj Deshpande
Specialist – Leadership & People Transformation Practice
School of Inspirational Leadership

(The author has more than 30 years of experience in Talent Development, Talent Management and Organizational Development.)

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