What is Learning and Development?

Lifting the lid on learning and development.

Written by Alastair Roy
Published 12 March 2021
What is Learning and Development?
As good teachers will tell you, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” But it seems many leaders are unsure what learning and development (L&D) really is – and are afraid to ask.

So much so, only 24% can articulate the value that L&D brings to their business. [1] Let’s go back to basics and look at what is meant by L&D, why you should embrace it, and how.

Defining L&D

L&D gives people the skills, knowledge and experiences to hit their personal, team and organizational goals. Whether learning something from scratch or up-skilling, L&D teams must identify knowledge gaps then design and deliver the right learning solutions. And, crucially, measure the impact to see if they’re working.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) adds more, defining L&D as:
  • Learning – self-directed and work-based activities that lead to “increased adaptive potential.”
  • Development – longer-term activities that help people acquire broader skills or knowledge. [2]

When you address both, you’ll help create learning cultures where employees can continuously grow.

Why does L&D matter, anyway?

If you’re wondering if investment in L&D is worth it right now, just look at the evidence. Research shows that L&D:
  • Is expected by employees who want opportunities to grow. People consider learning and developing as the most important thing after the nature of their job. [3]
  • Drives engagement.[4] If you invest in people, they’ll feel motivated to work to their best.
  • Makes organizations relevant. The World Economic Forum reports that 54% of employees need significant re- or up-skilling by 2022. [5]

Types of learning and development

Traditionally, professionals split L&D into:
  • Formal or guided learning such as courses, job shadowing and e-learning.
  • Informal or unguided learning such as on-demand digital resources, sharing ideas on social media and mentoring.

But these definitions are fluid. Mentoring, for example, can be part of a formal induction program and informal, on-the-job learning. And increasingly, organizations use a blend of learning activities so employees can develop when, where and how they want to.

And it works. Our research reveals a blended approach is better at putting learning into practice than classroom or online learning only. [6]  

How to create a winning L&D strategy

With the benefits clear, why can only 24% of leaders articulate the value of L&D? Our new report reveals the problems lies in their learning strategy – or one that doesn’t encompass:
  • data analysis
  • performance benchmarking
  • performance metrics. 

What’s more, organizations that crack these are 12 times more likely to understand how learning investment adds value. [7] So, how do you do it?

1. Work with stakeholders to establish performance metrics

Long-term behavioral change. Cognitive ability improvements. ROI. Whatever metrics you choose to measure L&D success, involve leaders and other stakeholders in the discussion. Do that and you’ll better understand what they need and increase buy-in for your efforts.

It works. Leaders who work with L&D teams to identify learning goals are four times more likely to see the strategic value. [8]  

2. Communicate

Involving stakeholders early on will also help you gauge how best to report on L&D performance. Do they want a research paper or dashboard of results, for example?

By sharing this information, you’ll show progress made. It’s no surprise 74% of top-performing L&D teams regularly communicate how learning benefits the business. Compare that to just 10% for low performers. [9]  

3. Align your L&D with your business strategy

McKinsey reports that just 40 percent of companies say that their learning strategy is aligned with business goals. [10] It advises evaluating employee capabilities each year to determine the most essential skills to tackle.

When you work with stakeholders, you’ll create a learning strategy that focus on the needs of the business and not individuals or departments.  

How has COVID-19 changed L&D?

Before COVID-19, 10% of leaders put “build digital capabilities” in their top five priorities. That figure rose to 60% by March 2020. [11] Here are a few more trends to emerge from the pandemic.
  • There’s greater demand for curated online content. [12]
  • Employees are looking to hone “soft skills” around topics such as resilience and wellbeing. [13]
  • Organizations are investing in bespoke content tailored to specific employee groups.

As Andy Lancaster from the CIPD says, “You cannot just think one size fits all or one organizational platform will sort it. Everybody is in a unique situation, and therefore we need to think about a human-centred approach to learning and how it works for people.” [14]


[1] [6] [7] [8] [9] [11] Emerald Works, ‘Leader Perceptions of L&D’ (2021). Available to download here

[2] CIPD, ‘Learning methods’ (2021). Available here.

[3] Josh Bersin, ‘New Research Shows "Heavy Learners" More Confident, Successful, and Happy at Work’ (2018). Available here.

[4] [10] McKinsey and Co. ‘The essential components of a successful L&D strategy’ (2019). Available here.

[5] World Economic Forum, ‘The Future of Jobs Report’ (2018). Available here.

[12] [13] Elizabeth Howlett, ‘Has Covid-19 sparked an L&D revolution?’ (2020). Available here.

[14] CIPD, ‘Learning and development’. Available here.

About the author

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy

Content Editor/Writer
Alastair brings 15 years' experience writing, editing and prodding at content. During that time, he’s picked up copywriting, content marketing and video editing skills. Along with two shirts and about a stone in weight. At Emerald Works, he enjoys creating resources that help people better themselves.

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