Two of the biggest challenges that organizations often face when it comes to developing and implementing learning programs is ensuring that they will have real business impact and that they Two of the biggest challenges that organizations often face when it comes to developing and implementing learning programs is ensuring that they will have real business impact and that they address the real needs of the learners and the organization. All too often, training managers or leaders base learning programs on what they think learners should know. But without a way to truly understand the gaps that exist between current and future required skills, behaviors and competencies, organizations run the risk of creating learning programs that miss the mark in content, delivery, or overall impact and effectiveness. Particularly in today’s challenging environment, organizations are more focused than ever on ensuring that any investment will have a positive impact on its ability to execute strategy and improve overall performance. Learning managers must ensure they are using the proper tools and processes to create learning programs that truly address the gaps in skills, knowledge and behaviors that will have an impact on the bottom line. And while research conducted by Aberdeen Group in recent months has shown that the use of gap-analysis tools can greatly improve the efficacy of learning programs, success starts with determining the business outcomes in order to ensure that the gaps being measured are the right ones. Start with the Business Research conducted by Aberdeen Group in December, 2008, “The 2009 HR Executive’s Agenda,” showed that the top priorities for organizations in 2009 are all about enabling organizational execution and ensuring that employees and initiatives are aligned with business priorities. In fact, the inability to link the impact of human capital initiatives to organizational or business unit strategies is one of the top two barriers to achieving true strategic business partnership for human capital organizations. Learning leaders must find ways to overcome this barrier and ensure that they are addressing the right “pain points” with the learning solutions they design. Gap analysis must begin with a deep understanding of where the organization is headed and what skills will be required — not only by the organization as it stands today, but by the organization as it moves into the future. Only when the end state is understood can a gap analysis between current skills, knowledge and behavior be relevant. In research released by Aberdeen last fall on achieving business value with learning and development, 75% of Best-in-Class organizations (defined as the top 20% of performers) cited integration of learning programs with the organization’s overall strategic plan as their leading strategy to achieve business value. Assessing for Gaps Once learning managers understand where the organization is headed, they can begin to create a picture of the end state against which gaps can be measured. Aberdeen research released in March, 2008, “Assessments in Talent Management: Strategies to Improve Pre- and Post-Hire Performance,” revealed that consistency in employee competence is the top internal challenge for all organizations. Organizations are responding to this need for improved performance by building competency frameworks against which it can make better selection, placement and promotion decisions. By defining the core competencies required for each job and career path, in partnership with the business, learning leaders will have the benchmarks required for effective gap analysis. Popular tools used to understand skill, behavior and competency gaps are assessments. In fact, 82% of Best-in-Class organizations use assessments to determine skill/competencies gaps, and they are 32% more likely than all others to do so. This means that they use assessments to determine their current competency make-up and set performance benchmarks, or to compare current skills and behaviors to benchmarks, or both. Assessment results drive the development of programs that are aimed at bridging them. Findings also showed that Best-in-Class organizations are 26% more likely than all others to build learning and development plans based on employee assessments. Growing in Importance Assessments and other gap-analysis tools are keys to ensuring the success of learning programs. In Aberdeen’s September, 2008, study, “Achieving Real Business Value with Learning and Development,” when organizations were asked what technology enablers they had in place to enable learning and development efforts, tools to perform skill gap analysis were the number one enabler, cited by 38% of Best-in-Class organizations (Fig. 1). Not only are gap-analysis tools now the top technology enabler, but their use will continue to grow, with another 38% of Best-in-Class organizations planning to implement them within 12 months. Top organizations know that learning that creates an impact starts with a clear understanding of the critical gaps to be addressed. Driving Results No matter what type of gap-analysis tools are used, their return is significant. In looking at the nearly 150 respondents in Aberdeen’s learning and development study that currently use tools to perform skill gap analysis, we see some important differentiators in terms of performance (Fig. 2). Tools that identify performance gaps allow organizations to design more effective learning programs that truly impact areas that are critical to individual performance. And when learning is targeted to meaningful performance gaps, it can help drive engagement, because participants are being delivered valuable information that is relevant to them and truly fulfills a need. Not only do organizations that utilize gap-analysis tools see better results, they are also more effective in how they measure the true impact and results of their training investments (Fig. 3). Aberdeen’s research has shown that organizations that use tools to perform learning gap analysis are 42% more likely than those that don’t to measure Kirkpatrick’s level 3, which is the extent to which participants applied learning and changed their behavior. This shows cause and effect, which — in many organizations — is what managers need to prove the value of learning. And even more importantly, one in four organizations utilizing gap-analysis tools are also measuring to Kirkpatrick’s level 4, which evaluates the effect on the business resulting from improved performance through learning — and they are 28% more likely than those who don’t use gap-analysis tools to do so. Attention to where learning is targeted has measurable results both for the business and for the performance of learning programs. A Continuing Process The use of gap-analysis tools has clearly demonstrable results, but it’s important to remember that gap analysis is not a one-time event. Aberdeen’s research supports the following steps when it comes to utilizing gap-analysis tools to their full potential. 1) Work to partner with the business and understand its needs, and define the competencies required to execute on business strategy today and in the future. 2) Utilize tools such as skill, behavior and knowledge assessments to understand where gaps exist. 3) Create learning and development paths that will fill the identified gaps. 4) Leverage analytics to continue to identify future needs and measure the business impact of learning and development programs. This process must be executed continually, before designing any learning program, as well as on an ongoing basis to make sure that future needs are always being identified through a close partnership and understanding of where the business is going. Minding the gaps will ensure that learning programs never fall flat. —The author is a research analyst in human capital management for the Aberdeen Group, Boston. Her work focuses on how organizations enable business success by unleashing the potential and productivity of their workforce. Reach here at (617) 854-5216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.