What does a winning learning organization look like?

You’ve landed your dream job — designing, implementing, and leading a learning and development team.

You take a second to pat yourself on the back and bask in that freedom. Then, imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. You start asking yourself questions like:

  • Do I really know what a modern L&D org looks like?

  • Who should be on my team that I don’t have already?

  • Do I have a big enough budget to launch all the programs I want to? How do I get more?

Building an efficient, effective learning organization is hard. And keeping up with learning trends is even harder.

Continuous and agile learning concepts have sprung up over the past few years, causing L&D professionals to rethink the courses they offer.

At the same time, organizations are onboarding younger teams who have only worked in remote settings. They’re not willing to sit through long videos or lectures. And if they’re forced to, they almost certainly skip ahead to quizzes or “watch” videos on mute while doing other things.

To reap the retention and revenue benefits of L&D, companies need to build a learning organization that is inclusive of all levels of the workforce, welcomes bite-sized learning, helps employees learn in the flow of work, and enables employees to apply what they’ve learned.

This looks different for every company, but we’ve given you a headstart. Below, we define what a learning organization is, benchmark team sizes, makeups, and budgets, and point out examples of how teams at other organizations approach L&D.

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What is a learning organization?

A learning organization is responsible for generating and transferring knowledge in a way that encourages employees to alter their behavior to demonstrate command of a new skill or show they’ve internalized insights.

We probably don’t need to be telling you why this is important. You know, anecdotally, that upskilling and reskilling employees increases internal mobility, retention, and, ultimately, revenue.

But there are concrete numbers to back these benefits up. Upskilling and reskilling people tends to get them promoted or moved into a role that better suits their interests. And that tends to make them happier at the company.

LinkedIn reports that at the two-year mark, an employee who has made an internal move has a 75% of staying with the company.

More knowledgeable, satisfied employees lead to revenue gains as well. Deloitte found that, on average, a 1% increase in L&D expenditure per employee is associated with a 0.2% increase in business revenue in the same year. For companies surveyed, that means for every $1 invested in an employee’s L&D the company gets an additional $4.70 in business revenue.

For companies surveyed, that means for every $1 invested in an employee’s L&D the company gets an additional $4.70 in business revenue.

But these kinds of results are only possible when employees apply what they’ve learned. Achieving that level of integration requires a learning organization with thoughtful, hard-working, creative talent and software that make their jobs easier.

It’s important to reemphasize that not all learning organizations will look the same. Startups can’t afford to run programs of the same scale as, say, a Coca-Cola. But that doesn’t mean smaller orgs can’t make progress and lay a foundation for future growth — particularly if they invest in the right people and tools.

What roles are typically included in an L&D team?

The size of L&D teams varies greatly based on company size. For example, Statista reports that the typical ratio between the number of employees and learning and development staff in workplaces worldwide is 330 to 1. That means the average 20,000 employee business has around 60 L&D team members.

Regardless of employee count, there are three main functions within learning organizations (often supported by a range of semi-adjacent roles).


Coordinators are like quarterbacks; they know what the plan is and help everyone execute it. This means:

  • Establishing deadlines and making sure everyone meets them. 

  • Maintaining an ongoing backlog of programming that needs to be done or refreshed.

  • Using project management tools.

  • Exploring, making a case for, and onboarding new tools.

  • Being the point person for delivery.

Instructional Designers or Content Developers

Instructional designers and content developers are the builders of the L&D org, so often have graphic design, scriptwriting, and animation skills. On the whole, they:

  • Interview SMEs.

  • Research course topics.

  • Design new content with UX principles in mind.

  • Revise old content based on employee feedback.

  • Repurpose existing content into new formats, like infographics, videos, and text message threads.

  • Train others on how to deliver the learning material they produce.


L&D teams collect a lot of data, and it’s an analyst’s job to turn that data into meaningful insights. They:

  • Work with data teams to gather L&D data (usage, application, satisfaction) and transform it into usable formats.

  • Pull out key KPIs related to adoption, compliance, confidence, productivity, and cost savings.

  • Identify opportunities for individual course and overall program improvement and communicate them to the rest of the L&D team.

  • Justify L&D budget by presenting and relaying ROI metrics.

Related: See how learning teams save 82% on learning costs with Arist's ROI Calculator

Other learning org-adjacent roles

While they may not technically be part of the L&D team, two other people can make a big impact on your learning organization.

  1. DEI Leads - L&D teams work in tandem with DEI leadership to ensure learning systems properly incorporate and promote diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging.

  1. Enablement teams - Sometimes there are designated business function leaders that conduct their own training within sales or customer success. These teams may work closely with learning organizations to leverage L&D tools or act as SMEs for global lessons that cover more specific material.

As organizations get larger, L&D roles tend to focus on one specific area.

Organizations may have directors of leadership development and directors of compliance, each with L&D managers and teams of individual contributors below them. Within this hierarchical structure, the directors set the strategy and activate people managers while the managers and ICs execute the vision.

What is a normal L&D budget?

Just like there’s no standard number of L&D team members, there’s no such thing as a “normal” L&D budget.

But, on average, L&D accounts for 2 to 2.5% of a company’s budget. According to Training magazine, that translates to roughly $1,100 on L&D per employee annually.

What’s making up that cost?

  • L&D team salaries

  • Software like content libraries, course authoring tools, an LRS, an LMS, nudging tools, survey solutions, and course marketing and communication platforms

  • Input from learning consultants

  • Access to external learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning

  • Events like conferences and sales kickoffs

  • Travel to and from global offices or training centers

Put bluntly, running a robust learning and development program isn’t cheap. And higher-ups will want to be sure you’re using your budget wisely.

How to justify L&D budget

Learning org directors have to constantly communicate the value of their team’s work and leverage their analysts to back it up. L&D teams can justify their budget based on:

  • Decreased employee churn

  • Decreased customer churn

  • Increased talent mobility

  • Increased productivity

  • Increased customer satisfaction

  • Increased revenue

Being able to demonstrate consistent ROI will help you increase your headcount, output, and your future ROI as well.

Related: Measuring the ROI of Learning and Development Programs

3 Ways to Structure a Learning Organization

The “structure” of a learning organization refers to where L&D sits in a company. There are three main types of structures: centralized, decentralized, and hybrid. Let’s review each one along with examples of companies taking each approach.


Centralized learning organizations typically sit in HR or stand on their own. The way content is ideated, created, disseminated, and measured stems from this one department. The McKinsey Academy indicates that 23% of L&D functions are completely centralized.

Main Pro: Coordination is the name of the game here. Since everyone reports to the same CLO or Learning Director, content maintains uniformity. Everyone is focused on building the same kind of learning culture.

Main Con: Because this model is removed from other business units, it’s tougher to know the intricacies of what each department needs. L&D folks in this structure collaborate with managers and SMEs outside of their org, but there’s a risk that this back-and-forth can delay content and make it less in sync with business needs.

Example: Centralized structures tend to be favored by larger, older corporations, like Boeing or HP. Because these enterprises are so big, centralized structures help them avoid duplicative work and redundancies.

It also helps them reduce variance in their content — everyone is used to absorbing content in the same way. This has the added benefit of being easy to measure, allowing them to make the most of their budgets.

Bonnie Stoufer, VP of learning, training and development at Boeing says, “By having a holistic view of the learning initiatives within an organization, a learning executive can create a collective purchasing approach when dealing with external vendors that will save the company money.”

It may also be easier for startups to adopt a centralized structure because L&D is typically relegated to one or two people.

Learning considerations

  • Create content for everyone: Centralized organizations tend to invest significant time and money into “academies” that help them distribute content quickly and in a self-serve manner. But these academies mostly cater to middle management and above.

Content should be right-sized and relevant to everyone and should be delivered in a way that encourages adoption. To appeal to all audiences, consider training tools that can push out bite-sized learning via text, WhatsApp, or apps employees already use, like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

  • Assemble the right tech stack: You’ll need an LMS that can support big orgs but is nimble enough to push out content at scale. Lightweight solutions like Arist can help you create, launch, and iterate on your learning and development programs quickly. And with built-in nudging capabilities, a course marketing engine, and an intuitive content library, you can be sure that your content reaches the right people at the right time.

  • Develop strong cross-functional relationships: Because you won’t have L&D team members sitting in each business function, you inherently rely on SMEs and business stakeholders to get the information you need. So, get to know them. Set up recurring syncs to ensure that what you’re developing is resonating and has a noticeable impact.


Decentralized learning organizations sit in individual business units. They co-create content with people managers and SMEs to better tailor content to each department’s needs. The McKinsey Academy indicates that 27% of L&D functions are decentralized.

Main Pro: In this paradigm, the business unit leaders have more influence on the content being delivered to their teams. And because an L&D team member is embedded in their department, they are much closer to the day-to-day work of the people they are trying to train and teach. They may also feel more connected to their work — they see the results of their efforts in real-time.

Main Con: Because L&D team members are distributed, demonstrating ROI and gaining C-suite visibility is much harder. With less oversight, L&D upper management needs to be extra thoughtful about maintaining cohesion and vocalizing learning success.

Example: Decentralized structures can be favored by large enterprises as well; it makes sense to plant an L&D person within each department to learn how each department operates. Both Coca-Cola and Amazon have gone this route to make their learning organizations more agile and better fit local markets.

Coca-Cola has “empowered and decentralized for speed” building learning capabilities into the organization and letting learners select their own learning material. In the background, regional L&D teams work with line managers to identify, create, and deploy the most relevant solutions.

Learning considerations

  • Remove as much friction as possible: The whole goal of a decentralized model is to move faster and deliver more relevant learning. The best way to do that is to learn in the flow of work. Frame education with the person’s job in mind and use spaced repetition to ingrain information.

In this model, L&D folks members operate more as a one-person team, which means they also need tools that will help them create and deliver content in an agile, continuous way. It should be easy to push out edits in real-time, collect learner data, and interpret it in a robust analytics backend.

  • Choose your team carefully: Sometimes the best athletes don’t make the best coaches, and that’s because they’re not experienced teachers. Even if the L&D person sitting in your engineering org has been an engineer before, it will take time for them to adjust their focus to learning and teaching. If they haven’t had an engineering role, studying how the org works and determining what the org needs will have a steep learning curve too.


Hybrid learning organizations are, you guessed it, the best of both worlds. One team establishes best practices and templates, and other L&D ICs are placed in each department to implement, communicate, and brainstorm with management about new programming. Hybrid learning structures are becoming more and more popular — the McKinsey Academy indicates that 46% of L&D functions are hybrid.

Main Pro: Hybrid functions give companies flexibility while maintaining consistency. The centralized part of the org sets content creation and delivery standards and focuses on org-wide topics. The decentralized part motivates each team to complete broader trainings, collects feedback, and informs the more technical sides of learning.

Main Con: Keeping a hybrid structure's centralized and decentralized parts in sync is challenging. In a hybrid model, L&D leaders must prioritize strong coordination and communication.

Example: Hybrid structures can work well for mid-size companies, like Flexport, a supply chain software.

As they grow and expand, they need to have one side of L&D to ensure every employee gets the right security, DEI, compliance, sexual harassment, and company mission and vision-type content. At the same time, they need to rapidly upskill existing team members to catch them up to the level of work they’re expected to produce.

Lauren Fernandez, Senior Manager of L&D says, “That’s why we have a hybrid approach. We have a central team focusing on resources, programmes, platforms and tools that touch all of our employees. We develop best practices for learning, and we take these best practices out to the rest of the business.”

Learning considerations

Alignment is critical: This applies not only to your operational processes but your tools as well. Find an L&D tool that can accommodate collaboration when creating courses, delivering them, and measuring their effectiveness while helping maintain quality standards.

Stages of learning organization growth

You don’t just wake up one day and say, “we’re implementing a decentralized learning organization today.”

Building a high-caliber learning organization takes time and thoughtful planning. You also need to get buy-in from your team, leadership, management, and employees.

LinkedIn’s 2023 Workplace Learning Report breaks learning organization development into three main stages:

  • Early-stage, in which you choose an approach (centralized, decentralized, hybrid), workshop course ideas, and shop them around. It’s also when you start constructing a strong team.

  • Mid-stage, when you put new programs into practice. You use L&D leadership and people managers to promote content, and you gather important L&D data to know when to pivot and how to maximize ROI and gain more budget.

  • Late-stage, when your learning org is mature. Assessing, refining, and building on existing programs is part of your routine. You maintain a higher budget because it’s easier to prove ROI.

Getting to that late stage will take time. But there are ways to jumpstart your program — regardless of size and structure.

That’s where Arist comes in. Arist’s emphasis on microlearning has made a lasting learning impact on employees at companies like Amazon, SAP, and Sally Beauty. And Arist’s AI capabilities have helped learning orgs create and publish courses 80% faster.

Try Arist yourself or book a demo with an Arist expert to see how the platform can make your L&D organization drive tangible results.

Liz Melton


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(617) 468-7900


2261 Market Street #4320
San Francisco, CA 94114

Subscribe to Arist Bites:

Built and designed by Arist team members across the United States.

Copyright 2024, All Rights Reserved.

Build skills and shift behavior at scale, one behavioral touchpoint at a time.

(617) 468-7900


2261 Market Street #4320
San Francisco, CA 94114

Subscribe to Arist Bites:

Built and designed by Arist team members across the United States.

Copyright 2024, All Rights Reserved.