In general, there are two types of learning leaders. Those who came up through the ranks of learning and development, who wax poetic about Malcolm Knowles and ADDIE and can break down the components of a properly written learning objective. And those who were successful business people prior to landing in learning and development, sometimes by happy accident. Both types bring valuable skills to bear on their learning organizations, but the folks with the business background often have an easier time gaining traction with their business peers and early-stage initiative planning influence.
To be sure, some of that is the result of existing relationships with stakeholders on the business side. But the biggest reason for the influence gap is the language barrier; the way learning leaders tend to define and talk about success differs from the way business leaders measure and discuss it.
Learning leaders often reflexively default to speaking in terms of learning-centric key performance indicators — training hours provided, e-learning modules created, average test scores, butts in chairs — rather than numbers that have meaning to business leaders and drive their decision-making, such as ROI, effectiveness and other metrics that illustrate bottom-line impact. By rephrasing and swapping terminology — underlined by better front-end planning around metrics and measurement — learning leaders can better convey their learning initiative successes and connect with their business counterparts in a more meaningful way.
Speak the Language of Business
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with learning KPIs, or key performance indicators. They can offer valuable insight into the efficiency and effectiveness of learning initiatives, serve as progress milestones and act as an internal measuring stick. Just understand that it’s inside baseball, and no matter how impressive the results may seem to the learning organization, if they’re conveyed in learning-speak, business stakeholders probably won’t care about them.
Learning-speak often comes across as annoying to leaders outside the learning function, said David Voorhees, director of learning and development for Waste Management Inc. Learning professionals who make the effort to use business language are more likely to instill confidence that learning and development has the capacity and desire to be a real partner, he explained. It’s something he demands of his own learning team. “We deliberately use client business terminology in our meetings as a part of the immersion process. The client’s terminology is their reality, and we want to be a part of that reality.”
What business stakeholders really want to hear is the impact and value of any given learning initiative. Learning leaders must prove that they understand the business objectives, and illustrate how learning interventions will help their peers and their employees achieve them.
To illustrate, imagine the following scenario. A newly hired call center training director is tasked with identifying and implementing a learning intervention. On his first day, he spends an hour in a room with a couple of managers who go into great detail about the call center and its operations. After they finish talking, they ask if he has any questions. “Yes, I do: Can you please repeat all of that, but this time in English?” They had explained things in jargon, making assumptions about prerequisite knowledge and failed to fill in knowledge gaps for a layman. At that moment, the training director realized that before he could address the workers’ performance needs, he would need to gain a fundamental understanding of the business and its industry.
That language barrier works in reverse, too. Had the training director started talking to the call center managers about ADDIE and LMSs, they would have been similarly lost. The difference is, they don’t care, nor should they. Learning leaders exist to support them, not the other way around. So, while the call center training director needs to be able to speak competently about first call resolution and computer telephony integration, he also must adjust the way he speaks about the learning side of things.
Being able to communicate effectively with stakeholders ties directly to the learning leader’s ability to align with business goals, which ought to be at the apex of the learning organization’s mission. Every development initiative must be tied to enterprise objectives, and learning leaders need to be able to clearly and directly articulate how development activities fit into that overarching business strategy.
The business discussions that happen in the C-suite ultimately center on at least one of the following three topics: increasing revenue, decreasing expenses or managing risks. So, when learning leaders insert themselves into these conversations — and they should, because proactively sharing relevant information is sometimes the only way to be heard — they need to frame their input around these areas of interest.
When people talk about speaking the language of business, what they mean is, speak the language of the people whom learning supports. The truth is, there is no universal learning-to-business translation because every business is different, and every business cares about different things. Jargon and internal shorthand is part of that, but more to the point, KPIs and relevant business metrics will differ based on organizational objectives. As a rather obvious example, a learning organization that supports a call center might be wise to measure things such as one-call resolution and handle time. But those metrics would carry little relevance for executives in a fast-food chain. And neither company’s stakeholders are going to care much about average e-learning scores.
To that point, when crafting a presentation for business stakeholders, learning leaders should be selective in what they share. They should absolutely paint a complete picture, but should also consider what information business leaders really need to hear. To draw an analogy, think about when an accountant does a person’s taxes. Ultimately, that individual only really cares how much money they owe or are owed.
They want the accountant to share enough detail about the return that they are confident in his or her competency, and that the critical information is accurate and complete. But the person may feel like their time is being wasted if the accountant reads off portions of the federal tax code that apply to each line item. Likewise, most business stakeholders only really care about the bottom-line results and some high-level takeaways that explain those results. Of course, learning leaders should be ready to provide additional details if asked.
To Understand Business Language, Understand the Business
Communicating more effectively with business leaders starts with acquiring a nuanced understanding of the business itself. This includes conducting a gap analysis, but unfortunately, that’s often as deep as most learning leaders delve. Instead, find out what are the practical, functional challenges facing the business and its stakeholders. Who are the customers, and how is the business solving their needs — or not? Who are the company’s main competitors, and why or why are they not a threat? Where is the industry going?
This deeper business understanding is necessary to have an intelligent conversation with stakeholders on how to identify whether there is even a performance need to be solved. Learning leaders must examine the performance system from all angles, including external factors that may impact performance, like resources, policies, procedures, tools and incentives. Failure to consider underlying causes for performance issues could result in misidentifying the proper learning intervention, never mind how to adequately measure the solution’s effectiveness. For this important conversation to take place, learning professionals need to know what questions to ask, and the only way to know that is to truly understand the ins and outs of the business that they support.
Once learning professionals have that foundational understanding of the business they support, they’re now on steady footing to ultimately explain learning initiatives — their business case, their ultimate objective, their anticipated bottom-line impact — in ways that resonate with stakeholders. This enables the C-suite to recognize the positive results in an intervention, because it’s already been framed for them in a context they understand.
While the need for better communication between learning and the business seems obvious to many learning leaders, it remains a tough sell among a large segment. That’s because, after decades of failing to receive business plans and impact reports from the learning function, plenty of executives have simply given up asking — and those learning leaders incorrectly interpret their silence as affirmation.
“If I’ve worked my way up to being head of a learning department for a major corporation, and nobody has ever asked me to put together a proper business plan, why would I suddenly start now?” said David Vance, executive director of the Center for Talent Reporting. “These learning leaders feel they’ve done just fine in their career without doing what we’re talking about. The fact is, if learning professionals take the time to put together a detailed plan, they will provide better value to the business.”
The takeaway here is, if business stakeholders are not even attempting these conversations, it’s not because they aren’t interested, it’s because they’ve simply lost faith in learning’s ability to provide any relevant info. That has a material effect on the learning organization’s influence and budget. In those cases, Vance said the decision-makers just figure, “ ‘We’ll give them the least amount we can get away with, because who even knows what they’ll do with it?’ ”
To be frank, it’s frustrating and counterproductive that the learning industry remains reluctant to assimilate to the wider business world. “We are proud to be learning professionals; we are even more proud to be business-learning professionals,” Voorhees said. “It is a conscious choice to be both and to demonstrate that you are focused on the client’s business outcomes, metrics and success.”
Jeff Carpenter is CEO of Caveo Learning. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.