Business or Learner Needs - Who Comes Out on Top?

Posted by Phill Lord-David on Apr 19, 2022 11:49:35 AM

In the blue cornerrrr - The big evil business trying to make money: 

“Just get it out, it doesn’t need to look pretty.” 

“We need this by yesterday; it’s a priority.”

“How can we reduce the time of training?” 

And in the red cornerrr – The L&D team trying to make a learning culture and introduce cool fancy new learning products:

“We can do a blended programme over 4-6 weeks.”

“We can’t make it shorter; people need to know this stuff.”

“We can gamify it and make multiple pathways.”


Ok, in reality we’re not in a boxing ring battling it out against senior leaders or C-suite, but, these are common battles that happen in the world of corporate learning – trust me I’ve heard them first hand. Now, this isn’t always the case, but I guarantee there are discrepancies from time to time about what the business needs vs what your learners need.

It can be very frustrating as a Learning Designer or Learning Manager to try and do what you feel is right for people, but then have stakeholders and leaders telling you to do something different. Back to being order takers again: eLearning with a side of no impact to take away and yes make it a large (45mins).

Well, controversially I think everyone is right, and yet everyone’s wrong in this situation. Here we go, neutral on the fence guy that won’t give any actual advice. Not quite. But let me explain.

The reason I say everyone’s right here is because each team is trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to make a difference in some way, it’s just that they’re seeing the world through different lenses. They’re both wrong because those dots aren’t lined up between business and learner needs, so both teams are also making mistakes - which is why the battle ensues. 

Let’s get stuck into this more. Grab a cuppa, get comfortable, and reflect for just a moment on how well you think your L&D team is aligned to your business objectives. A good place to start is can you tell me what the business objectives are, and how your learning plans help achieve them?

Back to basics – The purpose of a learning strategy

Stick with me here. I know it’s probably tempting to skip this section as seasoned professionals, but it is key, especially now, to put the strategy to the front of your mind. So many companies are changing the way they do L&D and looking at going digital, hybrid models and the tech they need to support and connect people. 

What a Learning strategy is:

A plan to give people in your organisation the skills and knowledge they need to perform well in their jobs, solve problems and be successful. This in turn provides a more skilled and experienced workforce to provide better service to customers (which then generates revenue and growth).

What it’s not:

A list of things to complete, action or implement to keep with the times, be modern and bring in new technology. Being ‘innovative’ because that’s what others are doing or the most recent talking point in the L&D space. “They use social platforms, so should we” kind of thinking.

The reason I just wanted to call this out is because I’ve seen this happen, and still do. People say let’s go digital or bring in a new platform, but they don’t know why they’re doing it; they just need to go digital. I’m not saying going digital is bad by the way (in fact it’s essential) but you’ll notice a key difference between what a strategy is, and isn’t; being outcome focused, not output focused.

How does being outcome focused help align everyone’s needs?  

I’ve finished my double espresso, been on some webinars and heard some great success stories. I’m fired up. Full of energy. Let’s get on to that strategy…

… gamification

… new platform

… social and in the flow learning

… content, content , contenttttttttt


Let’s start again. This right there, is an output mindset. The above are of course legitimate solutions to problems and there are plenty of case studies that show some good numbers to support success. But we’re jumping to the end, rather than understanding our goals.

An outcome mindset is about focusing on a problem, or opportunity, you are trying to improve. The reason this is good is because there is no solution in sight yet, which means you’re not biassed to something, or actioning the wrong thing. Instead you’re hyper focused on the challenge at hand. This is where we can start aligning the business needs, and learner needs. Let’s take a look at an example of being outcome vs output focused. 

Outcome focused:

Improve new starter sales by 20% in the first 6 months.

Output focused:

Redesign the sales induction programme to improve new starter speed to competence.

You could argue both are outcome focused as they have a linked metric, but the difference is the second has already said what the solution is. You’re basing success on the output of a new induction first when the issue might not even lie there. For example, it could be that people need more coaching, clearer targets, refreshers, or support when new products come to market. And this is where we add another layer to outcome thinking - opportunity mapping. 

Using opportunity mapping to keep your goals aligned

First of all, let’s talk about what outcome mapping is. This is where you make sure every opportunity to improve your end user’s life (learners in this case) is still linked back to a business objective. Also, every opportunity is framed from the viewpoint of the user (human centred design or empathy design). You’ll notice I’m using the term ‘opportunity’ and not ‘problem’. This is because L&D can still add value by doing existing things better, it’s not always about fighting fires. A problem is still an opportunity but people will tend to lean towards ‘solving problems’ first rather than prioritising what will add the most value and impact.  

The key here though is to break down an opportunity, known as a parent, into smaller ones known as a child. 

Using opportunity mapping to keep your goals aligned

Frame every opportunity from the user view

By framing the opportunity from the user view, you avoid jumping to solutions. You also know that the end user needs align to the business needs and objectives. We’ll look at a more specific example in a second.  

Why are there parent and child opportunities?

Put simply, you’re breaking an opportunity down into the smallest thing possible. Multiple child opportunities might be solved with one solution, but we don’t care about this yet. We’re purely mapping out every user/learner need. As we solve these smaller needs we start solving the larger parent opportunity as well – suddenly we start solving things quicker, in smaller chunks rather than spending 6-12 months creating a solution and seeing no improvement in the meantime. This is the start of working in an agile way. By working on solving smaller opportunities more frequently you can also work in 2-4 week sprints where you decide what to solve next. Yes, still have a roadmap or strategy in place for stakeholders – but keep it flexible, move things up if it will add more value, and keep it framed as a user opportunity not a solution. 

A working example

Let’s go back to our example from earlier and see how this starts to work in practice. What I will call out is that your opportunities (problems as well remember) are identified by user research and data. These aren’t assumptions, they are known user stories and trends you’ve identified.

Example of using opportunity mapping to keep your goals aligned

Here we have some user/ learner needs that link to our overall business outcome. I would suggest avoiding business outcomes like improving profit, revenue or growth, as every company is trying to do this – find the outcome that sits below those that are more specific, which is usually the business strategy. 

It would be very easy now to say, “great we know the solution. Let’s add more product training to the induction, some eLearning on objection handling and create a social forum for staff to share product knowledge and ideas”.


We need to break these opportunities and user stories into the smallest versions possible. That might end up looking like this:

Using opportunity mapping to keep your goals aligned

Now you can start to see how we really target what the learner needs and how it all aligns to the business need as well. The child opportunities in the example would break down further, but for the purpose of this blog we’ll leave it at this level.

Once you’ve mapped everything out it’s at this point you start saying which opportunity tree will add the most value to the learners and the business, and what solution is needed. Hopefully you can see now how using opportunity mapping keeps everything aligned and works towards outcomes not outputs. 

It also means you can make continuous impact and iterate along the way. In the above example you might implement a simple comms to all staff about the ‘product knowledge portal’ and how to access it. There might be another layer to improve the content there. And whilst that’s happening you might buy in some off the shelf objection handling content.  

Using opportunity maps to support decisions 

These maps are a great way to show stakeholders and leadership that this is the right approach and priority for your L&D team to focus on. It shows how everyone connects to the same business goal. 

But, there might also be opportunities that don’t fall into the remit of the L&D team and this is where you can show this needs to be a collaborative effort. For example, for one of your child opportunities the solution might be more coaching or clarity over their targets – you can hand this over to the operational team to start actioning with clear reasoning and data to back it up. 

The granular detail of learning design

This all sounds well and good from a strategic view but what about the solution itself? How do we stop those conversations we had at the start to ‘do it faster’ or ‘that won’t engage the learner’? There is no magic answer – oh, here he is again, Mr on the fence. But before you close this blog down, never come back or remove me from your LinkedIn network, hear me out.  

There’s no magic answer as everything is contextual. Behaviour and culture play a big part here because if L&D have always been order takers it’s a tough thing to turn around. But, we’ve covered off some great tools in this blog to promote that shift and support L&D having strong business conversations, combining business and learner needs. It shows you’ve not gone for, ‘here’s a solution people will love’ and instead opted for, ‘here’s an opportunity to improve X metric and how we do that’.

This alone won’t solve the more granular learning design pain points like slamming everything in RISE, courses getting too big, or people wanting eLearning because it’s quicker. That’s a whole other blog. However, hopefully this has got you thinking from a solution level that maybe you need to turn that conversation around and elevate the discussion from just ‘learner engagement and fun’. The biggest takeaway from a learning designer viewpoint is to challenge your own thinking about what solution you want to do, vs what will add value to users and the business. 

The dreaded training request backlog

If there’s one thing that still sends shivers down my spine it’s dealing with request backlogs. Backlogs are inevitable. Whether that’s specific learning, strategic or feature requests, they will always be something we need to deal with. 

But Phill, why are you waffling on about backlogs when we’re talking about aligning business and learner needs? 

I’m glad you asked. With any great plans life goes on and new requests will come in from stakeholders – with valid business and user benefits no doubt. So does this mean you should action them all? Or is it first come first serve? The answer lies back in our opportunity mapping. 

If something new comes in it might create a new branch or form part of an existing one, and that’s fine. The key here is weighing up the value of pursuing that opportunity over what you’re currently working on – this is where again those sprints help to remain flexible and impact-focused. 

I stress, evaluate the opportunity not the requested solution. Remember, we’re looking at outcomes not outputs. It’s easy to say they’re asking for a 2 hour workshop and some new resources which is 2 days work for someone; we can squeeze that in 3 weeks from now. This might be the case but now you’re ignoring the wider business needs again. This isn’t what being agile is. It’s not about slotting stuff in when you can. It’s about continuously adding value and recognising when you need to change your approach to achieve the desired outcome. 

When a request comes in, add it to the map and make sure it links to a business goal. If it does then assess it. If it doesn’t, then it stays in the backlog for now, or doesn’t get added if it’s not aligned at all.

I won’t go into too much detail as to how you assess opportunities as you’re probably eager for another cuppa by now. But I would suggest looking at the following:

  • Size of the opportunity – how many people are affected and how often? 
  • Market factors – how will this help the business achieve its goals?
  • Company factors – is it inline with our vision and values?
  • Customer/ employee factors – how important is this to them?

This doesn’t need to be an exact science or  full data (of course that might help if you have it) but you can usually gauge and make some assumptions in these 4 categories to help you decide. 

Time to start opportunity mapping your learning strategy

Boring recap alert – remember, we’re assessing the opportunity, not the requested solution.

I’ll finish not with a list of recapped bullet points, but that all of this is useless unless there is one key factor in place - the business invests in learning and development. 

The best thought out plans in the world will always come crashing down if the business doesn’t allow people the time to learn, or give L&D the budget and resources they need to deliver value. 

Hopefully this has put the spotlight on the fact that the business and learner needs should be linked – so both come out on top. 

At iAM Learning we can help you create your learning strategy, make the most of digital, or just be there to answer any questions when you need help. We do this because we believe digital learning can make a difference if done in the right way – and two minds are better than one. If you’d like to learn more about how we could help you with your digital learning and learning strategy, get in touch.


Topics: Learning Strategy