When I joined my current company, I was assigned an employee number 007. I do not mention this fact because of James Bond, but because I want to stress the vision the company had in relation to learning.

All financial as well as human resources (HR) matters were handled by our director. This setup was common for the size of the company then. I was hired as a software developer, but they assigned an additional role to me—to be a “trainer.” So, even with that size of the company, we handled the learning function separately from, although closely connected to, HR.

Initially, I focused mainly to customer training—from content development to facilitation. However, through the years and with the growth of the company, the focus slowly shifted to internal training as well.

Functionally separate – yet connected and complementing each other

In many organizations, HR and L&D are part of the same department or group; often, L&D is a sub-department within HR (for details, see the Learning Guild research report by Jane Bozarth, Where L&D and HR Technologies Intersect).

Yet, they are strongly intertwined, for example in their efforts toward employee growth. While HR encompasses everything from recruiting to off-boarding (generally the entire employee life cycle), L&D focuses more narrowly on employee learning and skill development.

The two functions have to work closely together to serve organizational needs, in a sort of a symbiosis. The stronger the alignment between HR and L&D, the more impact they have on employee engagement, competencies, performance, and career development.

L&D professionals possess some skills that are also essential to HR. Furthermore, human behavior, cognition, and other psychological traits, areas where L&D professionals have expertise, make L&D much more strategic.

Consequently, HR should see L&D not only as a support function, the “order taking” department—but also as a consulting and conversational partner in talent development as well as in overall business development.

Sheri Ova, the senior manager of leadership and targeted development at American Airlines said, “Often, we are brought in late to address issues through training when the root cause remains unidentified. Learning extends beyond training, and training isn't always the ultimate solution. To maximize effectiveness, let's integrate L&D perspectives from the outset and align our efforts with a holistic understanding of the challenges at hand.”

Hidden power of L&D

HR should be aware of all the (often hidden) power of L&D: L&D is much more than a training department. L&D skills go beyond creating and delivering the training. Learning leaders can augment the input that HR provides to L&D, but collaboration must be established way before the training is even designed.

“In the realm of HR and L&D collaboration, it's crucial to recognize that L&D professionals are strategic partners who should be engaged early in discussions. Our expertise in behavior change and learning is rooted in disciplined study, allowing us to diagnose problems accurately and define real solutions,“ Ova points out.

Clear distinction between roles

It’s true that L&D can diagnose various problems since it has reach to the entire organization, talks to various departments and employees, and can thus identify not only problems but opportunities as well.

Yet HR and L&D have to agree on who does what. They must set the boundaries between the two functions. Chris Adams, principal at Performance Change Strategies LLC, suggests that there should be “role clarity” in any interaction between HR and L&D: “Role clarity is a key factor that impacts performance in any role. If people are to perform successfully, they need a clear understanding of what they are expected to accomplish. Where there are hand-offs between roles, an understanding of where each role's responsibilities begin and end is also critical.”

The different missions of HR and L&D might raise some contradicting goals: For example, while HR emphasizes the employee experience, including “well-being,” L&D solutions might require hard work. A collaborative response might be to present L&D solutions as an opportunity for employees to grow and progress in their careers, despite the efforts they must invest in learning. 

Crucial role of L&D in talent acquisition

In a recent study by Josh Bersin, The Definitive Guide to Human Resources: Systemic HR, the HR roles are clustered into six groups. What is indicative is that there is not much overlap with the cluster where “L&D specialists” reside and other clusters, though I would expect at minimum an overlap with the cluster “Talent Acquisition.”

I believe that HR should be aware of the impact the L&D has on employer branding—both in attracting talent and in retaining talent. Learning is often very high on the list of benefits that employees consider as important for joining or staying with a company.

In addition, L&D has a direct relationship with nearly all employees. Through various processes, from skills and needs analysis to training delivery and gathering feedback, L&D approaches the employees—their learners—and listens to them and makes them feel valued and thus more engaged.

When employees see that their employer cares for their development, they are willing to “go the extra mile.” HR should consider L&D as their extended arm in employee attraction, engagement, and retention.

An additional aspect of talent acquisition where HR and L&D can work hand in hand is recruitment. HR typically looks for talent outside the company, while L&D normally has good insight into in-house skills and competencies—and can thus assist in reskilling and upskilling talent, possibly enabling HR to resolve skills gaps with internal talent moves.

An additional area that HR should consider when working with L&D is onboarding. The L&D team knows the organization well and can thus, through training, familiarize the new employees with the company; onboarding can also instill the organizational culture into new employees in the most direct and authentic way.

Bozarth, in her research report, says that transforming culture “is an organization-wide effort; one where HR and L&D teams can have outsize impact, especially if they coordinate their efforts.”

It is not an overnight shipment

The last thing that has to be mentioned are expectations. Too often, it appears that HR teams feel that “ordering the solution” from L&D will solve a problem—and solve it quickly. HR “ships” their requests to L&D, and the next morning the solutions are to be delivered.

This is unrealistic: Often, L&D has limited capacity, probably even more than HR. And it is not only about the time, but also about the true performance change. In cases where training is not the right solution, performance may not improve at all—and expectations are not met. HR should be aware that L&D cannot resolve issues related to processes, tools, or attitudes, at least not alone.

Reflecting on Sheri Ova’s words can help align expectations with what is possible for L&D to deliver: “Include L&D in discussions, analyses, and planning as early as possible. Use L&D as advisors, collaborate with them. Help them understand your issues and organizational needs that you—in HR—must solve. Work with L&D!”

Wrap-up: What should HR know about L&D?

  • L&D is more than a training department—with broader skills and the ability to deliver solutions to address performance issues and to resolve business problems.
  • L&D is an extended arm of HR—in employee attraction, engagement, and retention as well as in building and promoting the organizational culture.
  • L&D is a conversational partner to HR—and should be included as advisors in any intervention – as early as possible.

Don't miss the companion article, The HR–L&D Intersection: What Should L&D Know About HR?

Learn more at the Learning & HR Tech Conference!

Explore the intersection of HR and L&D—or take a deep dive into either of these areas—at the 2024 Learning & HR Tech Solutions Conference and Expo. The Learning Guild’s expanded talent development event takes place April 23–25 in Orlando, offering the familiar experience of Learning Solutions with an added focus on HR solutions and technologies.