The Evolution of Learning & Development


Successful businesses competing in a global economy, with a very diverse workforce, have realized that effective Learning and Development Programs must be strategic, engaging and flexible. There is an important role for Chief Learning and Development Officers (CLOs) in our organizations today and progressive CEOs are looking to the CLO to guide them in learning and development strategies that are aligned with the business strategy; consistent with the organizational culture; and engaging and relevant to the workforce. The CLO of today guides an organization not only in leadership development but also in talent acquisition and retention, cultural fit and relevance. Five to ten years ago there was little mention of a Chief Leaning Officer in our organizations and Learning and Development did not have the strategic presence it has today.

Looking back over the past decades we see the following important trends either emerging and/or prevalent in organizations that are successful:

  • Strategic vs tactical learning and development programs and initiatives
  • Learning based on the assumption that employees are recruited, retained and promoted because of their passion to learn
  • Facilitative learning vs teaching
  • Interactive vs static learning platforms
  • Self-directed learning where one size does not fit all

Trend – Learning is becoming more strategic and less tactical

Organizations today are spending on average 3% of their budget on learning and development initiatives  according to the Western Canada HR Trend Report (Spring 2016). This constitutes substantial dollars, and with CEO’s expecting to see a ROI, there is a requirement that Learning and Development Programs be supported by a business case and that outcomes be measured to ensure that dollars are being invested wisely. Learning and Development must be built around a strategy that demonstrates an alignment with the business goals and delivers outcomes that impact the success of the organization. CLOs are required to report back to Senior Management the results of learning and development initiatives and it’s not about how many employees were trained. Reporting is about measuring the impact the training has on behaviour, business processes, efficiencies, levels of engagement and the impact on delivering to the organization’s mission, vision and values.

Trend – Employees are hired and promoted because on their passion to learn

Successful businesses recruit and develop talent based on a “growth mindset”, meaning that new recruits and employees selected for promotion are eager to learn; are constantly curious and continuously engaged. As such, star performers look for corporate training programs that encourage continual learning; enable sharing of information; provide opportunities to apply new found knowledge; and ensure continual feedback and an opportunity to learn from mistakes. These employees are curios and engaged – they are determined to apply new found knowledge to their work.

Organizational change is constant and the capacity and desire to continually learn is valued in many positions more than the specific skill and abilities that individuals bring to the position. Progressive and successful businesses hire people who may not have a specific skill set but are interested in continually learning and who are actively engaged and curious to upgrade and learn new ways of solving problems. For this very reason, the importance of coaches and mentors are increasing in our workforce and have a critical role to play in our Learning and Development Programs.

Leaders and potential leaders, or the “rising stars” in an organization, come together to work on special projects and these projects are important components of Learning and Development Programs today. Out of the box thinking is encouraged and mistakes are a reality. Learning from mistakes is also an expectation. Past behaviour is not always a predictor of future behavior because every new project brings new learnings and new ways of doing things. Learning and Development Programs involve facilitated discussion, brainstorming, research, scenario planning, de-briefs and learning from each other.

Trend – Facilitated learning vs teaching

Gone are the days when a Subject Matter Expert comes into the boardroom or classroom and stands at the front to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on a specific topic. The Subject Matter Expert is replaced by a skilled facilitator/coach who stands at the back of the room and orchestrates learning from everyone in the room. Employees learn from each other; Subject Matter Experts from both inside and outside the organization are invited into the learning environment and they look to the facilitator to ask the right questions; promote discussion; keep the discussion focussed on learning objectives; ensure all participants are heard and contribute; summarize key learnings; ensure that learnings are applied to action plans as participants leave the room; and follow up with participants to ensure change in behavior or application of the training.

The Facilitator replaces the teacher and becomes a partner and coach in the continual development of employees both inside and outside the classroom.

Trend – Learning platforms are dynamic, flexible and interactive

Learning platforms over the past five to ten years have become significantly more sophisticated and are no longer databases of courses and information but rather virtual learning environments. Employees can interact with peers, tutors, internal and external experts and engage in on-line discussions and debates. Learning takes on a new meaning as participants can decide for themselves how much additional research and exploration they want to do for a given topic of interest. They can take the lead on discussion boards and ask for opinions and ideas that they are curious about. On-line quizzes are important components of the learning and results are tracked so the employee and management can assess the success of training and whether transfer of knowledge is actually happening.

The virtual learning environment means that employees are using their own personal devices and home computers to log into learning modules and classrooms. Although this is creating challenges for organizations around security, it has satisfied the need for many of our younger employees who crave flexibility and the opportunity to access training at all hours and in any location.

Information today is easily accessible and everyone can quickly google or find a YouTube video to explain just about anything. To stay current learning platforms need to be constantly refreshed with new material and, as such, the platform for learning must be intuitive and easy to update. Learning also needs to be in bite-sized pieces such that employees can quickly access short and impactful learning modules when it “fits” their busy schedules.

Trend – One size does not fit all and the employee will self-direct their learning

In the workforce today we can have up to five different generations working alongside each other and we know that there are significant differences between the generations with respect to learning preferences (not to mention individual preferences within each generation). Our millennials will thrive in the virtual classroom whereas our baby boomers may feel more comfortable in the traditional classroom with face to face instruction. Organizations committed to developing high levels of engagement in their learning and development strategy have realized that one size does not fit all and as a result provide options to their employees with respect to learning and development.

Options for employees with respect to how they learn also opens the door to more self-directed learning. Today many organizations expect the employee to take responsibility for their own learning. Organizations will support learning and development initiatives but will empower the employee to identify the best method to obtain the training. This will look different for each employee, as some will opt for on-line learning, others will engage coaches and mentors, social media and the internet will be avenues for learning and face to face training either in the classroom or on the job will continue to be popular options.

Learning and Development has changed over the past decade as has all aspects of our business and people programs. We live and work in a more complex world so it is not surprising that the environment in which we continually learn has also become more strategic, dynamic and very innovative!



  • Why Organizations Don’t Learn by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats; November 2015 Harvard Business Review
  • Learning and Development by J. Eighteen, J. Haimes, J. Stempel, and B. vander Vyver; February 27, 2015 Deloitte University Press
  • Western Canada HR Trends Report,; Spring 2016
  • Photo credit: Talent Pool

This article was originally featured in the HRIA HUMAN Capital magazine. Check it out for more great articles specific to Learning & Development.

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