The real purpose of L&D is to help an organisation meet its business challenges. If you accept that, then training and talent professionals actually have only two priorities. The first is to understand the real challenges that your organisation has to contend with and the second is to allocate the necessary time and resources to tackle these challenges effectively.

The problem for many L&D teams is that they become reactive to the pressures and demands of the business. When a perceived training need arises, a learning intervention is prescribed to meet it. The danger here is that this appears to be a win-win outcome. The learning need is addressed and L&D gets praised for delivering a timely and effective response. The only problem is: what if the need wasn’t correctly defined in the first place? What’s really required from L&D is a more strategic approach that includes partnering with the business to proactively identify upcoming needs and competency gaps. 

To help training and talent professionals to better understand exactly where they need to focus their efforts, we asked 200 practitioners, across the public and private sectors, about their key challenges. The results show a strong correlation around eight specific areas. Essentially, these are the top business challenges that today’s L&D profession needs to address. They are:

  1. Deal with change. This was, by far, the most commonly identified challenge. L&D teams are responding to organisational changes, such as those stemming from mergers & acquisitions and new hardware/software installations. However, individual employees also need support if they are to develop the resilience to withstand changes in their own roles. There was general consensus in our study that both the number of changes occurring and the speed with which these changes are appearing is increasing.
  2. Serve global, virtual or geographically-dispersed diverse populations. For organisations, this presents direct challenges such as developing the ability to deliver learning virtually or in multiple languages, as well as indirect challenges such as developing a communal sense of unity, whether that’s across different countries or even across different locations in the same city.
  3. Do more with less. This challenge can stem from internal constraints – such as lower staff numbers or reduced budgets – or from external constraints, such as the demand from customers for increasingly low-cost options.
  4. Get the buy-in for learning from leaders. When leaders have to make tough resourcing decisions on mission-related activities, training and talent professionals need to ensure that learning remains a top priority and that the organisation continues to invest in its learning infrastructure – including, for example, the technology required for distance learning.
  5. Deliver ‘bite-sized’ learning. Learners don’t want lengthy training sessions and managers are increasingly reluctant to sanction extended time away from the workplace for their teams. There is general recognition that learning needs cannot simply be met by dividing existing learning experiences into smaller segments. Fundamental changes need to be made to the way that learning is designed and delivered.
  6. Engage employees. Training and talent professionals have to ensure that learners have the appetite to attend training, amidst competing priorities. There is a need here for L&D teams to demonstrate the value of learning to learners, who frequently have more work to do than time available. As these learners choose which tasks to undertake, participation in developmental activities often loses out to more urgent tasks, even though those tasks may actually be less important. Another challenge here is that L&D teams need to keep learners thoroughly engaged throughout all aspects of the learning experience. This has become increasingly difficult as learners have the distraction of constant contact with the business through their smartphones and tablets.
  7. Develop leaders. As the work environment becomes more demanding, diverse and complex, the need for leadership development has increased. A key challenge for L&D teams now is to help senior leaders understand the need for their own continuing development and also to instil effective leadership behaviour.
  8. Support business development. L&D teams also need to fully understand the organisation’s criteria for future success in order to provide the breadth and depth of skills needed to help the organisation survive and grow.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to simply identify and present these eight challenges as being fundamental to L&D success. What we’re looking to do, at Hemsley Fraser, is to create an online forum where training and talent professionals can share their comments and experiences. With this in mind, we’ve created a ThingLink channel where we’ve highlighted the top business challenges facing organisations, through descriptive illustrations which have been uploaded and tagged with free guidelines and links to relevant content and advice. 

If you’ve faced or are facing these or other key business challenges and you have questions or insights that could be helpful to the L&D community, please share your thoughts on this channel. By working together, we can create a resource that will encourage and support best practices. That way, as training and talent practitioners, we can not only make a more strategic contribution to our organisations, we can enhance the standing of our profession.

Valerie Nichols is an Executive Consultant with Hemsley Fraser, the learning and development company.