Learning and Development

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A learning and development (L&D) strategy articulates the workforce capabilities, skills or competencies required, and how these can be developed, to ensure a sustainable, successful organisation.

The L&D strategy must reflect and reinforce the approach within the broader HRM strategy and integrate with other strategies (for example, reward). Ultimately the L&D strategy has to align with the overarching business strategy to deliver success.

When developing strategy, it is useful to adopt the financial and operational language of businessto ensure the L&D intent is understood by the stakeholders in the organisation. being financially and operationally ‘savvy’, L&D can also challenge decisions that risk damaging organisational value and employee engagement.

A key element of an organisation’s learning strategy is to target the long-term development of exceptionally high-performing or high-potential individuals (sometimes defined as ‘talent’), who are critical to long-term business success. This includes interventions such as mentoring programmes with senior leaders, in-house development courses and project-based learning.

While some organisations develop an exclusive focus where learning opportunities may be restricted to such key individuals, other organisations define all staff as ‘talent’ and run a broader suite of programmes to suit a broader strategy, adopting a more inclusive approach to employee development.

An effective organisational learning strategy can provide a vision which supports the management of change, enhances employee engagement and helps drive high performance and ensures long term business success.

Stakeholders in organisational learning and development

Alignment is a critical issue in developing an L&D strategy. Without alignment to a wider business strategy, L&D will not achieve senior stakeholder support. Without senior stakeholder support, L&D will not achieve anything at all.

The RAM approach

The RAM approach puts alignment at the centre of L&D strategy development which helps to focus the analysis on the key business and organisational outcomes in terms of:

  • Relevance: how the strategy will meet opportunities and challenges for the business
  • Alignment: how the strategy aligns to other strategies in the business , for example HR and finance
  • Measurement: how the strategy will be evaluated effectively and consistently.

Stakeholder management

When creating, reviewing or implementing the overall L&D strategy and associated practices, it’s important to involve stakeholders beyond the HR/L&D functions alone. In practice, it’s likely that the following stakeholders will wish to input:

  • senior management/the board
  • line managers
  • operational managers
  • individual members of staff
  • trade unions or staff representatives operate (including trade union learning representatives) – in countries where they operate.

In larger organisations there may be varying strategies or processes in different divisions or functions, so it may be appropriate to involve stakeholders across a range of divisions.

Allocating responsibility for learning

Only individuals can learn, and only they can choose to apply their new skills to the work they perform. However, the organisation has a responsibility to set out the aims and purposes of learning, and to give support via investment in time and resources to allow learning to happen. A company-wide L&D strategy is normally managed by the HR function or by a specialist L&D function in larger organisations.

However, not all the investment in learning will be managed by HR professionals (especially in smaller organisations), and there will also be responsibilities for other parties such as line managers or knowledge management specialists.

The role of line managers

Line managers are critical as the gatekeepers to individual learning and development, and they also need support for their own development. It is increasingly commonplace and sensible to see people development as part of any manager’s role. Where there is recognition and reward for these responsibilities, it is more likely that line managers will input high-quality time towards coaching and work-based learning activities. Line manager involvement is most effective when the responsibility for learning and development is integrated into leadership expectations.

Translating the learning strategy into action

An overall L&D strategy is a statement of intent and more details are needed to provide guidance on how it will be implemented and who will take charge. Some of the key factors are set out below, these are questions that need to be asked and the choices that organisations need to make for L&D practice to achieve its strategic aims.

Setting learning and development priorities

Organisations need to decide how often organisational, team and individual learning needs are analysed, and who will set the priorities that form the learning plan for the next period.

It is common for most organisations to undergo development reviews with employees once a year, however, it is advisable to review employees’ development needs more regularly to ensure the organisation stays agile and able to manage changing business needs.

Performance management and appraisal

Using performance managementtechniques can help HR and line managers achieve business targets by, amongst other things, making sure their teams have the right level of capability.

Individual development needs may be included in appraisal or development reviews based on the learning goals and personal development plans. It is important to factor the agility to respond quickly and appropriately to regular manager meetings with staff into the L&D strategy.

Resources for learning and development

Budgets and resource planning are critical to the effective implementation of learning strategy. Being open minded to what can be achieved with little or no budget is useful. Learning strategies can benefit from harnessing the knowledge within an organisation.

What kind of learning methods?

Questions that may help determine the nature of learning and development provision include the following:

  • Will internal staff or outside consultants deliver learning interventions?
  • What forms of learning – technical skills or leadership development, for instance – will be encouraged?
  • What methods and modes of delivery will be used, for example, face to face, digital or a blend)?
  • What relationship is there between learning and formal qualifications, for example, is learning be accredited by educational institutions?
  • Are any government-backed programmes (such as apprenticeships) appropriate to help meet learning needs within the organisation?
  • Is there a good range of formal and informal learning opportunities available?
  • What can learners do to enable them to continue applying the learning?


Given that effective implementation of the L&D strategy is critical to business success, it is essential to regularly review and assess the use of learning activities. Deciding how evaluation will be measured before the learning takes place is a sound principle of any L&D strategy.


In mature economies, innovation is critical. Organisations are constantly seeking to innovate and find novel solutions to the challenges they face. L&D strategy needs to specifically address innovation and will need to adopt an agile approach with regular reviews to incorporate the changing needs of the business.

How are learning and development needs identified?

Learning and development needs can be identified through formal or informal assessment of prevailing levels of skills, attitudes and knowledge, and on any current or anticipated gaps. Such analysis will enable decisions about what learning needs are prevalent at individual, team or organisational level. These gaps should be interpreted and prioritised in connection with the wider organisational strategy.

Implementing a formal learning needs analysis (LNA) – also sometimes known by alternative terms such as training needs analysis (TNA) or training and learning needs analysis (TLNA) – may be seen as a health check on the skills, talent and capabilities of the organisation (or part of the organisation). It is based on the systematic gathering of data about employees’ capabilities and organisational demands for skills, alongside an analysis of the implications of new and changed roles for changes in capability.

Such a process should flow from business strategy, and its aim is to produce a plan for the organisation to make sure there is sufficient capability to sustain business performance. It is also important to consider statutory requirements, for example certain positions require specified levels of regulatory expertise.

Preparing for learning needs analysis

Stakeholders need to be consulted early in the process, awhen information is being sought and results are communicated.

Levels of learning needs analysis

Analysis of learning and development needs can be done at several levels:

  • For the organisation as a whole – to understand the amount and types of learning needed to ensure that all employees have the right capabilities to deliver the organisation’s strategy.
  • For a specific department, project or area of work – new projects and opportunities require new ways of working or reorganisation, while restructuring also necessitates changes in roles.
  • For individuals – linking their own personal learning and development needs to those of the business, often carried out as part of performance review.

The relevant function (for example, L&D or HR) should make sure that analysis carried out at any of these three levels are considered against one another.

Depending on the circumstances, a learning needs analysis may be a one-off exercise (such as an organisational or project-based skills audit), an ongoing operation (for example via annual appraisals) or a combination of approaches.

One common approach is for employers to follow the Investors in People (IiP) model which includes a formal process for identifying learning and development needs across an organisation. More information on IiP is available via their website.

The ‘RAM’ approach

it is critical that any assessment of learning needs should be careful and thorough, in today’s rapidly-changing business environment such a process needs to be agile and readily responsive. We have developed an approach we call ‘RAM’ (relevance, alignment, measurement) based on our research on the value of learning with the University of Portsmouth.

The RAM approach helps to focus the analysis on key business and organisational outcomes in the following ways:

  • Relevance: how existing or planned learning provision will meet new opportunities and challenges for the business.
  • Alignment: if the plan is to deliver a different L&D offer, it is critical for HR and L&D to talk to key managers and other stakeholders about what they seek to deliver and how the function can help them achieve it. It is also important to ensure that L&D is aligned to other key strategies such as reward, organisational development, engagement and other aspects of the management of human resources. Alignment with organisational strategy and its marketing and finance strategies and other dimensions of corporate strategy gives focus, purpose and relevance to L&D.
  • Measurement: it is also critical that the HR and L&D function measures and evaluates the interventions effectively and consistently. It may be helpful to use a mix of evaluation methods such as return on investment (ROI) and broader measures of expected change and improvement such as return on expectation, and to link L&D outcomes to key performance indicators (KPIs).

Capability analysis

Knowing which jobs will be done now and in future is the first step when reviewing skills needs. Keeping an open and experimental mind helps future proof this process since nobody can accurately predict what jobs will exist in the future. However being agile and prepared for change is important. Next, for each category of employees covered, the following questions should be considered:

  • Which capabilities will be required to carry out the job? (the person specification)
  • Which capabilities do existing employees possess? (a formal or informal skills analysis)
  • What are the gaps between existing capabilities and the new requirements? (the learning specification)

L&D professionals often find it helpful to use a breakdown of capabilities into ‘knowledge, skills and attitude’ when analysing needs to make sure that no aspects are missed. For example, when looking at the competence requirements in a project manager:

  • Knowledge elements might cover the nature of the projects managed, techniques of project management and the system used to manage projects, plus being well-networked to find any knowledge gaps.
  • High levels of skill in dealing with other people, managing the project team and influencing important stakeholders would be expected.
  • Certain attitude requirements would be relevant, such as attention to detail together with drive or persistence to overcome obstacles and see the project through.

Competency frameworks can provide more detailed structures for looking at job requirements.

Find out more about CIPD’s competency framework

Find out more about IHRP’s competencies framework

Collecting and using the data

Gathering data on learning needs

After planning the extent and nature of the analysis, the next stage is to decide how the information can be collected. Potential methods include:

  • Documentation – for example organisation-wide business plans, objectives and new work standards, job descriptions and person specifications.
  • Interviews with line managers or other key players – these will often be primary sources of information on plans, work organisation and changes, or to expand on the data available in documentations.
  • Questionnaire-based or other surveys of managers, employees and their representatives.
  • Pre-existing online data, for example from management information systems or virtual learning environments.
  • Information on existing competence frameworks and analysis of levels of competence achieved.
  • Performance management and appraisal data captured both formally and informally.

Much of this data will be sensitive, particularly where individuals’ knowledge and skills gaps are exposed, so confidentiality must be respected. In addition, there are often times when major change is planned that senior management wish to keep confidential. In these situations, learning professionals may need to build relationships and persuade management that learning interventions could contribute to the success of the initiative.

Learning professionals may wish to take advantage of analytic approaches using ‘big data’ which can provide more insight.

Using the learning needs analysis results

Collating the information from the needs analysis will allow several outputs:

  • A report of overall learning needs for the organisation or department – to form the basis of an L&D strategy or form part of the business planning process.
  • Prioritising the learning needs identified – discussions with senior managers will provide guidance on which gaps are most critical. Concentrating on learning outcomes is important.
  • Learning and development plans – once priorities and budgets are set, the L&D team will be able to set plans for learning interventions. These plans will prioritise content and methods or processes appropriate to meet the needs identified. Line managers will also have a clear idea of areas they need to coach or develop skills in their teams.
  • Personal development plans – plans for individual learning, aligned with the resources available.

All these outputs will need to be discussed and agreed with the stakeholders concerned – most obviously senior management and line managers of individuals covered by the LNA.

Learning needs analysis for smaller organisations

The formal process of LNA may seem best suited to larger organisations where dedicated L&D and HR functions exist to deliver learning. However, identifying learning needs which align learning provision with strategy and the delivery of business results applies to smaller organisations too. In such organisations, where people often fulfil multiple roles, it is useful to focus on:

  • consulting with business leaders on how any skills gaps can be identified and addressed
  • assessing the costs and benefits that apply for smaller businesses
  • exploring sources of funding/resourcing – government support may be available for smaller enterprises, for example around apprenticeships, while student projects can also provide short-term capability and skills
  • developing solutions that allow flexible learning or alternative forms of delivery – as smaller organisations often can’t afford to have key staff released to attend training courses during key working hours.


Evaluating learning and development

The evaluation of learning and development (L&D) is the formal or informal assessment of the quality and effectiveness of an organisation’s learning and development provision, usually by some measure of the merit of the provision itself (the input, for example the quality of course content and presentation) and/or by monitoring its impact (the outcomes, for example improved skills/qualifications or enhanced productivity/profitability).

Coverage of learning and development evaluation

The process of evaluating L&D can be undertaken across an organisation as a whole or for a particular part of the organisation or some group within it – for example, for those employees identified as ‘talent’ (that is, exceptionally high-performing or high-potential individuals).

The majority of employers carry out some evaluation of learning interventions in their organisations which can include:

  • ‘Happy sheets’ – post-training questionnaires asking course participants to rate how satisfied they feel with the standard of provision.
  • Testimonies of individuals and direct observation.
  • Return on expected outcomes – for example, whether line managers testify during performance reviews that individuals are able to demonstrate those new or enhanced competencies that the learning intervention was anticipated to deliver.
  • The impact on business key performance indicators.
  • Return on investment – the financial or economic benefit that is attributable to the learning intervention in relation to the cost of the investment in learning programmes.
  • Development metrics – such as psychometrics or 360 feedback.
  • Quantitative survey methods to assess behaviour change.

Evaluation can be very difficult in practice to measure the impact of learning, particularly its effect on business success.

These challenges become more prevalent as L&D moves away from only offering training days and moves into a social learning space, where sharing, impact and kudos are less tangible measures. However just because something is difficult does not mean it should be ignored.


Common learning and development evaluation methods

The Kirkpatrick model

The seminal model for learning and development evaluation, developed by US academic Don Kirkpatrick, was first published in 1959 and remains influential today. It outlines four levels for learning or training evaluation:

  • reactions – ‘liking or feelings for a programme’
  • learning – ‘principles, facts etc absorbed’
  • behaviour – ‘using learning on the job’
  • results – ‘increased production, reduced costs, etc’.

    This was helpful guidance, but 30 years later Alliger and Janak found that the relationships between the levels were weak because each level is not always linked positively to the next.

    Various surveys from the Association for Talent Development have found that most attention is focused on evaluation of training at the reactions level because of the difficulties and time costs of measuring the other three levels.

    Philips’ return on investment model

    By the mid-1980s calls began to emerge for return on investment (ROI) analyses of training efforts. Some studies found very satisfying figures, but the key criticisms of the ROI approach remain. For example, ROI provides a snapshot at only a single point in time, whereas practitioners might want to know more about the return on learning over time. Moreover, like many approaches to training evaluation, ROI focuses primarily on the training intervention rather than any planned, concurrent or coincidental factors that boost ongoing learning output and outcomes.

    More rigorous approaches to ROI are provided by Philips and Philips building on the Kirkpatrick model by adding ROI as a fifth level. However, most ROI is post project and does not build from a baseline. Another problem is that the arithmetic of ROI means that when a small cost learning intervention is set against a big project cost, it can look superficially impressive:

    In contrast to the training-centric approach, Guzzo & Gannet conducted a useful meta-analysis of 98 studies about ‘psychologically-based interventions to raise worker productivity’. They found that training and goal setting were best, followed by financial incentives and job design which had some effect, with management by objectives and appraisal and feedback the least effective. Unfortunately, it seems that attempts at this type of holistic study – that is, comparing what helps to raise performance rather than beginning with an assumption that training is the answer – are rare.

    Brinkerhoff success case study model

    A key criticism of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model is that changes to performance cannot solely be linked to learning. The Brinkerhoff success case study model (SCM) addresses this challenge by proposing that a wider focus on systems and notes four key questions that should be considered in the evaluation process:

    • How well is an organization using learning to improve performance?
    • What organizational processes/resources are in place to support performance improvement? What needs to be improved?
    • What organizational barriers stand in the way of performance improvement?

    Firstly, an SCM evaluation involves finding likely ‘success cases’ where individuals or teams have benefited from the learning. These are typically gained through a survey, performance reports, organisational data or the ‘information grapevine’. Those representing potential ‘success cases’ are interviewed and ‘screened’ to find if they genuinely represent verifiable success with corroborating evidence from other parties. Factors that contribute to success beyond the learning intervention are also explored.

    Secondly, an SCM evaluation looks at ‘non-success cases’ to discover those who have found little or no value from the learning. Exploring the reasons why can be very illuminating.

    Following analysis the successes and non-successes ‘stories’ are shared.

    Owing to the nature of the sampling process, SCM should not be seen as comprehensive evaluation method but provides a manageable, cost-effective approach to determine success insights and areas for improvement.

    Other approaches – CIRO model

    The CIRO model developed by Warr, Bird and Rackham focuses the evaluation process on context, input, reaction and output.

    • Context – collecting information about performance deficiencies and from this setting training objectives.
    • Input – analysing the effectiveness of the training design, planning, management, delivery and resourcing to achieve the desired objectives.
    • Reaction – analysing the reactions of learners to enable improvements to be made.
    • Outcome – evaluating what actually happened as a result of training measured at the learner, workplace, team or department and wider business level.

    Other approaches – Easterby-Smith model

    By the mid-1990s Easterby-Smith was able to draw together four main strands for the purposes of learning evaluation:

    • Proving – that the training worked or had measurable impact in itself
    • Controlling – for example, the time needed for training courses, access to costly off-the-job programmes, consistency or compliance requirements
    • Improving – for example, the training, trainers, course content and arrangements etc
    • Reinforcing – using evaluation efforts as a deliberate contribution to the learning process itself.


    Implications for future learning evaluation efforts

    The focus on learning outcomes

    An immediately obvious implication of L&D evaluation research is the need to focus on learning outcomes – broadly defined as some permanent or long-lasting change in knowledge, skills and attitudes – which is an output or outcome, rather than on any training itself which is an input.

    The ’talent analytics’ perspective

    Learning is about developing individual and organisational talent and capability, and a new perspective on this is provided by talent analytics. Simply put, this is about ’mining’ a whole range of data streams to gain insight into how people learn and develop. Looking at issues such as how we use logic, risk and segmentation to optimise the way we develop talent and provide future capability is an exciting and challenging area of HR. It also provides the opportunity for real time evaluation close to the operational pulse of the organisation and is therefore more likely to be useful as a decision tool. Essentially, it is an evidence-based approach to demonstrate value.

    Read more on Human capital metrics and reporting.

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