In a recent Human Capital Media Industry Insights, “Are Your Objectives in Sync?”, Tim Harnett reminds us of the importance of aligning L&D initiatives to organizational goals. He shares some sobering research indicating that “only 8 percent of L&D professionals believe their mission is aligned to the company strategy” and “only 27 percent of HR professionals believe there is a connection between existing [learning] KPIs and business goals.” So despite perennial intentions to do a better job of alignment as a profession, we still have a long way to go.
I am afraid, though, that he does not go far enough in recommending the actions we need to take. He suggests that “identifying and tracking KPIs related to L&D initiatives is the best way to align L&D to organizational goals and make the business case for development programs.” For KPIs (key performance indicators), he is thinking of measures like level 1 participant satisfaction, learning hours, level 3 application and employee satisfaction. While these are all important measures, and can indeed help make the case for learning, they actually have nothing to do with alignment.
Here is why. Alignment is the proactive, strategic process of planning learning to directly support the important goals and needs of the organization. Alignment requires L&D leaders to discover the goals and needs of the organization and then go talk to the goal owners to determine whether learning has a role to play. If it does, the two parties need to agree on the specifics of the learning initiative including target audience, timing, type of learning, objectives, cost and measures of success (ideally the outcome or impact of the initiative on the goal or need). They must also agree on the mutual roles and responsibilities required from each party for success, including communication before the program and reinforcement afterward.
Measures or KPIs will come out of this process, but the measures are NOT the process. It is entirely conceivable to have a learning program with great effectiveness and efficiency measures indicating many employees took it, liked it, learned it and applied it, but the program was NOT aligned to the goals of the organization and should never have been funded. This is true even if it had a high ROI. Great numbers do not take the place of a great process, and alignment is not determined to have existed by looking back on measures or KPIs.
Conversely, you can easily imagine a program that is definitely aligned to one of the organization’s top goals but was executed so poorly that its effectiveness numbers came in very low. So, alignment is about the process of working with senior organizational leaders to plan learning initiatives that directly address their goals and needs. It must start with the organization’s goals and not with existing learning initiatives.
Last, there is much discussion these days about using employee engagement as an indicator of alignment. It is not for all the reasons discussed above. It is simply another measure and not a process. For engagement to be an indicator of alignment you would have to assume that employees know the organization’s goals as well as senior leaders do and that learning about those goals is the primary driver of engagement. Both of these assumptions are likely false. A focus on employee engagement would be appropriate only if engagement is the organization’s highest priority. In most organizations, business goals like higher revenue, lower costs and greater productivity are more important, though higher engagement is always a good thing and will contribute indirectly to achieving business goals.
In conclusion, I am happy to see focus on the important topic of alignment, but success will require us to work the process of alignment with senior leaders. At the end of this process, every L&D department should have a one-pager listing the organizational goals in the CEO’s priority order and, whenever it is agreed that learning has a role to play, a list under each goal of the key learning programs that are planned. This is how you demonstrate alignment, not through KPIs or measures.
David Vance is the executive director for the Center for Talent Reporting, founding and former president of Caterpillar University and author of “The Business of Learning.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.