Sherlock Holmes inspires me; he investigates and solves mysteries with facts and evidence. My work is like his, and while I am not investigating crimes and solving murder mysteries, I am investigating and solving measurement mysteries.

I am a learning and development (L&D) detective, and I use facts and evidence to answer the question, “What is the impact of training and learning?” L&D detectives search for clues and use data to uncover learning’s influence on behavior, performance, actions and business goals. By learning how to build the case for impact investigations with qualifying criteria and impact facts, you too can be an L&D detective.

Criteria for Impact Investigations

How do you know which programs, courses or learning solutions deserve an impact investigation? Here is the realty: You cannot measure everything nor should you. You can, however, determine when to conduct impact investigations based on these five qualifying criteria.

1.    Does it have senior leadership priority or sponsorship?

L&D has the potential to be an undeniable driver of performance for achieving business goals. Achieving business goals is the priority of the chief executive officer; the priority of senior leaders should be the priority of the learning team.

If a senior leader is lending his or her influence by championing a training or talent development program, an impact investigation is necessary and appropriate. When executive leaders use their voice to support and promote learning aligned to business goals, evidence for impact is expected. When the C-suite puts faith in the learning team for being a critical contributor to business outcomes, the impact of learning deserves an investigation.

2.    Is it aligned to a business goal?

What does alignment between a business goal and learning mean? It means there’s purposeful connection and agreement that learning (in partnership with other contributors) has the potential to move the business toward a specific target or priority. It means that learning has purpose and intention.

My work as an L&D detective is primarily focused on training solutions that purposefully exist to help organizations grow, succeed and win. That means there is agreement and positioning of learning as one of the critical drivers for achieving a specific business goal. When there’s agreement that learning is part of the winning strategy, it deserves an impact investigation that reveals fulfillment of purpose.

3.    Does it have specific targets for performance outcomes?

A measurable performance outcome is not, “You will know…,” “You will learn…,” or “You will understand…” Those are traditional learning objectives. A measurable performance outcome is how knowing, learning and understanding appear on the job.

Performance outcomes are indicators for behavior and actions. Learning solutions with specific performance outcomes that achieve business goals is the point of intention for purpose and alignment. If the learning solution has intentional targets for performance outcomes – and not learning objectives –it qualifies for an impact investigation.

4.    Does it have a large target audience?

The larger the number of people whose performance is needed to achieve the business goal, the greater the number of people who are targeted for learning. When the target audience is large, there’s higher visibility and expectation for impact. Learning solutions and programs with significant depth, breadth and reach deserve an impact investigation.

There is an exception. There may be a small target audience with high expectations for impacting business goals. While the target audience is not large, conduct an impact investigation considering expectations for impact.

5.    Are there significant investments for money and time?

There are two ways to think about investments for training and learning: Monetary costs for delivery and employee hours engaged in learning. The higher the investments, the greater the expectation for return on investment. Learning projects with substantial investments in time, money or both deserve an impact investigation.

Does the training or learning solution need to meet all five criteria for an impact investigation?

A question I am asked often is, “Do all five qualifying criteria have to be met for an impact investigation?” There is no one right answer. Learning teams and their business partners will have to decide for themselves.

For me, the first three criteria are absolutely necessary for deciding whether to conduct an impact investigation. I am flexible with question 4, and I would need to be convinced not to consider question 5. Careful consideration must be given to the time it takes to solve measurement mysteries. The more criteria met, the more likely it is that you have the facts, evidence and data to prove training is worth the time and effort required.

Collecting Impact Facts

There are three facts that are critical to an impact investigation. These are facts about business goals, performance requirements to achieve those goals and evidence for performance outcomes. These three facts will inform decisions for designing an impact-based training or learning solution and will also satisfy two of the five criteria for conducting an impact investigation.

What is the business goal?

This is the most important question to ask. Learning fulfills the highest purpose when it helps people use their performance to achieve business goals. How can L&D help people achieve business goals if we do not know what the goal is?

As an L&D detective, not collecting facts about business goals leaves a hole in the investigation. You need specifics, for example:

  • The business is pursuing 30% revenue growth by expanding into new markets.
  • The company wants to decrease production errors 5% by investing in new technology.
  • Employees resignations are up 5% and exit surveys show lack of manager engagement is a contributor, so the goal is to improve manager-employee engagement scores by two points.

Collect facts about business goals – not training goals. You cannot solve the measurement mystery without knowing the answer to this question. Understanding the business goal connects the investigation to performance.

What are the performance requirements for achieving the business goal?

You will need descriptions of actual performance, behaviors and actions that move the business goal to target. What does the behavior look like on the job? How do you know it when you see it? How does knowing or understanding show up in performance, behavior and actions? If the person you are interviewing cannot answer questions regarding performance, use a job or role description as a clue to help the interviewee describe the information you need.

The answer to this question is the foundation on which impact investigations are built. If you cannot discover specific performance requirements for achieving business goals, the impact investigation will fail and there is no direction or intention for training and learning. Training and learning fulfill its purpose when it builds or sustains performance outcomes that help people achieve business goals.

Where and what is the evidence that shows performance impact?

This is my favorite part of the investigation. This is where you discover data and signals for the presence of behavior, performance and actions that achieve business goals. This is the part of the investigation where you identify – before the learning solution is launched – the sources of evidence, facts and data that reveal the impact of learning on performance.

Look for evidence like performance ratings, customer satisfaction scores, business performance metrics, financial performance, production key performance indicators, workforce data, employee engagement, or anything that gives signal to connecting the dots between performance outcomes and business results. You will also need to get agreement from business partners and stakeholders on the facts and data you will use as evidence for impact before the training is launched.

I want to highlight that you are asking this question and questions about business goals and performance outcomes before learning is delivered. You are not asking questions about “training.” The answers, however, inform decisions for training and learning with the highest potential for impact.

L&D Detective Work: Not Easy but Possible

Curiosity should drive L&D detective work, and that is not simply curiosity about how many people liked training, the consumption of learning by modality or the number of people who finished the program. I’m talking about curiosity regarding how a learning experience influenced thought, how that influence in thought triggered a change in behavior or actions, how that change in behavior or actions shows up in performance, and how that performance measurably impacts business goals.

L&D detective work should be centered on searching for facts, clues, evidence and data that reveal learning’s impact on business goals. If you are not conducting an impact investigation that leads to solving the mystery of how training and learning influence performance and how performance impacts business goals, you are solving for the wrong mystery.

L&D detective work can be difficult, but difficult does not mean impossible. I challenge anyone engaged in L&D detective work to be led by curiosity, persistence, commitment and belief in the possibility of using facts, evidence and data to answer the question, “What is the impact of learning?” There is an answer.