One of the primary job tasks for the CLO is to leverage learning for business advantage. At least, it should be. Of course, that’s often much easier said than done, but clever CLOs are always on the look out for ways to press the importance of the learning function upon other senior-level executives in their organizations. It’s necessary: If no one knows what learning does or sees its value, no one will want to finance development activities. That means no support, no resources, no funds and — eek! — no job. One way to relay the value of learning is to build a business case.
“Learning functions rise and fall with the prevailing conditions of business,” said Dr. Merrill Anderson, CEO, MetrixGlobal LLC and author of “Bottom-Line Organization Development.” “When times get tough, the learning function, like any strategic capability, must be sustainable so learning leaders like CLOs must make their case for making the learning function a sustainable and a strategic capability.”
Anderson said the key is for the learning function to demonstrate its value add to the business. In other words, build a business case, which naturally begins with the business: What’s the business strategy? What are the goals? How will learning play a role in achieving the strategy and goals? Often a business case moves from identifying business goals to developing a learning strategy to an evaluation strategy that details what should be measured and tracked, and what should be done with the information once it’s been gathered. “ROI studies are critical to tell the story of value creation and as part of that story look at how learning initiatives have had impact on changing behavior, on the organization and the tangible or monetary value that was created as a result.”
Creating a business case means thinking like a business person leveraging learning rather than thinking like a learning person adding value to the business. Learning course development and delivery are the ultimate topics of concern, but it pays, literally, to bring the business aspects up front. “In order for the learning organization to get the ears of the stakeholders and the CEO and the COO, they need to speak a business language,” said Chris Moore, president Zeroed-In Technologies. “We’re seeing a trend to incorporate more business methodology like balance scorecards and Six Sigma into the learning measurement process and the alignment process because as you step back, one of the most important initiatives of the CLO is to ensure alignment. In many cases, we need a business case, but alignment to the overall business strategy to help the business and the units be successful is paramount.”
Anderson said that a CLO will find value in a scorecard or dashboard that integrates learning and business and can be reviewed on a regular basis because although learning metrics are important, they’re not enough. Critical business metrics should be included as well. “Training should not be thought of as a cost but as an investment. It’s a big shift in thinking, especially for business leaders,” Anderson explained. “The business case helps to organize this into a story of how this learning initiative or even the learning function can positively impact business goals and help achieve business strategy. That’s the story we need business leaders to buy into.”
A business case for learning might discuss what are the business needs? What are the solutions? How much can you describe those solutions? What are the expected benefits? What are the required investments? What assumptions are being made? What risk factors should the organization keep an eye on? What’s the cash flow? What’s the cost of doing this today versus putting it off? “The business case is not just a single snapshot. It’s an ongoing picture, a movie, really, in real time,” Moore said. “It costs learning organizations to develop engaging and compelling learning. The whole learning infrastructure and platform is a major expense. Organizations have to continually justify those investments. They have to measure not just their effectiveness but their efficiency so that they can continue to improve and receive additional investments from the business.”
“When we just had classroom or instructor-led training, it was fairly easy to lower that cost quickly,” Anderson explained. “You just wouldn’t do the training or wouldn’t hire the facilitators. Now with the increase in infrastructure, we’re moving toward fixed costs. Fixed costs become a capital expense and a capital expense raises the visibility and raises the stakes for learning leaders to make the case. A business case can be a formal document. It could also be a conversation that you have with your business leaders. Adapt your business case to the setting and to the message you want it to make. It’s going to take time. This requires a lot of patience. It’s a matter of continuing to reinforce the message and to continue to tell a story of value creation.”