•   Article   •   6 mins

6 Steps to Align L&D with Your Business

When transforming the way your department operates, it’s easy to look straight to a new tool to kickstart that change. Perhaps that’s why two of every three talent development leaders are looking for new solutions to transform their people and their organizations.

But true transformation cannot come from one siloed sector of the business — nor can it be achieved simply by purchasing a new tool. For technology investments to have a real impact, HR and L&D need to align with the larger business.

That’s why we asked Amanda Nolen, co-founder of NilesNolen, to speak at our annual LENS conference on how to align HR with the rest of the organization. She opened her presentation with a warning: “If you decide to invest in a new platform, technology alone will not achieve transformation. But it could derail it.”

Learning technology is like a powerful vehicle — a racecar, Nolen said, adding that you need to really understand how to drive it, or you’re going to crash and burn. And if you want to avoid that by driving slowly and cautiously, using the bare minimum of the potential, then what was the point of getting a big, powerful motor vehicle over a basic sedan? 

If you’re going to invest in a powerful tool, you’ll only see max value if you take the time to learn how to use the new technology effectively, and that means changing not only your mindset but the learning culture of your L&D teams as well.

To accomplish this transformation, Nolen laid out six steps:

Degreed LENS Lite: The Edtech Ecosystem
Amanda Nolen, NilesNolen, Degreed LENS Lite 2020

1.  Refine Your Content Strategy

“You are what you eat,” Nolen said. “And the same is true for an LXP…It’s only as good as the content you feed it.” 

When you think about the types of platforms that people revisit constantly, they are platforms that have fresh, relevant content for consumers every time. Think Instagram, Netflix, even Tinder or Bumble. It’s new, it’s quality, it’s customized. 

So when you think about the implementation of your new learning ecosystem, think past the launch; plan out your long-term content strategy. Nolen recommended a shift from courses to resources. Courses still do (and always will) have their place in corporate learning, but according to recent Degreed research, only 26% of respondents said they went to their HR or formal training teams when they needed to learn something new. The same research showed that:

  • 65% of workers use specific websites to learn
  • 53% use search engines
  • 62% turn to their professional networks
  • 45% ask mentors
  • 44% ask teammates
  • 33% use online social communities

These more accessible and popular learning modalities need to be factored into a modern content strategy.

2. Define a New Target Operating Model

Some learning, like compliance training, happens in an annual cadence or needs to happen at a specific time. But for others, Nolen recommended ditching the traditional course catalog and annual plan. “You’re going to want to free up 60 to 70% of your budget for emerging business needs.” 

In fact, L&D should start acting a lot more like an emergency room. In the ER, a small cut isn’t treated the same as a heart attack. Medical professionals prioritize based on urgent needs, and your L&D department should be no different. 

3. Act Like a Performance Consultant

Acting like a business partner (or an emergency room) is going to mean saying no to things — or at least saying “not now.” To see real results, be brutally efficient about what you build.

Modern L&D departments can no longer simply take orders. Instead, Nolen said, prioritization should be based on data and proven gaps. When it is, L&D leaders become performance consultants to the business, driving real, demonstrable results.

Amanda Nolen on learning initiatives

4. Use a Data-Driven Learning Design

To prioritize ruthlessly, L&D teams need good data. “Without data, it’s just an opinion,” Nolan said. “And it’s much harder to push back when stakeholders make a request that you don’t want to honor.” 

Data can also help you make decisions — making you smarter about the learning you offer. Highly impactful L&D leaders use data to help them understand what kind of content works best, and how and when people are more likely to consume that content.

“Don’t wait until your learning initiative is over to find out if it worked,” Nolan cautioned. “That’s an autopsy. You’ve got to measure, measure, measure, and iterate if something went wrong.”

Data is essential to demonstrating impact. Remember to always start with benchmarking the current skills of your organization, Nolen said. And trace your initiatives back to retention, performance, engagement, speed to productivity, and other metrics that impact the larger organization.

5. Manage the Expectations of Your Stakeholders

Everything covered so far is quite different from the ways in which L&D used to traditionally operate. And while there might be internal support initially, stakeholders might become skeptical when they begin seeing the changes or realize their requests won’t always immediately be honored.

It’s extremely important to manage the expectations of all your stakeholders, from your executive teams all the way down to your end-users. Be clear about what’s expected of them, and more importantly, what’s in it for them. 

Tell your advocates and champions what they can do to help market the new learning strategy internally. Rely on your line managers, and remember that real change happens just as often from the bottom up as from the top down.

6. Develop New L&D Skills

There’s been a lot of talk about upskilling and reskilling. They’re not just for the workforce in general. “L&D is going to need a plan for upskilling and reskilling itself,” Nolen said, adding it will take an entirely different skill set than facilitation and instructional design. 

New skills will be required in this new age of L&D. “Skills like marketing, data analytics, digital journalism, community management, and others” are what learning leaders should be looking to develop today.

Unfortunately, not all learning leaders are ready for this transformation. About one-third of the average L&D department will be ready to take on this future of learning and to develop new skills. The next third will be ready to modernize, but it may take some support to get there. The final third might really struggle with the magnitude of this transformation. 

Nolen’s advice for the final, struggling third of an L&D department? Allow them to take responsibility for the parts of learning, like compliance and leadership training, that function in more traditional ways.

How to choose the right vendor.

How to Choose the Right Solution for Your Organization

If you’re hanging on Amanda Nolen’s every word (like we are) then you’ll love her parting advice. Here’s what she said you need to know before selecting vendors to create your learning ecosystem:

Start with the why. To paraphrase Simon Sinek, one of the Degreed LENS Lite keynote speakers, when you’re searching for a solution ask yourself, “What business goal are you trying to accomplish?” Let that goal guide you. 

There’s no one right answer. You can’t simply Google the skills your workforce is going to need in the next 10 years. The technology you select needs to give you access to good skill data — because the feedback this data will offer you is always changing. Stay on top of emerging skills with engaging workforce technology.

Look for a solution that keeps you nimble. “Don’t get married to some rigid skills framework that takes you a year to build,” Nolen said. “You have to be agile and iterate.” Select a solution that is as agile and flexible as your workforce.

Don’t look for functionalities, look for a partner. “You’re not just looking for a vendor with all the functionalities,” Nolen said. “You’re looking for a solid partner — one that’s going to deliver on its promises and work with you every step of the way to make sure you succeed with your transformation.” It’s always about the people. It’s not about the tech. The best partners will challenge your thinking and show you new ways to consider old challenges.

Be wary of the “yes man.” The reality is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every organization is different, and they all have different needs. “If a provider says ‘yes’ to everything on your checklist, that’s bad news. Buyer beware,” Nolen said. “Even worse, if they say ‘No, but that’s on our roadmap,’ those are red flags. Avoid those who say yes to everything.” You want a partner who is honest about their solution and capabilities.

Want more guidance on how to choose the right solution for your workforce? Check out our Buyer’s Guide to Talent Development Technology. And in the meantime, watch the rest of our talented speakers from Degreed LENS Lite. 

About Amanda Nolen:

Amanda Nolen is a co-founder of NilesNolen, a boutique consultancy that drives business outcomes for global organizations through better learning & edtech strategy. To watch the full presentation, access it through the Degreed On Demand Page.

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