Transformational Leadership

Achieving the Real ROI of Learning

Tris Brown asked:

Our experience and research tell us that most training initiatives consistently fall short for two reasons:

1. They are not fully implemented or executed.

2. They do not show measurable improvements in performance or in business results.

These two factors have rightfully created ambiguity and cynicism around training as a strategic investment. After all, why would an organization want to invest in processes without clearly understanding how improvements will impact their business?

There are clearly some disconnects between learning and results.

While many companies philosophically believe in “investing in people” through skill building, most are content with allowing the results to “take care of themselves.” The probability of this approach having a tangible business impact is slim. We believe that every learning investment must be managed appropriately if you expect a benefit. Without managing the learning process to ensure that training translates into performance and results, there may be little or no benefit for either the individual or the company.

For organizations and employees to realize the full value of training, they must connect two common “disconnects” that occur between learning and business results. Based on Kirkpatrick’s four level Summative Evaluation, the LSA Learning Maturity Continuum™ below shows five levels of measurement, and how, if learning and application are not effectively linked, true learning and business results can not be achieved nor measured.

The Disconnects

1. Adoption Disconnect. The first disconnect is one of adoption. Adoption is the linchpin between Learning (level II) and Application (Level III) shown to the right. While many are improving their ability to ensure that participants can exhibit the specific skills in a training environment, few do what it takes to ensure that those skills will be transferred and applied on-the-job. This “Adoption Disconnect” inhibits learning from producing performance improvement.

While improving key skills, knowledge, and abilities may provide some benefit to the individual, experience tells us that it is only truly valuable to a team or organization if those skills are transferred to on-the-job performance. This means that organizations must invest in and plan for what happens before, during and after their learning interventions in order to improve organizational performance.

2. Alignment Disconnect. The second disconnect is one of alignment. This is the key connection between Application (Level III) and Results (Level IV). Even if training participants are able to apply new skills and change their on-the-job performance, success is unsatisfactory if the new performance results are not aligned with what the business is trying to accomplish. While this may sound obvious, we continue to find organizations that press ahead with learning and development initiatives that have no clear link to business priorities. This usually occurs due to a lack of rigor in analyzing business priorities, performance objectives, and root causes as part of the design phase for a training initiative. This lack of alignment and adoption is exactly what causes training, and often Human Resources, to be out of step with the critical initiatives of a business.

We believe this lack of alignment is also behind the recent trend toward increased learning analytics and the desire to more effectively measure the return on human capital. In our conversations with Executives, Human Resource Professionals, and

Line Managers, they tell us that they need to measure learning initiatives to justify budgets, approaches, and opportunity costs. We believe, however, that most companies would be better served by focusing their resources not on measuring, but

on managing and fully implementing their learning initiatives in alignment with their key strategic priorities.

Two Steps to Connect the Disconnectsâ„¢ of Alignment and Adoption

In order to “Connect the Disconnects™” necessary to transform learning into improved on-the-job performance and real business results, we recommend two key steps – starting with alignment.

1. Alignment: Begin with the business objectives in mind

We believe in a deep and fast analysis of business priorities and performance objectives to ensure that training initiatives target key results. While ”deep and fast” may seem contradictory, we know that in today’s competitive landscape an effective analysis needs to be:

I. Timely enough to keep pace with the rate of change within an organization.

II. Deep enough so that it identifies the few key levers needed to achieve the specific desired results.

When training initiatives have a clear line of sight to guiding business objectives, teams are able to move fast, learn, and adapt their approaches to produce defined results. The more actions are aligned with critical business drivers, the greater the impact. This is especially true if the organization views “training” as just one of many arrows in their solution quiver. Unfortunately, many organizations either spend their time and money attempting to measure results of a process that has not been properly managed or executed in the first place or they “push out” training events linked to “competencies” that have minimum impact on job performance and business results.

Alignment, the key connection between Application (Level III) and Results (Level IV), creates the foundation for skills to transfer to on-the-job performance and eventually manifest themselves in tangible business results. Without this alignment, organizations can only hope that their investments make sense. This feeling of “guessing” is what drives companies to decrease their investments in learning or to increase their attempts to measure ROI.

Once you have clarity around the strategic priorities, success metrics, and alignment, it is time to fully manage

and implement the learning solution in conjunction with other interventions – in other words “finish what you

start.” That brings us to step #2 – Adoption.

2. Adoption: Support individuals and teams through the learning transformation To be successful, each learning initiative must employ internal and external levers that enable the successful application of learned skills to job- specific tasks.

Once the appropriate success levers are selected and aligned with the learning development process, the adoption and mastery of new skills should be facilitated using the 5Ri™ Methodology. Through this methodology, skills are adopted, transferred, and successfully applied through the 5R™’s:

I. Relevance: How does the skill development apply directly to an individual’s role and the group’s purpose?

II. Resources: How are the necessary time, information, tools, technology, supporting processes, and structures being made available to produce the desired result?

III. Reinforcement: How is your environment supporting (incentives, consequences, recognition, etc.) the application of the new skills?

IV. Renewal: How is the organization ensuring continuous improvement through coaching, mentoring, follow-up, and refreshers?

V. Review: How are you evaluating the efficacy of the intervention at individual and group levels?

These five critical elements should be identified, managed, and adjusted before, during, and after each learning initiative to ensure adoption, transfer, and performance.

This combination of clarity and systemic support helps to transform learning into improved on-the-job performance and real business results – the real ROI of learning

This approach places learning (as needed, just in time) within project teams, business initiatives, and projects instead of just inside a classroom or on a computer screen. Learning should be integrated
as a part of your job – not outside of your job.

When we ask executives why they are not fully managing or implementing their learning solutions, they provide three consistent answers.

1. First, it takes time and effort.

2. Second, they are not sure how to do it.

3. Third, even if they knew how to do it, they may not have the skills required to get it done.

While we appreciate the obstacles, we know what it takes to create focus, clarity, and dedication to achieve a true competitive advantage through people.


In summary, because everyone has limited capital and resources, we believe that you will have the best return on investment if you focus on helping people achieve the critical few priorities of the business and on fully implementing solutions before you worry about complicated metrics that are usually based just upon people’s perceptions.

There is little benefit to measuring a “flawed and shallow” implementation. We recommend that you focus, instead, on proper execution before investing in measuring something that has never quite lived up to expectations due to a lack of clear direction and strategic alignment. The far more valuable question becomes “How do you manage and fully execute your training investment to get the results required by your business plan?”


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