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Essential Skills for Leading Strategic Learning Alignment

It is important to be aware of the cognitive habits that drive our technical tasks and behaviors as we seek to improve human and organizational performance. These cognitive skills frame our worldview and, in turn, how we approach our technical work. This provides us with a strong, flexible, and scalable base for understanding performance problems and selecting the best solutions. 

If the L&D function is going to evolve to provide real value to an organization, it must take a system view of the organization to understand the interactions across various issues, events, and consequences. It must also apply strategic thinking to determine where the organization wants to go, where it currently is in relation to that destination, and how to best get there. System thinking is present at every phase of a strategic process because it involves clarifying relationships and alignment of a series of elements and steps. 

Critical thinking is foundational for both system and strategic thinking, and is in fact a basis for most, if not all, leadership skills. Those who don’t master basic critical thinking skills are not likely to go far within their organization. Likewise, collaboration skills are key to getting things done. Organizations comprise groups of people. People must work together to make things happen and achieve results. Therefore, effectively working in groups, and partnering with other groups, is critical to organizational (and L&D) success. 

These are all complementary processes that the new generation of L&D professionals will have to master if we are to build credibility, become strategic partners to management, and add real value to our organizations. Here are some specific tasks and steps associated with each of these core skills. 

System Thinking 

System thinking is critical for today’s performance improvement practitioner. This approach to problem solving and decision making identifies the impact of a problem (and potential solutions) on the various segments of an organization, such as personnel, departments, customers, and suppliers. It is a way of thinking about how people, processes, and structures work together. Rather than perceiving performance issues as isolated, we see the relationships and interactions among the various parts of the organization. This view is holistic and essential to understanding the root causes of performance problems, as well as the potential success of any solution. 

Strategic Thinking 


Strategic thinking is a long-term perspective to problem solving and decision making. Performance improvement practitioners consider three timeframes—long term, now, and in between—with a focus on what has to be accomplished to achieve desired results. A strategic thinking approach to performance improvement offers opportunities to generate value, and supports the strategic priorities of the organization. As LTD professionals, we purposefully facilitate this strategic value by creating the links, or fit, between the work we do and the value it ultimately brings to our internal and external customers. Some of the ways we do this include:

  • Objective analysis: investigating what, when, why, where, and how.
  • Planning ahead: anticipating multiple scenarios and appropriate courses of action.
  • Thinking of how people, processes, and structures fit together in the organization.
  • Focusing on the organization’s competitive advantage. What is the organization’s differentiator? How is that differentiator leveraged? Strategic thinkers leverage these differentiators for today and for the long-term sustainability of the organization.
  • Identifying gaps between where the organization is today and where it wants to be in the future and devising appropriately aligned improvements to help the organization realize desired results. 

Critical Thinking

Those in performance improvement roles use critical thinking to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information to support the performance improvement decisions they make. Some examples are:

  • recognizing that a problem exists
  • developing an orderly approach so that tasks are prioritized and problems are recognized based on severity and urgency
  • being aware of your own performance or thinking process
  • asking the right questions
  • synthesizing information from a variety of sources
  • determining credibility and using this information to formulate and communicate decisions
  • remaining open to a variety of solutions
  • generating a reasonable method for selecting among several solutions
  • explaining the rationale for decisions to different audiences
  • presenting a coherent and persuasive argument on a controversial issue.


Working collaboratively means we have to ensure all stakeholders have a voice and the various people and teams involved are all communicating effectively. Such relationship building creates a joint effort between the stakeholders and L&D professionals: Both groups are working together to achieve common organizational goals.

Some examples of collaboration in performance improvement work include:

  • effective listening to better understand what’s important to your stakeholders, the context of the performance problem, and the critical success criteria and measureable indicators for performance improvements
  • promoting teamwork that recognizes and rewards achievement of group and organizational goals, rather than individual performance in the spirit of competition
  • establishing partnerships with other groups in the organization and reducing work done in silos
  • supporting and committing to group decisions to foster teamwork and shared accountability for performance for performance improvement efforts.

Check out the June 2015 TD at Work, “ Turning Trainers Into Strategic Business Partners,” to learn how to integrate these four essential skills into a structured, yet flexible, process for ensuring that your talent development solutions are clearly aligned with strategic objectives and generate measurable evidence of your contributions to the organization’s success. 

About the Author
Ingrid Guerra-López, PhD, is an internationally recognized performance improvement expert and bestselling author. She is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Needs Assessment and Evaluation, a firm that provides consulting, coaching, and training and development services focused on strategic measurement, management, and alignment of learning and performance improvement programs. Ingrid is also a professor at Wayne State University, where she conducts research and teaches graduate courses focused on performance measurement, management, and strategic alignment. She recently completed a term as director on the board of the International Society for Performance Improvement, and completed her tenure as editor-in-chief of Performance Improvement Quarterly.

Ingrid has authored seven books, including Needs Assessment for Organizational Success and Performance Evaluation: Proven Approaches to Improving Programs and Organizations. She has also authored approximately 100 articles and facilitated hundreds of international and national presentations and workshops on topics related to performance assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and strategic alignment. Her clients include international development agencies, government, education, military, healthcare, and corporate organizations. Ingrid has coached and mentored hundreds of graduate students, executives, managers, and other professionals, disseminating evidenced-based performance improvement practices internationally in more than 30 countries.
About the Author
Karen Hicks, PhD, has more than 15 years’ experience helping organizations build measurement and evaluation and talent development capabilities. She works to demonstrate the value of talent development through strategic alignment, assessment, and improvement.
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