Learning and Talent Systems - It’s Not About Technology

Learning and Talent Systems - It’s Not About Technology

Eighty percent of the focus on an implementation must be about the business and process.

Questions are swirling today about the value proposition of a learning or talent system. Do these systems provide real value? Do the systems meet the expectations of users? Are the systems helping you do a better job of developing people? The answers can all be found in the alignment of the systems to the true needs of the business.

I was recently speaking at a conference and asking about the implementation of the attendees’ learning and talent systems. One question that I asked received a very telling response. I asked, “When you were about to implement your brand new system, how many of you looked at your business processes, mapped them out and used these processes to guide your implementation?” Less than 1 percent had taken this approach. That led me to a second question, “How many of you are happy with the value your learning or talent system provides for you today?” Only about 5 percent answered that they were happy. This is very typical of what we at Bluewater see in the marketplace today. Most people are not happy with their learning and talent systems, but most are also being guided, incorrectly, by the idea that an implementation should happen quickly and painlessly. No need to map business processes when we can just turn the technology on, right?

For more than 14 years, I have been working with companies to help them assess business needs, select learning and talent systems, implement and even operate these systems. A trend I have noticed while completing more than 400 projects over the last few years, is one simple fact: 80 percent of the focus on an implementation must be about the business and process, with 20 percent of the focus being on the technology. As an industry, we have gotten this wrong for so many years because our focus is on technology. Technology itself does not solve problems; it only enables the user of the technology to solve a problem.

Implementation failures occur fundamentally because of four key factors:

1) Everyone is in too much of a hurry.

2) The business processes in the learning or talent systems are established on the fly.

3) Configuration is not driven by what the business needs, but by what the system can do.

4) And the overall user experience is not considered in the purchase.

That covers about 95 percent of failed implementation issues.

If you have a system today, my recommendation is to fix it rather than replace it. The steps described below can and should be used to help you take a fresh look at your existing implementation, not only for when implementing a new system. As your business is going to change over time, you must proactively and regularly re-align your learning and talent systems with the needs of your business.

Step 1. Getting Started – What can we do to achieve a successful implementation or renewal of a learning or talent system? Start where it all begins: with understanding what drives your business. What are your business drivers? These are not your departmental drivers, but rather the corporate goals and objectives regarding revenue, profitability, enablement of your people, and so on. What keeps the doors open at your company? Tat will provide a huge insight into your business drivers. Document these goals, as you will use them later in the process.

Step 2. Create a Map – Map your training and people development objectives and align them to your business drivers. If you find elements of your training and development organization that do not match up to your business drivers, consider eliminating these elements. Once there is an agreed-upon understanding by all stakeholders and an alignment of your business drivers and training and development objectives, it is time to move onto functionality.

Step 3. Functionality – Functionality and technology must come last. They are enablers of what you are trying to achieve. Technology is not the solution, but it will help you get there. The idea is to put your organization in a position to take advantage of the technology you select. Many organizations skip this step and, while they intuitively understand the needs of the business, there is a gap in the actual knowledge of how to get the technology to do what you need it to do. This is because there is an incomplete understanding of the operating methodology required by the business.


Increasingly, I am seeing the business drive requests for talent. These are not the simple job requisitions of years past. Rather, they are deeper requests that understand the value of talent in the business. I have spoken with numerous CEOs who are concerned about the future of talent within their business and their company’s inability to identify who has the skills necessary to drive the business forward. Therefore, the work you do with learning and talent systems is crucial to helping the business understand what talent is available, along with current and future talent gaps and opportunities. This is no longer just about developing leaders. It is about enabling your company’s people for long-term success. Done right, the use of learning and talent systems can finally provide information that will help business leaders make decisions about the future.

Note where I started. It is all about understanding the business and mapping processes to inform how the business needs to interact with your new or renewed learning and talent system, today and in the future.


Reviewing a sample of the organizations we work with, the LMS-only purchase of the past is becoming rare for companies who are doing an in-depth review of business drivers, processes and development needs. Of more than 200 projects we worked on just last year, 76 percent were focused on learning, development and talent management. Of the numerous selection projects we worked on, only the extended-enterprise projects were LMS-only. LMS purchases are still the number one learning and talent system purchase, but now they are combined with performance, succession, recruiting, workforce management, compensation and even HRIS. This is occurring because the need for data in managing talent and the development of people is becoming increasingly important, and the LMS-only approach is limiting. These organizations saw the need to align not only learning and development, but also the ability to measure performance, implement career paths, measure competencies, and identify succession plans for the 90 percent of the organization who are not executives. The HR, learning and development organizations and others found that mapping the needs of the business first revealed a bigger role that their organization could play in the bigger business.

Of the 76 percent of projects that were learning and talent focused, the majority used learning, performance and succession tools together to achieve objectives. But do not focus on performance reviews only, since the performance component of a talent system includes development plans, goals, competency mapping and skills analysis. The idea of including components of a talent system with learning is to provide tools to help analyze gaps in talent against the needs of the business while developing knowledge of where development really needs to happen. Finally, the use of these tools can also provide a degree of personalization and personalized learning.


Your roadmap for implementation and the overall operating plan must be tied together. There are seven key elements that should be the focus of your planning. Each of these elements will help you focus on specific areas where we see great success or failure.

Let’s start with the most important item for creating a proper working environment and that is user experience. If you get the user experience right then the rest of the system flows. If the user experience is wrong, then it does not matter what you have in your system. User experience extends not only to the user interface but also to the user workflow.

Second is content. Content is king. Without great content, the system will not drive any business impact.

Third is all about people. You must establish proper governance of the system, a proper approach to change management and, finally, an administration plan. Do not overlook the needs of your people.

The fourth item is technology. Keep it simple, as it will become a foundation of your operating environment.

Fifth: map all business processes and continually update these processes over time. Know how your business operates in detail.

Sixth, create a data strategy. Know what data you need in your system, what data operates your system, and what data you need out of your system.

Finally, it is all about reporting. I am not sure that I would ever purchase a learning or talent system if I were not 100 percent sure it would provide the reports I need to inform my business. The data we collect in the learning and talent system can transform a business. But that data is only effective if we can report on it.

In this diagram, you see all seven categories their impact on each other. If one area is not addressed, then the wheel will fall apart. If all are addressed, then the wheel will turn properly and drive the business of your organization.

We began with questions about whether a learning or talent system truly offers value, if a system can meet the expectations of the user, and can it help you better develop people. As we see, the answer to all of these questions is not so much about the system, but rather about how the system and the use of the system is aligned — and kept aligned — with the evolving objectives of the business as a whole. Proper selection, implementation or renewal of your system is a result of proper planning. Do the work required, spend a little extra time, get to know your business and the results will speak for themselves.

— Chris Bond, president and CEO of Bluewater, has been transforming the learning and talent management felds through his articles, speaking engagements and consulting services for almost 15 years. More info: www. bluewaterlearning.com.

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