Learning leaders rarely get the credit we deserve for impacting employee performance and bottom-line results. It’s frustrating, but if we’re being honest, we as an industry share the blame. We often fail to communicate our successes using language and metrics that resonate with other business leaders, and our goals don’t always align with what our counterparts elsewhere in the business had in mind. We often assume that those metrics will be difficult to get, heavily scrutinized, and not isolated enough to demonstrate the impact of learning on the business goals.
In many organizations, the learning and development function is caught in a negative perception loop. Learning initiatives are not tightly aligned to organizational goals because L&D is brought into the planning process too late—if we’re involved at all. Business leaders don’t think to include L&D in the process because they don’t see the business value that the learning organization provides. They don’t see the business value because L&D fails to illustrate it, because we’re not using the right metrics or speaking the language of business to communicate the impact, and because our initiatives aren’t aligned to organizational goals. We become nothing more than a mere afterthought within the strategic planning process, a tactical resource to be deployed.
While we can’t force our way into planning sessions, we can change the way we measure and communicate the success of learning. Stakeholders in the business don’t care about adult learning theory, or the latest LMS technology, or the number of hours of training delivered, or course evaluation scores; they care about conversion rates, and defects per unit, and operational efficiency, and gross margins. We need to take it upon ourselves to understand how other departments in the organization are being measured, and we must structure reporting around the ability of learning initiatives to impact those scores. Most importantly, we must remember that L&D exists to enable the business to achieve its objectives, whether that means smoothly implementing needed organizational changes, improving sales performance, or mastering compliance standards. We exist solely as an internal services organization, to help business leaders ready their most important assets to enact or enable the strategic goals and objectives of the business. With that obligation comes a great responsibility to effectively communicate the impact L&D has on those resources.
Metrics that prove learning’s impact will lead to greater resource and budget allocations as senior leadership identifies the ROI that L&D provides. Just as importantly, it is the foot in the door that learning leaders need to break that cycle of exclusion and earn a seat at the tactical table. L&D will be seen as a valued asset by the business, and other departmental leaders will seek our counsel when embarking on initiatives—we can finally transition from being mere order takers to becoming collaborative partners.
Ultimately, since the learning strategies and ongoing performance support will better align with the overall business objectives, the enterprise will experience more consistent performance gains and a healthier bottom line.
The appropriate dashboard of metrics can be challenging to assemble, but it’s easy to defend. To begin the process, it is important to identify the metrics that are important to the leaders you support. When you meet with those leaders, begin by understanding what metrics they are tracking, why they are important, what sub-metrics impact them, and what exactly it is that leadership is accountable for. This will provide insight into how they think about their business and how you can support them in achieving their business goals.
Once you have that information, look at their strategic objectives for the year and ask yourself these questions:
- What activities can L&D perform to impact those metrics (or sub-metrics)?
- How can L&D measure the impact, using the business leaders’ dashboard, to show L&D’s contribution?
- How can L&D negotiate how to measure the business impact with business leaders before the project begins?
- Can we mutually be accountable for the success of the program? (Success, after all, is based on access to the various subject matter experts, timelines, resources, etc., that leadership provides.)
- How can we communicate the business impact to the stakeholders and the rest of the business?