Aligning Corporate Learning With Strategy

Too many corporate learning and development programs focus on the wrong things. A better approach to developing a company’s leadership and talent pipeline involves designing learning programs that link to the organization’s strategic priorities.

Survey after survey of CEOs points to a shortage of leadership and management talent as a leading concern.1 In an era when the capabilities of knowledge workers, not technology or capital, is often the key constraint on growth (particularly in emerging markets), this is hardly a surprise. The mystery is how ineffectual the response has been. It’s not that companies aren’t willing to invest in developing their people. They spend heavily in this area: In 2012, companies in developed economies spent nearly $400 billion on training.2 And yet, at least one study concludes that the majority of managers believe that employee performance wouldn’t suffer if their own company’s learning function were eliminated altogether!3 As corporate learning professionals, we find this lack of appreciation dismaying.

The fact is that much of the investment and effort that organizations spend on learning is focused on the wrong things. For example, companies often ask us to assess whether the types of learning experiences they provide their employees are “cutting-edge.” The proliferation of online courses and just-in-time knowledge available through mobile apps is prompting organizations to rethink traditional approaches to learning, so it’s understandable that many corporate learning leaders are paying more attention to innovative modes of instruction. In our view, technology has the potential to expand and democratize the reach of learning in organizations. Moreover, research in neuroscience and the science of learning is revealing more every day about how effective learning experiences engage the cognitive and emotional centers of our brains. But breakthrough advances will only be possible when learning is linked to business goals. In our opinion, the emphasis should be on strategic alignment of learning rather than on how learning is delivered.

The importance of alignment in learning and development is receiving increasing attention.4 In 2009, the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), based in Ixelles, Belgium, established a system for accrediting corporate learning organizations that included a set of criteria for assessing how well corporate learning aligns with overall corporate strategy. EFMD’s Corporate Learning Improvement Process, which one of us helped develop, was the first effort of its kind to define research-based assessment standards for evaluating and accrediting corporate universities and learning functions.


1. According to a 2012 survey, one in four CEOs said they were unable to pursue a market opportunity or have had to cancel or delay a strategic initiative because of talent constraints. Further, a 2011 World Economic Forum report describes the talent conundrum in stark terms: “Soon staggering talent gaps will appear in large parts of the world threatening economic growth. Economies will struggle to remain competitive while organizations will compete for talent on an unprecedented scale. Now, human capital is replacing financial capital as the engine of economic prosperity.” See, respectively, “15th Annual Global CEO Survey 2012: Delivering Results — Growth and Value in a Volatile World,”; and World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, “Global Talent Risk: Seven Responses,” 2011,

2. P. Kolo, R. Strack, P. Cavat, R. Torres, and V. Bhalla, “Corporate Universities: An Engine for Human Capital,” July 18, 2013,

3. Corporate Leadership Council, “Driving the Business Impact of L&D Staff,” Corporate Executive Board Company, London, 2012.

4. S. Ben-Hur, “The Business of Corporate Learning: Insights from Practice” (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 14.

5. A. Rutsch, “Creating Business Impact Through Learning Functions,” Global Focus 4, no.1 (2010), 64.

6. “15th Annual Global CEO Survey 2012.”

7. P. Voser, “Chief Executive Officer’s Review,” in “Shell Annual Report,” 2011,

8. This phrase has become part of Shell’s corporate language. Former CEO Peter Voser selected it to describe the company’s approach to leadership development.

9. Shell was recently included in the 2014 Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders; see “2014 Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders Winners,” n.d.,

10. Based on a global study of 23 companies ranging in size from 8,000 to 300,000 employees in a wide variety of industries; see P. Kolo et al., “Corporate Universities.”

11. S. Ben-Hur, B. Jaworski, and D. Gray, “Reimagining Crotonville: Epicenter of GE’s Leadership Culture (A),” IMD case study no. IMD-3-2313 (Lausanne, Switzerland: IMD, 2012).

12. Ibid.

13. B. George, K.G. Palepu, C.-I. Knoop, and M. Preble, “Unilever’s Paul Polman: Developing Global Leaders,” Harvard Business School case no. 413-097 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013).

2 Comments On: Aligning Corporate Learning With Strategy

  • Iskandar Noor | December 28, 2015

    Greetings from Malaysia.
    For the past few years I have tried to impress on many companies either as an L&D consultant or as a L&D employee, that training needs should be based on meeting business needs.
    Whenever they identify training needs, they look at the incumbents’ JD. Not against what they company wants to achieve, and the things they need to do to achieve those goals.
    Thanks for the article. Hope I can use this quote to give credibility to what I am doing now.
    “But breakthrough advances will only be possible when learning is linked to business goals. In our opinion, the emphasis should be on strategic alignment of learning rather than on how learning is delivered”
    Thanks again.

  • Travis Barker, MPA GCPM | March 6, 2016

    Learning infrastructures represent a core competency and a competitive advantage. This is no less true in the nonprofit sector where the organization’s mission, vision, and values are only realized when specific experiences or outcomes are achieved. Unfortunately, planning and achievement of outcomes realized through the combined efforts of core competencies leveraged throughout the organization is often out of reach of the average nonprofit.

    Consider the analogy of a train locomotive to represent one of the primary components of the organization’s value chain. The locomotive is responsible for setting the pace, direction, and structure for the rest of the components that follow. But what happens if the components following the locomotive are misaligned. Derailment!

    Ask yourself the following questions to get a better understanding of how your organization may be performing with systemic change and organizational learning:
    • Think of the last systemic change your organization implemented. How long ago was that? How did it perform? Were the intended outcomes reached? Are the results being maintained? Did the plan proceed generally as expected? Why or why not?
    In my 20 years in the nonprofit and service industry I have worked for several different organizations but observed similar patterns. This remains true regardless the organization’s size, niche, or country of operations.

    General themes observed include the following:

    1. Systemic misalignment is the norm, not the exception
    2. The skills needed to deliver consistent outcomes changes over time, and is not always available
    3. Microcosms often have greater pull than the larger system; and often have a great influence on the organization’s culture than the executive team.
    4. These points, in turn, influence the mission, vision, and values that are within reach of the organization’s efforts; there becomes a separation between espoused vs. held beliefs & values.
    5. Steps #1-5 often repeat themselves until the organization reaches a pivot point, and change becomes absolutely necessary. These changes are not always internally driven.

    From the standpoint of this post, misalignment often occurs early on and is sustained and reinforced by the organization’s culture. The architect of the organization’s culture is undoubtedly the chief executive officer, but it must be acknowledge that all stakeholders have a role to play in improving the organization’s ability to deliver on its mission, vision, and values. As often quoted in the business literature –

    “Don’t shoot the messenger for identifying areas for improvement”

    A system’s approach to service delivery requires feedback and participation from all stakeholders. This does not mean that personalities and conflicts should guide direction and the parameters of what the organizations can achieve. To the contrary!

    Consistent with organizational efforts to manage and leverage the talents inherent in a diverse workplace – talents must be deliberately identified, reinforced, and leveraged at the system’s level in order for their potential to be realized.

    As funding for the nonprofit sector becomes less and competition for available funding increases it becomes even more important for the nonprofit sector to increase their due diligence around resource allocation. The effective, efficient, and sustainable allocation of resources requires training; and the identification, implementation, and evaluation of effective training requires sound metrics. The quality of the organizational culture and its leadership is key to determining which quality outcomes are realized. The train, and the components that follow, need to be driving on the same track, at the same speed, and in the same direction if the destination is to be reached. Do not let artifacts along the way change your direction or your dedication to achieve great things!

    Travis Barker, MPA GCPM
    Innovate Vancouver

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