Conditions, not content: What higher-performing organizations focus on in employee development

Posted by Dani Johnson and Elizabeth Barisik on January 17, 2018.

A recent Deloitte survey indicates that only 40 percent of surveyed organizations feel that their corporate learning function is relevant and impactful in supporting employee development.2 Think about that; the primary responsibility of corporate learning functions is employee development, and 60 percent of organizations feel that theirs is falling short. Two factors may contribute to this perception.


First, many organizations now operate in environments of relentless change. Industries may be created and destroyed within a matter of months, technologies radically transform how business is done, and shifting political landscapes consistently change the rules. In this state of constant disruption, organizations need to continuously adapt the capabilities of their workforces to ensure competitiveness. Given the traditional and linear ways most corporate learning functions approach development, many of their offerings are outdated by the time they’re created and often in a format that doesn’t meet employee expectations—leaving employees to fend for themselves.

Second, in light of constant change, employees are taking their development into their own hands. Until very recently, knowledge and development opportunities flowed from the top of an organization to the bottom, and employee eligibility for said development was determined by the organization. Today, however, content is ubiquitous and easily accessible by everyone. Employees are finding development resources on their own, and these resources are often more closely aligned with their needs and expectations than development offered by their organizations. So, while corporate learning functions may not inherently be getting worse, they are almost certainly failing to keep up with the demands of the business and of employees.

Bersin recently completed an in-depth quantitative study to understand how higher-performing organizations (those with higher business and development experience outcomes) were handling employee development. One of the key takeaways of the research was this: In higher-performing organizations, conditions matter more than content.2

Higher-performing organizations spend much less time worrying about whether their content is good, right, or even engaging, and instead focus on the circumstances, situations, and settings that affect how conducive the overall working environment is to employee development. As organizations mature, more employee development occurs organically, as a part of the work, and is increasingly driven by the individual employee.

So, what do we mean by conditions?

The research identified four areas that higher-performing organizations considered when building conditions that support employee development:

  1. Culture. Culture is carefully managed with an emphasis on continuous learning. Systems and processes align to and reinforce the idea of consistent development—ensuring that everything from management practices to compensation support a learning culture. Development is a visible priority. For example, it often appears as a part of the overall business strategy and is demonstrated by senior leadership.
  2. Work. A mind-set of continuous development is baked into decisions central to the business, including the design of the work itself, infrastructure choices, workplace design, and metrics and analysis, to name a few. In addition, decisions with respect to people practices are carefully considered, and leaders understand the repercussions that decisions may have on either encouraging or discouraging employee development.
  3. Infrastructure. “Learning” technologies are part of a larger infrastructure supporting development that may also include advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), business dashboards and warehouses, integrations with calendars and other business tools, as well as devices (wearables, smartphones, and other equipment). This larger infrastructure provides both channels to disseminate information as well as loops to collect necessary information to continuously improve the overall development experience and the work itself.
  4. Employee Responsibility & Accountability. Finally, higher-performing organizations create an environment of responsibility and accountability for their employees. Employees understand what is expected of them in terms of their development as well as their work. Higher-performing organizations are clear with employees about their decision-making authority when it comes to their work and allow them to exercise it. They also give employees intentional influence on how work is performed, focusing more on results than on tasks.

Data substantiate what common sense has told us for some time: Traditional training methods are falling short. They often aren’t timely or strategic enough to help businesses compete, and aren’t empowering enough to meet the needs of modern employees. While a focus on creating the conditions for employee development is more complex, higher-performing organizations that do so see results in both business outcomes and development experience scores.

Dani Johnson is the vice president of learning and career research at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, designing, and consulting on human capital practices.

Elizabeth Barisik is a senior research analyst at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP, leading research projects that touch multiple HR practices. Current initiatives include research related to learning and development, the intersection of learning and career, leadership development, and organizational design.


12017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends: Rewriting the rules for the digital age, Deloitte University Press, February 28, 2017.

2High-Impact Learning Organization: Model and Top Findings, Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Dani Johnson, May 2017.

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