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Ask a Trainer: How Can I Develop My Organization’s Learning Function?

Tuesday, September 8, 2020
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In this week’s Ask a Trainer guest post, Tamar Elkeles offers her advice about how learning professionals can grow their organizations’ learning function.

Dear Tamar,

I am currently a learning department of one. I do good work, but my relationship to the organization is mostly transactional; I’d say I still fall into the order-taker role. I believe that I could be doing more and affecting my organization in a bigger, more strategic way. Do you have any tips for how I can develop the learning function at my organization to become more of a strategic partner?



First, congratulations on being a learning “department.” I started my career the same way—as a single-person learning organization. As a “department of one,” you are in a unique position to create the function and your role. Remember that in order for you to become a strategic partner you must deliver exceptional results with your transactions.

I know it’s a tough place to start, but you’ll need to make sure that your leadership team understands your value in taking care of the necessities of the function (AKA the transactions) and that you execute flawlessly. If you can establish credibility with the leadership team by fulfilling their basic learning needs, they’ll more than likely begin to trust and rely on you for larger initiatives. When taking “orders” for learning, make sure to ask them what behaviors or changes they’d see in the organization/function/department if the learning was successful. Help them think through what success looks like so you can elevate their thinking about the effect learning has on the business.

There’s so much transformation in the learning and development field right now, and every company is different. If you’re in the healthcare industry, or at a startup, or at a company in another country, the one thing that will never change is that what works for your company is what’s most important.

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When I was starting out in my career, I was part of the ATD Forum, which is an amazing benchmarking group. It was 1992, and I had just started at Qualcomm as a single-person training organization. When I joined the ATD—ASTD at the time—Forum, it had people from big, well-known companies, and here I was coming from Qualcomm, which had fewer than a thousand employees at the time. I went to a Forum meeting one day and everyone was talking about how they were building these amazing training facilities. I went back to Qualcomm and said, “We need to build a training facility. That’s what all these companies are doing.” My boss looked at me like I was crazy. Then the next time I went to a Forum meeting, the other companies were talking about how they were selling their training facilities.

I bring up this story because when we start thinking about what works, we can’t benchmark with other companies and just import exactly what they’re doing into our company. We need to make it align with who we are as a company, the culture we have, the business that we’re in, and the management team and their vision. As learning professionals we often seek out external strategies, but the strategy needs to fit your company and your culture. One lesson I’ve learned during my 28 years in the learning space is that when you align with management’s vision and with the business, there’s no stopping what you can do as a learning organization.

I believe that we are businesspeople first and learning executives second. We need to be connected to the business and know what the issues are, know what the strategies are, know what the focus areas are. Learning is much bigger than just training. It’s not about programs; it’s about affecting performance and productivity across the organization. If we frame ourselves as people who are there to focus on improving performance and improving productivity, we have massive opportunity to affect the business.

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Learn more about leading learning organizations from Tamar Elkeles on the ATD Accidental Trainer podcast. Her episode will air on September 8, 2020.


If you have a question for Ask a Trainer, send it to [email protected]. You can find answers to previous questions by visiting the Ask a Trainer hub. Tim will be back next week to tackle a new question.



We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tamar Elkeles, PhD, is the chief learning officer for Qualcomm. She is responsible for creating and implementing the overall learning anddevelopment strategy for the company. Elkeles is a member of The Conference Board’s Executive Council on Talent and Organizational Development as well as a member of the CLO magazine Editorial Board. She holds both a MS and a PhD in organizational psychology.

2 Comments
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Good response Tamar and great question Adam - look forward to the response.
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I think there are some great points made here. I love the story about the training facilities. We do need focus on the needs of our organization; I do wonder, however, how we can learn best practices from others. We might be too close to the forest to see the trees in our own organization (or the other way around). How do we balance those creative and leadership tensions?
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