Too often, executives discount reports on learning’s impact as too simplistic or attributable to non-learning factors. If those reports aren’t improving learning’s standing, you’re missing real opportunity.
This is the time of year when annual learning summary reports get compiled and presented to executives and other key learning and development (L&D) stakeholders.
Often thick with numbers sprayed across graphs and tabular charts, the reports typically lay out totals for how many employees were trained, in what areas and the costs incurred for the year’s programs and initiatives. The better reports attempt to link learning results with the organization’s results. And it is here that most of these reports lose their audiences.
Too often, executives review the linkage portion of learning reports and discount or even dismiss what they read in favor of crediting a range of non-learning factors for the business gains: the new strategy or personnel, better salespeople, more favorable market conditions and so on.
Executives generally suspect the ability to measure the value of L&D, according to Corporate University Xchange’s “Annual Benchmarking Study.” In a 2007 survey of 200 learning executives (Figure 1), 28 percent of respondents accepted estimates of L&D’s value if conservative estimates were used with an appropriate degree of statistical confidence. Most executives also believed that while there is some intrinsic value to learning, learner evaluations or anecdotal evidence suffice for them to know learning’s value to the organization.
Knowing what to measure is the Holy Grail for learning managers, and the quest to get good business metrics doesn’t seem to be getting easier. When you’re planning key initiatives for stakeholders, you have to ask up-front: “What measurable results are you looking for?” From this conversation, you gain consensus and agreement with stakeholders on the definition of success. In turn, it makes it easier to identify your success criteria as a set of quantifiable metrics.
Learning departments find it painstakingly difficult to get to the real measures of impact from their programs, whether it’s sales figures, quality and defect counts, customer satisfaction ratings and the like. However, if you’re sitting at the table with the executive team that defines those metrics as the success criteria, you’ve got to leverage that opportunity to build a bridge to the measures to collect.
If you return to the table and only report total head count of training sessions, the cost of the training and how satisfied the learners were with the program, be ready for an icy stare and those two cruel words: “So what?”
If you can’t get to the business measures you want, you still can effectively sell executives on how learning contributes to the success of the business. There are several impactful measures that more fully reflect learning’s enablement of the organization’s human capital.
Aside from knowing what to measure, another battle facing learning executives is getting to the table in the first place. Like every employee in the company, you have to clearly understand and articulate how learning helps make money for the business. Simply put, learning has to help the business generate revenue or decrease costs or, for public-sector organizations, more efficiently and effectively convert on the agency mission.
CEOs are less focused on learning’s return on investment and more interested in results. Results equal impact, and impact starts with alignment. The following ideas can build and show alignment with key stakeholders:
1. Ask management stakeholders who on the learning-unit staff needs to know more about how the organization does business. Organize feedback and create developmental opportunities based on what each staff person needs to learn to become more relevant to stakeholders.
2. For staffers who need greater exposure to the business, embed them in the functional area or business unit where stakeholders work. Short of marriage, nothing pairs people together for longer periods of time than sharing an office space day after day. Just like increased time on tasks improves outcomes, increased time in the trenches with stakeholders improves understanding of how business works and what help is needed to improve performance.
3. Where it’s not practical or necessary to embed staff, look to leverage and extend existing contacts with the unit’s management. For example, when creating learning content for that business unit, take video of subject matter experts describing details of their work, and make that video and the subsequently produced learning material available to the rest of the learning staff as mandatory professional development material.
4. If there’s too little interaction between learning staffers and their customers and too few opportunities for staff to informally learn about the businesses they serve, get creative by inviting key customers to meet with learning staff to describe and discuss what they do. Make it easy on customers by offering to meet on their schedule. If management is physically separate from the learning staff, use online meeting tools to bring these managers and learning people together.
5. Meet with line managers to discuss the performance appraisal process and to understand the key drivers of success for their staffs and business units. Ask them what knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) a staffer needs to excel. Ask if the resources available are enforcing those KSAs. Determine together where reinforcement needs to be made. Identify metrics that best show learning’s contribution to their success and discuss how and where learning’s efforts can influence those metrics.
Underlying all of the above is the need for the learning staff to get out of their offices and routinely spend time with the people in the business units they support. See firsthand how products and services are researched, developed, produced, distributed, sold and supported. Learn the language of each business unit: how they think about, talk about and carry out their work. Hear directly from employees about the barriers to better performance and their ideas for removing those barriers.
Keeping Your Seat at the Table
Once you’re at the table, you continually have to prove your value to stay there. And the best way to keep that seat is to sell your colleagues on learning’s contribution to business results, and do so in language that management understands.
At the Fall 2008 Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Coronado, Calif., Chris Hardy, director of e-learning and the technology center at the U.S. Defense Acquisition University (DAU), spoke out on this topic.
“At DAU, our conversation with senior executives on results is never about the value of courses, but about the value of DAU,” Hardy said. “If we have budget discussions, it is about DAU’s budget, not individual courses. If we show ROI, we show ROI for DAU in terms of added value. To do this, you need a portfolio of metrics, which are aligned to the business of business.”
Key functions in the organization already use business measures to chart their progress relative to the annual strategic plan. For example, the sales group measures new business deals, contract renewals, new product sales vs. existing product sales and revenues by product by rep and region. Learning’s job is to define and monitor corresponding learning measures that enable performance by the business functions and, in doing so, make those measures meaningful.
One of the best ways to do this is to create scorecards for each of the supported business functions. A scorecard articulates targeted learning strategy and the key measures that show progress in accomplishing the strategy. A well-thought-out scorecard shows stakeholders why selected measures are important by setting them in the context of strategy. Mapping out each strategy for the business unit in terms of high-level goals and objectives provides a platform from which to measure success.
The strategy sets expectations with peers at the table and shows them learning’s accountability to drive key measures in the right direction. As learning executes the strategy, internal managers may focus on the specific key measures, but stakeholders and colleagues at the table will be more interested in the designated outcomes measured by the key learning indicators on the scorecard.
Take, for example, the sales function, specifically getting new sales representatives street-ready and able to sell products on their own. Here, learning’s role is to enable new sales reps to acquire product knowledge and skills to be able to start selling in the most efficient manner possible. There are several key learning indicators and subordinate key measures for a street-ready scorecard.
Determining learning’s impact has become increasingly important because learning is viewed as a business service, not an HR process. Most reporting on learning impact isn’t done for HR’s sake, but for business stakeholders who want more granular measurement of learning’s value to performance.
Learning executives can help their own causes by trumpeting to stakeholders every significant learning success story. To resonate with management, these stories need to contain metrics that quantify the business success of the initiative that learning enabled.
Success stories spring from enabling the right organizational initiatives in the right way. This happens when learning’s activities are aligned with business initiatives. A best practice to ensure alignment is using an annual business plan that maps learning support to business initiatives. Giving executives and their key line managers a seat at learning’s table for an alignment exercise is an opportunity to show management the deeper details behind learning’s work. Monthly or quarterly checks on the annual business plan ensure learning stays current with business needs.
Factors beyond learning, such as economic and industry conditions, also influence business outcomes. But there are controllable factors that can influence learning outcomes and enable better performance, factors such as experience level of the learner and the quality of the instruction. It’s the learning executive’s job to sell stakeholders on the value that learning provides, and a solid measurement process is a key sales tool. In the end, learning may not take all the credit when the business succeeds, but it certainly shouldn’t take all the blame if it doesn’t.
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