Your learning strategy must align with your organization's objectives.

Organizations face increasingly volatile and complex markets. To compete, they need a business strategy that counteracts negative forces and guides individual lines of business toward positive outcomes. The strategy needs to present leaders with guidelines on how to make decisions and allocate resources to accomplish key objectives, as well as define the actions people in the business should take (or not take) and the factors they need to prioritize to achieve desired goals.

What's the secret to successful strategy execution? People. A talent and learning strategy will ensure that an organization's workforce has the necessary skills to carry out the actions laid out in the business strategy. With that in mind, it's not hard to make the case that aligning an organization's learning strategy with its business objectives is a worthwhile exercise.

However, less than half of companies actually align their learning strategies, according to the ATD Research Report Aligning for Success. One-third (33 percent) of leaders in the study say that their strategies are aligned to a high extent, and only 16 percent of companies are aligning learning and business strategies to a very high extent.

Not surprisingly, the report reveals that organizations that do align learning and talent development with business strategy have better market performance compared with organizations with lower levels of alignment. Among respondents from high-performing organizations, 60 percent said their organization's learning and business goals are aligned to a high or very high extent, contrasted to 49 percent of all organizations in the study.

Why isn't learning aligned in more organizations?

So, what's missing? For starters, 2015 research from Bersin by Deliotte finds that not all organizations have an overall talent strategy, which it defines as interlocking decisions related to talent that enable an organization to most effectively execute its business strategy. "The talent strategy should provide leaders with guidance as to the critical investments—as well as some of the tactical decisions—that should be made," explains Stacia Sherman Garr, vice president of talent and HR research for Bersin by Deloitte.

But developing a talent strategy remains a challenge for many organizations. In Bersin by Deloitte's survey of 454 organizations, just 12 percent of organizations have a clear talent strategy with advanced and integrated talent processes in place. The survey also reveals that of those organizations that rate themselves at the highest level of effectiveness on business outcomes, at least half have an established talent strategy with some or many advanced processes in place.

"Organizations with a talent strategy are more than four times as likely to be in the top quartile of business outcomes. These business outcomes include innovation, improving processes to maximize business efficiency, and anticipating and responding to business changes efficiently and effectively," says Garr.

Why don't more organizations have a talent strategy? The answer may simply be that one isn't required or expected by top leaders. Talent development expert Edward E. Lawler opines that some business leaders believe their organizations can survive without top talent. No need for talent equates to no need for a talent strategy.

Meanwhile, others may acknowledge that talent management is important, but not as important as other business functions such as finance or technology. "Many executives are unable to see the relationship between talent issues and the business strategy of their organization," explains Lawler in a 2016 Forbes article. Consequently, chief talent development officers must take it upon themselves to develop a talent and learning strategy and link it to the overall business strategy.

How can CTDOs foster strategic alignment?

It should come as no surprise that ATD Research suggests that the daunting task of aligning talent strategy to business strategy needs to start at the top. Aligning for Success advises CTDOs to build connections with not only the CEO, who sets the business strategy, but also representatives of individual business units.

The CEO leads the strategy for the entire business, so any discussion on talent strategy needs to start there, the report recommends. Certainly, when a CTDO and CEO work together on a regular basis, it can be easier to achieve and attain alignment between talent and business goals. Keep in mind that a CEO's involvement with the talent development function, for example, can vary depending on such factors as company size, industry structure, and culture.

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CTDOs may have more contact—and success—with other senior leaders such as chief operating officers. Regardless of title, it is important to build working relationships with these senior leaders to build the strategy and help ensure alignment, while recognizing the competing demands on their time.

For example, UPS involves individuals at all levels in setting learning goals. Anne Schwartz, vice president of global leadership development at UPS, tells ATD Research that "strategy comes from corporate, but also the units." The units have extremely different goals and priorities, and Schwartz's team works with individual units to set appropriate learning strategies.

UPS and other high-performance companies highlighted in the report are standouts in this approach, though. Unfortunately, Aligning for Success reports that only about half of talent leaders and their teams can count on involvement of individual business units or smaller subdivisions in formulating learning strategies, a key element of any talent management plan. According to the data, only 52 percent of division or business leaders are involved with developing a learning strategy, followed by 51 percent of managers.

ATD Research confirms that including unit leaders in the development of learning strategy is correlated with better market performance (p<0.05). In addition, including managers and individual contributors is also significantly more common among high performers, confirming the importance of aligning learning strategy with business goals at every level, not just the C-level.

The message is clear: Successful talent leaders must not only gain support from senior leaders, but also build relationships with unit leaders and others in the field to ensure that the learning offerings and programs targeted toward individual groups are appropriate given the goals of those groups. As Schwartz points out, "CLOs are tasked with many business partners, not just one."

How do you prove alignment?

The top learning executives that ATD interviewed agreed on the importance of measuring alignment, while acknowledging the difficulty of measuring alignment across all of their learning programs. "Metrics are important; you need to be able to demonstrate the link between learning and performance," says Kimo Kippen of Hilton Worldwide in Aligning for Success.

However, when it comes to measuring alignment and quantifying the link between learning and business results, relatively few organizations do so rigorously. Less than 20 percent of organizations measure the business impact of learning to a high extent, and less than one in 10 use return on investment to a high extent. Using such metrics is associated with higher levels of business performance.

In many organizations, measuring across many learning programs is impossible given the difficulty of isolating the impact of learning, data limitations, and constraints on resources. One solution is to perform focused business impact or ROI studies that look at the impact of specific programs and courses. "We identify the training content to be measured intentionally," says Schwartz. "ROI is intense and requires data, and to do ROI studies on all our programs is unrealistic. We focus it on a couple of products with business impact."

Today more than ever, a solid business requires skilled talent—and skilled talent requires an effective talent development strategy. "The stakes are high for everyone associated with an organization—CEOs, CTDOs, top learning leaders, the workforce, and shareholders—when it comes to building and maintaining alignment between business strategy and learning strategy," says ATD Research.

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