black and silver chairs at a white conference room table

Corporate Learning Finally Has a Seat at the Table

August 25, 2022 Learning and Development
Dani Johnson cofounder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Dani Johnson, Heather Gilmartin Adams

We'll start with the good news: Corporate learning and development leaders finally have their long-awaited seat at the table.

The past two years have renewed business leaders’ awareness of employee development as a core and critical part of organizational success. Many senior leaders are looking to learning and development (L&D) functions for data and guidance on skills, upskilling, reskilling and mobility in an effort to meet the needs of their organizations’ ever-changing environments.

This reliance on L&D isn’t tactical or transactional — it’s highly strategic. Our research indicates that about 50% of L&D functions are being pulled into conversations on both workforce planning and business strategy (Fig. 1). That’s a far higher percentage than a decade ago.

Figure from RedThread Research showing the number of organizations participating in strategic discussions
Fig. 1: Percent of L&D professionals reporting their L&D functions participate in conversations to a significant or very great extent.PHOTO: Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

L&D functions are also playing a bigger role in organizational culture efforts. There’s an increasingly well known link between learning and things like employee engagement, satisfaction, retention and productivity. For example, Glint’s 2021 "Employee Well-Being Report" found that “opportunities to learn and grow” is the most important driver for a great work culture.

The Challenge Facing L&D

Employee development is in the spotlight in conversations about both strategy and culture. The problems L&D functions are tackling — upskilling, agile workforces, mobility, work culture — aren’t small. They’re big and important and relevant.

L&D has a seat at the table. So what's the bad news? Do they have the skills they need to sit down and contribute at that table?

Recently, we did some research into the skills that L&D professionals, in particular those at high performing organizations, think they will need to develop to meet near-future needs. Specifically, we asked 300 L&D pros this open-ended question: What are the top three skills you feel L&D functions will need for the future?

One of our biggest findings: Overall, L&D professionals think they need more leadership skills, likely because they recognize they’re at the strategy table and must contribute.

Related Article: Learning & Development Climbs to the Top of the Corporate Agenda

L&D Needs More Leadership Skills

L&D pros view their own leadership skills as the most important group of skills for the future: 22% of the skills named in our research were about leadership. No other skill group was mentioned more.

Their concept of leadership covers a wide swath of responsibilities from influencing strategic discussions to more intentionally leading employee development. Many L&D functions are changing how they enable employee development. For example, they’re proactively offering more learning methods and integrating more development opportunities into work.

These changes — from tactical to strategic, reactive to proactive, just in case to just in time, and learn in a classroom to learn everywhere — require L&D functions to change the hearts and minds of business leaders and employees alike. Leadership skills like consulting, coaching and motivating and engaging others ensure that L&D professionals will be able to make these adjustments.

Related Article: Experimentation Is the Future of Enterprise Learning

Leadership Advice for L&D Pros

We compared L&D pros in high performing organizations to their peers in other organizations, and identified a few lessons for organizations looking to thrive in the future (Fig. 2). These findings don’t constitute hard and fast recommendations. Each L&D function should consider all the variables, internal and external, that may affect the skills they need within their market and their organization. But we did identify some areas that may be getting either too much focus or not enough overall.

chart from RedThread Research showing the practices of high performing L&D organizations vs. everyone else
Fig. 2: Leadership skills focus of high performing L&D organizations vs. everyone else.PHOTO: RedThread Research, 2022

Focus on a broad set of leadership skills

L&D professionals in high performing organizations tend to focus more evenly across key leadership skills, while those in other organizations tend to focus quite heavily on just some of them.

Specifically, high performing organizations focus evenly on four skills: coaching, motivation/engagement, leading others, and consulting. By contrast, L&D pros in other organizations focus most heavily on just two skills: consulting and leading others. This uneven focus may mean that L&D practitioners are putting too much focus on some skills while neglecting others.

One reason to focus on a broad set of leadership skills is that they can build on one another. Gina Montefusco, associate director of L&D at United Healthcare Group, said her coaching skills helped improve her consulting skills: "My coaching experience has made me a better consultant overall, because now I ask questions differently."

More generally, a broad focus makes sense for the world we’re in. Although a narrow focus on a few skills may work in particular organizations or environments, things are changing rapidly as we’ve seen over the past two years. A broad foundation of leadership skills is more likely to position an L&D professional to succeed as priorities, needs and goals shift over time.

Focus more on skills that foster connection

L&D pros in high performing organizations not only focus on a broader swath of leadership skills than peers in other organizations, they also focus on two of those skills nearly twice as much.

Specifically, 19% of professionals in high performing organizations said they focus on coaching and motivation/engagement, whereas 11% in other organizations focus on coaching and 9% on motivation/engagement.

Skills related to coaching and motivation/engagement help with a major challenge that organizations face: connection and the loss thereof. The past few years have upended how people connect at work. During the pandemic, professional networks shrank dramatically, by 16%, according to research by Marissa King and Balazs Kovacs cited in the Harvard Business Review.

As a result, many people feel less connected to their colleagues and organizations. Organizations are looking to rebuild and strengthen these connections and establish ways of connecting that will set them up for success in the future. By focusing on coaching and motivation/engagement, L&D professionals can develop skills that further that mission.

Related Article: Build Connections to Drive Higher Hybrid Work Performance

Lead the way on DEIB

Only 11% of L&D pros overall — and only 5% of those in high performing organizations — said they need to work on skills related to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Our advice is to be much more proactive in DEIB efforts, focusing on DEIB and leading the way even if there seems to be little demand for it.

DEIB because is inextricably linked to learning. LinkedIn Learning’s 2022 Workplace Learning report found that 55% of L&D functions own or share responsibility for DEIB initiatives. Our own research on learning equity found that L&D functions play a key role in furthering DEIB efforts in their organizations.

As Emma Birchall, global head of diversity and inclusion at Ericsson, told us: "You can’t overstate the importance of L&D in DEIB. L&D is the part of the organization that translates the business strategy into signals to individuals and teams about how they execute on the strategy."

L&D pros will need to lead the way on many aspects of DEIB efforts in their organizations in the future. That will require building leadership skills and looking for opportunities to align their work with DEIB initiatives.

As we consider L&D’s increasingly visible role in strategic discussions, we are heartened and encouraged by what we hear from L&D leaders. By developing a broad set of leadership skills associated with coaching, motivation/engagement, and DEIB, L&D functions can have the impact they’ve long wanted to at the organizational strategy table. We look forward to seeing what they do with that influence.

About the Authors

Dani Johnson is co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, and has spent the majority of her career writing about, researching and consulting on human capital practices and technology.

Heather Gilmartin Adams is a senior analyst at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past 10 years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the US Department of the Treasury.


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