Beyond L&D: Getting to High-Impact Learning


Good L&D is no longer good enough, suggests Bersin’s brand new version of our longitudinal High-Impact Learning Organization (HILO) research series. It pays to be great.

Our research finds that high-impact learning organizations (HILOs) generated, on average, three times higher profit growth in 2008-2011 than their also-ran peers. Researchers can, of course, have legitimate discussions about causes and effects, but we think the data are compelling.

The HILO Distinction

High-impact learning organizations are more efficient, effective and aligned than other learning organizations. Yes, they have outstanding fundamentals in critical areas such as learning technologies and content management. But this alone doesn’t usually get them to the greatness of HILO status.

What does? Dimensions that aren’t ordinarily considered strengths of conventional learning and development (L&D). Culture is one of them. HILOs help shape the culture of the larger company so that there is plenty of learning outside classrooms and learning management systems. Learning gets woven into the fabric of the company.

That may sound fuzzy and soft, but the research highlights specific ways companies can achieve this. In fact, fuzziness is something HILOs try to avoid. They are very hard-headed about performance, with an intense emphasis on measurement and evaluation. The next time you hear some would-be guru talk about how metrics are not important to learning because learning should not need to “justify” itself through anything as mundane as numbers, you can safely ignore him or her. HILOs may not use metrics to justify, but they certainly use them to constantly improve.

Better, however, does not always mean bigger. In fact, HILOs often have L&D functions that are smaller, at least in terms of staff per employee. Their true competitive advantage is that they very agile, well aligned with strategy and business executives, and focused on making the organization as a whole as capable as possible.

So, What’s the Catch?

Describing HILOs in this way almost makes them seem easy to develop, but excellence never comes easily. Asked about key challenges they’re facing, learning organizations told us about the difficulties they had getting good alignment with business needs and with integrating L&D with talent management strategies. Gone are the days when a chief learning officer could simply make sure his or her department operated smoothly and declare success. Just as human resources has been trying to move "beyond HR," as John Boudreau and Peter Ramstad put it in their famous book by that name, CLOs must figure out a way to get beyond L&D.

Today’s CLO must be a systems thinker, a strategic partner, and culture shaper. It’s a lot of ask, especially in a world in which the stereotypes about L&D still rule the day. We found that less than half of learning organizations feel that they are perceived by their stakeholder leadership as proactive, strategic and acting as a partner. A depressing few (just 14 percent) place themselves at the high end of this scale.

Getting to Excellence

Because getting to excellence is no simple feat, we are producing a series of reports that focus on the key dimensions of high-impact organizations, complete with case studies, practices and applications.  The goal is to help member companies cut through the confusion out there and emphasize the things that really matter.

To help firms create a roadmap to success, we have just developed a HILO Maturity Model, which our CEO Josh Bersin recently wrote about in The New Best-Practices of a High-Impact Learning Organization. He briefly discusses the four levels through which L&D tends to evolve on its way to becoming the kind of function that maximizes total organizational capability.

That’s not to say that once a learning organization gets to excellence that it will necessarily stay there. The business world is nothing if not dynamic and ever-changing. Best practices in learning must change in response, and this means keeping abreast of fast-moving technologies and trends such as gamification, virtual classrooms, mobile learning, and the like. So, even if you’re quite sure your learning organization is high-impact, don’t become too comfortable. We’re finding that resting on laurels almost guarantees others will pass you by.

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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