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The Business of LearningLearning Is So Much More Than Engagement

Learning leaders, your purpose is not just to increase employee engagement. Your value extends into every area of the business.
Smiling modern partners looking at sticky notes

A surprising number of learning and development professionals seem to believe our primary mission, our main purpose, is to increase employee engagement. They are wrong, and their mistaken belief will lead them to misallocate resources, choose inappropriate learning and deliver suboptimal outcomes.

It is always good to start at the beginning, and the beginning for any department is to know why it exists. What is its mission or purpose? Ideally, learning leaders have thought carefully about this and have created a written mission statement or, at the very least, can articulate the mission informally.

In most organizations, the learning department has the capability and potential to do much more than provide or facilitate learning to increase employee engagement. Learning can help an organization achieve many, if not all, of its goals. This means helping to achieve business goals like increasing revenue by 10 percent, reducing costs by 5 percent, improving patient satisfaction by 3 points, or reducing injuries by 20 percent.

This also means helping to achieve HR goals like improving the leadership score on the annual survey by 5 points, meeting all compliance-related goals and, yes, increasing employee engagement. It means providing new employees with the basic skills needed for the position and experienced employees with more advanced skills, especially in knowledge-based industries like consulting and accounting. Last, learning can help address many needs and challenges that fall below these high-level goals but that nonetheless must be addressed for the organization’s overall success.

So, learning has a very broad reach and can help an organization achieve many of its goals and address numerous challenges. A good mission statement should reflect this. For example, “Help our organization achieve its goals” or “Help our organization be successful.” If L&D’s mission is simply to increase employee engagement, then whose mission is it to help achieve all the other goals and meet the numerous needs and challenges that learning can address?

Your sales department could do its own learning, quality its own, manufacturing its own, customer care its own, and so forth. Basically, any department that needs learning could do its own. That leaves the learning function to address HR goals like employee engagement — if a separate department takes care of leadership development. This is a very sad state for L&D and for your organization as a whole.

Think about what this state implies. Most often, other departments do not have learning professionals, so the quality of needs analysis and any learning is low. Someone might be assigned to take care of training needs on a part-time basis, and they may not be happy about it. Further, training people in these departments are all isolated from one another with no opportunity to pool resources, share knowledge and specialize.

For most organizations, the learning department can have a much more powerful effect if it has a broad mission, which includes helping the organization achieve its business goals — if it is organized to support more than a single department. Let’s not limit ourselves to simply addressing HR goals like increasing employee engagement. Instead, let’s address business and HR goals as well as the basic and advanced skills our employees need for success. What is your mission?

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