Only 5 percent of learning and development (L&D) organizations excel at using data to align learning with business, according to a recent Bersin report, and 59 percent have trouble connecting learning with business outcomes. And if you take a closer look, in those 5 percent of cases where L&D is aligned with business outcomes, they work with the business to solve business problems.

Asking the Right Questions

Learning leaders need to stop taking questions about the ROI of their training programs – because that is the wrong question! Not just because you cannot always measure the intangible performance parameters of a business, but, more importantly, because learning leaders should be the ones asking the questions – difficult, uncomfortable questions to the business about what their objectives are and how they plan to achieve them. This will help the business identify tangible metrics for milestones, knowledge and skills, which then culminate to become business goals.

For example, to the sales head, you should ask questions about the campaigns they plan to run to meet their targets, what metrics they use to demonstrate that their sales team has the required knowledge, skills and processes to achieve targets, how they are planning to mitigate risks, and how they plan to course correct if their team does not perform at the required level.

These types of questions require the business to consult with learning and development to meet their targets, not just tell L&D what training they need. These questions will also help learning leaders design the right learning interventions and journeys (not necessarily training programs), pace them out in the right way, and derive the right business analytics to ensure that the business succeeds.

And interestingly, these questions sometimes reveal that a learning intervention may not be the right solution to achieve the targets, and perhaps the business leader needs to look at other alternative avenues.

Include a Business Plan

Your learning plans should include a business plan and business impact goals. Only 19 percent of L&D organizations have a business plan and only 35 percent list business impact goals in those plans, according to the same Bersin report. The right questions will help you make a business plan, list the impact goals and work out a learning plan from those goals.

But, here’s the problem: Businesses are not letting you ask the right questions.

Getting a Seat at the Table

Businesses are generally unreceptive to questions from L&D in part because they don’t think you have an appreciation of their business since you were not part of the business’s goal setting or strategizing sessions, and because you have not demonstrated a process or result that gives them confidence that you can help them achieve their goal (22 percent of L&D departments rarely or never track progress toward any strategic initiatives). In other words, because you don’t have a seat at the table.

Analyzing all the reasons behind why L&D does not have a seat at the business table is an entire article of its own, but a lot of it has to do with the genesis of L&D and HR. In most businesses, the L&D organization is just a part of the HR organization and is a support establishment for the business and not considered part of the business. While this separation is disappearing for HR as leaders are realizing the value of the HR department, the L&D department still has yet to make this transition.

That said, there are organizations out there that have successfully isolated the L&D organization as a separate department and are being seen as a competitive advantage. These L&D departments are doing at least five things differently:

  1. They consider themselves “performance consultants.” They do not treat themselves as a learning arm of the business, but as consultants to the business to help them achieve their goals by improving employee performance.
  2. They associate themselves with the business. They are not reactive to the business’s training requests, but proactive partners to the business in maneuvering through business realities and finding solutions to achieve performance goals.
  3. They start with the end in mind. They focus on the business metrics that define the existence of the business and the behavioral changes they need to instigate in employees to achieve desired business results, and work backward in arriving at the learning journey.
  4. They do not get constricted with any one form of training. They do not see training as an event, but look at it as a learning journey to achieve behavioral changes in employees, thus directly impacting their performance and hence ROI.
  5. They measure business outcomes. They put all their energy into focusing on business outcomes as the measure of success, and consider individual measures for training/ learning interventions incidental.

Five things can be hard to remember, so let’s simplify these points by saying: They flip the Kirkpatrick Model™ on its head, and start with trying to impact business results.

Flipped Kirkpatrick

In its simplistic form, the Kirkpatrick Model evaluates the effectiveness of any type of training, formal or informal, across four levels:

  • Level 1 (Reaction): Evaluates the learners’ response to training
  • Level 2 (Learning): Measures the learning from the material
  • Level 3 (Behavior): Considers if learners are applying what they learned in the training on the job
  • Level 4 (Results): Evaluates the impact of training on the organization (or the ROI)

By flipping the Kirkpatrick Model, you start by baselining direct evidence of what the learning program can do for the business (improving NPS, decreasing sales cycles, etc.), which takes the discussion closer to business goals and in a language that the business can understand. Your efforts, budgets and schedules are now aligned to business metrics and you start evaluating at Level 4.

This leads to treating learning as a journey instead of an event, making continuous improvement in your learning program possible. Instead of creating classroom training or e-learning programs, you are now creating a learning journey to impact business metrics.

This journey may contain multiple learning interventions apart from classroom or e-learning programs, like workshops, videos, job aids, coaching, simulations, electronic performance systems, collaborative networks, etc. You now design it considering the constraints of the business and you make it available to the audience most likely to engage with it, thus increasing the success rate of adoption.

But, why is that not what we are doing now? While the outputs may look similar to what we are designing for today, a closer look would establish that they are fundamentally different in their approach.

Learning for Impact

In the corporate world, training effectiveness should not be measured and attempts to do so are time consuming and irrelevant for the business. What matters most is training’s impact on business goals. What can be measured, and what businesses will have no problem allocating time or budget for, are metrics important to the business – Level 4 of the Kirkpatrick Model.

Most businesses have no interest in spending the time and money in evaluating training programs at Level 1 because determining how satisfied learners are with content styles is nearly impossible to tie back to an increase in sales. It’s time for us to flip the Kirkpatrick Model on its head and start spending with the end in mind. It’s time to design learning journeys for business impact.