Why L&D can’t ignore alignment anymore

06 Mar
March 6, 2014

Alignment is one of the most frequently sought after nirvanas within organisations.  We read how a lack of alignment can cause irreparable problems and issues, but what does alignment mean to learning and development professionals and should we bother?  This post explains why, perhaps now more than ever, we need to make sure that all of our L&D efforts are aligned to the needs of our business.


L&D professionals are under pressure from all areas.  They are being asked to deliver more with less, to justify their existence and to show how their activities have a positive benefit on the businesses they serve.  Budgets are constantly under pressure and in some quarters are being slashed.  Times are tight and are set to stay that way for some time to come.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  It’s possible to rise above these issues and really demonstrate what the L&D profession can deliver, but to do that we must listen first and foremost to the needs of our businesses, for if we do that, and do it right, then we can set ourselves up for long-term success.  It’s our future and it’s in our hands.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Every once in a while a topic becomes fashionable.  We’re currently going through a real trend for Big Data.  The media are telling us that we’ve got to concentrate on big data; we’ve got to learn about it and we’ve got to embrace it. Indeed, according to the website Quartz, “big data” was one of the most overused corporate buzzwords of 2013.

But when notable business authors such as Robert Kaplan and David Norton start writing about alignment then you know it’s time to sit up and take note.  Kaplan and Norton published The Balanced Scorecard which has transformed the way businesses look at their results and operations.  Their latest book “Alignment: Using the Balanced Scorecard to Create Corporate Synergies: How to Apply the Balanced Scorecard to Corporate Strategy” is now getting corporate executives to think harder than ever before about how their valued resources – people, time and money – are all working as one towards a common goal.  Anything less is wasted effort.

Kaplan and Norton describe alignment in the following way: “Most organisations consist of multiple business and support units, each populated by highly trained, experienced executives. But often the efforts of individual units are not coordinated, resulting in conflicts, lost opportunities, and diminished performance.”

But let’s not just dwell on what Kaplan and Norton think – here’s what others in the wider business community think about alignment:

  • According to Fred Smith, Chairman of FedEx, “Most managers don’t know what alignment is all about; alignment is the essence of management.”
  • KPMG research as long ago as 2001 identified that “getting everyone aligned around strategies and vision was endorsed by 87% of US and European senior executives as their top priority.”
  • And even the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gough understood alignment, saying, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of things brought together.”

And that’s what this series of five posts will look at – the value and approach to achieving and measuring alignment.

The state we’re in

It’s easy to think that everything in the garden is rosy – but it’s not.  As L&D professionals we’re not doing the best job we can.  Of course there are many doing a great job – but the overwhelming evidence is that we’re failing and we need to align to our businesses.  Here are just a few of the facts:

Industry experts and commentators Towards Maturity have reported on alignment.  They found:

  • 36% of L&D professionals were not confident that their learning initiatives actually supported the skills that the business needs
  • Only 56% analyse the business problem before recommending a solution
  • 34% of organisations work with business leaders to identify business performance indicators that they want to improve
  • And by implication, 66% of organisations don’t work with business leaders to identify business performance indicators that they want to improve

According to the 2007 report by the Aberdeen Group called “Learning & Development Aligning Workforce with Business”, those businesses that achieve workforce alignment enjoy a 77% increase in employee productivity.  The same report showed that:

  • 43% of all businesses cite the need to align their workforce with business objectives as the number one pressure driving learning and development.
  • The Best-in-Class are nearly twice as likely as their peers to have a learning and development strategy that is integrated with the business’ overall strategic plan.
  • The Best-in-Class are 68% more likely than laggards and 39% more likely than the industry average to get HR and training personnel into the business units in order to understand business needs and priorities.

In his paper “Maximise Training Impact by Aligning Learning with Business Goals”, Jay Bahlis goes for the jugular by stating that:

  • Less than 10% of training expenditures actually result in transfer to the job.
  • Most of the knowledge and skills eventually gained through training (well over 80% by some estimates) are not fully applied on-the-job.  By some accounts, less than 30% of what is learned (in training) actually gets used on the job.
  • In an effort to reduce costs and focus on core business, organisations such as Nortel Networks, Goodyear and others are outsourcing training management, training development, training delivery, and training administration and support.

In a report by Capita, 100 out of the top 500 UK companies were asked about their L&D departments.  Only 18% of the businesses surveyed felt they had L&D departments that were operationally aligned to the business.

  • Over a third of leaders (36%) lack confidence that their employees have the skills required to deliver the firm’s upturn strategy, with close to half (46%) casting doubt on their L&D department’s ability to provide these learning services.
  • Over half (55%) claim their firm is failing to deliver the necessary training for recovery.
  • More than half (52%) describe their L&D function as slow to respond to the changing requirements of their business during economic turbulence.
  • As strategic objectives have evolved, close to half (46%) of senior managers report no significant change in the training delivery to their workforce.  Going forward, almost as many (43%) expect no significant change to L&D delivery over the next two to three years.
  • The vast majority (82%) of leaders lack confidence that their firm’s L&D strategy and delivery are aligned to the company’s operational strategy.  Half (50%) believe that their L&D function is stuck in a ‘business as usual’ mindset.

In pure pound note terms Capita estimates that this equates to a 21% shortfall in productivity estimated at an annual cost of £35.7 billion to the UK’s largest firms!

According to a report by CMI/Penna:

“High performing organisations have significantly higher levels of alignment  …This suggests that the alignment between HR and business strategy is a key differentiator between higher and lower performing organisations.”

It’s not a great picture – but it has to change – and it can.

The Goal, the Holy Grail, the Promised Land

As L&D professionals we want to be heard, we want to be respected and we want a seat at the table.  But for most of us this just isn’t happening – and have you ever wondered why?

I mean really wondered why?

Have you ever wondered why you’re not in the position you want to be, why you’re fighting for face-time with executives and customers, why people look at you with strange expressions when you explain what you do and why your budgets are almost always the first to be cut?

Be honest, you have; we all have.  And unless we make the dramatic changes outlined in this book we will always be fighting for face-time, for realistic budgets and for an opportunity to make the difference we know we can.

It’s time to make the change!

A is for Alignment

Alignment.  Not a big word, and to be brutally honest not a word that you’ll see mentioned that much in the People world, but as we’ve seen, oh what an important word it is!

One definition of alignment is:

“The process of adjusting parts so that they are in proper relative position.”

I love this definition; it’s simple and says it all – putting the right parts in the right places.  Not spending more but aligning what you have.

Seeing eye-to-eye

Despite what many books and publications may lead you to think, alignment is not a one-way street.  It’s not just about making sure that you have all your ducks in a row; it’s also about making sure that your business and customers recognise this fact and recognise that you have real value to offer; it’s about seeing eye-to-eye.

When you’re seeing eye-to-eye with your business and customers you understand and respond to their needs in an appropriate and timely manner.  Your solutions make sense; your requests for resources are understood and met and your business and customers recognise the value you’re delivering.

Alignment is unselfish; it’s not about you, or your department, or your hobby-horse projects, or the latest fads and fashions; it’s about driving success within your business and your customers.  When you’re aligned you’re not fighting for face-time or resources or fighting outsourcing deals, you’re a valued and integral part of your business; you have a seat at the table and you’re heard and respected.

The story is told of how President John Kennedy once visited NASA.  He came across a cleaner and asked him what his job was.  The cleaner replied: “My job is to help to put a man on the moon.”  There’s always been a discussion of whether this story is true or not, but what it illustrates is the cleaner’s complete alignment with the aims of NASA, its collective mission and strategy.  This was clearly a great eye-to-eye moment.


It’s time to take alignment seriously – it’s time to make changes and it’s time to deliver on all the promises we’ve made over the years.  The rest is up to you and I hope you grasp the task with both hands.

6 replies
  1. Ryan Tracey says:

    Wow, what a sorry state of affairs. Unfortunately, though, I can’t say I’m surprised about the research findings. A lack of alignment has been a flaw of L&D departments the world over, as evidenced by the slashing of training budgets by the C-suite at the first sign of danger, and the almost comical disputes between centralised OD teams and their distributed colleagues in areas such as Operations.

    I love how you’ve put it, Jonathan: Alignment is unselfish. Indeed, it is about driving success within your business and your customers – in other words, it’s about performance. Hobby horses and fads don’t improve performance; they’re an expensive waste of time. (Although I think big data could have a part to play in the PNA process.)

    Alignment reinforces the imperative for L&D professionals to shift their role from service provider to strategic partner. No more reactionary responses to solution-first demands from the business (we need a team building workshop!) but rather, as you say, more listening, analysing, measuring and evaluating. Heaven forbid we calculate ROI.

    We need to be proactive, converse with our stakeholders, analyse root causes, identify true capability needs, and know the metric we’re trying to shift. Or we could just book our people into another Presentation Skills course.

  2. Jonathan Kettleborough says:

    Hi Ryan,

    Wow – beautifully said! This post seems to have stimulated some interest across social media and yet – at its heart – the concepts are very simple. It never ceases to amaze me that so many L&D ‘professionals’ mess about with fads and ‘bright ideas’ and ‘innovative technology’ when all their business wants are its issues fixed.

    Hopefully – over time – more people will realise that being, as you so wonderfully put it, a ‘strategic parter’ is the way to go – that this will deliver results as well as the coveted seat at the table.

    Thanks again for your passionate words. I’ve four more related posts over the next few weeks which covers the key elements of alignment as well as how we can measure it within our own businesses and I hope you find these useful as well.


  3. Angela Bah says:

    A great article, and I agree with the comments above also, it is a sad situation. L&D is a complex issue and it is very difficult and time-consuming process to educate clients about such issues, or convince them which ideas would be of benefit, rather than go for the bells and whistles approach.

  4. Trent Rosrn says:

    ….and as they say ‘proof is in the pudding’ and the research evidence certainly indicates this.

    For our ‘customers to recognise that we have real value to offer’ (I’ve re used your line Jonathan) we must also become better at profiling our services to them, whether that’s in the form of positive statistical data, emails to the business, newsletters, blogs, case studies, benefits etc. By demonstrating our value we become an integral part of the business. Demonstrating value is not about promoting that we offered X amount of courses and there was an average of 90% attendance.

    There is a place and purpose for L&D in business and we need to become advocates of our services. Otherwise we continue to be branded as the department of ‘reactionary response to solution-first demands from the business’, which I agree with Ryan.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Trent,

      Great observations. We have to show that we can offer benefits to our business and then we have to deliver them. If we do this with consistency then we’ll be trusted and will earn our place as an integral part of the business we serve.



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