What are the essentials of measuring the impact of training and learning? How do we separate conceptual theory from practical application? Are there unspoken truths about measuring training and learning’s influence on performance and business outcomes?

Training and talent development professionals have chased after the question, “What is the impact of training and learning?” for many years, but we have made only minimal progress. Measuring impact with success starts with telling the truth about opportunities and challenges.

In this article, we’ll examine the essentials of measuring impact and offer recommendations for how to make impact measurement possible, realistic and actionable.

1. Training and learning teams should not define impact. Winning is a team sport and so is defining impact. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect the training and learning team to define impact on its own. It is more realistic and fairer for training and learning teams to align and agree with business partners and stakeholders on what impact is — and what it is not.

Alignment on how impact is defined creates equity in ownership between stakeholders and the training team, and it manages expectations. Agreement removes uncertainty and ambiguity about what impact looks like when it “shows up” real-time, day-to-day on the job. There is a big risk for impact measurement failure when decisions for defining impact are left to the training team without partner and stakeholder consent.

2. Measuring impact fails because measures and KPIs are not proactively identified. The reactive approach for measuring impact is, “We completed training for ‘x.’ Now let’s see what the impact is.’” The proactive approach for measuring impact is, “We designed a learning solution to reduce errors by 10% and will measure results 30 days after training.” Proactively selecting measures and key performance indicators (KPIs) that give signal for impact increases the likelihood for successful impact measurement.

Impact is what you define it as. It is difficult to measure training’s success without measures and KPIs that give signal for impact. You are “throwing darts in the dark,” if you do not select measures and KPIs that indicate impact before the training and learning solution is designed, launched and consumed.

3. Training and learning alone cannot produce performance and business outcomes. Have you heard the saying — It takes a village? The same is true for impacting human performance and business outcomes. Training and learning in combination with other levers and triggers can measurably influence outcomes for employee performance and business results.

Learning has greater potential for influencing performance in combination with other activators like manager support, performance support, rewards and recognition and compensation. The training team has greater potential for impacting business goals when “the village” (i.e., other business functions) are united in effort and contribution. Training can’t do it alone.

4. Measuring impact for training and learning is possible. Measuring impact for training and learning is not easy. It can feel uncertain, unsure and unattainable. It can be difficult and ambiguous, but it is not impossible.

Approaching impact measurement as a postmortem process versus proactive impact planning adds to difficulty and complexity for measuring results. Acknowledge the challenges of measuring training’s effectiveness, but do not surrender to the idea that it’s impossible. If you plan for impact before the training solution is used, if you “bake” impact outcomes into learning experience design and if you proactively select measures and KPIs that give signal for impact, you improve the likelihood for successful impact measurement.

5. Senior leaders are less interested in training data and more interested in impact data. How many people did we train? How many hours of training did people consume? Which modality was most used?

The answers to these questions are relevant and important for measuring operational efficiency. Senior leaders who rely on training as a driver of performance and business results care most about impact. An impact narrative using facts, evidence and data that shows how learning affected performance and business outcomes — for example, “People who completed training program ‘x’ show a 5% decrease in ‘y.’ ” — resonates and engages senior leaders more than the number of people who completed training and the modality through training and learning was delivered and consumed.

6. Control and test groups provide the most reliable signal for impact. Control and test groups deliver the most compelling signal for isolating and measuring the impact of training. The goal is measuring the extent to which we can confidently make conclusions about the effect of training and learning. Control and test groups produce the most compelling impact data.

Control groups and test groups for impact analysis compares differences between a group that receives training and learning (test group) and a group that does not (control group). All else being equal — for example, role, experience, tenure, environment, etc. — control/test group impact analysis reveals differences in outcomes and results where the variable between groups is training and learning. Control and test groups for impact analytics gives the most trustworthy signal for learning’s influence by showing what happens when you introduce training and learning compared to when you don’t.

7. You cannot measure impact for everything. What criteria should you consider for measuring impact? How do you know if a training or learning solution has potential for measurable impact? Is there guidance for “vetting” training for impact analysis?

There are six questions that determine the likelihood of success for impact analysis. The answer does not have to be “yes” for every question, but position, purpose, pinpoints and power are must-haves.

  • Priority: Does it have senior leadership attention, visibility or sponsorship?
  • Position: Is it aligned with a business goal or strategy?
  • Purpose: Are there specific targets for performance outcomes?
  • Pinpoints: Does it have impact measures or KPIs?
  • Power: Does it have support for activating performance?
  • Payoff: Are there significant investments for time, money or both?

You cannot measure impact for everything, but you can work smarter, not harder, by selecting training and learning solutions that have the highest potential for measurable outcomes.

About the Essentials

Essential No. 4 is worth repeating: Measuring the impact of training is difficult but not impossible. The essentials of impact, as presented here, reveal opportunities and challenges for measuring the extent to which training and learning fulfill purpose. Embrace the opportunities, confront the challenges and believe in the ability to use measurement and data as signal for the impact of training and learning.