The field of Human Resources (HR) encompasses a number of different specialities including pay and reward, recruitment and selection, pensions, employment law and learning and development.

Learning and development (L&D) is the area of HR which is concerned with organisational activity aimed at improving the performance of individuals and groups in organisational settings.

It has been known by several names and there was endless debate over what term or terms to use regarding the title of this field (Harrison, 2005), which was essentially semantics as the learning outcome and its impact on the individual, group and/or organisation is the important part.

For the purposes of this article the term Human Resource Development (HRD) will be used, and is sub-divided into learning and development (L&D) and talent management.

Many practitioners of L&D would suggest that L&D encompasses three main activities: training, education, and development.  The three are often considered to be synonymous. However, to practitioners, they encompass three separate, although interrelated, activities. I would argue that there are four main activities, with learning being the fourth element; i.e. an activity in itself and therefore worthy of differentiation.

Finally, it should be noted that other HR activities – such as succession, recruitment and selection, performance management, person specifications and job descriptions – are not mutually exclusive to HRD and it will require effort to ensure commonality and joined-up thinking across the HR spectrum.

Defining the Difference

So far this article has introduced a plethora of words related to the area of improving the performance of individuals and groups, but what do these words actually mean? There are five activities, although there a number of different definitions depending upon which book, journal article or organisation is used. For the purposes of this article, the definitions are:

  • Education: is focused upon the jobs that an individual may potentially hold in the future, and is evaluated against those jobs.
  • Training: is an instructor-led, content based intervention, leading to desired changes in behaviour. It is both focused upon, and evaluated against, the job that an individual currently holds.
  • Development: is focused upon the activities that the organisation employing the individual, or that the individual is part of, may partake in the future.
  • Learning: is a self-directed, work-based process, leading to increased adaptive potential.
  • Talent Development: usually considered the brightest and best employees who are envisaged to be future senior managers and executives of the organisation.

State education (led by teachers and tutors) and organisational training (led by instructors) are the traditional mechanisms for the transfer of skills and knowledge to school and university students and employees respectively. However, there are a number of organisations (McDonalds being the most recognisable) that have entered the private education business. For example, McDonalds offers its employees a range of nationally recognised qualifications (including maths and English) and apprenticeships. These qualifications are clearly mapped against a structured career path (McDonalds, 2012).

In contrast to education and training, development is ‘supposed’ to be led by learners and is typically focused towards non-technical or soft skills, such as communication; hence the somewhat problematic nature of evaluation.

L&D practitioners would argue that learning is what someone would do as a result of education, training and/or development. However, learning is a continuum, or journey, not a single event. People are continuously learning, usually informally, from each other and from their surroundings.

Therefore, using the above terminology the difference between training and learning can be characterised as the progressive movement from the delivery of content to the development of learning capabilities, usually within a people development strategy. However, none of the five activities is useful unless the skills and knowledge gained is transferred to the workplace in a meaningful manner.

The Whole Life Development Concept

Essentially, whole life development is based on a recognition that both professional development and personal development matter to a modern ‘learning’ organisation. Historically, organisations have only been concerned with training that is directly related to the job or role of the individual.

However, many organisations are beginning to understand and appreciate that skills and knowledge gained or developed outside of the workplace can directly and indirectly impact upon an individual’s performance, and subsequently team and organisational performance. Employees who are members of the Reserve forces are a prime example of this concept.

With this in mind, personal development can be categorised in to three levels:

  • Level 1: deficits or needs concern what the individual must be able to do in their current job or role, and a deficit here can be critical. There is also an essential need to remedy basic skills deficits;
  • Level 2: deficits are those that will affect eligibility for future jobs or roles, at which stage they will become level 1 needs; and
  • Level 3: concerns development activities that are driven by personal motivation, i.e. they lie beyond the boundaries of immediate and future jobs or roles.

Stakeholders in Learning and Development

The various ‘stakeholders’ in L&D can be categorised into five distinct groups:

  • Sponsors: the sponsors of L&D are senior managers;
  • Clients: the clients of L&D are business planners (line managers are responsible for coaching, resources, and performance);
  • Participants: the participants are those who actually undergo the processes;
  • Facilitators: the facilitators are HR staff; and
  • Providers: the providers are specialists in the field (which can be both internal and external to the organisation).

Each of these groups may have its own agenda and motivations, which can sometimes conflict with the agendas and motivations of the others (Torrington et al., 2008). Conflicts that may have the most profound effect on the organisation are those between employees and their bosses. A major reason why employees leave their jobs is due to conflict with their bosses.

As tempting as it might sound, nobody ever enhanced their career by making the boss look stupid (unless the boss got fired and you replaced them). Providing L&D opportunities to all levels of employee to get along well with authority and with people who entertain diverse points of view can be a great way of ensuring long-term success. Talent, skill and knowledge alone will not compensate for a sour relationship with a superior, peer, or customer.

Talent Development

Talent development for the organisation, as part of HRD, is the process of changing an organisation, its employees, its stakeholders, and groups of people within it, using planned and unplanned learning, in order to achieve and maintain a competitive advantage for the organisation. For individuals, talent development refers to an organisation’s ability to align strategic training and career opportunities for employees. In the wider remit talent development combines with talent attraction and talent engagement and succession planning to form what is termed the ‘talent life cycle’.

Rothwell notes that the name may well be a term in search of a meaning, like so much in management, and suggests that it be thought of as selective attention paid to the top 10% of employees, either by potential or performance (Rothwell & Kazanas, 2004; Rothwell, 2005). However, the term talent development is becoming increasingly popular in several organisations, as companies are now moving from the traditional term training and development. Talent development encompasses a variety of components such as training, career development, career management, organisational development, and training and development.

While talent development is reserved for the top management it is becoming increasingly clear that career development is necessary for the retention of any employee, no matter what their level in the organisation. Research has demonstrated that some type of career path is necessary for job satisfaction, and subsequently job retention. Perhaps organisations need to include this area in their overview of employee satisfaction.

It is expected that during the 21st century more organisations will begin to use more integrated terms such as talent development.


Harrison, R. (2005) Learning and Development. London: CIPD Publishing.

McDonalds (2012) Prospectus 2012. Available from World Wide Web: <; [Accessed: 03 April, 2013].

Rothwell, W.J. & Kazanas, H.C. (2004) The Strategic Development of Talent. Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Rothwell, W.J. (2005) Effective Succession Planning. 4th ed. New York: AMACOM.

Torrington, D., Hall, H. & Taylor, S. (2008) Human Resource Management. 7th ed. London: Pearson Education.


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