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What is Learning and Development (L&D)?

Businesses invest billions into learning and development, with little ROI. A better understanding of L&D can help create more effective L&D strategies.

What is Learning and Development (L&D)?

Published on:

12 Aug 2021

Worldwide, companies pumped £258 billion into learning and development.

Despite this investment, research suggests corporate learning and development strategies aren’t delivering the desired results.

A whopping 75% of managers are dissatisfied with their companies L&D function. Moreover, 70% of employees report that they don’t have the mastery of skills necessary to do their job and only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in their role.

What businesses need is an increased understanding of learning and development, it’s purpose and benefits, alongside L&D methods to implement a successful learning and development strategy that can help increase knowledge, improve behaviours and develop skills across the company.

What is L&D?

Let’s start with the obvious.

Learning and development is an all-encompassing term that describes all the activities a business does to encourage professional development for employees. This can be in a systematic process, like a learning and development strategy, as well as via informal activities.

Learning, training, development and education in a corporate context are often used interchangeably. But there are some key differences between these concepts.

Learning and Development Definitions

Learning: Learning refers to the acquisition of knowledge, skills and behaviours. This can be through education, training, experience and so on.

Training: Training refers to teaching applicable knowledge, skills and behaviours to be used for a specific role. For example, a customer phone agent may have a specific training course on call ownership. This training is targeted to help deliver better performance and outcomes.

Development: Development refers to learning long-term as a process of continuously deepening knowledge, skills and behaviours. This development is often aligned with individual development goals alongside the goals of the organisation. For example, a new starter may develop into a more senior position through training and learning through experience.

Education: This is the most formal means to broaden knowledge and skills. It is not as specific as a dedicated training course, but can help open doors to new opportunities. For example, someone looking for a career switch from customer service to operations management may undertake a degree in business administration.

Organisational Learning and Development Framework

The learning and development framework of one business may look completely different to another.

L&D in larger companies is highly structured and led by HR, or even a dedicated learning & development team. HR or the L&D team implement a dedicated L&D strategy which will focus on identifying specific training needs across all employees, often provided through online programmes or dedicated training providers. In the largest businesses with layered organisational hierarchies, L&D will also focus on management training to develop leadership skills for different levels of management focusing on areas like developing emotional intelligence and understanding intrinsic motivations.

On the other end of the scale, for SMEs, learning and development may be a less formal process with less structure, often due to resource constraints. There may be a smaller or outsourced HR department, so the L&D strategy may be led and implemented through another role, like the operations manager or chief operating officer.

Learning and development at SMEs is often not through formal training procedures. Though on the face of it, this may sound like a negative, it’s actually one of the perks that draws many employees to working for SMEs.

In many SMEs, especially start ups, smaller teams mean employees are often working far outside their skill set. They’re learning on the job or learning through peers. It’s what’s known as social learning and it’s a form of continuous learning. This is the type of learning that happens without employees even realising it as they’re continuously developing their skills and behaviours through their experiences and relationships.

This type of learning can offer much faster development than many formal processes within larger companies offer.

Of course, social learning isn’t the only type of L&D available at SMEs. Some other popular SME L&D processes include:

  1. Personal development plans

  2. Peer training such as shadowing

  3. Individual L&D budgets

Why is Learning and Development Important?

Learning and development has obvious benefits for companies. As a bare minimum, the most obvious benefit of L&D is that (in theory) employees are better equipped to perform their role.

The reality is the benefits of learning and development extend far beyond this.

93% of employees say they’ll stay longer at a company that invests in their career development. This means learning and development can help companies retain the best talent for their organisation and decrease employee turnover. When you consider that the average cost of turnover per employee earning £25,000 a year or more is £30,614, decreasing employee turnover sounds a lot more appealing for the bottom line.

Investing in learning and development can have big benefits for your bottom line too. Businesses that spend at least £1080 per employee report 24% more in profit than businesses with smaller L&D budgets. Similarly, an IBM study reveals well-trained teams increase their business productivity by 10% on average. This is due to the increased employee engagement from investing in employees’ wellbeing.

L&D is important to employees too, especially for millenials. Gallup research reveals 87% of millennials cite learning and development in the workplace as important to them. This matters because they now make up 50% of the global workforce. Engaging and retaining these employees is key to success.

The benefits of L&D trickle down not just to employees and businesses, but to customers too. Businesses that invest in learning technologies report a 16% increase in customer satisfaction.

Perhaps most importantly, learning and development helps build a better company culture.

Think about every successful company, from Google to Apple. These businesses support a culture of continuous improvement, in which learning and development plays a vital role. Learning and development is at the heart of the company, as part of the core values, making it a learning organisation and a better, more productive and engaging place to work, aiding business performance through improved execution and directly impacting the bottom line.

Learning and Development Methodology

As we mentioned above, L&D strategies look a little (or a lot!) different in every business. As such there have been many learning and development methodologies developed to aid businesses.

The Learning and Development Cycle

A popular L&D methodology is provided by the Pedagogical Analysis model. This model starts by assessing the current organisational knowledge, skills and behaviours.

From here, goals and objectives are identified and the corresponding learning methods and processes are developed. These methods and processes are monitored and outcomes evaluated to assess where the learning and development process can be improved, providing a continuous learning and development cycle.

So the L&D cycle breaks down into four steps:

  1. Analysis of current needs

  2. Define learning objectives

  3. Identify learning methods and activities

  4. Monitor, evaluate and improve

The first step in particular is vital for businesses to see better outcomes from L&D strategies. If you have no idea of the current knowledge, behaviours and skills within your business, how will your L&D strategy benefit the business? You need to understand the current behaviours, skills and knowledge within the business to identify the future behaviours, skills and knowledge that can improve your business performance. These need to be relevant and specific to give learning and development a clear, measurable goal.

With a specific goal in mind, you can identify the exact activities that will help you reach that goal.

For example, you might identify that the customer service experience is inconsistent due to a lack of consistent behaviours and knowledge. From here, you can set a specific goal to improve your customer satisfaction by 10%.

To reach this goal, you could implement a mix of learning activities such as peer shadowing, micro learning and learning technologies to help customer service staff increase their knowledge and better understand the behaviours necessary for a consistent customer service experience.

You’ll monitor these activities as they go to ensure they are achieving the desired results. You can measure this through analytics, but also by simply asking for feedback from employees to make sure they’re finding the L&D activities engaging, helpful and practical.

70/20/10 Organisational Learning Model

The 70/20/10 organisation learning model is another popular approach, developed by McCall, Lombardo and Elchinger.

The model functions as a general L&D framework organisations can use when developing learning and development processes and is used across many businesses. Part of it’s appeal is its simplicity.

The 70/20/10 model says that 70% of learning comes from learning by doing or work-based learning. This is the informal learning we mentioned earlier on where employees learn through experiences, particularly when tackling new tasks or more challenging projects.

The following 20% of learning comes from social learning from relationships at work. Employees learn from each other through peer coaching, collaborative working, peer mentoring and so on. This type of learning has short, informal feedback loops in the form of peer feedback and happens naturally through regular interactions.

The final 10% of learning comes from the more formal processes associated with learning and development such as educational courses, training programmes and learning technologies.

The popularity of the 70/20/10 model comes down to the fact that for many workplaces, this represents a realistic image of what learning and development looks like day to day.

However, the 70/20/10 model isn’t without its critics, particularly in academic circles. Claurdy states there is no quantitative evidence for the 70/20/10 model, while Lowenstein and Spletzer conclude that while formal and informal training may be complementary, from their research, formal training may have higher returns and create more value for businesses.

Learning and Development Effectiveness: Bloom’s Taxonomy

One of the issues with the 70/20/10 model in particular is that it doesn’t take into consideration the effectiveness of learning and development strategies.

Bloom’s Taxonomy was originally created as a framework to classify different academic educational objectives and was later revised by Pohl to be more relevant to all types of learning, including within a corporate setting.

The taxonomy is based on the belief that learning must begin with basic foundational knowledge, before progressing to more complex skills like critical thinking and evaluation. As such, it works in a hierarchy, giving a framework for learning development.

The different levels are:

  1. Remember

  2. Understand

  3. Apply

  4. Analyse

  5. Evaluate

  6. Create

As you can see, Bloom’s revised taxonomy begins with memory recall, progressing to understanding knowledge, applying that knowledge and eventually using that knowledge to analyse, evaluate and create. The taxonomy can help businesses in assessing what level of knowledge and skill employees possess to better identify learning methods and processes, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of existing learning and development processes.

Learning and Development Processes, Activities and Methods

Learning and development processes, activities and methods are the means to execute your learning and development strategy. They’re how you achieve your goals.

There are many methods of learning in business, some of which we’ve already touched upon, but we’ll cover some of the more popular ones.

Coaching and Mentoring

Both coaching and mentoring focus on developing skills, knowledge and behaviours through bespoke training, often in a one on one setting. For both, the coach or mentor takes the lead and drives the learning process, while the mentee or coachee follows and learns.

Lectures, Seminars and Webinars

These are a more formal style of learning, where interaction is often inhibited, particularly for lectures and seminars. These focus on developing skills, behaviours or knowledge in a particular area, as opposed to the more bespoke training above.

Discussions and Debates

These are a highly interactive and collaborative method of learning. Groups are set and given topics to discuss and explore together. This type of peer learning can be great at helping to expand knowledge and examine different perspectives and behaviours.

Individual budgets

This is a more modern approach to individual learning and development that many companies are now trialing. Each employee or team gets their own budget to dedicate to their learning and development however they see fit. Businesses can see great results from this method as it empowers employees to take control of their own self-development.


Gamification is another modern learning and development method. This is the process of applying game mechanics to a non-gaming environment. These mechanics include common features of games such as leaderboards, points, levels and so on. The reason gamification is increasingly popular in learning and development is because of the science behind it. Gamification releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, which make us feel good. It taps into the intrinsic motivations of learners, because of this gamification can increase engagement considerably.

Job Shadowing

Job shadowing shouldn’t be confused with mentoring. Most often, mentors are within the same team or department as the mentee. For job shadowing, the employee works with another employee with a different experience from them. This can help employees learn a range of new skills, behaviours and knowledge. For example, an employee in marketing could shadow an employee in aftersales. They’ll gain a better insight of the customer experience across the business, as well as the behaviours necessary to work within that role and how they might apply these behaviours to their own role.

Learning and Development Challenges

If you recall back to the introduction, we pointed out that despite the great benefits that come from learning and development strategies, research suggests many businesses are struggling to get it right. For example, only 25% of respondents in a McKinsey survey said that they believed training measurably improved performance and that most companies do not bother tracking their returns on learning and development activities.

Many of these challenges come down to learning and development strategies overlooking biological realities and human nature, ultimately investing huge budgets into programmes that don’t work.

The Psychology of Learning and Development

Think back to the last thing you learned, why and when did you learn it?

Chances are it was when you needed to and you immediately applied that knowledge.

This is because people learn best when they have to learn and when that learning is relevant and useful for them. Your employees are no exception to this rule. Applying learning to real world situations helps develop foundational knowledge into applicable knowledge.

Psychologist Edwin Locke actually laid the groundwork for this back in the 1960s in his goal setting and task performance theory. His research proved decades ago that clear goals and appropriate feedback are clear motivators for employees, citing five key factors for learning success:

  1. Clarity

  2. Challenge

  3. Commitment

  4. Feedback

  5. Task complexity

Utilising these factors can increase learners’ motivation and help target learning to be more relevant.

Another challenge comes in the form of memory, because as it turns out, human brains just aren’t that good at retaining knowledge that isn’t applied.

This is known as the forgetting curve. Research by Hermann Ebbinghaus revealed that within one hour of being presented with new information, people will have forgotten an average of 50% of that information. Within 24 hours, this moves up to an average of 70%. Within a week, this figure is an average of 90%!

This shows how quickly our brains forget what we don’t use and further emphasises the point that learning must be incorporated into work to retain it.

Psychologist Cecil Alec Mace proposed spaced repetition to tackle this. This refers to spreading out learning over a period of time, as it takes advantage of the psychological spacing effect. His study revealed utilising spaced repetition helped participants recall around 80% of what they learned after 60 days — a considerable improvement on the above figures!

Learning and Development Solutions: Lean Learning

So if the status quo of current learning and development strategies don’t work, what’s the solution?

One proposed solution is what’s known as lean learning. This is based on principles from Toyota’s famous lean manufacturing system including:

  1. Using effort only when necessary

  2. Cutting waste

  3. Improving outcomes

  4. Creating a continuous process

Lean learning therefore can be explained in similar, simple, steps:

  1. Learning the core of what you need to learn

  2. Applying that learning immediately

  3. Receiving prompt feedback and refining your understanding

  4. Repeating and improving the cycle

The lean learning framework gives organisations the adaptability necessary for a modern business and avoids many of the psychological pitfalls mentioned above.

Learners are only learning what they need to; whether that’s a new skill, better understanding behaviours necessary to perform their role or developing knowledge to improve their performance. There is no wasted time or effort in learning something that won’t aid them.

This learning is then immediately applied. This moves the knowledge from foundational to applicable knowledge, aiding learner retention.

From here, prompt feedback allows employees to refine their learning and deliver improved business outcomes.

There are some particular learning and development methods that go hand in hand with lean learning, including guided learning, peer learning, micro learning and personalised learning.

Guided learning avoids the issue of learning at the wrong time. Training at specific intervals can decrease engagement and effectiveness. Instead, guided learning is a form of continuous learning. It often comes in the form of learning technologies that intervene with contextual, personalised learning pop ups throughout an employees’ work week. In other words, the technology intervenes at the point where new knowledge could be helpful and immediately applied.

Peer learning is another powerful method that considers human behaviour. 55% of employees ask a colleague for help learning a new skill. Utilising this behaviour in a learning and development strategy through peer learning supports lean learning principles.

Businesses can connect employees by matching employees who are willing to teach certain skills with colleagues who want to learn them.

Micro learning is another learning and development method to keep employees engaged and to keep learning manageable. Short, digestible chunks of learning are offered, ideally exactly when they’re necessary so they can be immediately applied.

Of course, even with lean learning, businesses must still take into consideration the inherent differences between people. Different learning styles and motivations must all be taken into consideration for a successful learning and development strategy that offers personalised content adapted to each team or individual learning motivation, delivery method and need.

When it comes to the continuous improvement of learning and development strategies, businesses need to focus on measuring the right outcomes. So often, learning and development strategies either aren’t measuring outcomes at all or they’re measuring outcomes that don’t align with business performance.

For example, many learning and development teams focus on L&D metrics like the amount of modules completed, pass rates, participation rates and so on. However, these L&D metrics don’t tell businesses much about the effectiveness of their learning and development strategy like how learning is impacting employee performance or productivity.

Instead, businesses should monitor metrics that provide a deeper insight into the success of learning and development strategies as it relates to business outcomes. This could include a mix of quantitative and qualitative metrics like operational efficiency, employee engagement and learner feedback.

Developing a Bespoke Learning and Development Strategy for your Business

As you can see, there is no one size fits all when it comes to learning and development, though there are some key characteristics for a more effective learning and development strategy. Learn more about how to create a learning and development strategy that will aid better performance in your business.

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