How can an organization optimize business outcomes using learning as its critical enabler? To meet this challenge, think business first. Align your learning outcomes with business outcomes for measurable, enterprise-wide impact.

Imagine an IT implementation for finance and HR solutions slated to reduce operational and administrative costs by over 20 percent through cost reductions, streamlined business processes, and real-time analytics. These gains are realized only by solid user adoption and proficiency, which are direct outcomes from learning.

In this scenario, training leaders collaborate with business leads and configuration partners at project onset to identify and support desired business outcomes. Committed to the alignment of business and learning outcomes, the training team makes strategic, data-driven decisions on essential content for each target audience and reduces time spent on training design and learner time in the classroom. Focused, hands-on sessions equip subject matter experts (SMEs) in finance and HR, while demos and just-in-time learning interactions support user adoption and learner proficiency for managers and the broader employee audience.

The Need for an Outcomes-Based Framework

Common instructional design and evaluation models like Criterion Referenced Instruction created by Robert F. Mager, the ADDIE model, and The Kirkpatrick Model set standards for design, development and evaluation of training programs, now challenged by emergent agile models such as SAM. What is often missing is a focus on learning outcomes that enable business outcomes. Instructional design frameworks have evolved from content-based to competency-based to an outcomes-based framework.

A proven outcomes-based model developed for and by colleges provides the right framework, by adding questions on business outcomes and metrics. Its focused line of inquiry guides a backward design process.

The process answers the following key questions:

  • What are the business outcomes where learning is a critical enabler to realize those results?
  • What data will be used to determine when business and learning outcomes are met?
  • What do learners need to be able to DO ‘out there’ in their role that we are responsible for “in here” and that will impact the organization’s outcomes?
  • What will learners do “in here” to demonstrate evidence of the outcomes?
  • What skills must the learners master to demonstrate the outcomes?
  • What concepts must the learners understand to demonstrate the outcomes?
  • What issues must the learners be able to resolve to demonstrate the learning outcomes?

Answers to these questions define the training scope in a one-page design document called an Outcome Guide (OG), read from right to left. This is approved by stakeholders prior to training development and ensures alignment of all elements.

Outcome Alignment: Business and Learning Outcomes

Alignment of business and learning outcomes requires a focus on what learners will do “out there” outside and after the training experience, using the language of stakeholders. In the training scenario, the business outcome is: Make faster, smarter financial and human resource decisions within departments to reduce operational costs by 23 percent and administrative costs by 22 percent. Data-points to measure business outcomes could include reduced cycle time, increased volume and lower costs.

The OG example below shows learning outcomes, assessment tasks and essential content for both employee and managers in this scenario. Typically, an OG is developed for each audience and can be created at the program, course or workshop level. Iterations are expected through the refinement process.

Learning outcomes are robust, integrated and contextualized, describing what learners do “after” and “outside” the learning experience. Outcome statements determine the scope of learning – breadth and depth. Learning objectives can be developed later to scaffold learning.

Be careful not to start with learning objectives – a pitfall that typically narrows the focus to one concept or one skill and uses one verb. Another pitfall is the use of vague language that is not measurable or contextualized.

Key Alignment Question: Do the learning outcomes align and contribute to the business outcomes and stated in a language a stakeholder would use?

Outcome and Assessment Alignment

Alignment of assessment tasks to learning outcomes requires a focus on what learners will do to provide the best evidence of the outcome. Often, learning outcomes are written without attention to measurement. Defining assessment tasks early increases the likelihood of measurable outcomes. Iteration sharpens both elements, which is why assessment tasks should be identified in the design phase rather than after development. In the scenario, employees must enter and edit time and absence requests while managers must approve team’s procurement, expense and travel requests.

A pitfall to avoid is relying solely on surveys and tests to provide evidence of learning. Post-class surveys provide only indirect evidence based on learner’s perception, which infers learning. Tests often focus on concepts and low-level learning. True assessment tasks, known as performance tasks or authentic assessment, provide direct evidence of real learning. Assessment should simulate what the learner is expected to do in their actual role. Having both direct and indirect evidence can provide a more complete picture of the learning.

Key Alignment Question: Do the assessment tasks provide sufficient evidence that the learner meets the learning outcome? 

Outcome and Skills Alignment

Alignment of learner skills to business and learning outcomes requires a focus on what abilities learners must master in order to demonstrate learning outcomes. Maintain an emphasis on the learner’s capacity to perform the assessment tasks and achieve the learning outcomes.

In the training scenario, finance and HR super-users master new system skills via hands-on mapping sessions, minimizing the need for siloed legacy systems that formerly required high levels of IT support. End users master electronic self-service transactions for HR and purchasing, reducing rework and improving cycle time for workflow. Budget owners demonstrate the ability to monitor budgets for more accurate tracking and data-driven decision making. Managers model utilization of the system that supported user adoption.

A pitfall to avoid when aligning skills to outcomes is the tendency to confuse participant knowledge with participant skills. Remain focused on learners’ actions.

Key Alignment Question: Do the skills that learners demonstrate contribute to the learning and business outcomes?

Outcome and Concept Alignment

Alignment of learning concepts to learning and business outcomes means a focus on what learners must understand in order to demonstrate learning outcomes. For example, learners in the systems training scenario master an understanding of new internal processes and company policies. They understand electronic workflows and integration of time and absence data in the system, as well as the impact of approved procurement and travel requests on budget commitments. Managers also understand the importance of their role in reinforcing user adoption.

A common pitfall with concept alignment is the tendency toward information overload or content creep.  Ward against the temptation to add more content than is truly necessary to achieve results required for learning and business outcomes.

Key Alignment Question: Do the concepts that learners apply contribute to the learning and business outcomes?

Outcome and Issues Alignment

Alignment of potential learning issues to learning and business outcomes requires one to identify, in advance, what potential issues learners must resolve when demonstrating learning outcomes. These can be internal to learners, but are more often found in the external environment. Include these issues in your training design and your assessment tasks so that learners practice resolving these real-life complexities.

Potential issues in the systems training scenario may include minimal experience with electronic workflows, complicated supplemental pay options, multiple job assignments, and a major shift in expense categories. Pitfalls to look for include undervaluing or overestimating the impact of these issues and not devoting enough time on these issues with the learners.

Key Alignment Question: Do the issues that learners resolve contribute to the learning and business outcomes?

Pulling It All Together

The Outcome Guide is a proven tool that ensures learning outcomes and business outcomes are aligned for maximum impact. This high-level design document delivers conclusive insight into the “what” of your training content, informing subsequent work related to the “how’ and “when” of training strategies, learning modalities and content development.

A backward-design iterative approach saves time and resources by driving clarity on essential content derived from learning outcomes aligned with required business outcomes. Stakeholder approval of learning outcomes in the OG, a formal step in the process, confirms language and ensures that scope and assessment measures are jointly agreed upon. Outcome Guide development supports rapid design and lean learning principles. Development decisions facilitate alignment of learner skills, knowledge, and issue resolution for achievement of learning and business outcomes.

Position learning as your organization’s critical enabler by realizing the measurable impact of learning outcomes and business outcomes that deliver a return on your investment.