What Is Learning and Development (L&D)? Definition, strategy, best practices

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August 31, 2021
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This is a complete guide to Learning and Development (L&D). Learn how to get started with this introduction.

Continuous development has never been more important. Whether for management, executives, or the entire workforce - those who neglect it run the risk of being left behind in the future.

Lifelong learning and challenging one's own abilities are important for everyone on a philosophical level, sure.

But they are absolutely crucial when it comes to running a competitive business. Employees who regularly improve their skills will stay with the company, achieve their performance objectives, and most importantly, feel better about themselves.

Many companies, however, still neglect employee development more than they can afford.

Today, we're going to show you what employee development is, how it benefits everyone, and what you can do to get started today without having to spend thousands of euros on expensive courses.

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What is learning and development (L&D)?

L&D is the systematic process of improving an employee’s knowledge, competencies, and skills in order for them to perform better at work, have higher job satisfaction, and decrease the chances of employee turnover. A program strategy can include upskilling to become better at a specific area of work or reskilling the workforce for a completely different role that you need to fill.

The terms “human resources” and “learning and development” are often used interchangeably. And this is a mistake.

Human resources is the connection between a business and its employees, helping better coordinate and organize the employees as well as improve administrative and strategic operations.

On the other hand, L&D is a branch of HR. Its main aim is to hone the skills of employees and train them to better suit the needs and goals of the organization.

The two terms go hand in hand and one cannot exist without the other.

They are also heavily connected with employee experience, culture, and the recruiting process.

Benefits: Why is learning and development so important for your organization?

We intuitively know that every business can benefit from a development strategy. However, let’s take a look at some research too.

Millennials are becoming the majority of the people who are actively employed today. For this generation, having the opportunity to learn is essential.

It's now one of the major factors when deciding to apply for a job or not. According to Gallup research, 59% of millennials will decide to apply for your role based on the opportunities you give them to learn and grow. Those numbers will be even higher for the following generations like Gen Z.

Suppose that you do manage to hire people without a decent L&D strategy. Chances are, that it won’t take them much to leave. 94% of employees will simply leave a company if there are no opportunities to learn in the workplace, making continuous learning opportunities one of the major drivers of employee satisfaction.

And that’s only normal because the set of skills that got them hired will not be enough one, two, or three years later. According to the World Economic Forum, 42% of core skills needed to do a job well will continuously change. The digital transformation is affecting us all, creating skills gaps across organizations and businesses constantly.

In other words, you may hire someone for one set of skills, but sooner or later, they will need additional capabilities to do the same job equally well or better. That's why a basic learning strategy is not only a competitive advantage - it's a necessity in today's fast-paced world.

As you can see, having a great learning and development program is crucial for acquiring new talent, retaining it in your organization, and improving their performance as time goes by. These are three major reasons to improve your existing L&D strategy right now.

What are learning and development activities?

Employee development comes in many shapes and forms.

It’s not all about sitting down and learning from a course or a book. Here are some of the most popular platforms and activities to learn from, depending on your goals, the time and budget you have, as well as the preferences of your employees.

There are several very different approaches to learning methods and programs. Finding the right mix between formats like social learning, action-based learning, collaborative learning, immersive training, and others can make a superior blended learning approach.

  • Workshops - for in-person group work. Affordable, doesn’t take much time and is interactive but it doesn’t have a huge impact either when used in isolation. Why? People forget about 75% within weeks if they don't repeat or use what they learned.
  • Seminars and lectures - for more formal lessons. Short and to the point but similarly low huge potential for the knowledge to stick.
  • Video training - online courses like LinkedIn Learning. They can be really helpful, but in reality, completion rates are abysmal. It's just hard to keep working through a multiple-hour course. Also, knowledge retention over a longer period of time is again hard to ensure.
  • Webinars - for training in a remote setting, optionally on demand. Easy to use but no practical application of knowledge. Positive: There is usually an interactive component (Q&A) at the end.
  • Peer-Learning - Mutual exchange of knowledge. Social learning format, usually consisting of face-to-face exchange sessions between employees of the same rank. In training sessions, participants either develop content together - or conduct training for each other on a round-by-round basis. Can be highly effective but needs support with topics, content, and structure.
  • Coaching - individual or in groups. Social learning format with massive value and potential for learning, but it takes much of the coaches’ time.
  • Mentoring - full guidance, individual or in groups. Pros and cons are the same as above.
  • Job shadowing - following another person in their role. Highly effective but can take a lot of time for everyone involved.
  • Microlearning and nudges - brief lessons that take less than 15 minutes to complete. Easy to do next to work but obviously not going too deep into a subject.

No single strategy is perfect. It all depends on your specific situation and goals.

The good news is that there are solutions that let you do it all in one place - from setting up company-wide resilience training to peer learning routines and leadership training and onboarding.

Zavvy, for example, helps you set up and optimize complex programs in just a few clicks. One such app is Zavvy, and you can visit this page for more information on how to get started.

How do you get started with learning and development?

Now you know the benefits of learning and development and the different shapes and forms it can take. If you want to get started today, here are the practical steps you need to first.

Define your goals

Every corporate strategy starts with a very specific goal in mind. “We want to sign up our sales team for some webinars” is not a specific goal or a good one at that. “We want to sign up our sales team for a webinar to increase the conversion rates of our cold calls by 30% by the end of 2021” - now that’s a proper L&D goal.

Don’t make your business goals holistic or general, such as “improve our project management”. There is no measurable way to test whether your program has done its job or not, so don't even bother.

Especially if you combine several activities (as we’ll recommend in a minute), tracking their overall success won’t be possible without a specific business goal in mind.

Bonus tip: Get your mid-level and senior leaders on board and align the corporate goals with them. Your learning strategy will be more effective if the leadership team is involved. You will also notice this when tracking engagement across the organization later on.

Identify fitting activities

Depending on what you want to do, you need to find the programs to help you achieve that goal. For example, improving your project management skills and reducing your sprint time is a goal that you can achieve with group training and coaching. Research the materials available for your specific business goal and aim to create a good mix of practical experience and theory.

We’ll cover this in a minute, but it’s a good idea to put more focus on practical activities with formal learning in a targeted, yet supporting role.

Compare and combine your activities

You shouldn’t focus on just one type of activity. Learning has many shapes and forms and not all of us learn in the same way.

Some of your employees will learn better through theory, others will pick up new skills better through mentoring and practice. There is no one ultimate approach to professional training for everyone. Mix up your organization's activities to give room for different learning styles and methods.

Include the 70:20:10 approach

This is one of the most famous models for adopting a learning and development strategy. What it means:

  • 70% of the learning should come from the job itself
  • 20% should come from learning from others (managers, coaches, peers)
  • 10% should come from structured training (workshops, courses, books, webinars, etc.)

The main takeaway here is that most of the learning should be practical, with only 10% left for formal shapes of education. Most of the focus is on practical learning because employees learn while doing and they get immediate feedback on the job that they do and they can learn from their own mistakes.

Note that the formula was developed in an age when informal learning through the internet was not so widely available. As such, feel free to change the ratios based on your needs and the specific roles. However, its core idea still holds true today.

Consider employee development plans

Aligning business goals and individual career paths creates buy-in from your learners. They will value the offering more - and derive more value out of it. To get started, follow our guide on employee development plans.

Examples from other companies

Freeletics is Europe's #1 fitness app.

The company relies on a comprehensive leadership development system.

Freeletics uses a combination of 3 different people development activities:

  • Detailed onboarding for new people managers on values, tools, and key competencies.
  • Regular peer-learning format where leaders share ideas on various topics.
  • Microlearning format where participants receive a short, interactive lesson each week via Slack.

By the way, you can find the entire leadership training case study on Freeletics here.

SAS is one of the world's biggest organizations in the sphere of business analytics. Their L&D program is called Early Career Programs and it’s catered towards fresh graduates. If you’ve just finished university and you have the skills they need, you can apply to one of their talent programs and choose from roles in sales, customer support, technical enablement, and others. The great news is that the roles are full-time and paid and you go through a process of learning all the while getting paid for it.

Etsy is a world-renowned company that takes learning very seriously. Instead of looking for external sources, the company founded its own Etsy School where employees can both teach and learn. As they say, one of the biggest benefits of such a program is that you can experience being on both sides of the learning process.

Paychex is a rather large company in the payrolls industry that works in a hybrid model. That means that their L&D programs are delivered in two parts.

  • First, you learn from home using their virtual toolkits
  • ...Then, employees visit the company’s training facility in Rochester, NY.

Mistakes to avoid with learning and development

Mistakes will always happen. But there are some you can easily avoid when setting up your own strategy. Here is what to pay attention to.

Not measuring employee satisfaction. Besides measuring business results, you'll want to see if your employees are happy with the way you manage learning and development within the company. 75% of managers are unhappy with the way learning and development are handled in their organizations.

Not checking in with your employees. Another research finds that 70% of employees say that they don’t have the necessary skills to do their jobs. Instead of relying on resumes, make sure to use practical tests before you hire. Moreover, keep checking in to see if your employees still have the skills they need, months and years after you hire them. And then, help your workforce nurture their talent.

Not checking if the skills can be applied. Only 12% of all employees can immediately apply the knowledge they have from corporate training in their jobs. For this reason, it’s crucial to carefully choose the right L&D program - one that will bring practical benefits and performance to your company.

Not having measurable goals. Last but not least, McKinsey ran a survey that revealed that only 25% of employees believed that training measurably improves their performance. The mistake here is that measurable goals were not defined at any point in time. This, of course, makes it all the more difficult to optimize for such key performance indicators or to measure success in retrospect.

As you can see, the biggest issue with L&D programs is not choosing the right ones. Oftentimes, management has a different idea of the goals that they need to hit which are not the aligned with the skills that the employees need to succeed in their roles.

How do you measure the success of your learning and development efforts?

Measuring the success of your development strategy is not always easy. The real world is complex. Taking a quiz before and after will not answer all questions to your development objectives. It all depends on the specific types of programs you choose.

However, these are some great ways to check if your learning and development efforts are paying off:

  • Employee satisfaction surveys
  • Post-activity quizzes
  • (anonymous) surveys
  • One-on-one and group conversations
  • Official certification exams
  • Pre- and post-assessment and comparing the two scores
  • Measuring engagement during the learning and development process

Again, a mix of measures leads to the best results.

The best example of a complete measurement of learning success is probably the Kirkpatrick model.

It divides the learning process into 4 stages, which are considered separately:

  • Reaction: How did participants feel about the training?
  • Learning: To what degree were employees able to improve their knowledge, skills or abilities?
  • Behavior: To what extent did the behavior of the training participants change
  • Results: What effect did the training have on long-term performance?

Since these steps may take place over a long period of time, measuring them is tedious, but can be easily automated using tools such as Zavvy.

Neglecting to define development goals is probably the most common mistake in L&D reality. As a general rule of thumb, the more specific the goals are, the easier they are to measure later.


Learning and development should not be an afterthought, no matter what type of business you run, how many employees you have, and whether you have an HR department or not. Lifelong learning is the only way to make sure your employees’ skillsets stay relevant and up to date.

It's one of your easiest wins to ensure that your employees are happy with the work that they do, and that they stay with your company instead of jumping ship when they see a better opportunity.

With proper learning and development, everyone in your company wins.


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