Learning executives are challenged to “sell” the benefits of an intangible need to those wanting tangible results. External consultants understand this obstacle. However, when those responsible for learning and development propose solutions, they often encounter significant resistance. Senior managers recognize the importance for learning, but with limited resources, they also are concerned with accountability and results. Other stakeholders—employees and management alike—also present obstacles of indifference and skepticism toward proposed learning initiatives.
The days when CLOs were able to convince senior executives that learning initiatives could not be tangibly or financially measured are over. Learning executives must radically shift their thinking to gain support for their initiatives. As learning budgets increase, senior executives expect to see the same tangible returns on budget allocations that they expect from any other operational or functional activity. Increasingly, stakeholders at all levels want to see tangible outcomes related to their own functions and environments.
CLOs often make the mistake of attempting to position learning as an essential need, but nothing is an absolute need to senior executives. CLOs believe that they must persuade senior management to understand the benefits and to invest funds to make proposed initiatives a reality. Doing this is a mistake and places learning leaders in a defensive position. In addition, most senior managers are already sold on the need for learning. The question is not whether or not they want to have a learning initiative, but which initiative will most benefit the organization at all levels.
Learning and development has grown up in the past few years. Where it once sat at the “kiddie table,” today it is invited to sit with the adults. When an organization commits a seat at the executive table to learning, it is a clear statement to learning leaders: “Sell us on what learning will do for the organization in business and strategic terms we understand.” CLOs must prepare answers to questions such as:
- How is the learning strategy in line with the organization’s overall vision and direction?
- What are the expected and tangible outcomes and benefits of the learning strategy?
- How will it be marketed within the organization?
- How will we gain the buy-in from the affected departments and individuals?
- How will learning and development justify the cost and investment?
- What business metrics measure organizational impact?
This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point for CLOs to demonstrate to their senior counterparts and stakeholders how learning initiatives impact the organization through tangible business measures. It requires taking a “business” approach to proving learning’s worth.
Proving Learning’s Worth
Management is primarily concerned with profitability. Every business unit is expected to be a profit center or, at the very least, demonstrate profitability in some way. For traditional cost centers such as learning and development, this topic is highly debated. How can learning and development be profitable? There is no magic solution to this question. Each approach is as unique as the organization itself.
In “Converting from a Training Department to a Profit Center” (Chief Learning Officer magazine, December 2004), author Bob Zeinstra of the University of Toyota speaks about cost recovery as an alternative measure of learning’s profitability. He writes, “…package the outcome to your stakeholders not as seeking profit, but as seeking cost recovery.” Cost recovery is not a new concept, but offers a softer approach to operational profitability. It does not make a corporate support division appear as if it is “making money” off of employees.
Another means to profit-center thinking is getting learning to become an internal consulting group for the needs of other business units. This gets learning executives and their teams to think through consultative approaches in terms of solutions, results and meeting client (other business units) expectations, similar to the way external consultants would approach the solution. Positioning learning as a consulting group helps it:
- Answer the specific and targeted needs of business unit clients.
- Deliver tangible business results.
- Deliver focused solutions in line with organizational strategy.
- Be accountable to costing, pricing and profitability.
- Facilitate buy-in within the organization.
- Develop effective solutions.
Like every other business function, learning’s worth is determined by its contribution toward meeting strategic objectives. To do this, the learning and development department must actually see itself as its own business and be fully accountable. This can be accomplished through a holistic approach to learning and performance, rather than simply focusing on the training function itself. This requires CLOs not only to possess expertise in learning, but also to have a basic comprehension of business and strategy.
This orientation positions learning and development as a strategic partner that helps stakeholders at all levels attain desired objectives and specific results. This is how to facilitate buy-in for learning initiatives throughout the organization.
Know Your Audience: Gaining Buy-In
As CLOs develop their knowledge and understanding of organizational objectives in business terms, they increase opportunities to deliver the right message to their customers—the organization and its business units. The greatest failure is not knowing, understanding or clearly communicating what the customer wants. An effective marketing and communication strategy for learning and development requires a demonstration of tangible results to those who expect to benefit.
Marketing and selling learning internally is all about being prepared, involving the appropriate and affected individuals and clearly understanding what executive management wants to hear. This basically means applying fundamental sales, marketing and people skills. However, to establish true credibility in management’s eyes it is critical to demonstrate a clear relationship to business and strategic objectives. No matter how effective your marketing strategy for learning initiatives, there will always be critics. Three marketing mistakes to avoid including:
- A focus on features: The focus of any learning must be on the benefits—not the features. For example, if you are proposing a customer service program for front-line workers, one feature might be resolving client problems. On the other hand, the benefit might be an increase in customer satisfaction or growth in repeat sales. These are the tangible results senior managers want to see. Organizations jump too quickly onto the “new business trend” bandwagon. Just because a topic is gaining popularity, this does not make it appropriate for your staff or organization. Business decisions are based on deliverables in line with strategic objectives—not on appeal. Applying the feature-benefit principal will help prepare you to move your cause forward with those who are most resistant.
- A focus on one level of decision-making: When seeking “buy-in” for learning-related projects, CLOs tend to focus on obtaining support from the highest-level decision-makers. This approach has two possible outcomes: management approves or rejects the project. If approved, only one level of decision-makers is sold on the idea. At this point, the proposed initiative can still be doomed to fail because those who will be directly affected were not involved or consulted. Resistance can spread quickly, leading to non-acceptance, eventually jeopardizing and possibly killing the project. This further propagates the belief among executives that learning is an expense, and reinforces to participants that it is a waste of time and money.
- Not knowing your “buyers”: Learning executives who successfully gain internal acceptance for training recognize early who they need to approach and quickly gain an appreciation for the concerns and needs of those directly or indirectly involved. They also understand the fundamental marketing philosophies: “Know your audience” and “Sell the buyer what they want to buy; not what you want to sell.” Essentially, there are three groups to address: learning participants (or employees), mid-level managers and senior management. (See Figure 1.)
Learning participants will usually accept any training if it provides value-added resources and does not take time away from their immediate responsibilities. The training must be easy to absorb and incorporate into their daily activities if it is to change behavior. Changing the behavior and attitudes of participants is at the core of how learning impacts business results. It is important to balance the participants’ needs with the need for performance improvement. This aligns the participants’ goals with business managers’ needs and broadens access to possible alternatives.
When dealing with business unit managers, it is important to recognize their specific requirements. They are often challenged to leverage their employees’ ability to achieve specific departmental or production objectives with the demands of senior management. At this level, managers are involved in budget planning and the allocation of funds directly affecting their environment. Being directly on the front lines of business, they are accountable to attain preset performance benchmarks on many levels, placing extensive demand on their resources. Taking these concerns into account, business managers have little patience or time for learning solutions that do not produce immediate results and take their employees away from their daily responsibilities.
Decision-making at the senior level focuses on attaining strategic objectives, increasing profitability and maximizing shareholder value. At this level, executives want to create an environment that increases sales and revenue through improvements to product quality and customer and employee satisfaction. Their objective is to optimize the return on investments in every business-related activity, especially when investing in employees. In the knowledge economy, ideas, innovation and synergy are critical to long-term success. Every learning investment must help improve the organization’s performance by developing a knowledgeable team of employees to effectively serve clients and capitalize on new opportunities. CLOs often pitch their proposal to this level, and ignore other levels of involvement in decision-making.
Seven Essential Questions
Critics at every level of management will challenge your reasons. Being prepared for the “critical” questions is essential if you are to sell your solution. These questions will help you face the challenges you may encounter when proposing learning solutions:
- Is there really a need for learning? CLOs often overestimate the value learning can provide. If the perception of learning is to change, learning executives need to be honest about its effectiveness. In many instances, a formal learning solution is unnecessary. For example, your company recently upgraded existing software. Is there a need for targeted learning, or are employees capable of learning the new system on their own? Maybe they only require coaching in some of the new features of the software.
- Do all employees need learning? Management believes the myth that all employees must pass through learning to maximize the investment. However, learning impact is only realized when the right individuals are involved. Focus your efforts on the people with the need and those who will benefit most, and clearly demonstrate to management the impact this focus will have on the organization. For example, if you are introducing a new product, the production team might require training in quality procedures, whereas customer service employees require training on the use of the product.
- What are the expected outcomes? CLOs often misdiagnose the problem that learning is attempting to solve. The primary goal of learning is to improve existing processes and outcomes. When attempting to build a case for learning, you must ensure that the benefits answer the audience’s needs and the investment delivers on the expected returns.
- How will learning move us closer to our goals? Executive managers expect every business decision to move them closer to a desired goal. Managers recognize that their people are the key to success or failure. More importantly, they also recognize that investments in people are unpredictable and volatile. Your responsibility is to assure management that the proposed solution will lead them one step closer to their goals. Clearly show tangible links to operational and organizational strategic objectives.
- What are management’s expectations? Each level of management expects certain results from their investment. Clearly understanding these expectations will help your marketing efforts. Senior managers expect to see links between productivity and profitability. Setting clear internal and industry “benchmarks” to measure against will certainly improve your case. Mid-managers want to see immediate outcomes and results. Work closely with them to develop an implementation plan that minimizes workplace disruption and equips their staff with the skills that will move them closer to their immediate objectives.
- What resources will the learning require? All organizations are constrained by limited resources. Many managers believe that there are more critical issues to resolve with these resources before they will commit to learning. To avoid this objection, you need to know what resources are required. Do not underestimate your needs, and be prepared to justify your position. Then, present this case to the decision-makers and other stakeholders.
- What will the learning cost? If not handled carefully, this question can be a trap. The key to selling your training internally is to speak in terms that management understands. Prove that training employees is an investment that will result in measurable and profitable outcomes. Clearly determine direct and unforeseen costs and expected results. Remember to talk in business terms—not learning and development terms.
Your success depends on how you address the concerns at each level of decision-making, as well as participation of stakeholders in development of the proposed learning solutions. This requires an understanding of the benefits related to the needs of the employees and organization. Knowing your audience is essential to gaining support and the first step to selling learning solutions internally.
The perception of learning is changing, and the need is growing. If real change is to take hold, CLOs need to find effective ways to ensure true learning that leads to results. Learning is about developing abilities and knowledge that translate into sustained performance. Building organizational requirements and employee needs into learning solutions is essential to gain acceptance at every level. It is time to shift your thinking to business and strategic orientations focusing on performance and results to gain credibility and facilitate buy-in. Learning and development leaders must realize that they are an integral component to the business, not an organizational footnote.
Ajay Pangarkar and Teresa Kirkwood are partners at CentralKnowledge.com, and help organizations leverage the power of intellectual capital and maximize performance through learning, measurement and evaluation strategies. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.