Transform Learning for Business Impact
CTDO Magazine

Transform Learning for Business Impact

Follow these seven steps to effect change.

My mandate was to build a leadership pipeline. While I was already familiar with leadership competencies when I joined TELUS International, I didn't know much about the company or why it needed a pipeline and didn't already have one.

What were its business objectives and goals? How does it make money? How was the organization structured? How would L&D help the firm achieve its business objectives? What impact would multiple cultures have on a global learning strategy? How would we measure success?

I took two years to build, test, and refine my enterprise-wide learning strategy before we launched it and subsequently experienced great success. In fact, the strategy has not only succeeded in growing a robust leadership pipeline, it significantly affected the business by lowering attrition, increasing employee engagement, and helping individuals perform at a much higher level, resulting in the learning team receiving several industry awards.

I learned a lot through this process and have distilled that experience into the seven most important tips to help drive business impact by transforming learning.

Tip 1: Use human-centered design thinking skills

Use these skills to understand what people need to know and do to be successful. Sitting in your office and building a learning strategy will not give you enough information to create a strategy that is effective and aligned to employees' needs.

Spend time interviewing stakeholders, leaders, and employees from multiple functions and geographies. Ask open-ended questions. Actively listen. Continuously focus on business problems that learning could potentially solve.

Explore what is currently missing from learning and how individuals would like to learn. Focus on critical success factors and how to help them achieve goals and perform at a higher level.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you already know what is needed. Yes, you may have a lot of experience at building learning strategies. Even so, it is difficult to know your stakeholder's business needs, wants, and problems without ever speaking to them.

When I created my strategy at TELUS, I documented everything I learned in interviews using a mind map. This comprehensive illustration became the guide to building a robust, human-centered, global learning strategy that would solve real business problems and address the organization's and employees' needs.

Tip 2: Focus on skills needed to solve business problems

Learning professionals often hear that they must align learning to the business. But, what does that mean? How do we ensure our learning is driving the business forward?

Rather than building a massive competency map and corresponding catalog of courses, take a more pragmatic approach. Look at your company's values. Determine what behaviors are needed at different levels in the organization to demonstrate those values.

Add in skills needed for individuals to succeed in different roles and functions. Look at where they are today—collectively—and where they want to go. Evaluate what skills and outcomes are needed to be successful. Determine how to measure success for an individual using these skills and how the skills affect performance and business results.

These are the elements necessary to build a meaningful, robust strategy by level and function, giving individuals a road map of sorts for what they should learn as they progress in their careers. Conversely, focusing simply on building a large competency catalog won't get you the necessary specificity for true business impact.

Competencies alone are too broad. Whittle them down to the skills needed. A good example is negotiation. You could say, "Everyone needs to learn how to negotiate." Maybe. But do they need to learn the same negotiation skills? Do they need to know everything there is about negotiation? Does a salesperson need to learn the same negotiation techniques as the procurement officer?

With a learning strategy designed to address skills needed today and in the future, you can build a pipeline that supports the business long term.

Tip 3: Keep it simple

This tip probably gets most overlooked, yet it is the most important.

There is a tendency to overcomplicate a learning strategy by thinking the more complex it is, the more effective it is. Quite the opposite is true.

Simpler is more effective. Complex learning strategies are not only hard to follow, they are extremely difficult to maintain and evolve.

Employees want to know what they need to learn to succeed in their current role, prepare for their next role, and grow their career. Plain and simple.

Your job is to provide them the tools, learning, and support to do just that while you are positively affecting the business. Doing that, you can successfully drive higher engagement, lower attrition, higher customer satisfaction, higher business results, and—ultimately—top-line growth.

Tip 4: Socialize, test, refine, iterate, repeat

Once you have the basic framework for your overall learning strategy, start socializing with some of the individuals you interviewed. This will help you clarify your understanding of the needs.

Key elements in your strategy should be things such as onboarding new employees, developing emerging leaders, preparing employees for their next role, supporting them in their current role, and helping them to continuously learn and grow their careers at the company.

Do not rush through this step—you'll want to test pieces of your strategy, refine it, adjust or iterate, and then repeat. I spent nearly nine months socializing and refining my strategy with stakeholders to ensure that I truly understood their problems and whether my ideas would help solve them. 

Of course, I didn't wait a whole year to start solving problems. I prioritized the needs and had my team design and develop programs to solve some of the more urgent issues while we were building the overall strategy. This helped us test some of our theories.

If they succeeded, we had testimonials for when we launched the strategy broadly. In other words, we were building the plane while we were flying it. Once I had the strategy reasonably solidified, my team and I began formalizing it.

Tip 5: Use your budget wisely

It is typical in the learning industry to be expected to do more with less. Prioritize your spending to focus first on where you can drive the highest value for your investment. Spend wisely while you formulate.

Build a learning portfolio with a combination of various learning modalities, such as instructor-led, e-learning, microlearning, video, simulations, performance support tools, and mobile solutions. For learning to be most effective, it must be done in a variety of ways with the same or similar content.

And don't forget to include coaching, because it is the key to success. Provide guides to managers as to how to coach employees after the learning event.  

For delivery, use a leaders-as-teachers strategy. I love doing train-the-trainer sessions with leaders so that they can be teachers. I find that for functional courses, leaders who deal with a topic daily can provide a business context and relevance that a typical trainer or facilitator cannot. In my experience, when leaders teach, it is great exposure and increases their credibility significantly.

Tip 6: Evaluate and measure for business impact

Business impact is the Holy Grail for any learning strategy.

Getting deep into performance and business results is necessary to prove your value to the organization. By measuring the performance and business results of individuals who attended certain programs against those who didn't, you can see learning's impact on the business.

To measure business impact at TELUS, my team counted the eligible employees who attended a given program. For example, if a program was offered for frontline supervisors, all frontline supervisors were eligible to attend.

Unfortunately, measuring business impact is not easy. It took us months to determine what data to look for, where to pull it from, how to determine its accuracy, and how to create meaningful reports and dashboards to show the business impact.

It was a complex undertaking. Our final dashboard showed analytics data from four different resources. When we finally presented the dashboards to senior leaders, demand for our learning programs increased.

Tip 7: Continue the momentum

Continue to refine content to ensure it still supports the business, solves problems, and improves performance. To keep the learning strategy relevant, build in a two-year evolution cycle, and continuously look for business problems to solve.

Provide continuous learning opportunities for employees to ensure they keep learning, growing, and performing at a high level. Identify skills employees will need in the foreseeable future, and build programs that prepare employees for those inevitable roles.

Support the development of your L&D team to support their growth as learning professionals.

Stay in sync with where your company is going and what it will need in the future to be successful. Stay on top of trends in your company's industry.

Check out the competition. Conduct proactive conversations with your stakeholders and business leaders, and listen to their fears and concerns about how the company will meet its future goals.

And keep learning so that you can continue to drive business impact.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Michelle Braden is vice president, Global Learning and Talent Management at WEX, Inc.

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