Is Your Learning Department Strategic or Just Necessary?

» Posted by Jeanne Meister  » Posted on 12.03.07

Published December 2003

I read the article and thought, “What will preclude this from being said about the learning department?” The answer, I believe, is to take a strategic view of learning.

CLOs want to take a strategic view of learning but often ask, “What does it mean to be a strategic partner?” While there is a recognition that strategic management of the learning function will confer competitive advantage to an organization, CLO-talk soon turns from what to how—how to assume a more strategic role within the organization. Does having a governing board of senior business leaders suffice? Is meeting with the CEO every quarter enough? In other words, what should one be doing daily to ensure linkage between learning and business outcomes?

Being strategic starts with operating in a way that makes you aware of the powerful effect learning can have on organizational competitiveness. It means creating learning solutions that can benefit the organization as a whole rather than just responding to the serial requests of individual business-unit leaders. It means welcoming the heads of business units into the planning process of the learning department.

Start with a benchmark analysis of your role and see if you have taken a leadership position in all of the following areas:

  • Developing an Enterprise-Wide Strategic Plan for Learning: This will provide a rigorous baseline analysis to scope out the total change opportunity and to select projects and priorities that will create a compelling business case. The plan should include the vision, mission, strategic intent, scope, formal and informal learning, technology plan, marketing and communications, staff development, vendor management and budget.
  • Creating an Assessment of Staff Competencies: Assess whether you have the right mix of skills on your staff. This should include a mix of learning technology; strategic planning; finance, budgeting and project management; leadership development; performance consulting; and marketing and communications. If you focus the light on your department, while scary, it will give you more credibility in the end.
  • Developing Forecasting and Reporting Tools: These tools should measure outcomes of learning such as course hours produced (course hours forecast versus actual and course hours by media mix), student days delivered and product cycle time from idea to the development and delivery of a learning solution.
  • Launching a Governing Board: It is crucial to involve and engage business unit leaders because of the inherent decentralized nature of learning. Some have even said that business-unit buy-in can be more important than senior-management buy-in in terms of giving the learning function the strategic focus it needs to align to business outcomes. Perhaps the board’s most important mission is to provide stewardship for learning and employee development while creating the processes to ensure that the organization’s investment in learning produces business outcomes. The governing board should be thought of as a consulting arm of the learning department providing input to link learning with key goals.
  • Drafting a Communications Plan: A communications plan is necessary to demonstrate how learning is transforming the business and differentiating the organization from its key competitors. The most important communications tool you can create is the corporate learning annual report, which lists your accomplishments and profiles how learning has resulted in competitive advantage.

Being a strategic partner means ensuring the largest part of your workday is spent meeting with business executives and department heads to strategize how learning can assist them in meeting their business objectives. Above all, strategy for chief learning officers means ensuring that learning is a key component of the success of all business unit projects.

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