It has been 70 years since the publication of Donald Kirkpatrick’s “Four Levels of Learning Evaluation,” responsible for focusing training professionals on the measurement of training’s impact. So, why are so many of us still struggling to quantify the business impact of training?

To solve that, we chase new innovations in learning to improve the impact our training has on business – and those learning innovations require money. In order to secure the budget for those innovations, we must prove to leadership that our training impacts the business. How have you responded to that question in past?

Hopefully, you don’t just share the impressive numbers of bodies you trained or how often you delivered the courses. Leaders may hear that and wonder, “How much could I have saved in expenses if we hadn’t done that?”

The more you brag, the bigger their concern becomes: “So, you did all that training last year, but how did it impact the business?”

Perhaps, you share comments from participants exclaiming how much they loved the program and can’t wait to use what they learned. But that only leaves business leaders wondering if learners even used that knowledge.

The questions keep coming. We keep reaching. This is not going well. We have all been there.

If we have been fighting to prove the value of training since 1950, could it be time to broaden our focus on what will enable us to answer that question and consider something more core? What if we shifted training’s core focus from learning objectives to keystone habits?

From Learning Objectives to Keystone Habits

We have all heard the saying, “If we know better, we do better.” But is anyone else still balancing their expensive, sugary coffee while speeding down the highway and participating in a heated business call? We likely know better, but we aren’t doing better. It might be time for learning professionals to let go of the hope that if our trainees successfully learn how and why to do something, they will implement that back on the job. We just can’t count on that happening.

For now, let’s loosen our grip on this core belief around learning objectives. I know taking learning objectives off the pedestal feels uncomfortable – and maybe even disturbing. Learning objectives have been our center of gravity. They are the anchor for our design; the north star for our measurement. But learning doesn’t show up on the job the same way new habits show up on the job.

If our traditional end game remains learning and skilling, then participants leave with something they may or may not use. And if they don’t use it within 48 hours, much of the learning is lost. Then, we try to solve the learning problem by invading their personal space to reinforce the behavior and win the battle against the Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve.

Yes, these kinds of interventions can improve their learning, but unfortunately, the organization they return to reinforces and rewards the old behaviors. We lose. They lose. There is no business impact to be measured if learners don’t do anything different. We need to shift our focus to helping them form habits. 

What is a Keystone Habit?

What we need to see on the job are new habits – more specifically, keystone habits. Keystone habits were first introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit.” He described these habitual routines as small changes in behavior that unintentionally create a cascade of other good behaviors.

Stickiness comes with habits – not in learning. In fact, learning fades tragically fast. If training identifies the keystone habit needed on the job and changes our mission to forming new habits, we benefit from the same unintentional cascade of good behaviors. This creates business impact we can measure.

Learning Isn’t the Holy Grail, Building Keystone Habits Is

Forming a new habit is notoriously hard. What was the last poor habit you easily conquered? To unseat old habits requires a systematic approach, not just the learning. Training professionals must design that holistic approach rather than simply creating engaging learning experiences.

We don’t have to exit the business of learning; we just need to enter the business of habit building. Let’s take learning off its pedestal and put it in service of habit building.

For Example

Suppose we are responsible for training salespeople to maximize relationships when selling and we are held accountable for the business impact of growing revenue.

Instead of focusing only on the learning objective of leveraging relationships, we should focus on building the habit of leveraging relationships when selling. When relationship habits show up on the job, more qualified sales opportunities show up in the customer relationship management system (CRM). That is a business impact we can measure.

So, how did we do that? Our job analyses identified the keystone habit that would create a cascade of other good relationship selling behaviors. The habit we found was: consistently gathering relationship information that provides insights into what is most important to each selected business contact. Then, align to those priorities and create a partner ally who sees how we are helping them be successful.

We found when that concern became the salesperson’s habit, a cascade of other good relationship behaviors showed up. The learning objective is teaching them how to do this, but now we are designing a holistic approach (program) to create the habit.

The Cascade of Good Behaviors

That holistic program looked like this: we created an online tool for salespeople to use back on the job, so they can attach the new relationship behaviors they learned to an existing online habit. The tool provides insights and reports to assess their progress and can be used in Microsoft Office-based software, a CRM, or the cloud. In addition, leaders are able to review the assessments and coach employees based on the results. The leader’s involvement ensures that the environment our trainees return to will support the behavior change.

This program holds salespeople accountable for forming the habit of completing the assessment tool. It provides new relationship insights along with review sessions that are positive, collaborative, and action-oriented, while motivating the user. The tool also continues teaching in the training professional’s absence by continuing to ask learners questions they need to be considering. This process enables a positive cascade of relationship building behaviors.

How to Make Habit Forming Central to Training’s Purpose

If we loosen our grip on the belief that our participants will do better if they know better and shift our focus from learning to habits, how does our work in training change?

Learning leaders must add the focus of building habits when designing training programs, whether you follow ADDIE or SAM. Here are a few examples:

1. Analysis

    • Identify and add the following to your analysis template:
      • The desired habits of the employees.
      • Potential inhibitors that would prevent a new habit from forming.

2. Design

    • Create recognition for employees who build habits.
    • Encourage changes in their work environment that support the new habit and does not allow the old.

3. Implementation

    • Change class exercises and facilitator questions from only a learning focus to how the learning will be implemented on the job.
    • Get managers prepped, committed, and accountable for their new role in reinforcing the behavior change. Change the organizational habits.

4. Evaluation

    • Measure the building and the support of the habit.
    • Highlight consequences of using old habits.
    • Evaluate training programs by capturing insights on forming habits and any potential barriers to modify the program.
    • Track the business impact of those with the habit and those without.

Walk the Talk

In his book “Atomic Habits,” James Clear says, “Outcomes are lagging indicators of our habits.” So, if you change the habits, you will change the outcomes. Learning leaders must extend the learning beyond the training event in order to see impact and achieve meaningful outcomes.

To begin building your own personal keystone habits as a training professional, use Charles Duhigg’s habit loop as a guide (see Table 1).

Table 1.

CUE What cues your habit when you design training? Do you open your favorite template? If so, open that template now and add a cue: “What habit do we want to create?”
BEHAVIOR What is the plan for this program to help learners create a new habit? Use the preceding prompts outlined in this article.
REWARD Grab your favorite drink and inform your boss that you are on the cusp of getting some great business impact stories. Then, create your plan to gather the impact.

The cascade of good behaviors that follow a keystone habit are free. So, what if in the next budgeting meeting, we actually promise to accomplish more for the business with less? Now, that is an intriguing return on investment discussion.