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On measuring the impact of learning

The business world is in continuous transformation ever since the digital revolution started and companies need now more than ever to have effective L&D programs and streamlines in place so that they can meet all challenges with well-trained employees. Yet it is precisely because everything is happening so fast that it’s increasingly difficult to measure the impact of learning within the organization.

All the stakeholders declare that they understand the importance of organizational learning and consider it a profitable investment but they also feel it’s difficult to weigh the results. The Kirkpatrick model is still the most abided-by and for good reason – it has been developed beyond the original theory and has managed to keep up with the times and market demands.

Read more: Measuring training effectiveness — the Kirkpatrick model

As the theorist himself noted, back in 2009: there is a trend in the use of the four levels to create and present a chain of evidence to corporate partners to show the power of training and evaluation, but also the power of the business partnership model between trainers, line managers and business executives. Along with this is a strong emphasis on Levels 3 (behavior) and 4 (results), which, instead of sending the message of cost as with Levels 1 (reaction) and 2 (learning), emphasizes impact and value to business.

It’s imperative to have proper measurement

When asked about what makes a learning program successful, most practitioners talk about applicability of the newly acquired information and impact on business results. These important points on the check list are not only about the relevance of the material but also about how well it can be transferred in the workplace and change behaviors so that it leads to superior results.

Managers take this one step forward and also want to see some tangible indicators that a learning intervention has been truly profitable to the organization. L&D specialists are well aware of how important it is to demonstrate the profitability of their programs and as a result they incorporate the golden standards of ‘on the job applicability’ and ‘business impact’ in any pitch or course description made for boards, middle management or team leaders.

However, for the frequency with which it appears on paper and on screens, the link between corporate learning and business results still proves hard to demonstrate. The main reason for this is that not enough stress is placed on the actual evaluation phase of learning. Managers expect to see positive results yet fail to understand that proper weighing of these requires in its turn needs an investment of time and monetary resources.

Focus should be on the desired outcome

When designing a corporate learning event (or path, depending on the organizational need), it’s best to begin with the end. Rather than regarding the evaluation process as the last step, one that will most probably be figured out once the program is over, it’s advisable to consider this before even designing the learning modules.

Read more: Why each employee needs a learning path

Instructional design needs to work backwards from the desired organizational objectives (that most sought after ‘impact on business results’) and not the other way around. The questions to be asked by L&D specialists right off the bat are:

  • What are the desired business results of the learning intervention?
  • What are the specific workplace behaviors that can generate these results?
  • What type of training program needs to be in place in order to ensure that these behaviors are continually exhibited by employees?

This way of approaching instructional design allows for a more precise tailoring of any program to the needs and business objectives of the organization. It also offers a valuable set of guidelines for getting there. Having the destination clearly in mind makes any journey easier to take and more likely to meet the travelers’ expectations.

Overcoming organizational obstacles

The most effective kind of sabotage is self-sabotage. It’s obvious that organizations don’t do this on purpose but the number one reason for learning interventions proving futile has to do with hurdles that arise from resistance to organizational change.

The Kirkpatrick learning evaluation model talks about certain “required drivers” that are necessary to be in place so that teaching interventions are successful and bring about positive business results. Undesirable conduct needs to be sanctioned while positive behaviors should be encouraged and celebrated. The periodical performance appraisal systems that most companies have in place are intended to do just that – measure employee achievement against a number of key performance indicators and either reward or sanction that according to a previously communicated scheme.

It’s crucial, however, that these KPIs get constantly updated in accordance with new objectives and the learning programs that are set to support them. The “what’s in it for me” of every learning intervention has to do with more than personal development and intrinsic satisfaction lest it will prove inefficient for most participants.

Aligning workplace systems and processes with training objectives is crucial to achieving good information retention rates and high degrees of applicability in the workplace.

Closing thoughts

Measuring the results of organizational learning is far from being an exact science. There are a number of factors that influence information retention rates and knowledge transfer. It’s important, however, that each learning program is designed with a specific measurable outcome in mind and that proper evaluation is conducted before declaring the success or failure of a teaching intervention.