Recently, I spoke with a director of learning from a large organization who shared his experience with me about an onboarding program they implemented over the past year. He detailed how employees were engaged and enjoyed the program and how company retention numbers had improved since the program was provided.

It seemed like a perfect example of how a learning program could benefit employees and show a positive return on investment (ROI) for an organization until he announced that the program had recently been cut due to a shift in budget allocation.

Trying to save his program, the director spoke with the chief executive officer telling him that employees loved the program and that retention rates had increased since the program was implemented. The CEO simply responded that there were other things put in place (i.e., better pay, increased benefits) that have also influenced retention rates. He felt these things would be able to sustain the good retention rates moving forward.

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever used employee opinion or companywide metrics to explain the value of learning programs?

The current trend seems to be connecting company metrics to learning programs to show the value of learning and to calculate ROI.  After all, metrics are the language of business, right? So, why are learning professionals still challenged when it comes to gaining resources? Why are learning leaders still not invited to the table when it comes to corporate strategy?

The answer is in the way learning professionals convey their results. Instead of conveying results with things like employees “like or dislike” a program or changes in high-level company metrics, learning professionals need to educate company executives on the real impact that comes from learning. Specifically, they need to first reveal where and how learning can create changes in employee performance. Then they need to communicate how key performance metrics improved due to the behavior change.

The Value of Learning Is in Creating Capability

Let’s face it, stakeholders usually know they need training, but they often see learning outcomes as ambiguous and don’t really understand how learning impacts business success. They understand courses cost money, employees attend them and hopefully learn something.

Unfortunately, if learning outcomes aren’t measured, this mindset can become pervasive throughout leadership teams.

Elevating the value of learning requires a clear understanding of where learning programs add value to a company. Imagine how powerful it would be if business executives, employees and learning professionals all understood exactly which skills and behaviors were acquired through training.

If the previously mentioned onboarding program could boost employees’ ability to use company systems or convey the company’s mission and values, would it have been cut?  Would the CEO have been comfortable if employees were unable to do these things?

Learning programs are intended to prepare employees to do their jobs, whether they are technical or soft skills. The intent of all learning programs should be to prepare and enable employees to do something on the job, improving either their productivity or the quality of their work.

Learning departments that measure their results know this. They design their programs such that the behaviors and skills being learned are clearly identified. They create assessments that directly measure those skills so they can measure if they were acquired through training and applied on the job. They report to their leadership on the skills gained from the learning program.  If continuing with the programs is challenged, they speak to the loss in terms of employee capability. They can identify which jobs are impacted and which skills are lost when the program is cut.

Behavior Influences Metrics and the Type of Metric Matters

If you can show learning programs created skills, and those skills were transferred and applied on the job, you have specific results (behavior change), which can only be created through learning. Showing the skills created through training programs is the foundation for any ROI calculation.  If we cannot show that skills were learned in the program and those skills were applied on the job, then there is no way to show that learning influenced any metric and no way we can show a creditable ROI.

We know that business decisions are made after a careful data analysis. Therefore, learning professionals must know how behavior change can impact business metrics. When we tell the story of the value of learning, we must help leaders understand the connections between the skills we create and the metrics they use to measure organizational results.

In the onboarding example, the leader connected his program to retention rates, which is an important marker for any organization. However, using this type of high-level metric creates problems because it’s difficult to determine how much influence learning actually had on the metric.

To make the impact of training clear, learning professionals should not use companywide metrics (i.e., retention, revenue, customer satisfaction) because they are influenced by several factors. Learning professionals should educate leadership on key performance metrics directly and mainly influenced by employees’ behavior and abilities.

Let’s consider the structure of metrics within an organization. All companywide metrics are influenced by “contributing metrics” (some people call these leading indicators) that can be found at the business unit level. These contributing metrics are typically either process metrics (measuring a business process) or key performance metrics (measuring a key performance indicator).

In order for learning professionals to show their independent value, they need to educate business leaders on key performance metrics they directly influence. This approach creates transparency within an organization and highlights the importance of key performance metrics in company results.

The Bottom Line

Learning leaders have the opportunity to highlight where learning has the greatest impact — the key performance metrics. Instead of focusing on overall business metrics that are influenced by a variety of factors, learning leaders can help senior leaders understand how learning programs improve the behavior and performance of employees and how key performance metrics lead to company results.

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