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ATD Blog

Why Josh Bersin Recommends Uniting Around the Capability Academy

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

If every business is unique, then why are learning programs all the same?

According to Josh Bersin’s latest report, Capability Academies: A New Approach for Critical Skills Development, 84 percent of organizations fail to deliver learning content that is relevant and aligned with the skills and capabilities needed for business success. This happens for two primary reasons:

  • Too many L&D departments pursue greater volume than value when investing in learning content. Leaders put resources behind extensive and unspecific content libraries of training for their employees, with technical skills development offerings that are not pertinent to their business.
  • L&D teams are not in sync with the priorities of other strategic business leaders like CEOs, CFOs and chief technology officers, whose business goals should be baked into the learning content deployed across their organizations. L&D professionals are no longer a firm’s content experts.

It is unsurprising, then, that Bersin finds that 75 percent of organizations are at low levels of L&D maturity, with learning offerings that are often self-directed, compliance focused, and episodic. This type of training is simply no longer sufficient in today’s economy, where purpose-driven, integrated, and differentiated companies thrive. This begs the question: How can organizations develop their employees’ business-specific skills in a scalable, structured, and directed way and achieve high L&D maturity?

Enter the capability academy.


What Is a Capability Academy?

Bersin defines a capability academy as “an architected collection of programs, content, experiences, assignments, and credentials based on a functional area” and suggests it is the future of the L&D function in enterprise business. The capability academy supports the idea that firms should organize learning around their business-specific, critical capabilities or business-contextualized skills (which are skills that are unique, exclusive, and proprietary to their company), and that strategic business leaders should be the driving force behind the learning content.

For example, a manufacturing company’s chief operating officer may be very heavily invested in sustainability practices as a core differentiator; a legacy financial services firm’s chief experience officer may be focused on promoting innovation to maintain market share; the chief human resources officer of a healthcare company might be pushing for more customer-centric patient care. A capability academy would designate these strategic business leaders as capability leaders that work together with the L&D function to develop a digital learning space where people go to advance the most relevant capabilities across the business. Together, they would ensure appropriate learning programs, assignments, and employee experiences are developed and deployed.


Bersin’s research confirms that the shift from low to high maturity in L&D organizations begins when this transformation from self-directed development to tailored learning takes place through the capability academy. Moreover, it is the key to propelling business-specific initiatives forward, which inspires employee engagement and retention. More than 70 percent of high-performing L&D organizations provide strategic capability academies, and their firms are:

  • Three times more likely to outperform other organizations in talent outcomes
  • Two times as likely to innovate and adapt to change
  • One and a half times more likely to exceed financial outcomes

How Do I Launch a Capability Academy?
According to Bersin, a capability academy should be built on one or multiple digital learning platforms that constitute a specific place or SPACE where people can go to advance their job-related capabilities. Using the SPACE acronym as a framework, he suggests that the selected platform enable the following attributes:

  • Sharing: Knowledge sharing by internal experts and external experts
  • Practice: Real work projects tailored to the company’s processes
  • Alignment: Aligned and prioritized to support development of capabilities agreed upon by business leaders as strategic, proprietary, and high value
  • Collaboration: Includes collaborative elements such as peer-to-peer interactions, discussion forums, and a mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities (Bersin also suggests that collaboration should often occur under the supervision of a mentor, coach, or facilitator.)
  • Expertise: Cultivates expertise in areas that differentiate business performance like operations, innovation, customer service, and growth

Bersin recommends an investment of $2,000 to $15,000 per employee when creating a capability academy, sponsored by the academy’s capability leader. Enterprise organizations that have invested in capability academies have seen significant returns on these investments. Some have even experienced double digit increases in revenue and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) growth.

Skills building, corporate learning, and capability development initiatives are business critical, especially amid an ambiguous financial and sociopolitical climate. Business leaders and L&D professionals need to be better aligned in developing strategic learning programs that enable their business’ competitive advantage in the marketplace. A capability academy answers the call for a transformative and actionable learning paradigm that serves this need.

About the Author

Alex Gruhin is head of brand experience for NovoEd. He is passionate about learning and development and has guest lectured on all things experiential and arts marketing at Columbia Business School, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Northwestern University, and the University of Indianapolis. He currently curates and co-hosts NovoEd's Wildly Capable podcast with Chief Learning Strategist Todd Moran.

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