What does L&D “transformation” really mean?

There are now many people in the industry talking of the need for transformation and change in L&D (me included!). But I also know from the many conversations I have with practitioners as well as learning leaders around the world that they just don’t know how to change or what they should be doing differently. And furthermore, the terms change and transformation mean different things to different people.

A recent Harvard Business Review article, What do you really mean by Business “Transformation” describes three different “categories of effort”:

  1. Operational – This is the use of new technologies to solve old problems, but although operational change can drive business impact, the essence of the company doesn’t itself change, so this doesn’t bring about transformation.
  2. Operational model – This involves doing what you are currently doing in a fundamentally different way.
  3. Strategic transformation – This is about changing the very essence of the company.

So if we apply this to the context of L&D transformation, then

  1. Operational – This is about using new technology to solve old training problems, i.e. by converting classroom into e-learning, and adding in new technologies (and trends) to the same top-down training activities – whether it be social, mobile, micro, gamification etc. But whilst this might have some business impact (e.g. be more cost effective) the essence of “learning” doesn’t change in the company; it is still focused on “training” as the primary way to learn.
  2. Operational model – This involves carrying out training in a fundamentally different way, so for example, moving from (push) courses to (pull) resources – but “learning” is still considered to be an activity organized by the L&D department.
  3. Strategic transformation  – This means changing the very essence of what “learning” means in the company, through both a new understanding of how it happens in the workplace (i.e. not just through conventional training but as people carry out their daily jobs) and how performance problems can be solved in different ways. It also means that learning and performance improvement is no longer the sole remit of the L&D department, but something that everyone in the organisation – managers and employees alike – has responsibility for.

The HBR article concludes

“Not all of these efforts are of equal impact. Focusing on “today better” operational efforts does nothing more than create parity with the best executors of yesterday’s model. It is a recipe for short-term survival, not long-term sustainability. Leaders instead should be thinking about how to blend together operational model and strategic transformation to execute what Innosight calls a dual transformation.” 

So once again if we apply this to the L&D context, operational efforts (e.g. digitization of training and changing the training model) are only a recipe for short term survival, for long-term sustainability it will be important to focus on the strategic transformation of workplace learning – and the new role that L&D will have to enable and support workplace learning – rather than just design and deliver (e-)training.

Tanmay Vora summarises the difference between change and transformation very well in his post, What business transformation really means – where he also includes the beautiful visualization of the HBR article (shown top right)

“Change does not always mean transformation, but transformation by itself changes everything fundamentally.”

NEXT POST: Changing the very essence of learning in the organisation.


  1. Tania Eber

    Thanks for this Jane it’s helped me move my thinking along about the integration of “digital” into the workplace and it fits with Argyris/Schons single/ double loop learning theories…

  2. roger kaufman

    Drucker had a very sensible meaning of ‘transformation. it is not the same as nibbling around the edges but a change of paradigm. This is not always easy to make, and i offer Mega thinking and planning” as a possible case-in-point ..it has gone from derision to increasingly integrated into the fabric of executive planning and management

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