The latest research from the CIPD about the state of L&D is a mixed bag: Aligning L&D with business needs is looking rosy, but evaluating impact is pretty dismal. Ruth Stuart reports.

“Overall, just 7% said they evaluate the wider impact of L&D on the business and/or society”

We live and work in a time of significant change, where global megatrends are fundamentally impacting organisations. The speed of technological development is unprecedented, and globalisation continues to grow. We’re also seeing vast demographic shifts, as five generations work side by side. As many others have Evaluationhighlighted, this is an increasingly VUCA environment – one characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. So what does this mean for learning and development (L&D) professionals? At the CIPD we’ve been tracking trends in L&D practice for the last 17 years through our annual Learning and Development Survey. Here are some of this year’s key highlights:

The purpose of L&D
Given the context outlined above, we felt it was important to explore L&D professionals’ views about the purpose of L&D. Interestingly, the results were very consistent. The most common response was “improving individual and organisational performance, through developing employee capability”. Others suggested that it was about creating a great place to work or developing a learning culture to “enthuse, inspire, inform, encourage and facilitate”. No matter the response, it’s clear that we’ve moved far beyond thinking about L&D as purely ‘training’.

Alignment to business needs
In order to truly achieve our purpose and impact organisational performance, L&D needs to be aligned to overall business needs and strategy. Without this, any impact may be seriously affected and we risk investing in learning which isn’t fit for purpose. Two-thirds of our survey respondents said that L&D was extremely or broadly aligned to business strategy in their organisation. One-third said it was just somewhat or not at all aligned. While this presents a reasonably positive picture, many also identified barriers to achieving alignment – the most common being lack of clarity regarding the business strategy, changing/conflicting business priorities and lack of business insight. Interestingly, alignment was reported to be lower in organisations where L&D was part of generalist HR activities, rather than a specialist function.

Evaluating impact
A key focus of this year’s survey was on how L&D professionals evaluate the impact of L&D initiatives. Overall, just 7% said they evaluate the wider impact of L&D on the business and/or society, while half reported that they do not conduct any evaluation on the majority of L&D activities, or limit it to the satisfaction of participants. Interestingly, evaluations are considerably more common and more in-depth in organisations where L&D is aligned to business strategy. Intuitively this makes sense – if we want to impact organisational performance we need to know what really works, and why.

Building capability
Our findings also indicate a number of barriers to evaluating impact, most significantly ‘other business priorities’ restricting time and resources. The capability of L&D/HR professionals to conduct evaluations was also highlighted as a significant barrier. Interestingly, where capability was not identified as a barrier L&D professionals were much more likely to use the results of their evaluations to update L&D interventions and – crucially – to inform business strategy. With one in five L&D professionals reporting that their organisation encourages and enables the development of L&D capability to little or no extent, perhaps it’s time for greater focus on ‘L&D for L&D’?

Technological understanding
Another key area where this is apparent is technological understanding: 75% of L&D professionals say they use learning technologies, but only 24% are extremely or very confident in their use. In contrast, 32% say that have invested in learning technologies in the last year. Our survey respondents predict even greater use of learning technologies in future, particularly due to the rise of mobile learning. With a backdrop of increased technological competence throughout the global population and continual investment, we need to ensure we have the skills to harness the benefits of technology and maximise returns on our investments.

Looking ahead
It’s clear that as a profession we have some challenges ahead and capability gaps to address. But we’ve also seen through our research L&D: Evolving roles, enhancing skills (conducted in partnership with Towards Maturity) that organisations who are really embracing L&D development are making great strides in building the skills needed for the future – even with limited resources. The collective L&D community has vast expertise, and if we all channel this and share our knowledge, my hope is that we can achieve real change and progress within the profession – and then in turn positively impact organisational performance for the benefit of individuals, businesses, economies and society.

>>>Download the 2015 Learning and Development Survey here
>>>Download L&D: Evolving roles, enhancing skills report here

Ruth StuartRuth Stuart is the Research Adviser – L&D at the CIPD – the professional body for HR and people development.