The Complete Guide to a Successful Learning and Development Strategy

The Complete Guide to a Successful Learning and Development Strategy

According to a Gallup report, 87 percent of millennials believe that Learning and Development in the workplace is important, and 59 percent of millennials consider having opportunities to learn and grow to be extremely important in deciding whether to apply for a job. The numbers make it clear–closing skill gaps and training talent should be a top priority for companies motivated to succeed.

Over the past decade, the global workforce has been continually evolving due to a number of factors. An increasingly competitive business landscape, rising complexity, and the digital revolution are reshaping the mix of employees. Meanwhile, persistent uncertainty, a multigenerational workforce, and a shorter shelf life for knowledge have placed a premium on reskilling and upskilling. The shift to a digital, knowledge-based economy means that a vibrant workforce is more important than ever and essential to your overall business strategy.

Why is learning and development (L&D) significant now more than ever before? According to a Gallup report, 87 percent of millennials believe that L&D in the workplace is important, and 59 percent of millennials consider having opportunities to learn and grow to be extremely important in deciding whether to apply for a job. Apart from this, the process of hiring and onboarding new talent every time an old employee leaves an organization is much more expensive than implementing learning and development to retain current employees.

Nearly half (46 percent) of workers say the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to reevaluate their skill sets, and 19 percent say pursuing higher education or learning a new skill is a greater priority. At the same time, human resource departments need to rethink traditional workplace learning and how to best fit training opportunities and formal learning into the new world of work - especially for remote employees.

Employee training has changed significantly over the past several years, as demonstrated by these learning and development statistics, and in response, 69 percent of companies have increased employee development.

If you look at the past decades, most of today’s jobs didn’t exist in 1940, and 85 percent of jobs that will exist 10 years from now don’t exist yet. And the pandemic may have accelerated this shift. It’s estimated that 85 million jobs will be displaced, and 97 million new ones will be created in the next three years. This is leading to skilled talent shortages, with 9 in ten leaders saying they already face skill gaps or expect them to develop within the next five years.

It’s no surprise upskilling and reskilling are the top priority for L&D professionals globally. Currently, 58 percent of companies say that closing skill gaps has become a priority since the pandemic began, and 69 percent are engaging in more skill-building than before the crisis.

An effective learning and development program will help you fill your current skills gap and train the talent you’ll need to be successful in the future.

What is a learning and development strategy?

A learning and development strategy outlines how an organization aligns corporate training with business objectives. The goals of a learning and development strategy are to ensure employees' developmental needs are met and skills, knowledge, and competencies are trained to improve job performance.

Here's the difference between a good, great, and winning L&D strategy:

  • Good L&D strategy = shifts the focus from only employees to implementing management training initiatives
  • Successful L&D strategy = better professional development, building new skills for employees and managers while actively upgrading the quality of existing skills
  • Winning L&D strategy = cost-effective, invests in the human capital of its employees, reaps the benefits of increased employee performance, and enhances employees

Benefits of a learning and development strategy

A well-built learning and development strategy framework helps leaders and employees define goals for human capital building, prioritize them, and design programs to build them effectively. This corporate learning strategy will do several things for an organization, including:

Attracting and retaining talent

Historically, traditional workplace learning focused on improving employee productivity. However, in the digital age, education must also focus on employability.

Companies no longer keep employees for decades, and employees no longer stay with companies for their whole careers.

Because employees must develop and grow to stay relevant, they are often attracted to companies with robust opportunities for L&D. Moreover, such options boost employee retention, while a lack of such L&D programs lowers retention.

A winning learning and development strategy is key to attracting and retaining talent. Companies that invest in these programs enjoy a 24 percent higher profit margin than those that spend less on training. Developing and keeping the people already with a company is much more cost-effective than continuously hiring and losing people through a high turnover rate.

Motivating and engaging employees

Providing employees with opportunities to learn, grow, and develop new competencies is an important and effective way to engage their interests. In addition, research indicates that people with the benefit of lifelong learning journeys are happier.

Similarly, employees who are allowed to learn and grow are more engaged and satisfied with their organization. Engaged employees are even more productive!

Building a company's brand

A company's brand conveys a lot about its corporate strengths, products, and success (or lack thereof). Investing in an effective learning and development strategy can enhance a company's brand as an employer of choice.

Employees seek learning and development opportunities. This means that they are often attracted to companies known for learning and development. Thus, a strong brand image begins with brand-based learning and development opportunities.

Creating a values-based culture

In the digital age, a company's workforce may be virtual or dispersed across many different locations. Therefore, having a sense of community-based shared values increases employee cohesion.

A learning and development strategy can help create a value-based culture that extends beyond the borders of the traditional office. Admirable values tied to social learning are increasingly important to employees, particularly those in younger cohorts.

Developing better human capital

The development of human capital requires ongoing employee instruction and buy-in. Outdated knowledge and a lack of career development lead to a rapid decline in human capital, which compromises a company's ability to meet the performance markers associated with success.

Investing in employees and leaders with continuous learning provides a return on investment in the form of more robust human capital. This translates into an increased likelihood of hitting performance targets and achieving core business goals.

Gamifying your learning and development

In 2011, a group of online gamers collectively solved a problem in three short weeks that had puzzled scientists for decades: They found the structure of an enzyme that helps AIDS-like viruses reproduce. This communal discovery has become a go-to example that illustrates the benefits of gamification as a learning method, a trend in which game mechanics are applied to non-game situations to encourage users to behave in a certain, desired way.

In the HR community, companies are increasingly implementing gamification to drive higher employee engagement, boost productivity and encourage healthy habits, among other outcomes. By tapping into people's innate love of playing games, employees are encouraged to solve problems while generating measurable results for the organization.

Companies like Synovus use Cooleaf to incentivize training courses from their LMS, Campus. Through Cooleaf’s engagement platform, Synovus is able to build culture and credit card knowledge, while incentivizing behaviors team members need to identify and meet a customer’s credit card needs.

Here's a look at a few creative ways other companies have implemented successful gamification into their L&D initiatives.


Challenge: Cisco had invested in a global social media training program for its employees and contractors to build and leverage their social media skill set. But with over 46 courses as part of the program, it was overwhelming to figure out where to start.

Gamified Solution: Cisco introduced three levels of certification for the social media training program: Specialist, Strategist and Master, as well as four sub-certification levels for HR, external communications, sales, and internal partner teams. It also mixed in team challenges to incorporate a healthy dose of competition and collaboration into earning social media certifications.

Results: Since gamifying its social media training program, more than 650 Cisco employees have been certified with over 13,000 courses taken.


Challenge: Deloitte had built a leadership training curriculum for senior executives, but had trouble encouraging executives to start and complete the program.

Gamified Solution: Deloitte turned to Badgeville to introduce gamified elements like badges, leaderboards, and status symbols that measured how many executives were participating and completing courses.

Results: The average time to complete the training curriculum dropped by 50 percent, and the program has seen a 46.6 percent increase in the number of users that return to the site daily.

Engine Yard

Challenge: Cloud app management platform Engine Yard had invested in a Zendesk knowledge base to encourage self-service and community troubleshooting, but employees and customers weren't engaging with the knowledge base as fast as hoped.

Gamified Solution: Engine Yard implemented Badgeville's game mechanics into its Zendesk platform, which rewarded contributors with Achievements and introduced Missions that users could complete for additional recognition after completing customer surveys or reporting bugs.

Results: Once Engine Yard gamified its knowledge base, the company saw a 20% drop in customer complaint tickets, a 40% uptick in forum engagement and knowledge base searches, and a 40% improvement in customer support response time.

How to incentivize your learning and development program

Creating incentives for completing training has always been an important focus of learning and development professionals. However, course completion alone is not still a good measure of success. What’s even more critical is for training to achieve desired business outcomes while simultaneously providing value to employees. In fact, 44 percent of Gen Z employees would spend more time learning or training if they receive recognition from their managers compared to 21 percent of Boomers.

Create healthy competition

Like it or not, competition motivates course completion and improves learning. In a study by James Banfield and Brand Wilkerson, competing in study-based games made learners almost 20 times as likely to organize new knowledge and relate it to existing knowledge, compared to those who took a traditional lecture-based course.

If the timing is right, stress hormones have been shown to enhance memory by improving focus, said a report in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Simply the stress of knowing that quiz results will be viewable to others triggers the release of stress hormones within moments of learners’ exposure to the material they should remember. “If the stress is related to impending judgment, then a desire to avoid humiliation could conceivably contribute to greater attention to the learning task,” the researchers concluded.

Gamification elements, such as badges and leaderboards, make effective and inexpensive ways to reward and motivate learners. When employees reach a particular course level or complete training, they can unlock a badge to show on their online profile or brag about the accomplishment. If such electronic icons aren’t available, wearing pins, adding stickers to employee ID badges, or publicly displaying individual/team standings can foster a competitive spirit.

Research into operant conditioning has shown that such badges may even be more effective at reinforcing learning when they appear at unpredictable, irregular intervals during the training. This element of surprise makes the accomplishments more enjoyable, and the simultaneous release of brain chemicals like dopamine at the moment of learning serves to reinforce that knowledge.

Encourage industry certifications

One training motivator that’s both intrinsic and tangible is earning a respected certification by a third-party organization. Being able to add credentials — like Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Microsoft Certified Azure Developer Associate (AZ:203), Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or Certified Salesforce Administrator (CSA) — to a business card or resume provides the holder with pride and a valuable career advantage they can keep.

Such certifications are also valuable for companies that employ such professionals. In some cases, such certifications are mandated by industry regulations or federal law. Having certified employees also provides a competitive differentiator. Certified employees may even offer an opportunity for increased revenue from justifiably higher consultant rate billings.

Certifications motivate learning because they provide a distinct, quantifiable, and attainable goal. They also improve learning by requiring passing an exam. Exams and quizzes are even more instrumental in reinforcing the learning than elaborately studying the material itself.

One of the best ways to improve knowledge retention is to demonstrate its importance by clarifying the connection between the training and an employee's actual job. As Dr. Will Thalheimer explains, “When we persuade learners about the importance of what they are learning, they will be more likely to reinforce memory accessibility and persevere during future on-the-job implementation attempts.” Few things say “relevant to your job” like an industry-standard certification in a specific technology that an employee uses every day.

Implementing a learning and development plan

Both learning experience and learner experience are keys to building and implementing an effective learning and development strategy.

While each organization's learning and development strategy will be unique, companies can follow some basic steps to develop and implement an effective organizational development plan:

  1. Define learning and development goals, vision, and training metrics and KPIs
  2. Inventory existing learning and development activities
  3. Consult with stakeholders and define key areas of team development based on organizational needs, not individual wishes
  4. Perform a training needs assessment
  5. Analyze the gap between current learning and development activities and the defined curriculum with a training needs analysis
  6. Organize a learning and development process and a delivery strategy, including scheduling and tracking
  7. Identify priorities for expanding the design and select vendors if applicable
  8. Establish and execute a learning and development plan
  9. Utilize a Learning Management System (LMS)
  10. Measure benchmarks, assess, and update content as needed

Platforms like Cooleaf boost learning and development programs by adding automated rewards, strategic programming, and powerful reporting to give organizations an effective, streamlined strategy.

A good learning and development strategy should include a mix of on-the-job learning, collaborative learning, and formal training.

On-the-job learning

On-the-job learning should encompass the necessary skills and mastery of employees' essential tools to do their jobs. A learning platform incorporating e-learning can streamline this process as long as it provides resources to answer all questions that arise.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning can include mentoring, coaching, apprenticeships, or job shadowing. Businesses should also have cross-team and cross-department interaction activities to give employees a more comprehensive view of their value.

Formal training

Formal training may include courses on a learning platform. It can also involve hands-on learning and the ability to earn certificates by meeting specific performance or learning objectives.

Employees want to learn

A Deloitte study found that two-thirds of Millennial-aged employees expected management to provide them with accelerated development opportunities in order for them to stay with a company. Further, 70 percent of this group wanted to be more creative at work. Growth opportunities, including “training and support on the job,” were a top request of respondents.

The benefits of establishing a learning culture are a two-way street. Deloitte, in the same report, noted that: “Organizations with a strong learning culture are 92 percent more likely to develop novel products and processes, 52 percent more productive, 56 percent more likely to be the first to market with their products and services, and 17 percent more profitable than their peers. Their engagement and retention rates are also 30–50 percent higher.”

Your employees want those growth opportunities and they want to contribute to the company’s success. It’s time to connect that desire to the right learning opportunities.

Creating a true learning culture

A 2018 Harvard Business Review article quoting CEB, Inc., pointed out that a true learning culture not only supports an individual’s quest for knowledge but is also directed toward the organization’s mission and goals.

A company also has to cultivate effective learning behaviors. Research by SHRM found that only 20 percent, or just one-fifth, of employees, had developed truly effective learning behaviors. When companies are spending, on average, over $1,200 per employee each year on training and development, they have got to get employees excited about learning to realize a return on that investment.

Prioritize and validate learning

This is an important final step in making the cultural shift to learning. Employees want to be able to apply what they’ve learned to the work they’re doing. Otherwise, why bother learning something new when they never get the opportunity to use that expertise?

Managers, listen to employees who are bringing that new knowledge to the table and help them find ways to apply it. Provide constructive feedback as they integrate that knowledge into their skillset.

To truly create a culture of learning, it should be a business priority to develop a positive attitude toward learning from executives on down, provide support when an employee needs it, and give employees time to learn.

Another factor to consider is that employees have their own set of priorities when it comes to learning. The Deloitte study highlighted earlier noted that younger employees, aged 25 to 35, are much more focused on professional development and upward career progression, while employees older than 35 are focused on long-term career goals.

Often, companies force specific learning systems and templates onto team members because they think that’s what the employees need to learn. There’s some validity in this approach. However, allowing employees to choose the classes, lessons, or webinars they want to take will engage them and get them more excited about enhancing their knowledge base and ultimately, their careers.

The most meaningful reward that an employer can put in place is not expensive. Rather, meeting learning needs, affirming an employee’s worth, and valuing their newly acquired knowledge is a priceless boost to their morale, enthusiasm, and engagement.

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