In the past decade, I have had the opportunity to review the effectiveness (or lack of it) of at least 100 learning and development centers and corporate universities. A center and its programs are often impressive on paper, but a deeper analysis sometimes reveals that neither the center nor its programs are working well.
Some of the usual suspects include:
- Learning isn’t always the right answer. If the wrong solution is implemented, little or no payoff will occur. Too often, learning is perceived as a solution for performance problems when learning is not the issue at all. The problem is amplified when the learning and development center is perceived (and even chartered) as a solution provider, not a problem solver. Until this counterproductive approach to problem solving and initial analysis changes, learning and development programs will continue to be blamed for failure to deliver performance changes.
- Learning is not aligned with business needs. The payoff of a learning program, if there is one, comes from the business measures driven by the program. If the program is not aligned with one or more business measures, no improvement will be linked to the program. Too often, formal learning is implemented for the wrong reasons and is not connected to a business need. Without the business connection, the program struggles to drive business results. With all the attention on moving from training to performance improvement or implementing human performance technology, we should see more progress in this area.
- Participants attend learning for the wrong reasons. In far too many situations, learners participate in formal learning and development for the wrong reasons. They may be building their résumés for employment elsewhere, exploring topics that intrigue them but are unrelated to their jobs or just taking time away from stressful work. In other situations, learners attend programs that are not designed for them. In these cases, they rarely have the opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills. Many organizations lack selection systems for deciding who should be involved in given learning programs.
- Participants complete programs without the necessary competencies. For many years, legal and ethical issues inhibited the professional learning community’s ability to test for competencies. Employees could attend programs and learn (or not) with no job-related consequences. With a few exceptions, self-assessments were the only method used to demonstrate that the learner “passed the course.” Increasingly, management expects employees to be confident and capable in fundamental areas where skills are necessary, such as customer service and safety and health issues. Unless we can verify competencies, there is no way to know that employees are meeting management’s expectations. It takes time and is sometimes difficult, but if the stakes are high, testing is worth the effort.
- Learners don’t use the skills on the job. Without the transfer of the learning to the job, there will be no performance change and the learning program will fail. Learning transfer has been a problem for too many years. Unfortunately, studies continue to show that as much as 60 percent to 90 percent of what is learned is not transferred to the job. Lack of transfer is a complex issue that involves many barriers. While multiple barriers always exist, they get little attention until it is too late and they destroy the implementation of an otherwise successful program.
- Learning programs don’t add value. This is a perpetual problem, and whatever the definition of value is, it is rarely delivered. Major learning programs are expected to drive business results. When they do, a critical step is often omitted: isolating the amount of improvement directly related to the program. Perhaps the program did cause business improvement, but unless the impact is isolated, executives and sponsors will be puzzled about the actual connection between the program and business value. When the fully loaded costs for learning and development are considered, programs might not generate enough monetary value to overcome their high costs. Consequently, from an ROI perspective, the program is unsuccessful. However, a negative ROI is not always a sign of failure: Programs may add considerable value through intangibles and significant behavior changes in the short term to overcome the negative ROI.
- Key clients and executives don’t care. Without commitment and involvement from top executives and clients, the learning and development center will not be effective, and major programs will fall short of their expectations. Commitment equates to resources allocated to the learning and development function and to specific programs. Sometimes the commitment is not there because executives and key clients see little value in formal learning programs. Yet they know they must commit resources for learning. This is a dilemma for many executives.
- We can’t get support for learning. Without management encouragement and support, participants will rarely implement new skills and knowledge in the workplace. Consequently, the results fall short of expectations. The manager’s role is critical in the learning process—before, during and after the formal learning takes place. Studies have shown that manager interactions with the learner before and after a program are critical to successful application. More action is needed to ensure that managers understand their influence and what they can do to make changes. The problem often lies in managers’ perceptions about reinforcement and support. A simple inquiry about the success of the program and how learning will be implemented into the work unit is often sufficient. The bottom line is simple: No comment from managers sends a strong message.
- There is too little direction and focus. Much of learning and development should be focused so that all stakeholders can concentrate on the desired results. The focus on results begins with the actual objectives for learning programs, which should be developed at higher levels than the learning objectives themselves. Application objectives and impact objectives must be developed routinely. Occasionally, an ROI objective should be developed as well. When developed properly, higher-level objectives provide important direction and focus for a variety of stakeholders at different timeframes. For designers and developers, these objectives provide insight into the types of examples, illustrations, role-plays, case studies and exercises needed to focus on application and impact, not just learning. Facilitators need the objectives to prepare the individuals for the ultimate outcome of the learning: job performance change. Learners need the objectives to clearly see the outcome of major learning programs. Key clients, who pay for the program and support it, need the objectives so that they can see the connection to business measures.
- Learners are not held accountable. For many programs, the learner must drive performance change. Without individual learner efforts, the program will not be successful. When pressed for reasons for not applying new behavior, learners are quick to blame others—usually their immediate manager. The real problem might be learners who refuse to change or accept responsibility. Learners can achieve success with learning if they are properly motivated to do so and are held accountable for results, even in the face of a non-supportive manager. Although they are required to learn new skills on the job, expectations should go further. Learners must apply what is learned and achieve desired results.
- Feedback is not provided or used. All stakeholders need feedback: employees on their progress, developers and designers on program design, facilitators on delivery and clients on the success of the program. Without feedback, the program might not meet expectations. The challenge is to provide a stream of information to a variety of audiences as data are collected. Reaction data and learning data are used to improve learning design and facilitation. Application data are provided to those who are involved in program implementation so adjustments can be made. Business impact data need to be communicated to clients and others so the entire group can see the value of learning.
Although we know how to do it right, a tremendous number of dysfunctional processes are still in place. The professional literature routinely documents correct and incorrect approaches to successful learning and development, yet we constantly rediscover or reinvent the processes needed for success.
Contrast this situation with other major functions in the organization. There is not an array of dysfunctional processes in the engineering or design functions. Engineers and product designers use systematic procedures and protocols that are accepted and proven. The marketing function has a professional staff that implements effective promotions and advertising campaigns. Why is learning bent on continuing dysfunctional processes?
Learning From Mistakes
There are several reasons why learning and development doesn’t learn from its mistakes. First, the field has not always been perceived as a legitimate function. Obviously, people need to learn, but is it really necessary to have a systematic, methodical process with principles, standards and operating procedures?
Also, in the scheme of things, learning is inexpensive. Although organizational learning is responsible for $100 billion of direct expenditures in the United States, these expenditures represent a small part of organizational budgets. On average, this represents about 1.2 percent of payroll. If the payroll represents only 30 percent of revenue, then learning costs about 0.36 percent of revenue—not enough for many executives to get concerned about it. As a result, processes are not put into place to prevent repeated failures.
Until recently, there were not many formal degree programs to prepare individuals for this profession. Consequently, those who entered the profession were often ill-prepared and committed the same mistakes as those who came before, who also were ill-prepared. This is changing some as degree programs at all levels grow throughout the landscape of the educational community.
Another problem is that many individuals who enter the learning field don’t stay there for any length of time. By design, they are rotated through learning assignments even at the CLO position. This may be considered a developmental opportunity for some or a special assignment for others as they provide subject-matter expertise needed to prepare others. Annual turnover averages about 35 percent. Consequently, these staff members are not interested in, nor do they have time for, developing systematic, successful standardized processes.
Finally, the profession has struggled with the issue of standards and certification. Without standards and certification, there are no generally accepted practices. This situation promotes confusion and inconsistencies.
Chances are, these issues sound familiar to you. They represent critical challenges that the CLO must address if learning is to live up to expectations and generate appropriate returns for the investment. With increased pressure to show the value of investment in learning and development, failure cannot be tolerated. Failure can be prevented. Improved results from learning and development are possible. We know how to do it right. Results-based learning can be sustained if we learn from our mistakes.
Jack J. Phillips, Ph.D., chairman of the ROI Institute, developed and pioneered the ROI process and has written more than 15 books on the subject. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.