Dreaming of the Perfect Marriage: Learning and Organizational Strategy

chocolate chip cookies with a glass of milk

Data suggest that leverage points exist to change employee perceptions.

Few chief learning officers (CLOs) disagree they have a mandate to ensure that learning initiatives align with organizational strategy.  A great deal of research exists about how to align the two.  However, what does it look like for employees to connect their learning and development with an actual organization’s strategy?

The term “line of sight” refers to how well an employee can see and understand the connection between their work and organizational strategy.  If employees can see a connection between their daily work and strategy, they can better make decisions about the direction of their individual work and learning.  In particular, it helps employees know where to put their energy when competing priorities exist.  Frankly, strategy doesn’t matter if it doesn’t filter down to employees to affect their daily work.

What We Attempted to Find

We led a process of facilitating a system-wide vision and direction for organizational learning within a 40-location healthcare system with over 12,000 employees.  As one part of a larger 18-month engagement, our client wanted to understand employee needs for their learning, as well as the climate for learning within the organization. In other words, we wanted to find out how employees viewed the alignment between learning initiatives and the organization’s overall strategic goals.

The executive team had an aspiration of attaining “perfect alignment” between learning/organization development and systemwide strategy.  We measured that alignment with a survey instrument called the Strategic Human Resource Development Alignment Index (SHRD-AI). 

What We Found

We surveyed 2062 employees at all sites, both through email and deploying a team with tablets to capture folks in high-traffic areas who don’t sit at a desk all day.  Over half of the employees responding were in clinical roles (e.g., doctor, nurse), which we considered an accomplishment given the fast-paced nature of those jobs. 

In addition to providing really helpful information for use within the organization, we analyzed the data to see what insights other organizations could use from this new instrument we created. Here is what we found:

  • Awareness is Key.  Simply knowing what learning opportunities are available strongly related to employees’ perceptions of (1) having a positive organizational learning culture, (2) alignment of learning initiatives and organizational strategy, and (3) organizational investment in employees.  This finding suggests that both formal internal marketing of learning and strong word-of-mouth awareness can have a positive effect.
  • Employees Need to Perceive their Employer Invests in Them. Employees who perceived the organization invests in their development reported that (1) their managers supported their learning, (2) a more positive organizational learning culture existed, and (3) a more positive performance climate existed (i.e., they perceive their work to be meaningful, allowing for positive self-expression and contribution).  This finding suggests that CLOs need to ensure employees have an awareness of the value of the organization’s investment in employees.
  • Manager Support is a Key Leverage Point.  Employees who reported higher levels of managerial support for their learning also reported (1) higher levels of alignment between their learning and organizational strategy, (2) positive organizational learning culture, and a (3) positive performance climate where their work is personally meaningful.  Managers serve an essential role in connecting employees with the overall direction of learning and strategy.

What’s It Mean for CLOs?

CLOs need employees to understand the connection between learning/change initiatives and the strategic direction of organizations.  Our results suggest CLOs need to ensure continual communication on how the organization is investing in employee development and how that development connects with a culture of planned, strategic learning.  The need for repeated communication can’t be emphasized too much. 

Based on our findings, managers need to work individually with employees to support their learning goals and articulate how their learning and growth aligns with the organization’s strategy.  These conversations should occur regularly and should be part of a larger, recurring theme of emphasizing the connection between everyday work and strategy.  CLOs have a key role in educating other executives and mid-level managers on the importance of this recurring communication.

CLOs should advocate for including measures of organizational alignment in annual engagement surveys, to track success in linking learning and strategy, from the employee perspective.

CLOs who connect learning to strategy have the opportunity to ensure talent development remains a key priority. The good news is that CLOs have key leverage points to increase the “line of sight” connection between employees’ daily work, learning, and organizational strategy.  It requires focused, consistent messaging from CLOs to senior and mid-level leadership.  Internal marketing and word-of-mouth campaigns for learning initiatives provide a direct link for increasing employee awareness.  

This persistent attention provides the best opportunity for increasing on-the-ground employees’ connection of learning to overall organizational strategy.

Rod Githens, Ph.D. and Ann Herd, Ph.D.

Photo by Christina Branco on Unsplash