Learning and Development: A Comprehensive Guide

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Learning and Development: A Comprehensive Guide

Learning and development (L&D) is one of the core areas of Human Resource Management. In this article, we will give you a comprehensive guide to learning and development. We answer what learning and development is, how to create learning and development strategies, how to evaluate L&D effectiveness, and we list the different jobs that make up the L&D field.

Find out what works and what doesn’t for your Learning & Development initiatives with our full guide on Measuring Learning Effective.

What is learning and development?
Learning and development strategies
The 70-20-10 model revisited
Methods of learning
Learning and development effectiveness
Learning and development Jobs

What is learning and development?

Learning and development is a systematic process to enhance an employee’s skills, knowledge, and competency, resulting in better performance in a work setting. Specifically, learning is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Development is the broadening and deepening of knowledge in line with one’s development goals.

The goal of learning and development is to develop or change the behavior of individuals or groups for the better, sharing knowledge and insights that enable them to do their work better, or cultivate attitudes that help them perform better (Lievens, 2011). 

Learning, training, and development are often used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences between these concepts, which are shown in the table below. 

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Concept Description
Learning The acquisition of knowledge, skills, or attitudes through experience, study, or teaching. Training, development, and education all involve learning.
Training Training is aimed at teaching immediately applicable knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be used in a specific job. Training may focus on delivering better performance in the current role or to overcome future changes. 
Development Development is aimed at the long term. It revolves around the broadening or deepening of knowledge. This has to fit within one’s personal development goals and the (future) goals of the organization. Development usually happens voluntarily.
Education Education is a more formal way to broaden one’s knowledge. Education is often non-specific and applicable for a long time and is especially relevant when a person has little experience in a certain area.

In the next section, we’ll dive into how learning & development can be leveraged in an organization.

Learning and development strategies

According to Dave Ulrich, the most important thing HR can give an employer is a company that wins in the marketplace. The question is, what are the learning and development strategies that help to do this?

Learning design

A useful model that guides a learning and development strategy is created by van Gelder and colleagues (ENG). Its original name translates to ‘Pedagogical Analysis’. The model starts with the organizational starting situation and prior knowledge based on which learning goals and objectives are defined. This information is used as input for the subject matter, teaching methods, and learning methods and activities. These lead to a certain result, which is monitored and evaluated. Based on this evaluation, the goals and objectives are updated.

Based on this model, we identify four phases required to create an effective learning and development process.

  1. An analysis of training needs (starting situation)
  2. Specification of learning objectives
  3. Design of training content and method
  4. Monitoring and evaluation

An effective learning and development strategy relies on a process in which one continually moves through these four phases. Let’s examine them one by one.

Phase 1. Analysis of training needs

The first step is an analysis of the starting situations and prior knowledge to identify training needs. We don’t want employees to learn for the sake of learning. Otherwise, we would be happy to send them on a pottery course. Instead, we want employees to acquire new knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are relevant for their (future) function. This way learning is a way to create new business capabilities.

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Value chain of learning

In other words, learning is a means to an end – it has a goal. Example goals could be the development of digital capabilities in an analog firm that needs to transform, building analytical capabilities to create more business value through analytics, or simply making sure that everyone gets their mandatory certification in time so they can continue to do their work. 

Identifying the learning goal requires you to analyze where the organization wants to go and what skills are missing to get there. This happens in three parts.

  1. Organizational analysis. In this phase, the short and long-term goals of the organization are analyzed. The goal is to define the training needs that will help the company realize its business goals. These goals need to align with the organizational climate in order to be effective in the long term. For example, an assertiveness training in a very hierarchical organization with a culture in which personal initiative is not appreciated may not be effective – it may even be counter-productive!
  2. Function, task, or competency analysis. Besides the identified organizational need, it is important to look at a function or task level. What are the competencies and skills required to be successful in one’s job? The goal here is to identify the most important knowledge, skills, and attitudes for employees to be successful in their jobs, and to identify which of these are the easiest to learn.
  3. Personal analysis. In this analysis, job performance is evaluated. Current competencies and knowledge, performance, and skill levels are identified. The key source for this analysis is oftentimes the employee’s performance evaluation. The outcome of the analysis serves as input for the definition of the training needs.

Using these three analyses, training goals can be specified. However, it is important to ensure there is sponsorship and support within the organization for the initiative. 

Sometimes, gaining support is easy, especially if there is an urgent organizational need for learning and development. This makes building support easy. Other times you will have to put a lot more effort into specifying the case for learning in order to free up budget and ensure that employees get time off for learning. 

Phase 2. Specification of learning objectives

The training needs need to be translated into learning objectives. These objectives serve as the starting point for the design of the training’s content and method.

According to Lievens (2011), a training objective consists of three elements.

  1. The ability to realize specific objectives. For example, “as an HR business partner, I need to be able to identify a manager’s strategic people needs”.
  2. The conditions required for effective behavior. For example, “during the 30-minute check-in with managers, I need to be able to identify their strategic people needs and be able to summarize these to them to check if I identified these needs correctly”.
  3. A specific and measurable training goal. For example, “after every check-in with a manager I have a double-checked the top 3 of this manager’s strategic priorities”.

This way training goals become highly specific and measurable. This helps to create an effective learning and development intervention aimed at improving these skills. 

A learning intervention can have multiple learning objectives. Another example objective for this training could be that the HR business partner is able to relate each of the manager’s strategic objectives to HR policies that can assist the manager. Because these objectives are closely related, they can be part of a single training that will make the business partner a lot more successful in their role. 

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Phase 3. Design of the training material and method

In this phase, the teaching material and learning method are determined. This is where the choices about the training material, teaching method, and learning activities are made. This is often done together with an external trainer or training provider, and ideally also with involvement from the trainee.

In addition to learning methods, techniques, pacing, setting, and many more factors are determined.

Training can be trainer-centered or trainee-centered. Trainer-centered methods include seminars, presentations, lectures, keynotes, and lessons. Trainee-centered methods are more interactive and include case studies, role-playing, self-directed lessons, on-the-job training, simulation, games, and so on. Effective training usually includes a mix of methods.

Phase 4. Monitoring and evaluation

The last phase of the learning process is monitoring and evaluation. In this phase, the learning objectives are evaluated and learning effectiveness is assessed. A very useful model for evaluating learning effectiveness is Bloom’s taxonomy, which we will explain later in this article. 

In addition, student evaluations are collected and reviewed and improvements are made for future learning interventions.

When the training is seen as effective, it should result in a change in behavior. This means that the starting situation and knowledge in the organization will be changed for the next learning design.

The 70/20/10 Model Revisited

A popular approach to organizational learning is the 70/20/10 model. The model was created by McCall, Lombardo & Eichinger of the Center for Creative Leadership, a leadership development organization.

The 70/20/10 model is a general guideline for organizations seeking to maximize organizational learning and develop new programs. The model is widely deployed and often referred to when it comes to learning & development.

The model proposes that 70% of learning comes from work-based learning. This informal learning happens through hands-on experience, where the employee learns during their daily work. This learning-on-the-job happens during new tasks and challenging assignments and through feedback from bosses and “water-cooler” conversations with peers on the employee’s performance.

The next 20% represents developmental relationships. This involves employees learning from each other, using social learning, peer feedback and peer coaching, collaborative learning, peer mentoring, and other interactions with peers and mentors. The final 10% of professional development comes from traditional coursework and training in a formal, educational setting.

70-20-10 learning infographic: a myth

Although commonly used, the model has been criticized in the academic literature. Notably, McCauly (2013) notes in a since-deleted blog post that if formal training “accounts for only 10% of development, why do we need it?” Other examples include:

  • There is very little if no quantitative evidence for the 70/20/10 rule in the scientific literature (Clardy, 2018).
  • Analysis in the early 1980s found that the ratio for managers is 50/30/20. Zemke (1985) notes that “the finding that 20% of a manager’s know-how comes from formal training is remarkable since the average manager spends less than 1% of his or her time in training”.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that about 55% of all workers needed specific training to qualify for their current jobs (this was in the 1980s). About 29% came from school-based training, and 28% from formal, on-the-job training (Loewenstein & Spletzer, 1998). This shows that formal training plays a much more significant role in skill development.
  • Loewenstein & Spletzer (1998), who re-analyzed the same data, concluded that “formal and informal training are to some extent complementary, but formal training may have a higher return”.

The safe conclusion is that the ratio heavily depends on the function. For example, in some cases, all workplace learning occurs without formal learning (Clardy, 2018). In other cases, years of formal learning and job-training is required to join a specialist profession. For these kinds of jobs, formal learning will play a much more prominent role. 

According to Clardy, “we need to move beyond the formal/informal distinction to consider the best ways to design and structure any and all kinds of learning experiences. […] By recognizing that virtually all workplace learning outside formal programs can be structured and managed, the HRD profession can make a significant step forward in recasting its role and increasing its reach in improving individual, group, and organizational performance.”

Methods of learning

We already mentioned some methods of learning – but there are many more. We will list a number of them below. However, this list is far from comprehensive.

  • Lectures and seminars. This is a more formal setting often used in universities with a lecturer and students. The setting inhibits interaction.
  • Discussion groups. Highly interactive setting aimed at sharing viewpoints.
  • Debate. Highly interactive setting aimed at convincing others of one’s viewpoints.
  • Case study and projects. These actively involve the participant and activate them to come up with solutions and answers.
  • Experiential activities. These involve active participation and are often used in team building
  • Role Play. A role is acted out or performed, for example as a technique to train customer interaction.
  • Simulation/Games. An increasingly popular and highly interactive way of experimental learning. With the rise of virtual and augmented reality, this can be made very realistic.
  • Job shadowing. Working with another employee who has a different experience to learn from them. This is a good way to learn and exchange ideas.
  • Outdoor management development (OMD). A form of experiential activities. A 2001 study by Hamilton & Cooper showed that this could be effective. I couldn’t resist including this quote from their paper: “50 percent of the participants were experiencing high levels of pressure and reported low levels of mental wellbeing pre and post attendance. It was concluded that a greater impact could be achieved if the participants were not over‐pressured and/or not experiencing low levels of mental wellbeing.” Those poor managers…
  • Coaching. Coaching focuses on hands-on skill development. The coach is often allocated and is the driving force. The coachee follows and learns.
  • Mentoring. Mentoring is more strategic. The mentor is chosen by the mentee and the process is also driven by the mentee. Mentoring goes beyond skills.

These are some of the most common methods of learning in an organization. There are, however, many others. If you feel like we forgot an important one, feel free to mention them in the comments and we’ll add them!

Learning and development effectiveness

One of the key themes when it comes to learning and development is learning effectiveness. A key question often asked to the L&D professional is: “what is the return on learning?”, or “how effective are our learning programs?”. These questions are hard to answer.

The image below shows part of this dilemma. However, the effectiveness of learning remains a contentious topic.

learning and development dilemma

A method to evaluate learning effectiveness is Bloom’s taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom edited the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Education Goals, which was later adapted by Pohl (2000).

The taxonomy captures different levels of information processing, starting at knowledge recollection, going on to comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and creation (the synthesis of existing knowledge to create new knowledge). The assumption here is that to analyze information, one needs to be able to remember it, understand it, and apply it.

Bloom's taxonomy

This taxonomy is often used to specify what level of information processing is relevant to do a job, for example in training development, and to evaluate learning effectiveness. If someone has to be able to create or synthesize knowledge (e.g., an academic writing a paper on a topic), the approach to mastering the relevant information will be different than if someone only needs to understand (e.g., remembering Latin words) or apply the knowledge (e.g., conjugate Latin verbs). 

The same holds true for work. Creating new and effective HR compensation policies requires a different level of information processing than simple salary administration. The training (and experience) required to create new policies versus understanding compensation and benefit ratios will therefore also be quite different.

A lot more can be said about Bloom’s taxonomy and learning effectiveness. For more information, and to learn how the model can tie in with learning objectives, we recommend this article published on the website of the University of Arkansas.

Learning and development jobs

Let’s conclude this guide on learning and development with the different job roles that are part of the learning and development team. Please note that the exact responsibility per role will differ between organizations. Typical learning and development jobs include:

  • L&D specialist. The L&D specialist often occupies an operational role, focusing on analyzing learning needs, specifying role competencies, L&D budget distribution, and providing learning advice to employees.
  • L&D manager. The Learning and Development Manager has a more tactical role, focusing on analyzing learning needs at a higher level, specifying core organizational competencies, L&D budget allocation, and distribution between departments and teams.
  • L&D director. The L&D director has a strategic role, focusing on analyzing organizational needs for development, aligning L&D activities with organizational strategy, drafting the L&D strategy, and ensuring budget to execute this strategy.
  • L&D consultant. The L&D consultant does all of the above in a consulting capacity. Depending on the role and seniority of the consultant, these activities can be operational or strategic.


That’s it for this guide on learning and development. We covered what learning, training, and development are, how L&D strategies can effectively be deployed in organizations, different teaching methods, and we covered the topic of learning effectiveness.

There is a lot more to say about teaching methods, critical educational resources, skills required to train, the different shapes and forms of experimental learning, learning analytics, and much more. We cannot cover all of those in a single article – but we can in a full course!

If you want to learn more about Learning & Development and future-proof your HR skill set, check out our Learning & Development Certificate Program!


What is learning and development?

Learning and development is a systematic process to enhance an employee’s skills, knowledge, and competency, resulting in better performance in a work setting.

What is the difference between learning and development?

Learning is concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Development is the broadening and deepening of knowledge in line with one’s development goals.

What is eLearning in learning and development?

eLearning is the delivery of learning and training through digital resources. It’s based on formalized learning but provided via computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.

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