Evaluating training — and therefore proving business value — has long been a challenge for those of us in any learning and development (L&D) or workforce development role. How often have we been asked, “What is the ROI?” or “What is the business value?” And as we stare at that 4.75 score on the user survey, we wonder how we could ever answer those questions honestly. The process of measuring achieved value is critical for learning leaders within an organization — but it can feel impossible.

Ever since its inception in 1959, the Kirkpatrick Model has formed the foundation of evaluation in four levels: level one is the learner’s reaction to the experience, level two is the learning and knowledge increase or transfer, level three focuses on the behavior change and level four represents the business results. Although level four, evaluating business results, is the most desired result from training, it’s usually the most difficult to accomplish and often ignored. In fact, “ignored” is probably not an accurate representation of the angst of so many instructional designers and learning program managers who wrestle with determining that result.

To make the case for keeping your project at the top of the list of priorities for an organization, setting goals for behavior change and business value is your superpower. Meanwhile, we have all felt that it could not be done. Over time, some very smart people have tried to adapt the Kirkpatrick Model to the modern world. But why break what isn’t broken? The model isn’t the problem. The way we use it is.

We begin too late in the process to think about it. We don’t believe we can do it. You have heard the doubt and maybe even said it yourself: “You cannot evaluate business results for soft skills,” “Compliance training is not about the business,” “We can set a business goal, but I have no idea how we could measure it,” “What about all those other factors that influence business results,” and more such claims that might be described as failure-in-advance. It is time to step up to the challenge and make the Kirkpatrick Model work for you!

Establish Metrics From the Start

As learning partners of the business and its stakeholders, we must flip the script on Kirkpatrick. Begin with a conversation about business value and behavior change. And set those metrics before initiating development of the training intervention. Seems simple enough, right? Establishing those metrics at the front end will not only make for excellent conversation with stakeholders but will also form a thread through the design and development of training and any activities associated with the project to influence the outcome.

How many times have we gotten all the way through a project with a high-priced vendor who then says, “Time to determine the business value: I need to interview about two dozen of the target audience.” Hindsight is never really 20/20. We all know that. Kirkpatrick was on to something when he established those four levels, forming the foundation of evaluation for what looks to be the next century. What he was really doing was forcing us to think about the “why” of the project and to put every effort into the context of behavior change and business value.

Asking the Right Questions

Every training project begins somewhere in the business and is justified for funding based on an identified need. By asking the right questions at the time of the request, you will ensure a focus on the most often unsaid metrics. It really comes down to switching from what looks like a content-driven request that might, for example, be based on a product, to a learner-centric approach to understand why the learner needs the training, what the behavioral change should be and what the business impact should be.

Begin by asking why the training is needed now. What do they measure already and what metric are they using to justify the budget for the training? Then, the conversation turns to the expected impact on that metric once the training is completed. Focus on the behavioral goals and explore what can be observed. Ask the stakeholder what they want the learner to:

  • Do
  • Say
  • Show
  • Know
  • Find

And be sure to ask how each of those will differ from the way they behave now. Probe for observable behaviors. It does not take long to evolve those questions one step further, as a trusted partner to your stakeholders. Establish level three and level four outcomes for the training that will ultimately change behavior and influence business value. Remember to look at the business value in terms of time and money.

One example may be the net promoter score (NPS) that reflects the willingness of customers to refer the company. Knowing that before you begin design helps you define the context, and you can estimate an impact. You might ask how long it takes for a new hire to achieve proficiency. For sales, look at the length of time to first deal. You can estimate a new length of time for that as a business value metric.

Here is a real-life example of how this can work. The request came for revamping the training for a call center. Part of the request focused on moving from a bootcamp model to a blended learning journey that included self-study and coaching. It all seemed simple and straightforward, but the learning team took a flipped Kirkpatrick approach and asked the aforementioned questions. Previously, they might have focused on content acquisition as if the content could possibly tell the whole story. The evaluation revealed two important factors. The first was behavioral and was based on the one-question survey that the company asked of every customer who called in. They would ask, “Would you hire this rep?” That question is a metric that can be influenced by the right kind of training. They had a quarterly number of 91% answering “yes” and the team determined that the training program should be able to move the needle by two points. Second, they had a business outcome they wanted to influence and that concerned transitioning a support call into a sale. Knowing these two goals in advance formed a design thread through every single learning asset in the program and ultimately exceeded the goals that were set.

Taking this approach not only provides opportunities for excellent conversations, but it will also make your program better overall. You simply flip the script on Kirkpatrick. Focus on behavior change and business results. You don’t have to forget about the learning experience and knowledge transfer, because that has been going fine for more than 50 years. Just change the way you think about measuring business value before you even begin designing, developing and writing and you’ll be amazed at your results. Then all you must do is stick the landing.