The Future of L&D: Business-centric Learning

In the most recent Brandon Hall Group learning and development survey, the results of which are scheduled to be published soon, we asked the following question: “To what extent are the following considered drivers for the existence of your organization’s learning & development strategies?”

The answer choices were:

  • Prioritize business needs & align business, HR and learning strategies
  • Analyze L&D needs
  • Develop strategies for addressing L&D needs
  • Evaluate L&D
  • Strengthen ethics and governance
  • Promote strong financial management

40.5% of the survey respondents said their company’s L&D strategy was developed in alignment with the prioritized business needs. The L&D strategy had learning and HR supporting the business needs. The remaining majority (59.5%) had answers ranging from L&D looking at what L&D needs; L&D looking at what learners needs; L&D focusing on compliance issues; or L&D trying to use learning to improve productivity and profitability.

So the answers fell into two camps:

  1. L&D aligns with the business needs; the business needs come first and everything else aligns with those needs.
  2. L&D decides what L&D thinks learners need, especially as it impacts on content for compliance and/or how the bottom line is managed.

The first is what Brandon Hall Group considers business-centric. The second is about either content-centric or learner-centric. To date, most of the research and analysis has focused on the difference between organizations which are content-centric or learner-centric. Brandon Hall Group believes the 40.5% minority signals a dramatic sea-change for the rest of the L&D organizations. To be clear, here is a closer look at the differences between content-centric, learner-centric and business-centric models.


This model is characterized by just-in-case learning. You learn it just in case you might need to use it someday. It’s been used since companies got too big to continue the apprentice and guild model and started learning from books. A couple hundred years later, in large companies, people specialized as instructional designers and course developers. They gathered content from the subject-matter experts (SMEs) and others and followed several linear steps (i.e., lesson one through lesson 12) to build programs focused the content. That content was then delivered by an actual or virtual instructor.

From flip board to PowerPoint, chalk board to electronic white board, content-centric programs have remained unchanged for several hundred years. It’s a model that believes one size fits all – one course can be canned and can teach many people what they might need to know. It’s a one-to-many model — one instructor for many students, one off-the-shelf program for many students. It’s most apparent when we look at elearning. We took the instructor completely out of the picture, and ended up with nothing but content.


This model is characterized as just-in-time learning. The learner gets the information only when – and sometimes where – they need it. The needs of the learner are at the center of every knowledge transfer. It assumes that learners know what they need to learn and can find it when they need it.  The learners need to be at the center of any course development or course update. Given access to the right educational technology, the SMEs are the people who, with some training on how to transfer their knowledge, can help develop content faster and more effectively than an instructional designer or course developer who needs to essentially curate, define, design and deliver the same content.


This is the emerging model for L&D where learning is aligned with the goals of the business. Brandon Hall Group thinks of it as emerging because almost 60% of the answers pointed in other, older directions. We believe that the numbers for business-centric will trump learner-centric and content-centric by our next survey, and will become the majority. The reason is simple: the needs of the business must be the driving force for learning in the organization.

No point in focusing on just-in-case learning when the business case for the learning has not been made. No need to get that content out there just-in-time if the learner has no time to waste finding an answer to a question with no relationship to the business needs. What makes the most sense strategically, as well as operationally, is to provide the exact information that is just-for-me, when and where I need it, as long as it supports the business needs of the company.

Just-for-me learning is content that focuses on the learners and maintains an alignment with the needs of the business. Before the learners ever see the content it needs to pass the test of alignment with the business needs. If it was an equation it would look like this:

                                             Content + Learners    

                                                Business Needs        =    Programs/ Courses

The content is also more directed at the individual learner. In a sense, the content ‘knows’ what the learner already knows and needs to know. Just-in-time content is delivered to the learner when and where they need it. The delivered content can range from beginner to guru and needs to be sorted through to find the necessary content. Just-for-me is also when and where content is needed; it is more refined and targeted to the level of the learner and exactly what they need. Above all it has been aligned to the needs of the business.

Here’s an example of business-centric content:

  • One of the goals of the business this year is to improve customer satisfaction ratings with service calls. So one of the goals of the L&D organization is to find out who provides services, what they do during the service call, and what they need to know, and know how to do, to make the customer rate them a 10 on a scale of 1-10.
  • All the training and education programs for the learners who deliver services will contain something about excelling at customer service. There will also be specific programs that are focused on ways to improve customer service during a service call.
  • Performance metrics will take customer service ratings into account and remedial training will be required for employees receiving low marks from their customers. The annual meeting for service delivery employees will have the L&D organization building programs and presentations on how to provide great customer service. L&D will be delivering programs like “What to Do When a Customer Hates the Service They Receive.” It all flows from an alignment with the business need to improve customer service ratings that year.

Ten years ago, L&D was all about the content development, what SMEs could tell you, and what content might be useful someday. Five years ago, L&D moved to skills gap analysis, competency assessments and what learning style the learners needed. Today, and into the future, L&D will be focused on aligning learning with the needs of the business. The test question L&D organizations will first need to answer is how can they align with the business needs and develop and deliver programs that support those needs.  Everything else will follow.

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David Grebow



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