Choosing and Optimizing Your L&D Organizational Structure

learning org structures

For many organizations, the L&D or talent development function has grown organically within the company over decades. Different training, development, and learning responsibilities are divided across multiple teams and lots of ad-hoc training is developed within separate business units.

Whether your organization operates this way or under a mature and rigorously developed L&D model, it could be time for a change. The way you structure your L&D function plays a critical role in how effective you are in supporting your organization’s performance.

Unfortunately, there’s no one size fits all approach. What works well in one organization may produce disastrous results in another. However, there are ways you can optimize your learning and development organizational structure for maximum output, efficiency, and strategic alignment.

Choosing the right L&D organizational structure

As learning and development continues to cement its role as a strategic partner in the organization rather than the traditional view of training as a cost center, many are considering a restructure of how the department operates.

Many L&D functions have naturally formed as a decentralized model. Individual training functions have formed almost organically within business units over the years and, more recently, had enterprise L&D departments installed in order to formalize operations and install standardized processes across the business.

If you’re in a place where L&D needs to be restructured in your organization, there are a few key considerations to take into account so you can decide what makes the most sense for your trainers, learners, and the success of the business.

Learn the key strategic differences between centralized, decentralized, and federated L&D models in this free eBook:
L&D Organizational Structures: How to Choose the Right One for Your Team, Learners, and Business

1. Consider your organization’s overall org structure

L&D is not the only department that has to choose between centralized, decentralized, or federated models. How your L&D function is structured will largely depend on how the rest of the organization is structured. 

Aligning your L&D organizational structure with how the rest of the business is structured creates a more cohesive relationship between L&D and their business partners, regardless of whether that means centralizing or decentralizing your structure. It also supports L&D’s alignment with corporate goals and strategy.

2. What are your organization’s priorities?

Organizational context is critically important when it comes to selecting the most effective L&D model. Depending on the output of your business and long term corporate goals, you might be mandated with prioritizing soft skill and leadership development. In other industries, practical skills and role specific training might be of higher priority. 

Leadership development usually requires a centralized L&D function or a hybrid model closely aligned with corporate strategy. Role-specific training and technical skills require close alignment with individual business units. That’s why many organizations choose a hybrid model and customize the L&D structure to meet the unique priorities of the business.

3. Resource efficiency

L&D budgets have been on the rise in recent years. But, despite these increases, L&D teams are often challenged with limited resources in comparison with the demand for training in the organization. 

Centralized models are often more cost effective, but they make it far more challenging to respond quickly to emerging needs. Decentralized or federated models can be more expensive to set up, but they allow for a closer alignment with business units. 

When deciding on the best L&D organizational model, balancing your L&D budget with the urgency to scale training can help you decide how best to structure the learning function.

4. Current L&D Organizational Model

Many L&D teams today are challenged with scaling training programs across geographies and business units while producing learning experiences that meet the needs and preferences of learners. 

The structure of your learning function could be the piece of the puzzle that is holding you back from meeting these objectives, but to change that structure can be daunting to undertake. So assessing the existing structure of L&D and analyzing why it works and why it does not can help you understand whether investing in significant change will achieve the results you want, or if smaller adjustments are all that is needed.

The right L&D structure for your team is closely aligned with your strategic goals. Use this template to develop a robust and clearly defined learning strategy for the year ahead:
Learning and Development Strategy Toolkit

Optimizing your existing learning org chart

The question of developing the “right” L&D organization structure is not just about choosing a centralized or decentralized model and staffing your structure accordingly. A well developed org structure connects your learning operations to the wider business. 

How do you work with the rest of the organization? How do you measure impact? And how do you ensure you’re aligned with business goals?

Before you take steps to reshuffle your structure, make sure that optimizing your structure for operational efficiency and strategic cohesion with the rest of the business is top of mind at all times.

Devise an ideal state

Your L&D organization structure needs to support two key factors:

  • The most efficient use of L&D resources
  • The maximum impact on organizational performance

This requires in-depth understanding of the overall company’s core strategy and goals, but also those of each business unit. From there, you can start to build a picture of the ideal L&D structure for your organization and work backwards to understand the best way to get there.

Consider all angles

An organizational structure is much more than a series of dotted lines and boxes to show who reports into whom. It’s part of the strategic framework of your function so you can understand the core competencies and capabilities of L&D. 

Before you start making changes to that structure, it’s important to take the time to understand those core competencies and consider the overall learning ecosystem. Perhaps some of your L&D strategy requires outsourcing, for example. Reshuffling an organizational structure without understanding how best to leverage existing resources can spell disaster for your L&D function and the business units they support.

Look outside the formal structures

Whether you’re currently operating a centralized or decentralized structure, there will be lots of relationships and informal networks between L&D, stakeholders, subject matter experts, and business partners throughout the organization. These relationships should be taken into account and could potentially inform a more formal network based on the successes of these informal relationships. 

Failing to take existing relationships into account may result in resistance to new L&D processes and reporting structures. You may find that people choose to simply circumvent the new structure when it is implemented, particularly in larger organizations where it is more difficult to govern processes.

Take a rigorous approach to change management

Like any kind of significant change, it’s not unusual to experience resistance to an organizational reshuffle. You may have to contend with reluctance not just from direct L&D team members, but also from partners and stakeholders within the business. 

Taking a formalized change management approach minimizes the disruption and gets your team and stakeholders involved in implementing the change. This might require expertise from external sources, but it’s well worth the investment to ensure a smoother transition to your new L&D organizational structure.

Making the call on your L&D org structure

L&D leaders may inherit an organizational structure for their function and have to decide whether it’s working optimally for the business, is best suited for your desired future state for L&D, and whether a significant change is needed or not. 

Centralized, decentralized, and federated models each have their own advantages. The right model for your learning function is the one that enables the most efficient use of L&D resources and the optimal support of organizational performance. Whichever model you choose, it’s essential to adapt it to your unique needs and approach any change with a careful plan and specific end goal in mind.

Shifts in your L&D organizational structure can cause a lot of temporary disruption. Ensure your operations are ready for the change with a full L&D audit:
The L&D Audit: How to Ensure Your Learning Organization is Ready for Change

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Choosing and Optimizing Your L&D Organizational Structure