Volume 54     Number 3    January 2017      Editor: Tara Behrend

Meredith Turner
/ Categories: 543

Learning About Learning: Who Are L&D Employees?

Amy DuVernet and Tom Whelan

So far in this column, we’ve talked about the definition of training as understood by most companies’ L&D departments and what the structure of training functions typically looks like in organizations. In this column, we’re going to describe the wide variety of job roles that commonly fall underneath the category of L&D and what educational backgrounds the kind of individuals in such roles tend to possess—in other words, who are these people?


Why should we be concerned with this? Frankly, it’s because those in L&D roles often speak a language that isn’t borne of exposure to I-O and the best practices our collective research suggests. Is this something to bemoan? Hopefully the answer is obvious that no, it’s not, and represents opportunities and avenues for I-Os to educate and inform practice. But we need to relate our expertise to their problems and communicate our data-driven insights in a language that’s common to both parties. This means not only is the onus on I-Os to bring our knowledge and skills to the table but to do our homework to ensure we’re not seen as irrelevant to such conversations or hopelessly out of touch with the day-to-day reality of corporate L&D. We have to appear knowledgeable to these stakeholders using their own vernacular. If we can’t understand where these professionals are coming from and what types of backgrounds are common to employees in these roles, we might erroneously conclude that they don’t know what they’re doing. Whether true or not in actuality, this is our perspective, and the other side of the table may be likely to draw the same conclusion about us if we can’t (or worse, won’t) adapt to their understanding of organizational context and processes. It doesn’t take a psychologist to realize that situation is a lose–lose. So, let’s learn more about how and where our brothers and sisters in L&D grew up, and in the process, how the field of I-O might best relate to these professionals and build bridges that can pool our collective skills and expertise to solve organizational problems.



A quick search of resulted in approximately 1.4 million job listings with the word “training” in the title (as of late 2016). This appears slightly out-of-step with O*NET’s online database, for although 469 occupations result from quick search of the word “training,” only four appear directly relevant to corporate L&D: training and development managers, training and development specialists, instructional designers and technologists, and instructional coordinators. Several others have indirect relevance including human resources managers, human resources specialists, human resources assistants, business intelligence analysts, equal opportunity representatives and officers, and—ahem, quite naturally—I-O psychologists. In 2014, James Tyler put together a list of 67 different L&D job titles that reveals a plethora of related roles that canvass an array of skillsets and job tasks, though often flying under all sorts of banners and described with opaque language. (For example, would you assume “business interface representative” or “performance consultant” are jobs that routinely deal with L&D issues?) Although the titles may differ from company to company, L&D roles can generally be organized into a small number of categories. What might be nonobvious for I-Os with limited exposure to the world of L&D is the way that these categories signal how the responsibilities of L&D functions are distributed across jobs.


There are four basic distinctions in functional training processes: administration, content development, training delivery, and technology implementation (Training Process Framework; Training Industry, n.d.b). Within each of these divisions are a number distinct job roles. Table 1 maps these four categories to common job titles that one might find in an L&D department, along with general information concerning the duties associated with each process category.

Table 1

Partnering with L&D professionals can involve interacting with many of these roles. For example, Reanna Harman, vice president and director of Consulting Practice at ALPS Solutions, said she spends “most of [her] time interacting with program managers, directors, and administrators to design and deliver training-related consulting services and projects. In serving our clients, we often partner with other organizations and independent contractors.” As we alluded to earlier in this column, the fluidity of these interactions depends on being able to speak a common language and understand where L&D professionals see value in training outcomes. Sarah Bienkowski, learning analyst with Red Hat University, stated that when communicating with L&D stakeholders, data visualization can be a crucial skill when it comes to “making the data easy to act on—not just pretty and accessible, but it has to be actionable… it's important to know what matters to people.” We don’t all possess an innate ability to communicate with others outside of our field with ease nor is such a skill necessarily bestowed on us during graduate school—where we’re admittedly surrounded by other I-Os that we can make statistics jokes with and reference theories by the author name(s) and publication year of a primary article. It’d make for a tough crowd, at best, to attempt to tell those same jokes in a conference room of L&D professionals. Consequently, we need to be able to communicate our (hopefully) deep expertise on L&D-related concerns using tools and concepts that can be grasped by a non-I-O audience. That said, there’s a concurrent humility that should caveat our expertise, through an acknowledgement that the I-O lens perhaps is not the only valid perspective through which to see the strategy, delivery, and evaluation of training. As noted by Reanna Harman, “When you start to see training through the eyes of those who participate at different levels, you gain a deeper appreciation for training as a system.” 


Educational Backgrounds

Understanding the common backgrounds of L&D professionals provides insight into the general perspectives they hold. For instance, those with adult education backgrounds may possess considerable background knowledge of psychological research. However, they may not use the same lingo that I-Os are accustomed to. Similarly, L&D professionals coming from business and management backgrounds likely share common ground through which I-Os can foster professional working relationships with them. Still, there are innumerable instances of HR analysts with unrelated degrees and little (if any) discernable statistics training. Is the latter anything to decry when it comes to the universe of corporate training? Not necessarily, but it can result in corporate decision making that leads to undesirable outcomes, such as a multi-faceted training evaluation strategy limited by a lack of familiarity with training evaluation frameworks. Part of the challenge to I-Os working in such contexts is to advise on the ethics of such decisions while acknowledging that those we’re trying to advise come not only from a different understanding of L&D but also that deep consideration of such decisions may sometimes be required to take a backseat to the larger constellation of HR functions in an organization. For example, Jennifer Lindberg McGinnis, Organizational Effectiveness manager in the Talent Management division of the North Carolina Office of State Human Resources (OSHR), noted, “many agency L&D professionals are HR generalists who have many other HR responsibilities on their plates. This can create ongoing challenges for prioritizing L&D above more operationally focused HR duties.” This makes sharing a common language all the more critical, such that as an I-O one can appeal to stakeholders using the most concise, impactful, and business-relevant arguments when time and attention spans are short.


Lest it seem that we’re dogging our friends in L&D, however, they do have something we tend not to: a different set of experiences and perspectives with corporate training that are often invaluable to L&D decision making and operations. Casey Mulqueen, senior director of Learning and Development at the TRACOM Group, noted, “I’m constantly impressed by how talented L&D people are…a lot of them are engineers, accountants, financial analysts, lawyers, machinists, you name it. In their organizations, they often rotate into the L&D function and fall in love with it, so they stick around and become training professionals. These are great people to work with because they understand their businesses better than anyone, and they recognize how training fits in their cultures and improves the effectiveness of their people and organizations.” As we’ve suggested several times in this column, I-Os are best served understanding these backgrounds and approaching our relationships with L&D professionals as collaborative. Their approaches and proposed solutions will be different than ours but not necessarily incorrect, and both sides have much to learn from the other. Below we offer some insight into the common educational backgrounds of traditional L&D professionals.


At a minimum, most individuals working in the L&D field tend to hold a bachelor's degree (58%), though a large percentage also possess an advanced degree—O*NET reports that 17% of training specialists, 65% of instructional designers, and 21% of training managers possess a master's degree (National Center for O*NET Development, 2016). More data regarding training professional educational backgrounds can be found in a recent study into the processes and practices that define high performing training organizations. This research revealed that 68% of training managers possess at least a bachelor’s degree and 44% of those managers hold a master's or PhD (Training Industry, 2016). These advanced degrees vary in focus, including adult education, corporate training, human resources, instructional design, business administration, and other education-related fields. These fields are very much aligned with the types of responsibilities described above in Table 1. When we have to interact with L&D professionals who hail from these backgrounds, it pays to do a little reconnaissance on what types of concepts might overlap between their fields and I-O to draw parallels and capitalize on the technical knowledge that they can bring to the table.


Higher education is not the only means through which L&D professionals land in these jobs, however. Many individuals in L&D roles also hold professional certifications related to training. According to O*NET, 11% of training specialists hold a postbaccalaureate certificate (National Center for O*NET Development) and other sources report up to 26% of training managers holding training related certifications (Training Industry, 2016). Training certifications run the gambit of focus from instructional (e.g., COLF, Langevin) to managerial (e.g., CPTM), and still others offer more general certifications across L&D occupations (e.g., CPLP, CTP; see Certifications for Training Professionals (Training Industry, n.d.a) for more information on these and other certifications). Such certifications, even if they seem like a bit of a “crash course” compared to university training, provide inroads for professionals to contribute to and significantly enrich the diversity of opinions in an organization’s training function.


An obvious question might be, how many I-Os are hiding among these L&D professionals? The answer seems to be not that many. Jennifer Lindberg McGinnis noted, “other than me, I know of a whopping two agency personnel with backgrounds in I-O.” Similarly, Casey Mulqueen said, “occasionally I’ll encounter an I-O person within a client organization, but they usually aren’t in the L&D department.” That said, Sarah Bienkowski stated that in her experience at Red Hat, “business people very much value I-Os and know the value we bring.” Although that may not be the case at every organization (yet), it speaks to the value that I-Os can bring to the table when we partner with L&D professionals. But it also underscores another important point—I-O has not widely infiltrated the field of corporate training. Though admittedly a speculative explanation, this could be due to the fact that there are L&D professionals from other backgrounds at the helm of corporate training, whereas other organizational functions such as selection and employee assessment require a level of statistical sophistication by their nature that may not be part of the curricula in adult education, instructional design, business administration, and related fields. So, where one might be more likely to find an I-O dealing with enterprise surveys or hiring pipelines, we’re less likely to be found in L&D hallways. As organizations focus more on evaluation and metrics, however, and buzzwords like “big data” pique executive curiosities, I-O can and should be engaging in these strategic discussions.


Hopefully this installment of our column has helped to shed light on where L&D professionals are coming from and how we as a field might engage with them most effectively. In our next column, we’ll discuss some of the trends in the corporate training market that many L&D professionals have been engaged with in recent years. We hope that you had a great new year, and we look forward to continuing our discussion of L&D into 2017!



National Center for O*NET Development. (2016). O*NET OnLine. Retrieved August 7, 2016, from

Training Industry, Inc. (2016). What makes a great training organization? 2016 Research Update. Unpublished report.

Training Industry. (n.d.a) Certifications for training professionals. Retrieved from

Training Industry. (n.d.b). Training process framework. Retrieved from

Tyler, J. (April 25, 2014). Learning and development job titles 2014. LinkedIn Post, available:

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