The 5 key challenges an L&D leader faces and how to solve them

By Reg Agyeman

7 minute read

The L&D role is not easy. The spend is some of the highest, you have to cover everyone’s development (even though not everyone gets rewarded), you’re not seen as a profit centre, and operational realities make it difficult to keep up with digital ambitions.

But, learning is in the spotlight. Major analysts like McKinsey are turning their full focus on skills; leading businesses like Amazon are running innovative skills building programmes; even the UK government is promising a post-COVID skills overhaul.

The problem is that business leaders think that this attention alone is enough. Unfortunately, the vast majority of L&D departments face a number of challenges that don’t have quick fixes. They are often misidentified or misunderstood. As a result, L&D leaders either prematurely dismiss them, or assume that they’re insurmountable and don’t bother trying to solve what are actually solvable problems.

Until the main Learning and Development challenges are completely understood, businesses won’t be able to get at the roots of these problems and make learning - and therefore upskilling - effective.

1. Proving value

Proving value is the number one challenge Learning & Development leaders need to overcome. But it’s also one which some assume has already been resolved. With new platforms and technologies, L&D has a lot more metrics available. The most common are simple quantitative metrics like assets opens, platform usage, course completes etc.

But, bring these to upper management and they’ll ask “so what?”. They want to know how learning has improved people’s ability to excel at their jobs, to move to new roles, to keep up to date with skills changes. Essentially, how it makes or saves the company money. The majority of the time, even if learning is helping, there’s no way to prove it. Consequently, funding, department numbers, and engagement are low.

Things are improving. Back in the day, learning was about compliance and ticking rigid boxes. Skills are front page news now. Companies are spending more time thinking about what skills they need and how to build them. So, more systems are being put in place that L&D can mine for weightier proof of ROI.

However, this promise is yet to bring forth tangible gains. Despite a real desire to use skills as a common currency between learning and business effects, the two are too disparate for businesses to know the exchange rate.

2. Short resources

L&D is seen as a cost centre. At times like these it gets squeezed. It might not be as bad as the financial crash this time around, but most L&D departments have less funding and fewer operatives than they would like. In some businesses we’ve spoken to, swathes of L&D have been laid off. Now that we’re heading towards recovery, some of the L&D workforce is coming back. But not all, and not right now.

Management, however, wants the same results as before. When L&D can’t match expectations, two things happen. First, your people become disenfranchised with learning. Gaps in user experience, non-existent engagement campaigns, thinly spread attention all undermine engagement and the perception that learning is effective.

Second, senior management devalues the investment in whatever platform or content you have because results aren’t evident. When the platform they spent £100k on has had no tangible effect, they’re only willing to pay £80k the next time. But, because the circumstances don’t change, the platform becomes less effective. And so begins the familiar churn of learning technologies as businesses hop from one shiny platform to the next, without solving their underlying issues with content and understanding skills.

3. Disparate systems

There are so many learning systems and platforms out there, and most companies have at least a few (with some clients into triple digits!). A number of years ago, many businesses decided that the solution was to shift from multiple systems to a single vendor stack - something like Successfactors or Cornerstone.

The problem now is that the market has become boutique. There are so many products that are the best at what they do that any business trying a one-fits-all approach is losing out. But, if the platforms don’t interact with each other, a huge amount of their functionality is wasted and the learning experience becomes disjointed. Learning needs to bring all these platforms together to be effective. The main obstacles preventing this are time, numbers, and investment.

The solution to challenges 1-3: integration

To better prove its value, to convince management to extend resources, and to bring together disparate systems, learning ecosystems need to become more integrated.

With integrations in place, L&D can track a data trail from learning to bottom-line improvements. The immediate issue most ask at this point is “how do I get leadership to invest in integration when integrations are the only things that can give me convincing data?” The best way to escape this cycle is to present a real example. Take this one:

Your company probably has some sort of employee appraisal system. It usually involves a process or programme that tracks weekly goals, achievements, and failures, as well as the outcomes of weekly one-on-ones between employees and managers.

Imagine if this system was integrated with learning. Once a week, employees discuss areas of success and improvement with their managers - this is inevitably skills related. An integrated learning programme could pick up on these weekly discussions and provide relevant learning content, nuanced in terms of specific role and organisational priorities. Employees could then make note, in their next one-on-one, of what helped them improve and how.

That’s proof of value. Because this technology is latching onto an ongoing process, it can be expanded to a macro-level without any significant organisational effort. This is one example. There are countless potential integrations that could bolster learning’s value. Businesses just need to be persuaded to invest in them.

Once L&D gets hold of this proof, convincing management to provide resources, champion learning initiatives, and invest in more technology will be immeasurably simpler. On the technology side, leadership support could also fund API improvements to open up the business’s learning ecosystem. The more investment in this, the better platforms will be able to work with each other and provide integrated, functional data.

4. Continuing to make learning relevant

People are working from home, content consumption is up, and priorities and circumstances are changing month by month. L&D has to ensure that the content it provides is continually relevant to the day-to-day realities of people’s jobs. It’s not just learning’s effectiveness that depends on relevance. Engagement lives and dies on it too.

There are two main reasons someone engages with a learning platform. The first is that they’ve been told to read a specific piece of content or complete a course. The second often comes after the first is a success. It’s when learners go, of their own accord, into a platform to solve a problem.

If, in this second instance, the solution isn’t relevant, it’s a huge Learning and Development challenge getting users to come back. Learning systems need to build up trust to get engagement. That trust depends on relevance.

Solutions

Relevance requires a mix of human intelligence and technology. And it’s something we spend most of our time perfecting at Filtered. We’ve spoken at great length about how to use the data to pick out the skills your people need and how to use AI to match learning content to an individual skills signature.

Most L&D leaders know that data is the route to more relevant content. One thing most companies miss, however, is the essential on-the-job angle. The best way that L&D can ensure their content is relevant is to dive into the practicalities of how learning a new skill affects their learners and businesses. Understanding individual roles and how they relate to nuanced skills will give L&D a more accurate and agile understanding of what content learners need.

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5. Stubborn learning cultures

Sometimes, despite having the best system for your organisation, despite having the data and the resources, you don’t get the engagement because you have a cohort of people who don’t have learning in their mindset.

The culprits are usually people who are well established in their roles and don’t feel like they need to learn any more. That attitude is contagious. If management don’t take learning seriously, they won’t allow employees to set aside time to learn, divert individual learning resources, or recommend learning as a solution to a problem. In turn, without having it as an available resource, employees further down the ladder don’t see learning as worthwhile.

The key is getting these more senior employees on board, but this isn’t a short term investment. Culture change and building learning maturity is slow and your efforts might not show tangible results for a couple of years. Some of the time it won’t be up to L&D. Arguably the new post-COVID emphasis on skills has done more for learning cultures than most L&D departments could achieve internally. Nevertheless, there are concrete steps you can take to set up a foundation for developing a stronger learning culture.

Solutions

As with a lot of these Learning and Development challenges, the quickest solution is management buy-in. Which means data, integration etc. However, there are a number of other steps L&D can take.

The first is to invest in comms and internal marketing to amplify learning campaigns. If L&D can develop a communication strategy that breaks through the waves, it can get the learning/content/platforms it wants into the organisation’s common consciousness. Knowing the solution exists is half the battle when it comes to culture shifts.

The second is experience. People often see organisational culture as top-down. But, if every individual finds that a learning experience fits their exact needs, groundswell can quickly develop. However, for this to reach critical mass, the learning experience has to hit the mark every time.

Third is social proof. If learning can provide stories of people in an organisation that have benefited from learning, ones that everyone in their context can relate to, employees will be able to fill in the blanks about what they could achieve. This also points to the power of the programmes themselves - an important factor given how key trust is to engagement.

There’s a final step that’s underappreciated in the learning industry - thinking about how learning fits in with the overall HR strategy. Succession, performance, and acquisition should all be linked to learning strategy. For every employee and role, each stage will require different skills, which require different learning content. If L&D can play a part in wider strategy, it’ll be able to prove that learning increases efficiency and effectiveness. This ROI can snowball into more funding, and cultural prominence.

The challenges on the horizon

When you take something away and people still survive, it makes you rethink. L&D needs to have its own appraisal. Many of the L&D stalwarts like face-to-face learning have been unavailable for the past year - and yet learning has continued. A new challenge for leaders will be deciding what needs to come back, what needs to be tweaked, and what can be left behind once employees (partially) come back to work.

There’s another Learning and Development challenge, one that comes with success. Now that businesses have realised how essential skills will be to the future, they are likely to mature as learning organisations. This means that they’ll demand more of L&D, which will have to speed up to match that demand.

AI and automation are the only effective ways learning will have to keep up with increasingly complex demands. You might not know what those solutions will look like in the future. But one certainty is that L&D will need root integrations into the tech, and the wider company, to let that technology reach its full potential.

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