Why Learning and Development Programs Fail

Learning and development (L & D) has continued to be the most mission critical and expensive human resource management function. Companies spend millions of dollars to fast track talent development. According to Deloitte insight, nearly every CEO and CHRO report that their companies are not developing skills fast enough or leaders deeply enough. In today’s highly competitive global economy and intensely competitive talent market, the C-suite clearly understands that companies that do not constantly upgrade skills and rapidly build leaders will not be able to execute their business plans. In today’s business environment, learning is an essential tool for engaging employees, attracting and retaining top talent, and developing long-term leadership for the company. However, research has shown that money spent on L & D is often wasted.

Tom Bird and Jeremy Cassell, authors of the Guide to Business Training, stated that a big barrier to learning effectiveness is that you give people the ‘what’ before you have built up the why. The authors start from the viewpoint that all business training should revolve around current specific business challenges and the way an organization needs to change to remain competitive.

Fundamentally, they stress that companies do not give enough time and thought to what the organization is trying to achieve, and on the strategy needed to accomplish it.” L & D strategy needs to be aligned with the business strategy. It is about an improvement in someone’s performance which has a real impact on results. L & D experts first challenge the stakeholders on why there is a need for training and why good performance isn’t happening. Training, for example, is not always the answer. That is why it is imperative to have a feel of what we would like to address before prescribing a solution.

A closer look at what goes wrong
In most organizations, it is L & D departments which are in charge of learning where the focus is on the execution of L & D programs without having the buy-in from both the line manager and the learner. However, it is important to note that HR is there to help managers manage their own people not to do the work of the line manager or the learner. That is why most L & D Programs are doomed to fail. In my recent assignment as HR Director, we started to provide English-speaking skills improvement class after conducting an exam to find out which level the potential participants were on. However, we realized that most people did not take it seriously. Thus, it resulted in a lot of absenteeism and dropouts.

Harvard University Professors Michael and his colleagues found out that one of the reasons why learning programs were not making the required impact, is because most of the times the programs were not wrong in content but failed to align with their local priorities, stage of business, and organizational development. The English language course I mentioned above is much related to this notion. It has never been business-critical and did not resonate well with the participants.

Where companies can start
Research has shown that while many organizations are grappling to adapt to these challenges, high–performing companies are seizing the opportunity to promote a new culture of learning, bending traditional models and transforming how employees learn. These organizations are embracing new mind-sets, fundamentally rethinking what “learning” and “development” means in the context of their business. They place the employee at the center of a new architecture and new vision that treats learning as a continuous process, not an episodic event, and as a company-wide responsibility, not one confined to HR.

Continuous learning model
It is imperative to view employees as customers to be satisfied rather than as students to be pressured into traditional learning classrooms. To be precise, the most fundamental step for HR to make is to think of learning from the perspective of a user’s daily experiences and career aspirations, rather than as a series of processes and programs that the learning function wants to roll out. Sadly, what most organizations do is that they push out training; identifying required courses to be completed by employees based on roles. The focus is on internal training sanctioned by the company. That is why it is becoming harder to engage employees with traditional learning approaches. Recently, I prescribed training on interviewing skills to my HR team, however, the team suggested that they wanted to do a different program. The idea sounded very convincing. Since they got the opportunity to work it around in a way that would help them grow in their current role and support the organization, I witnessed them starting to translate their learning into applicable skills within a short period of time.

What L & D experts could do?
L & D specialists need to think outside the box for them to work hand in gloves with the users (employees) to create an environment and experience and not a series of corporate programs. According to the Deloitte insight, there is a sense of urgency to move beyond constructing a learning program to creating a learning experience. This is done in close collaboration with the employees by striking a conversation with them to find out what they need now to support their success at the moment.

The business environment changes very quickly and is sometimes unpredictable, if we do not shift along with it, we risk becoming irrelevant and plugging along in our current roles is more dangerous than it might seem. Thus, it is important that L & D specialists guide employees through to help them ask the question of what they need to do to grow in their current role. Thus in turn, gives insight into the areas that need current job development and competency expansion.

Employees also need to be future-proof by for them to take their career to the next level. Career growth is not something left for organizations only. The employee needs to navigate opportunities from the driver’s seat. No plan, no progress is the phrase to remember. Organizations, however, have the duty of care to support employees to build a career strategy by asking them where they need to grow in their careers to enable them to work around the development of skills and relationships that will meet long–term business goals.

In conclusion, it is imperative to switch from a content–centric push approach to a learner–centric pull approach. It is notoriously difficult to make this cultural shift. Giving up full control over learning content, schedules and platforms may not be easy, but organizations that embrace this shift can deliver more effective learning across the board as well as set up a solid business foundation, as effective learning and development experience creates a people ready organization. I know it is a tough nut to crack.


8th Year • Aug.16 – Sep.15 2019 • No. 77

Dawit Arega (MBA -IB)

Human Resources Expert & Blogger on LinkedIn . He can be reached at dawitarega@gmail.com.


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