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4 Steps to Align Learning with Strategy in your Organization

You’re an organization. You have a Learning & Development team. You have an L&D budget. You have a company full of people that need to learn and grow in some way. And you have an ever-expanding universe of learning resources thanks to the miracle of technology and the “unbundling of education”.

How do you prioritize? How do you determine where to spend your limited time, energy, and capital? How do you make sure L&D is directly impacting the progress of the company?

Here is a four step discovery process I’ve been playing with lately: Goals, People, Gaps, Priority.

Step 1: What are the strategic GOALS
of our organization?

Hopefully this is clear and open. It starts at the highest level with a mission statement and some core values, then moves through ever more precise targets and metrics of time horizon (this year, this quarter, this month) and organizational structure (by division, by department, by team).

Explore these through conversation with people at all levels and then map out the needles they are trying to move. Use Undercurrent’s strategy formula of “this even over that” to help force prioritization.

Step 2: Who are the PEOPLE
to execute on those goals?

Nothing is accomplished but through people. In the case of organizational structure (e.g. team goals), answering this is as simple as looking at the org chart. Other goals may cut across obvious organizational lines. Improving real time project tracking metrics might involve project managers across multiple departments. Improving the experience of a particular customer segment may involve some (but not all) people from sales, support, marketing and product development.

Step 3: What are the current GAPS
in required knowledge and skills?

This is the part I’ve been obsessing over lately. To achieve it you need three things…

First, you need to know what level of knowledge and skills are required to do the work. That means really thinking through — even visualizing — the work to be done to achieve those goals. Will it require learning a new system? Does it involve increased real-time customer interaction? Does in mean becoming more fluent in data analytics?

Second, you need to know what level of knowledge and skills are present in your people. This is different for everyone so in many ways it comes down to self-awareness. If you have to implement a new system, how many people are already familiar with it? How many are fast learners of new technology (and how many struggle with it)? If you have to increase customer interactions, how many people have strong social skills? Relationship building? Problem-solving?

Finally, you need some framework for comparing the two that will enable the following arithmetic:

(What-Is-Needed) [minus] (What-We-Have) = Learning-Gap-To-Close

But how do we talk about these things? What is the language we use to define competencies? At a basic level you need to deal with semantics, e.g. when I say “people skills” and you say “people skills” are we actually thinking about the same skills. At a higher level you might consider categorization of your competencies, e.g. Industry knowledge, product knowledge, cognitive skills, etc.

Within a single goal you can create your own framework just to get the job done. But a more consistent framework that’s used for the entire process might reveal some patterns across the organization. Finding these patterns may help leverage your impact (e.g. maybe Building Relationships is a gap across 7 different goals).

If you’re looking for a framework, the one at O*NET Online is the most extensive I’ve seen.

Step 4: How do we PRIORITIZE
each of these learning gaps?

I have two methods for approaching this right now. The first one is simple… the answers should be obvious. By going through the process of answering the first three questions you will have developed intuitions on which gaps will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

If that’s not the case and they all seem pretty much the same then my hunch is that something was faulty in the first three stages. Maybe the strategic goals are vague or the mission is bland. Perhaps the metrics your teams are chasing are poorly defined. Maybe it’s unclear who the people really are that will be executing on these goals.

Another case may be that two or three gaps seem equally important and you’re struggling to prioritize them against each other. In that case, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Maybe they will, in fact, have roughly the same impact. So just pick one and get to work.

The second approach is to get a little spreadsheet action going and try to objectively measure the impact. I might suggest the following process.

  1. Take each gap and do a t-shirt sizing (S, M, L) in each of three categories: strategic importance, people scale, gap size.
  2. Apply a numeric value to each size (S=1, M=2, L=3).
  3. Multiply each category (strategic importance X people scale X gap size) to get a “gap score” for each gap.
  4. Then rank your gaps by their score. Now you’ve prioritized.

This is most likely what happens at an intuitive level as you go through the first three steps, which is why I think the answers will usually be pretty obvious by the time you reach step four. But it can sometimes help to use the language of arithmetic to tighten up our thinking and double check our biases.

At this point you should have a prioritized list of learning gaps that are aligned to what’s most important for your organization and that will have the biggest impact. You probably have some tough decisions to make now… where to draw the line on what you will tackle this quarter (or this year) and what you ignore. But that’s a topic for another post.

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