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Part 1: 10 Strategies to Help L&D Leaders Increase Worker Opportunity (and Shareholder Results)

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About a year ago, I sat down with Jon Kaplan, an IBM Innovation Fellow at JFF and long-time Learning and Development leader, to discuss the rapidly changing role of employers as a source of learning, development, and economic advancement for their employees. Jon set off on a project to cast a vision for how major employers can step into their opportunity to drive equitable career mobility for workers and strong business returns by investing boldly in employee learning and development. We are thrilled to share Jon’s thinking here, in a two-part series that features 10 strategies for L&D leaders to maximize their impact. We look forward to the dialogue it fosters. 

- Cat Ward, Managing Director, JFF


After nearly 40 years of widespread disinvestment in human capital, companies are finally coming to terms with the need to invest in the critical sources of talent their success depends upon. This need has recently become all too clear as pandemic-wide labor shortages have forced companies to de-prioritize, delay, or cancel even mission-critical enterprise-wide projects. Amid a society-wide reevaluation of the formal and informal contracts between workers and employers, companies are increasingly recognizing the risks of leaving the control of employee development to previous employers and U.S. primary, secondary, and postsecondary educational institutions. 

The need to mitigate talent-availability risks notwithstanding, there’s also good reason to believe that the pandemic has increased the financial returns of companies that provide robust internal development programs. Four separate pandemic trends are collectively responsible for decreasing the costs while increasing the returns of effective corporate employee development programs. 

  • Shifting worker preferences: While previous generations of workers might not have seen corporate training as a critical part of their benefits packages, today’s workers—especially those from Generation Z—appear to be quite different in this regard. The pandemic has effectively increased the perceived value of strong corporate development programs as many younger workers have seen their high school and college careers compromised by lockdowns and various COVID-19 protocols. As a result, strong employee development programs have become a critical tool for talent acquisition and retention. 
  • Improved online training options: During the pandemic, private equity, venture capital, and the public markets have aggressively invested in innovative educational technology firms that provide cost-effective methods of scaling highly impactful learning solutions. This has dramatically increased the options for L&D departments looking to provide inexpensive yet robust training programs for their employees.  
  • Increased familiarity with remote training options: While remote training options have existed for more than 20 years, the pandemic has created a broad-based familiarity and comfort with the technology that has become the backbone of online training offerings. With the ability to deploy existing training solutions to larger, more receptive audiences, companies are able to scale the benefits of their training programs while incurring relatively little additional cost.
  • Financial pressures in higher education: The decades-long need for additional higher-ed funding sources has suddenly become critical. According to Noah Smith from Bloomberg:

Higher education has been heading for a shakeout for a long time, and now it has come. Universities are facing a big, long-lasting funding crunch as demand for undergraduate education looks unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. That means schools need to find new ways to pay their bills or risk going under.

One obvious new source of revenue will be corporate clients that are seeking cheaper and more efficient ways to upskill their employees. Companies engaged in partnerships with colleges and universities to upskill their employees will likely see a reduction in per-participant costs and a concurrent increase in program profitability.

In this environment, CEOs and CHROs will increasingly look to L&D for a comprehensive approach to effective workforce development. This means that many heads of L&D will face a challenge that they have never experienced before: the need to implement broad-based, comprehensive L&D initiatives that deliver quantifiable returns for learners and shareholders alike. Given this opportunity, it’s critical that heads of L&D respond with bold, inventive solutions that uplift employees while helping the company’s bottom line.

Meeting the Challenge

The inclination to immediately begin rolling out new programs is as alluring as it is wrongheaded. While individual training programs tend to receive the vast majority of the accolades or the blame for both educational and financial outcomes, the focus on individual programs is almost invariably misplaced. All but inevitably, the strength of any given learning program is little more than a reflection of the organizational strengths of the program’s creator. In other words, ineffective L&D organizations are nearly always incapable of rolling out and maintaining successful employee development programs; in contrast, strong and mature L&D organizations will consistently deliver the types of L&D programs that can meet the exacting demands of today’s economic environment.

Building a strong and mature L&D organization, however, will typically take years—if not decades—and today’s learners don’t have the luxury of putting their careers on hold while L&D leaders figure out the best path forward. For this reason, we have developed a set of 10 strategies that can put any L&D organization on the pathway to successfully delivering impactful, efficient, and highly profitable employee development programs.

For L&D leaders to maximize the impact of their efforts, they will need to diligently implement a set of interventions that collectively focus on the most significant areas of need. Moreover, they will need to do so through a broad range of efforts, many of which cannot be strictly categorized as traditional training programs. Finally, L&D leaders must ensure that their efforts are financially sound, efficiently implemented, and equitably deployed.

The following five strategies will help L&D leaders deliver the programs and services that promise to drive both increased employee opportunity and shareholder results.

Strategy One: Start by Building a Learning Culture

In today’s uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, disruption is increasingly becoming the norm. According to Capgemini Consulting, “Since 2000, 52% of companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, or ceased to exist.” While it is very difficult—if not impossible—to accurately predict the job skills that will be in highest demand 10 or 20 years from now, we know that workers of the future will need to be disciplined and effective learners. In the words of Alan Lesgold, dean and professor emeritus of education, psychology, and intelligent systems at the University of Pittsburgh:

People may disagree about exactly what competences will be needed in the age of smart machines. One thing on which there should be agreement, though, is that we are in a period of rapid change, which means that for some time to come, almost everyone will need periodically to acquire new knowledge and competence. This has been the case for a while, at least for professionals, but it is becoming a universal reality.

pexels-christina-morillo-1181610In other words, while continuous learning has been the expectation for the majority of highly compensated knowledge workers for some time, frontline employees in professions such as warehousing, nursing, retail, and hospitality will need to become agile learners if they are to keep pace with changing technologies, systems, and processes of the future.

In this environment, L&D leaders must find ways to help employees learn how to be effective, efficient, and continuous learners. While critical learning skills—such as evaluating information, asking effective questions, and hypothesizing—can be difficult to build through traditional learning programs, especially in the workplace setting, the vast majority of learning experts agree that the best approach is simply to make learning an integral part of organizational culture. In essence, the more that learning is seen as “just what everyone does,” the more people will hone their learning skills and invest in learning on a day-to-day basis.

According to the Association for Talent Development, “A culture of learning is one in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organizational performance. The importance of the pursuit and application of learning is expressed in organizational values and permeates all aspects of organizational life.” While at first glance this seems like something that can be built through a few simple activities, such as updating company values and sending an all-staff email, building a learning culture takes diligence, time, and effort. Moreover, it requires the involvement, energy, and commitment of the entire C-suite.

Fortunately, there are a variety of widely available diagnostics and tools that learning leaders can use to drive the adoption of a learning culture. Noted industry expert Josh Bersin recommends a set of 40 separate best practices that can help foster continuous learning at all levels of a company. These best practices fall into the following six categories:

  • Empowers Employees
  • Provides Organizational Support for Learning
  • Demonstrates Value
  • Encourages Reflection
  • EnablesKnowledge Sharing
  • Builds Trust

While it’s unrealistic to expect a wholesale change in organizational culture over a short period of time, L&D leaders can make meaningful progress by prioritizing a few of these types of activities every several months. Companies that commit to building a learning culture will be rewarded with not only a dramatic increase in informal self-directed learning but also the increased efficacy of the more formal learning programs that they choose to implement.

Strategy Two: Provide Direction, Focus, and Prioritization by Creating a Company-Wide Learning Strategy

The vast majority of L&D departments struggle to meet all of the training needs that are brought to their attention. This makes it absolutely critical that L&D decision makers design, develop, and deploy the learning programs that will be most effective. Having a thoughtful but simple learning strategy is a first step toward making sure that learners get the most relevant and useful development opportunities in the face of the many resource constraints organizations face.

The most important function of a well-crafted learning strategy is that it provides a prioritization mechanism that can help leaders identify which training needs warrant their focus and attention and which can be safely disregarded. While it can be difficult for most L&D practitioners to ignore legitimate opportunities to build employee capabilities, the simple truth of the matter is that every L&D department has to make budgetary trade-offs. Some developmental needs are more important than others, so having a good understanding of L&D priorities is critical to success.

When considering how to prioritize the learning needs that warrant company-sponsored training programs, it’s helpful to begin by identifying what types of training will be required in the following three categories:

  • Safety, compliance, and legally mandated requirements: Training that is necessary to keep employees safe and mitigate legal liability for the company.
  • Strategic talent needs: The skills and abilities that the company needs in order to achieve its most pressing strategic initiatives.
  • Employee career needs: The skills and abilities that employees need in order to maintain career relevance in today’s changing world.

While there are no doubt other needs that will have to be addressed, focusing on these three areas will ensure that lower-value training programs don’t crowd out the types of learning initiatives that hold the most promise for both the company and its employees.

As L&D leaders work through their company’s strategic priorities, they should take time to document and share the focus areas that will take the majority of the L&D organization’s time and attention. As part of this exercise, L&D leaders should take particular care to document the types of development programs that the L&D team will have to scale down, defer, or ignore. This will help L&D’s stakeholders understand not only where the department’s focus will be, but also where they will have to work to establish informal, department-led training programs to fill in any development gaps.

Strategy Three: Allocate Training Resources to Drive Equity

All companies find themselves making difficult trade-offs when it comes to allocating scarce L&D resources across multiple populations, initiatives, and programs. For the majority of companies, the somewhat unintended end result is a barbell distribution of training investment: New hires in frontline positions get significant onboarding support, while senior leaders and executives are afforded pricey development opportunities, often with fancy meals and resort retreats thrown in for good measure. This unfortunately creates a dynamic in which the frontline workers have little help advancing in their careers, and the middle of the corporate hierarchy—from supervisors through senior-level managers—are starved for professional and personal development opportunities.

This dynamic is often the causal mechanism behind the decreasing diversity at higher and higher levels of the corporate hierarchy in most large U.S. companies: Women and people of color join frontline positions in droves, but lack the development resources to advance their careers into areas of more significant responsibility. Meanwhile, more privileged jobseekers tend to join companies at higher levels of authority and then have the ability to augment their careers with outside development activities often not available to hourly employees who have fewer resources and less social capital to invest in their career progressions.

This issue is extremely well summarized by Matthew J. Daniel, former head of learning, innovation, and technology at Capital One: 

Whether intended or not, many of the learning systems, programs and resources that are put in place by L&D are not equally accessible to everyone across the board, especially those who are on the front line. And many occupations within front-line industries are made up of people of color. . . . At best, we could chalk the reasoning for limited access to L&D resources to a limitation of budget resources and allocation. At worst, many L&D policies are simply racially exclusive.

Addressing this challenge requires L&D organizations to focus on equity throughout all aspects of their work, from strategic planning and budgeting through program identification, design, development, and delivery. Specific strategies include the following:

  • Build equity into L&D’s charter and promote this to stakeholders throughout the company. To the extent that promoting equity is a formal goal for the L&D organization, it will be easier to incorporate equity into all aspects of available L&D programs.
  • Create a more diverse L&D organization by ensuring appropriate levels of representation throughout the L&D hierarchy. Diverse organizations are more likely to find success as they work to drive greater equity throughout the company.
  • Offer skill-building programs tailored to the needs of frontline employees. When companies invest in the development of frontline employees, they see lower attrition rates and greater engagement. This not only helps the company’s immediate business performance but also helps grow the talent pool for more senior levels in the company.
  • Identify and lift the barriers to employee development participation for women and people of color. Oftentimes, the challenges that these underrepresented populations face are both invisible to more privileged employees and relatively straightforward to address.
  • Offer a robust education assistance program tailored to working adults. Companies that provide financial, academic, and emotional support to employees earning credentials, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees have seen significant savings in talent-management activities such as employee recruiting, onboarding, and retention. Moreover, participants in these programs tend to advance faster and can experience annual earnings growth that’s as much as 50 percent greater than it is for nonparticipants.
  • Measure and monitor how much per-capita training resources are consumed at each level of the hierarchy. This allows L&D organizations to reallocate investments more equitably across the organization.

These measures, while not a panacea for the inequity that exists in most large companies, will not only help drive greater fairness and inclusion but also increase the advancement of talented individuals who have the innate ability to drive improved business results by contributing at a higher level.

Strategy Four: Build Formal Career Pathways for the Most Common Jobs

A career path is a documented flowchart that helps employees understand how to progress through the organization from entry-level positions through more senior-level roles. Career paths serve the dual purpose of enabling employees to prepare themselves for the most likely advancement opportunities while also helping the company ensure the orderly progression of employees from one role to the next. For employees, career paths help provide a strong sense of focus, purpose, and opportunity; for employers, career paths help attract top talent, retain skilled and ambitious employees, reduce delays in filling open job roles, and increase senior-level diversity. Ultimately, creating effective career paths can help a company build internal talent pools to staff hard-to-fill promotion opportunities with existing talent.

Developing career paths can be an immensely complex endeavor, especially for companies in which entry-level employees are widely distributed in a large number of relatively dissimilar job roles. For companies with a sizable number of employees in a few similar job roles, a career path development exercise can provide enormous value at a relatively low organizational cost.

At its core, a career path is simply a diagram that shows employees how to navigate their career progression through various positions in the company. For the employee, a career path shows each successive position on an easy-to-understand map. In addition, career path documents will usually articulate the required skills and abilities necessary to succeed at each successive step. Finally, an effective career path will document the training, certifications, and job experiences that will best prepare employees for the next steps in their career journeys.

The best approach to developing career paths is to start small and begin by piloting a simple career path for one job role. By gathering feedback and improving that career path until it meets the needs of employees and managers, L&D organizations can build a prototype that can be used as the model for additional job roles. Having demonstrated the value of one career path, they find it easier to undertake more ambitious career path exercises.

Successfully implementing career paths requires a robust rollout plan that helps managers incorporate the available career paths into their employee coaching and development conversations. A key oversight for many L&D organizations is failing to spend enough time acclimating managers to the available resources for creating career paths. When properly deployed, however, career paths can help managers and their employees undertake far more efficient and effective development activities. This can be invaluable both to employees, as they work to advance in their careers, and to employers, as they look to staff more senior job roles, especially those that require a high degree of expertise.

Strategy Five: Invest in Transferable Skills With the Greatest Shelf Life

iStock-1145864241 As L&D organizations build out official career pathways, they will inevitably be called upon to deploy formal training programs that align to each career map. While this seems enormously appealing at first blush, it will be a nonstarter for the vast majority of companies. The simple truth is that, for organizations with any degree of job-role specialization, the resources required to provide this level of support will far exceed the total L&D budget available.

Given this situation, how can L&D leaders most effectively support the progression of employees throughout their respective career journeys?

The answer lies in focusing on the highest-impact skills that support the greatest number of job roles. In other words, L&D investments will have a higher return the more widely those skills can be deployed and the longer they remain in use. So-called transferable skills—such as interpersonal, organizational, and critical-thinking skills—will likely reap the most significant benefits because they are broadly applicable to virtually all employees throughout their careers.

While building these types of skills in the workplace can be difficult, there are solutions that have shown great results, particularly for employees in entry-level and frontline positions. One of the most effective ways to build transferable skills for such employees is to provide a robust educational assistance program tied to obtaining a postsecondary degree or credential. By and large, most accredited associate’s or bachelor’s degree programs focus on transferable skills that are valuable irrespective of job role. What’s more, earning an accredited degree from a reputable postsecondary institution culminates in the receipt of a portable certificate that provides significant value to employees as they navigate the remainder of their careers. The value this provides to employees is significant enough that participants devote enormous effort and energy in their coursework, thus helping to ensure the best possible outcome for each dollar invested. 

Read the final five strategies in Part 2


At Jobs for the Future, we believe that the best enterprise strategies and investments are the ones that are good for both companies and workers, including employees in frontline and entry-level positions. The JFF Corporate Leadership team includes experts in a wide range of fields, from technology to human capital.

We bring a diverse set of perspectives and skills that inform our efforts to help corporate partners make an impact that benefits workers, businesses, and communities. Our expertise spans education, economic development, workforce systems, and corporate consulting. 

We are committed to JFF’s mission of building a society in which everyone has an opportunity to achieve economic advancement. Drawing on the knowledge and expertise JFF has acquired in its nearly 40 years as a leader in the education and workforce ecosystems, we offer companies informed guidance about the employee-centered strategies they can adopt to drive impact in today’s dynamic economy.

Learn More: corporate.jff.org