The saga continues: Learning practitioners continue to chase the Holy Grail of proving their learning value. And just like the search for the mythical Grail, practitioners find demonstrating business value for their efforts exceptionally elusive. But what if it didn’t have to be so complicated? What if the answers you’re seeking were right in front of you? What if your leaders could provide you with the metrics to tangibly demonstrate learning effectiveness? The answers to proving learning value are, in fact, readily available and can easily be mapped out. And your internal stakeholders are more than willing to share them with you.

So, where do you begin? The good news is that you don’t need to become a mind-reader to get into your operational leaders’ heads. All this information must be well laid out since businesses don’t operate by happenstance, especially ones successful in their market.

Employees within these organizations always know exactly what needs to get done and know precisely where to focus to achieve defined expectations. This happens because their leadership teams collaborate closely with operational areas to design a well-defined strategic path. Doing so allows them to tangibly translate the strategy into operational actions.

Achieving and meeting organizationally defined expectations comes with uncertainty and unpredictability — even though planning is front and center, not everything can be accounted for. Every organization’s path to success is a paradox attempting to balance a fluid effort adapting to changing needs while attempting to maintain stability in achieving its mission.

This is why there are three preoccupations always top of mind for decision-makers. It’s their fiduciary responsibility to minimize risk, manage constant change and meet, or even exceed, performance expectations. For this reason alone, learning’s role must be front and center.

Learning’s Role Within Strategic Alignment

Each of these interdependent areas are either mitigated (risk), managed (change) or strengthened (performance) primarily through knowledge growth. Successful learning departments clearly see their role in each and align their responsibilities accordingly. Think about it: minimizing risk requires stakeholders to be informed in a timely manner, managing change is delivering knowledge to deal with unknown factors and the accompanying potential risks, and improving performance is all about delivering targeted skills to foster efficiency and effectiveness.

While many practitioners focus solely on performance, leading ones take a holistic approach learning how their organization’s strategic requirements translate into operational needs. They acknowledge their role to improving employee performance but never at the expense of addressing risk and change.

Unfortunately, delivering tangible accountability for employee knowledge continues to be elusive for both stakeholders and practitioners. But as the saying goes, you don’t eat an elephant all at once…you must take small bites to achieve a larger goal.

Learning’s role is about contributing to managing and improving operational performance. But before trying to address every operational need (the elephant), it’s important for you to step back and discover how your learning efforts align with their strategic expectations. Or rather, how the operational requirement you’re contributing to will demonstrate tangible operational results that align with strategic objectives. Your focus may be on improving performance, but you have a unique opportunity to alleviate stakeholder stress around risk and change too.

Aligning With the Planets

Learning practitioners take their roles seriously and care deeply about employee learning, while leaders see their role from a more concrete context. It’s more about “doing,” or the application of that knowledge. The lesson here? You must also be practical. If your design and development efforts don’t align with the business needs, then they won’t matter to leadership.

Bringing operational practicality to learning is about first focusing on your organization’s mission and discovering how it connects to operational activities — the mission is your organization’s North Star.

When crafted well, a mission defines a company’s reason to exist. It’s meant to communicate direction and expected operational results. Dissecting the mission into its practical elements reveals the operational activities expected to deliver value, or improve performance, for the organization. Connecting with the mission leads to your organization’s performance framework, which presents most of the answers to all of your mission alignment questions. It’s also where the strategy map resides.

Learning To Deliver Strategic Value

In the current economic climate, organizations can’t solely depend on following a stated mission. Successful organizations will carefully craft their strategic alignment around well-defined operational values. This helps leaders communicate precisely who the organization is targeting in the market. Doing so allows decision-makers to carefully allocate resources to those operational areas expected to deliver the intended value.

This is informally referred to as an organization’s value proposition but formally it’s known as a value discipline. There are three disciplines:

  • Customer intimacy — focus is on profit through customer loyalty.
  • Product leadership — focus is on profit through innovation.
  • Operational excellence — focus is on profit through efficiency.

Discovering your organization’s value proposition maps strategy to the mission focus, allowing you to develop learning efforts to address specific performance expectations while being aware of risk and change issues.

Take Starbucks, for example. Think about what’s involved when you order a Starbucks coffee. Now extend this thought when making the same order in another state or country. Can you envision how Starbucks’ learning team is central to its success? They must ensure baristas worldwide will repeatedly deliver consistent quality, precise and timely coffee, fulling Starbucks’ promise to the customer. It should come as no surprise this is more than sending an employee to a coffee-making course. It is very apparent that Starbucks’ learning team embraces the mission and fully aligns with its value proposition. They enabled and operationalized their learning efforts to these core value elements within its operational value chain.

Connecting the Dots

Respecting the mission and understanding the value proposition won’t necessarily deliver the answers you seek. Doing so only demonstrates that your learning is relevant. Stakeholders expect learning to bring about measurable connections delivering operational results. As mentioned at the start, your stakeholders are giving you the answers; they clearly map out specific activities leading to expected results. Time for you to connect the dots by asking the right questions.

Every successful organization operationally maps out their mission and value proposition within a performance framework. This strategy mapping is part of what is commonly referred to as a balanced scorecard. Combined, this framework translates, or operationalizes, high-level strategy elements into tangible key performance indicators (KPIs). This is your opportunity to get quick wins and demonstrate learning effectiveness.

The framework focuses around four operational goals: financial (impact on financial results), customer (what satisfies customer needs), processes (what delivers financial results), and learning and growth (elements needed to support other goals). Mapping it visually illustrates interdependence among the various operational activities. Like a GPS, it always leads you to the organization’s end goal.

Once you identify the operational interdependencies, seek out their performance objectives and what KPIs the operational unit is expected to achieve. Then it’s time to do your magic. Conduct a needs assessment to account for the skills employees already possess and those they may require. Then, plan and develop appropriate learning interventions that correlate to their KPIs.

Leveraging the framework is like reading a road map; your stakeholders have a destination (mission) and will diligently allocate resources to the value-added activities to arrive at their destination. Visualizing the operations (strategy map) helps to target where learning can make relevant and value-focused connections.

Your Next Steps

Make no mistake, every operational activity, including learning, is accountable for how it uses available resources to deliver results. Regretfully, many practitioners cede learning decisions to internal stakeholders, reducing themselves to order-takers. This reactionary behavior occurs either when learning doesn’t add tangible performance value or worse, attempts to address every operational issue with ill-conceived training efforts.

It’s time to take back control. Every organization faces uncertainty and continuous change, which means stakeholders need learning leaders now more than ever. Answer their call knowing the business intimately through the mission, partnering with operational areas fulfilling their value proposition and demonstrating training’s impact on KPIs through the performance framework.

If learning isn’t delivering demonstrable value, then your efforts are irrelevant. Never forget that learning is a business within a business expected to deliver business results. Make stakeholders think twice about reducing your budget, make learning relevant and make it effective.

Register for Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) 2023 to hear Ajay’s session, “Mapping and Measuring Your Learning Strategy for Performance Results: Proving the Impact of Training.”