The Future of L&D: Business-Centric Learning

The needs of the business must be the driving force for learning in the organization.

In preparing some new survey research on learning and development (L&D), Brandon Hall Group asked the following question: “To what extent are the following considered drivers for the existence of your organization’s learning and development strategies?”

The answer choices were:

  • Prioritize business needs and 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

Approximately 40 percent of the more than 500 respondents to the survey question 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 percent) had answers ranging from L&D looking at what L&D needs; L&D looking at what learners need; 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 affects content for compliance and/or how the bottom line is managed.

The first is what Brandon Hall Group considers business-centric. The second is either content-centric or learner-centric. To date, most of the research and analysis has focused on the difference between organizations that are content-centric or learner-centric. Brandon Hall Group believes the 40 percent 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. An actual or virtual instructor then delivered that content.

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 e-learning. 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. Learners get the information only when—and sometimes where—they need it. The needs of the learners 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 in which learning is aligned with the goals of the business. Brandon Hall Group thinks of it as emerging because almost 60 percent of the answers pointed in other, older directions. We believe 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.

There is 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 also is 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 learners 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 learning is also when and where content is needed; it is more refined and targeted to the level of the learners 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 also will be specific programs 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 such as “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 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 first will 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.

David Grebow is principal learning analyst for Brandon Hall Group, a research and analyst firm focusing on Learning and Development, Talent Management and Human Resources, Leadership Development, and Talent Acquisition. He can be reached at


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