When Business Objectives Trump Learning Objectives

By Nathan Pienkowski

Should a Learning and Development (L&D) organization deliver above and beyond the call of duty, going “all in” to apply the latest in instructional design to every single project?  That’s an interesting question and, like most interesting questions, it defies a simple yes or no answer.

Sometimes, the answer is yes.  However, in a world of limited resources for L&D, department leaders would be wise to “dial it back” sometimes.  In this article, we’ll consider the circumstances in which it might make sense to do a little less and conserve precious resources for other initiatives.  It all comes down to the business objectives at play.

Keeping Business Objectives in Mind

In L&D, much thought is given to the learning objectives behind a training initiative.  Those objectives drive curriculum and instructional design decisions, and L&D teams take great care to clearly articulate them at the outset of a project.

In most cases, L&D teams are rightfully proud of their expertise in curriculum and instructional design, and in their knowledge of learning science.  They’ll work to apply that expertise and knowledge in full measure to deliver on learning initiatives for their internal clients.

However, there are times when L&D leaders should remember that their departments are powerful tools.  In most cases, they can be wielded to teach learners new knowledge and skills.  But, they can also serve other valid purposes.

For example, L&D teams can be used to demonstrate regulatory compliance or to provide management leverage.  In these cases, the L&D team might want to remember the business objectives at play, and act accordingly by keeping the initiative simple.  Let’s explore this idea a bit more with a hypothetical example.

A Hypothetical Example

Assume for a moment that a company has developed a new policy or procedure.  The policy or procedure itself is not complex and complying with it doesn’t require development of any new skills.  However, it’s very important to management that everyone comply.  So, L&D is asked to develop a training initiative related to it.

Before spending a lot of time articulating the learning objectives for the training initiative, L&D needs to consider the business objectives behind it.  What does management really want to achieve?  Remember that the policy is simple and easy to understand, so the key business objectives are most likely to:

  1. Demonstrate that management is serious about compliance
  2. Provide a mechanism for managing compliance later (for example, non-compliant employees will have no excuse, because training will have been provided, making corrective action much easier)

In this hypothetical example, the L&D team should most likely conserve its dollars and personnel resources, and just develop a simple training program that achieves the business objectives without going overboard from a curriculum or instructional design standpoint.  In short, L&D should “check the box,” achieve the business objectives, and move on.

A Real-World Example

Here’s a real-world example that’s a bit more nuanced, but that illustrates the same principle.  Our team was tasked with training a range of healthcare professionals in third world countries to vaccinate large portions of their local populations.  Administering the various vaccinations involved a range of different syringes and techniques.

The learners included not only the health workers who would administer vaccinations, but also district public health officials who would oversee and evaluate the health workers.  Obviously, the health workers needed to receive complex hands-on training, administering simulated injections with all the various types of syringe.

The public health officials also needed to understand the injection techniques and when they needed to be used, even though they wouldn’t administer any injections.  We could have trained them in the same manner as the health workers, as that would have satisfied the learning objectives for the initiative.

However, we adopted a different and lower-cost approach.  Rather than giving the public health officials hands-on training, we had them watch the different injection techniques and educated them on when certain techniques were required vs. others.  This saved the client’s resources, and still fully equipped the public health officials to do their jobs effectively.

Keeping Learners in Mind

The point of this article has been this:  In a world of limited L&D resources, remember the business objectives behind a training initiative, and deploy the resources needed to achieve those objectives.  Don’t go overboard.  There’s only so much time, budget dollars, and personnel resources to go around.

However, there’s another way to look at resources, too.  Your learners’ time and attention are also resources, and the L&D team needs to make the most of them.  It’s best to avoid overloading learners with a high-powered learning program if something a lot simpler will achieve the underlying business objectives.