There is some fear and loathing when it comes to running learning like a business, particularly when it comes to planning/forecasting the expected impact of learning or committing to goals for key measures like application rates.
For key learning initiatives in support of important company goals, we must get comfortable having the upfront discussion with the stakeholder where we agree on the program’s specifics (like number of participants, location or mode of delivery, language, etc.), role of the stakeholder (what they need to do to be an effective sponsor, including how they plan to reinforce the learning, drive application and make subject matter experts available), role of the learning leader (what you will deliver, when, how, etc.), and the expected cost and benefit or impact of the initiative.
Once you know the program specifics, coming up with a cost forecast is not too hard. Agreeing on expected impact or benefit is the hard part, and this is where the fear and loathing surface. It is common to hear the learning leader say it is impossible or too difficult to have this discussion. It may be difficult, but it is definitely possible. Tell the stakeholder that you want to better understand his or her goal and that you want to make sure the investment in training will have the greatest possible impact on his or her goal and that it can be delivered as efficiently as possible.
You need to understand all the factors that may contribute to achieving the goal. Make a list. Then ask the stakeholder to prioritize the factors from highest impact to lowest. Now see where the training program is on the list (top, middle, bottom). If it is at the bottom, then the stakeholder believes it will have a small or low impact on achieving the goal. Maybe it is in the middle or even near the top. At this point you have a qualitative assessment of the expected impact of learning. Was that so hard?
If you want a quantitative impact, ask the stakeholder to assign a percentage to each factor on the list indicating the relative impact of that factor. The percentages have to add to 100 percent. This may take a couple of iterations. When you are done, see what percentage is next to your training program. If it is 15 percent, then the stakeholder believes the training initiative under discussion will contribute 15 percent toward achieving the company goals. If the goal is to increase sales 10 percent, the stakeholder believes training will lead to a 1.5 percent increase in sales (15 percent x 10 percent increase in sales).
Can’t get the stakeholder to assign percentages? Then come up with your own forecast for isolated impact of learning (like the 10 percent contribution to increasing sales) and share it along with your assumptions and reasoning with the stakeholder for approval. If they don’t like what you came up with, then ask them what they think sounds better. Again, not impossible. Difficult, sometimes, yes. In any case, certainly not worthy of much fear and loathing.