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ATD Blog

Learning Strategy: Governance as the Guardrails for Success

Monday, June 14, 2021

For years the rallying cry for the training and learning community was having a “seat at the table,” the metaphor for being invited to the executive meetings. Then it happened—talent was invited into the executive suite. But just being at the meetings did not mean being influential or being a decision-maker or even being part of the discussion.

Another scenario evolved. The talent team developed a fantastic plan to optimize talent capability, and the CLO asked to share the concept with the executives at one of the meetings. The talent team spent hours putting a briefing together, ensuring all the details were covered. As soon as the presentation was over, several of the executives shot it down because of system issues the CLO never even knew about.

The lessons from these experiences prove that it takes more than the CLO being invited into a meeting to have an instrumental role related to executing learning strategy within the organization. The reality is the need for a learning governance system. Governance, whether at the corporate level or just for learning, exists as a process for people in the organization with the decision authority to provide oversight and advancement of initiatives, such as launching new products and results. According to Rita Mehegan Smith in Strategic Learning Alignment: Make Training a Valuable Business Partner, the five oversight areas that apply to corporations also apply to learning. These include accountability, operational effectiveness, program service and quality, effective controls, and adherence to enterprise priorities.

Various governing bodies can be employed. Governance links stakeholders from different divisions or business units and provides opportunities to enhance the diversity of thought when assessing initiatives and understanding the nuances of various components within the business (for example, engineering and finance). Linking groups of people together to solve problems or advance results can help develop credibility between and among these stakeholders. When stakeholder synergies are coupled with the same directional focus for solving a challenge or reaching a common goal the result will most likely be higher levels of impact.

At the corporate level, governance has various names, including board of directors, councils, forums, and steering groups. Each of these terms can be combined with words that suggest levels (such as strategic or executive), places (such as regional or global), or roles (such as learning or technology).


The structure of the learning function plays a large role in the configuration of governing bodies. Learning governance is most useful in decentralized and federated structural models because it provides a formal framework for stakeholders to manage decisions about how learning, talent development, and performance improvement practices work within the organization. It provides guard rails for aligning actions within the learning function to the top priorities of the business. It serves as a bridge, ensuring all parts of the system have been considered, and eliminates the scenario described above. It increases transparency between the investment and the practice, which is helpful when emphasizing return of investment. It can promote effectiveness in the quality of the results and efficiencies, especially fiscal responsibility.

Smith provides a framework for the levels and roles and responsibilities for a more formalized learning governance board, which lists options to consider for governance bodies based on needs and objectives and from the strategic at the top to the operational at the bottom. As would be expected, the governance design is based on the structure, size, organization, and so forth. Additionally, charters are needed to detail roles and responsibilities as well as expectations and milestones. As new members rotate on, they need to be properly onboarded and as they roll off, they need to be sufficiently recognized.

The success of the learning function in executing a learning strategy is highly dependent on excellence in the design, development, and delivery of the most appropriate learning solutions. These solutions include myriad learning assets such as curated content, courses, simulations, communities of practice, and coaching. These assets are supported by an unending variety of technologies. However, while these things are necessary, they are not enough. To be successful, you must also consider the structure of the learning function within the larger organizational ecosystem, all of the stakeholders, the business objectives to achieve, and the performance capabilities needed. One of the best ways to be successful is to have the appropriate governing bodies actively engaging with the learning function. How does the learning governance process in your organization enable the learning strategy to be successful in design, execution, and return on investment?

If your organization does not have a governance process, check out chapter 18 in Leading the Learning Function: Tools and Techniques for Organizational Impact for a case study.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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