5 Steps to Drive Value from Learning Functions

May 16, 2019

5 Steps to Drive Value from Learning Functions

We are all familiar with the concept of organizations that learn and act on what they learn are more successful. But many businesses have failed to capitalize on their learning investment.

It is little wonder then that many senior leaders see learning as a cost center and not as a driver of their business’s success. Too often they struggle with the question: “How does my investment in learning contribute to the business’s performance?“ Establishing metrics around return on investment are crucial, but so too is control over the investment. 

There is also the question of who is being invested in. In a corporate world where measures of employee engagement continue to fall behind expectations, the opportunity to use learning—a key driver of engagement and retention—as a strategic asset is often overlooked. In too many organizations formal learning is only offered to specific groups such as new hires, high potentials, senior managers, and leaders. However, the benefits of being a learning organisation relies on engaging everyone in the organisation. 

Here are five steps that represent key activities along that path to aligning learning and development (L&D) investments with the real needs of the business.

Step 1: Identify your Key Business Drivers
In considering learning, we have to ask how it will contribute to the organization’s success. What changes in practices, behaviors, or application will it bring about?

We can begin to answer this question be exploring what drives success in the business. This could be defined as anything from internal drivers like operational efficiency, organizational culture and innovation, to external drivers such as client engagement, sales, and operational effectiveness. What is critical is that an organization’s key business drivers embody what the business needs to succeed in the near-term. The list should be short, specific, and measurable. 

The first step to managing your learning investment is aligning it to these business drivers. 

Step 2: Articulate Necessary Capabilities
The next step is defining what supporting organizational capabilities are needed to enable and support each driver. Capabilities represent an organization’s ability to achieve something. While some capabilities may be defined by integrating a new tool or developing a process, capabilities will normally require some degree of people development. For example, if Company A’s business driver is customer satisfaction, a supporting capability may be providing mission-centered, focused customer support and service. 

Identifying desired organizational capabilities helps bridge the gap between strategic business drivers and the specific skills necessary for individuals and teams to perform and impact those drivers. L&D has a pivotal and strategic role to play in addressing and closing the capability gaps your analysis reveals.

Step 3: Link Capabilities to Skills
Developing and enhancing workforce skills is at the core of what L&D should do. Too often the majority of limited L&D resources are dedicated primarily to onboarding, compliance training, and other “check-the-box” exercises. Taking a broader, but more critical view of the role of learning within your organization presents an opportunity to see beyond these important, but somewhat limited, goals for learning. 

The first step for involving L&D is having capabilities predefined. These can then typically be broken down into a discrete set of skills, either technical or behavioral. Technical skills are what support operational execution and behavioral skills are what provide the basis for an effective operating culture. Once these skills are established, it comes down to defining what people need to be able to do now

This enables L&D to translate the targeted skills into concretely defined learning or performance outcomes. Put simply, what are the skills or knowledge to be applied in the workplace now, by whom, and to what end?

Step 4: Democratize Learning in your Organization
The more learning that can be opened up to a greater number, the greater the impact the learning can make. However, we must attend to the cost. We can control costs by defining the training more precisely and pragmatically. This means professional learning that is designed to provide the skills and knowledge that are needed now and in a form or medium that is easy to access, practical, and cost-effective. Short burst learning delivered online, self-study, reflective journaling, on-the-job assignments, and mentoring can keep costs down while offering learning opportunities to all. They also can be delivered and managed at scale with progress and impact monitored.

Step 5: Measure Return on Investment
At the core of learning governance is managing the learning investment. Historically, L&D has focused on measuring the acquisition of knowledge associated with training via assessments. To quantify return on investment, we have to evolve this paradigm beyond the measurement of learning to the measurement of how that learning is transferred into the workplace. 

This requires collaboration. Every functional area within the organization should engage in measuring key indicators of performance such as quality, throughput, or efficiency. Likewise, L&D should strive to tap into those functional metrics, establishing which metrics will be influenced by specific training activities. First, this activity allows L&D to validate that they are pursuing the right learning outcomes, and adjust or improve if necessary. Second, it enables L&D to directly measure the impact training has on functional metrics and more broadly, quantify the effectiveness of learning for return on investment. 

A true learning organization is a powerful entity. It has the ability to adapt to its environment, not only to respond to the actions of its competitors, but often anticipate—to lead rather than follow the market. Its people are more highly engaged, enjoy better work-life balance, and contribute the discretionary effort that makes a good business great. Such organisations are more resilient in the face of setback and disappointment. 

In order to reap these benefits, we need to transform learning function from being viewed as cost centers to an active driver of commercial and organizational value. Providing senior leaders with the ability to manage the learning investment and opening up learning to as wide a group as possible is an excellent start.

The Authors: 

Matt Flynn is Executive Director for Instructional Strategies at Kaplan Professional Education.