• Managing people

How L&D Steers Organizational Change

Cranfield University’s Wendy Shepherd and Steve Macaulay explain what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to L&D’s role in transformational change


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Inevitably, change has become a major preoccupation in today's climate, with challenges piling up on the manager’s desk. Small wonder, organizations are having to face up to transformational change as the means to survival and continued prosperity.

Drawing on many years of working closely with Learning and Development specialists, we have developed our thinking about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to L&D’s role in transformational change.

The article describes two key roles that L&D might perform in a transformational change process. Both are hands-on with L&D working in real time alongside the organization's leaders, offering their experience in a very practical way:

  • Role One: Managing the Cascade and Implementation Process. The first role provides the enabling structure for the cascade of initiatives that will actually deliver the transformational change needed throughout the organization.
  • Role Two: Offering Just-in-time Support. The second role provides just-in-time emotional and technical support and guidance to meet the specific needs of those responsible for implementing change.

 Transformational change

The need for transformational change has been much talked about by CEOs and in the media. But what does transformational change really mean? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines transformation as “a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone.” At the organizational level, transformational change fundamentally alters the operating system, people, processes, and technologies employed. The change is far-reaching and needs to be coordinated across the organization’s different functions and localities.

Making change happen will always be the primary responsibility of senior leaders, whose role it is to provide clarity about where change is needed, the funding required to invest in the change, and permission to remove the organizational barriers-such as legacy performance systems that will stop the change from happening. However, L&D also has an extremely important role to play, by stepping into the change process and utilising the full range of their expertise to guide those responsible for making change happen.

Role One: Managing the cascade and implementation process

It is relatively easy for senior management and task forces to be swept along with communicating a vision for change, however, the real work has only just begun.  Transformational change requires the whole organization to make changes within each part of the business. These changes need to be co-ordinated across the organization so that the new systems and ways of working interact effectively to achieve the vision.

L&D can fill a potential vacuum by providing the structure required to co-ordinate the activities of leaders across divisions and levels within the organization. This is often best carried out by implementing change workshops that allow the vision to be transformed into actions that can be coordinated and cascaded throughout the organization.

For example, for some years we have worked with a multinational organization engaged in long term transformational change. Each year, the Board issues a directive from the centre about the changes to be prioritised over the next 12 months. The directive is issued across the organization but would have little impact without L&D following up with a series of workshops for the senior leaders across the organization.

During the workshops, the senior leaders translate the directive into a series of live projects that need to be completed in order for the necessary changes to take place. The Board reviews and agrees funding for the projects, which then are communicated to the next level of leaders who actively work on the change projects throughout the year. The projects are highly visible and tough for those involved, but provide opportunities for both organizational and individual learning, and offer a real sense of achievement for those involved.  

As experts in the sourcing of learning resources, L&D provides a critical service deploying a team of external tutors, coaches, and mentors from the senior leadership population. The performance of the teams involved in the cascade is reviewed by the Board at intervals throughout the year to ensure that the teams stay on track and have the resources needed to complete the projects.

It is clear that L&D performs a key co-ordinating role, which aims to avoid change becoming disjointed, with rich cross-fertilization of ideas across the locations, and the Board and Senior Leaders maintaining essential visibility of the actions as they are occurring.

Role Two: Just-in-time support

There is no better time to learn than when facing new challenges, and transformational change will always throw up challenges for those on the hook to deliver it. By stepping into the change process, rather than asking leaders to step out for development, L&D can provide or facilitate emotional, technical, and behavioural support where and when it is most needed.

For example, we recently worked with a large conglomerate, with numerous bases throughout the world. The organization was under considerable pressure to make large-scale changes in response to financial, regulatory and market challenges.

As part of a massive transformation, it decided to restructure its organization into new divisions, one of which was to be relocated to a new city. As the relocation progressed, it was clear that the substantial changes were causing significant stress and difficulties of adjustment for many long-serving people who were used to operating in quite a different environment.

L&D stepped into the change process, not to lead or take it over, but to improve the course of change, by providing highly relevant just-in-time support and assistance to those who were making change happen.

Peer support groups were set up and facilitated by L&D, where leaders came together to discuss what was happening, how it was happening, and how it could be improved. Where support was needed beyond the combined capabilities of the support groups, further guidance was provided by tutors and coaches, and through access to online development resources.

L&D's intervention made a critical difference to the change process. Without L&D’s support, change may have happened in a more spasmodic and fractured way, and the negative emotional impact of the change on the division could have been draining and demoralising, with a substantial negative impact on the bottom line. What is more, the necessary development of the new culture may have been inhibited without the strong support of external tutors who helped the participants step back, visualise and articulate a new operational vision across the division and what this meant in each part of the business.

In practical terms, it changed behaviours to ones better fitting the new environment. Learning from the support groups, one manager who in the past had tended to spend most of his time in meetings in his office, deliberately took to walking the length of the office at the start of the day, stopping to talk to his staff, enquiring about how their families were adjusting to the move, and allowing them to talk through the stresses of settling into their new workplace and home. This small behavioural change helped him connect with his staff and allowed him insight into the challenges they were facing. From the staff’s point of view, they felt listened to and appreciated.

L&D plays a vital, active role in change

From these examples, it is clear that L&D can take a vital, active part in the change process, working in ways that play to its strengths in such a manner that change outcomes are significantly improved. Adequate budgets are important, but a lot can be achieved by L&D taking a proactive role stepping into the change process, being willing to diagnose live needs and seeking out available resources, whether it is coaching or drawing on existing knowledge repositories or expertise elsewhere in the organization.

In summary:

  • L&D often has the unique capability to perform a specialist role in developing a learning culture that can underpin programmes of transformational change
  • Working alongside change leaders, it can work to identify in real time critical areas of L&D need that might not be immediately visible on the surface.
  • By going beyond the more traditional programme approach to development, L&D can creatively configure learning and development resources to meet specific needs
  • By drawing on their facilitative skills, L&D experts can actively contribute to the change process by setting up a structure to cascade change throughout the organization


The approach we have outlined draws on the unique and special contribution that L&D can make to the changing organization and its performance. L&D can make the most of its most valuable strengths by identifying and supporting those who deliver change, whilst encouraging the ownership of change by line management.
This role is a significant one which can substantially contribute to and change the course of change for the better.

Wendy Shepherd

Dr Wendy Shepherd is Executive Development Director, at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University. She is an expert in learning design with responsibility for the design and delivery of customised executive development programmes. Wendy has an Executive Doctorate from Cranfield School of Management where her research interest was The Organizational Impact of Executive Development.

Steve Macaulay is a Learning Development Associate within the Centre for Customised Executive Development at Cranfield School of Management, designing and implementing learning strategies for managers using online networking methods.

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