Everyone can agree that learning is crucial to the success of any organization, yet learning and talent development professionals often fail to show that their efforts are directly improving the organization’s performance. The result? CEOs and other key decision-makers don’t see the value of learning programs, and they may end up on the chopping block – along with the budget.

The Shift

More and more, CEOs are asking CLOs to prove how a program will impact the organization. To achieve this goal requires programs to demonstrate value at every phase of the learning system. This is most likely to require a change in how learning is initiated, designed, delivered and evaluated.

Executive demands are the result of a paradigm shift that is reshaping many different aspects of learning and development. Figure 1 shows the shift along 11 issues. The focus of measurement has shifted from input (counting people) to outcome (business results), and evaluation has shifted from reaction and learning to impact and ROI. Executives need to perceive learning as an investment and not a cost.

Figure 1. Changing Paradigms for Learning

Traditional Emerging
Job Training Talent Development
Scale and Scope Speed and Adaptability
Input Focus Outcome Focus
Cost Investment
Necessity Value Driver
Standardization Customization
Fixed Setting and Time Agile and Flexible
Science of Learning Learning Analytics
Command and Control Empowerment
Needs Assessment Performance Consulting
Reaction and Learning Impact and ROI

Enter Design Thinking

Learning professionals must keep specific, measurable business outcomes firmly in mind at every step of the L&D process, taking a cue from innovation using design thinking principles. Specifically, they need to design for success, with that success defined as credible data connecting the learning programs to the business.

Consequences of the Status Quo

When L&D does not focus on business results, damaging repercussions can occur. For example:

  • Investments are made based on perceptions. Most would agree that basing decisions on perceptions is a dangerous way to fund a functional area. Sustainability comes into question when the funding is based on perception of value, intangible benefits or other logical deductions.
  • Middle managers cease to support investments in learning. Middle-level managers are critical to the success of learning and talent development functions. Participants in the program usually report to these manag­ers. Because these programs normally take participants away from the time needed to perform their jobs, their managers need data to show what participants will accomplish with their new skills. Without these types of results, support will be minimal.
  • The commitment to learning and talent development will diminish. Commitment translates into support from the top. The tangible ev­idence of commitment is the budget and resources for learning, including the actions that top executives take to be actively involved in learning and to support and encourage the learning process. Without business results, commitment will suffer.
  • The influence of the learning function is diminished. It is hard to have a seat at the table without a clear connection to the business value of the organization. Consequently, influence suffers, which ham­pers the ability to secure approvals and implement processes to do the work.
  • Budgets are curtailed or not funded properly. While budgets will be funded, the right programs may not be funded properly, or the total amount of funding may be less than what is required to address the organiza­tion’s needs. In tough economic times, the learning budgets are the first to go; during a recession, this sometimes happens in a very dramatic fashion. These budget cuts are occurring now in some industries in the United States and many other countries.
  • The image of the L&D function suffers. Some man­agers perceive L&D as a “necessary evil.” The im­age could be shifted to a perception of learning as a business-driving process, one that makes a difference to important metrics in the organization.
  • Team satisfaction will diminish. All learning and talent development stakeholders would like to see their contributions to important bottom-line measures in the organization. This line of sight from each person’s contribution to the business has to be clear. Without that connection, without evidence and proof that they make a difference, the team becomes concerned about the value of what it contributes.

The cumulative effect of these consequences may be tough to measure, but it is almost certainly devastating, both to L&D professionals and to the organization as a whole, with loss of budget, influence and respect. The approach organizations have followed for many years is not sustainable. Programs must focus on results at every step of the learning cycle to increase influence on the talent development investment in the future.