Fortune magazine’s article “Company Training Programs: What are They Really Worth?” cited recent studies describing the gap between what data executives want from learning and development and what they actually see. When interviewed for the article, we were asked: Why does this happen? If the executives don’t see the return on investment, why don’t they hire someone who can provide results? Our response: It’s not that easy.
Top executives know learning and development is critical for survival and growth. At the same time, learning costs more than ever, leaving many to wonder how much and in what programs they should invest. When executives ask for impact and ROI data, they usually don’t get it because the learning team isn’t prepared, which is the reactive approach — waiting for, rather than anticipating, the request.
The chief learning officer is responsible for the proactive pursuit of meaningful data. Flourishing learning functions show value and remove anxiety about accountability and results by methodically evaluating programs, with some at the business impact and ROI levels.
This is practical and feasible, yet it often doesn’t happen. When senior leaders ask learning to “show them the money,” CLOs scramble to develop meaningful data. To pursue data important to the CEO, the CLO can do the following:
1. Take the leadership role. Accountability must start at the top. It’s not enough to send a team member to an evaluation workshop or buy new software to make it easier to process questionnaires. The CLO must set the example and routinely emphasize theimportance of accountability. This may require rethinking program development and design processes.
2. Get involved in measurement.This may not be easy, and for some it is extra work. In the best implementations, the CLO is actively involved throughout the process. The CLO should participate incapability sessions and decisions for major evaluation projects, review evaluation results, help present the results to senior executives and drive improvements.
3. Set the evaluation strategy.Every learning team should have an evaluation strategy addressing goals and targets, investments, responsibilities, technology use, data-collection methods, analysis techniques and data use. This is a living document with input from the team that sets the stage for sustainable practice.
4. Make accountability a priority. Properly aligning programs to the business through measurement and evaluation must have top priority, and not perceived as occasional. It must be inherent in learning, and be the top priority for significant, costly programs.
5. Generate additional funding, if necessary. Think about the percentage of the learning budget spent on measurement, evaluation and upfront needs assessment. In most organizations, the upfront analysis accounts for less than 5 percent of the learning budget; measurement and evaluation is usually less than 1 percent. Given the critical role, organizations are underinvesting. Best practice investment in measurement and evaluation is in the 3 to 5 percent range.
There are two ways to achieve this: Apply savings or improvements from the current evaluation to justify additional evaluation or shift money from design, development and delivery to evaluation. Both options may be easier than they seem, and they are viable options that do not require asking for additional funding.
Accountability is a critical topic. In an economic environment where most major expenditures are questioned and value is foremost in the executive’s mind, the CLO must take steps to ensure the learning and development investment provides a return.Accountability is not accomplished through vague terminology and loosely defined approaches such as return on expectation or value of investment. Avoid these terms when communicating with executives. It is accomplished by using credible, defensible methods to show the business connection of and, occasionally, the return on investment in critical programs.
Accountability at this level can be beneficial in maintaining the influence, commitment and the image of the learning function, while ensuring it is a sustainable and viable process in the organization.