Is L&D Function Still Valuable?

The idea of elevating the learning-and-development function in a company may seem like an impossible task, but here are some ways to get started down that path.

By Katherine Shao and Brian Lambert

Like many other professions, the learning-and-development field is burning the candle at both ends. Changes have happened that require adaptation, and more changes are around the corner and down the road. We hear quite frequently about silos needing to be broken down, coupled with new ways of working and "changing the organization from within" to buttress employees who, in turn, can connect with the organization's customers. If we look at the L&D profession and its role in enabling change, a single question emerges above all others: "Is learning and development valuable anymore?"

Let's be clear: this isn't a declaration that L&D has no value to offer. But consider how the industry communicates its value today: "We make sure everyone in the organization has the knowledge and materials necessary to make the business function" is a typical phrase that we hear.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a business leader, or consider the feedback that comes from those who are recipients of L&D's outputs, they might have a different point of view. They might say, "Here's what we get from L&D. They design a course, throw a PowerPoint together, show the content to employees and send them on their way." 

Simply put, executives and business leaders really don't know what they are getting for the money that's spent on L&D.

It's even worse than that. Business leaders also do not understand fully what the learning function does. They know it exists in the company, and they continue funding it because they're told it's "what other companies do." But in reality, they see the learning function as a passive function, a check mark in a box to be quickly addressed so they can go on to handle the "more important" aspects of the business.

Unfortunately, we've heard some common refrains from L&D leaders hit with these kinds of wake-up calls:

      "I just got moved over to the sales organization. I have no idea what happened."

      "I just do what they tell me to do."

       "X amount of my budget has been shifted to department Y. I just found out about it yesterday and don't understand why."

      "We just did a survey of our call-center sites, and 85 percent of the site leaders say they have to re-work our content."

If we think about the business needs at hand, however, there is massive change, and at a far more rapid pace, than ever before. Doesn't this mean that there is more learning and development that needs to happen in the workplace? Herein lies the gap. On one side, there's how L&D is perceived today; on the other, there is a more elevated, value-added view of L&D as a key strategic enabler of business results.

This is more than just about how L&D communicates its value. It's about how L&D changes the game to be a more valuable function to the business. To give you an idea of the change involved, consider the following contrasts between L&D today and what it could look like in the future:

L&D Order Taker


Strategic Enabler of Business Change

Deliverables focus


Client outcomes focus

team/company centric


Client centric



Client value contribution




Lone wolf



Just showing up


Prepared for meetings

Waiting to be told


Engage the team

Blaming others


Accountable for actions

Knowledge warehouse



Hoard value


Contribute value

Resting on past success


Become an expert

Needing it all defined


Comfortable with ambiguity

Deliverables driven


Mission / objective driven

Overly cooperative


Comfortable with team friction







Expectations being levied by others


Sets and meets expectations

Listen for buzzwords


Listen to understand

What does this transformation of the L&D function mean in the real world? Consider these types of examples:

      An insurance company starts a new social-media center of excellence for engaging customers, and partners with L&D to help its different channels of agents learn how to shift their skills.

      A company that originally sold books online adapts its technology platform to offer the platform to businesses, and uses experiential learning to train and coach account teams to have conversations with new types of buyers.

      The L&D function at a large technology company that is predictably unwieldy and redundant standardizes and consolidates their sales support content behind specific sales objectives, and runs "sales learning labs" using a blend of facilitation and updated content.

Start thinking now how you can make the shift. For many teams, the idea of elevating the L&D function in their company seems like an impossible task. After all, aren't we proposing changing the entire way that L&D works? Yes, we are. And yes, it is possible. Here are ways to get started down that path.

Develop a vision, and get it out of your head. Your business leaders constantly hear "business as usual" from most of the functions that support them. Having a vision of how L&D can be a strategic enabler will get their attention.

Be methodical. There is no magic pixie dust that will do this transformation for you - you'll need a solid method and eventually be able to communicate it to your business leaders.

Find a few people who think like you. Creating a "coalition of the willing" is important to begin the conversations about change. Who else feels like the "Status Quo" doesn't add value? Can you get those people to put their influence behind you and either support you in initiatives, or lend resources to help? It's ok if you don't know exactly how it's going to happen - you can collaborate with those friendlies to figure it out.

Spend time framing the "ask" for the funding. This is a new story that you'll be telling, but you will get very used to telling it over and over again for different audiences. One of your key audiences will be those who will fund the work to make this transformation. The story you tell will need to be framed according to how they think.

Changing the game is no easy undertaking. It's not a project that an L&D team launches by themselves, where six months later, a "world-class" function magically emerges. This is a tough and complex journey, but unfortunately, if you look at some of the earlier "wake-up calls" we mentioned, the L&D profession doesn't have much alternative, if they want to avoid being moved, gutted or outsourced.

Katherine Shao is a senior producer at Oxygen Learning. Brian Lambert is managing director at Oxygen Learning.

Dec 2, 2016
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