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Measuring return on investment from learning and development is one of the biggest challenges faced by Learning and Development teams. There is an increasing focus on justifying the Return on Investment from development programmes, particularly those which involve significant delivery costs or time away from work. 

We all know about the 4-level Kirkpatrick model. Most organisations are pretty good at capturing the response from learners (Level 1) and testing the learning that has been achieved from the programme (Level 2). But it can be hard to get an objective view of the impact of a development programme on the level of competence that’s displayed back in the workplace (Level 3) or business performance against Key Performance Indicators (Level 4).

The situation is made more difficult by the fact that there is rarely a straight line correlation between improvements in competency and business performance as so many other factors get in the way.

So where can we start?

At cda we think that there are three important actions that organisations can take to dramatically improve the Return on Investment from their learning and development programmes. 

First of all – confirm that learning and development really is the best solution

Sometimes quick assumptions are made at the beginning of a project about the best solution to meet a business requirement. It’s worth challenging and analysing the business requirement at this stage to establish if a development programme really is the best way forward.

We use our ‘Performance Based Solutions’ tool to help our clients validate the development need and plan the best solution. This involves working through a 4-step process to confirm the purpose of the learning intervention, carry out a ‘gap analysis’ against how things are now and root cause the gaps.

It’s sometimes the case that a perceived development need is actually a requirement for a programme of internal communication. The proposed training and development may not be focused where it will make the greatest difference, or changes to other aspects of the working environment (such as processes or systems) may need to be in place before the development can be successful.

Next – establish key metrics to allow you to quantify the impact of the learning and development

Working through this process will validate the business requirement and the need for a learning and development solution. You will also start to identify the metrics that can be used to measure the impact of the learning and development. 

Ideally these metrics will focus on both performance inputs, such as improvements in individual competency, and performance outputs, such as improved performance against important Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As a minimum it should be possible to track improvements in the competence demonstrated at work using 360 feedback or other survey techniques.

Our 360 feedback tool (®cdafeedback) gathers information on demonstrated competence and individual performance against KPIs. It has an automatic re-survey function which reruns the 360 appraisal process and produces a report which highlights changes over the period before and after the training and development intervention, providing an easy and effective way to track its impact.

For some roles, for example senior leaders or jobs which are measured against individual targets (such as sales roles), finding useful KPIs may be straightforward. For other roles it may be much harder to identify individual KPIs. In this situation some of our clients have measured the impact of learning and development by comparing shifts in competency and performance between two business units, one of which received the training and development and one of which did not.

Finally – sort out the disconnect between the development and the working environment

We all recognise the situation. The training and development was great and got rave reviews from delegates. They were full of enthusiasm and plans to put their learning into action, but then nothing happened.

This disconnect usually reflects the wider culture and capability of the organisation. The new ways of working promoted by the development programme may be in conflict with established processes, metrics or attitudes. Individual line managers may not support the learner to implement new skills back in the workplace. Incentive schemes may be in direct conflict with the objectives of the development programme. Systems or processes may make it difficult to implement the new way of working.

This interplay with factors such as the organisation’s culture, working style or levels of management competence may mean that learning and development alone cannot deliver significant improvements in performance. In this situation it may be better to invest in other areas, such as management capability, improvements to key processes or a broader culture change programme.

As part of the early work on the programme, it’s important to consider the impact of the organisational context and identify the wider support that needs to be in place to make the development programme a success. As a minimum, work is nearly always required to engage line managers so that they can support learners to implement new skills or ways of working.

So overall…

  • Start work on the design of a new development programme by confirming that a training and development programme really is the best way to deliver the planned business benefits. Make sure you have a clear view of the objectives of the programme and the improvements it is being expected to deliver. Be prepared to be flexible and look at other ways of achieving the planned business benefits if training and development isn’t the right solution, or the right place to start.
  • Right at the beginning take the time to agree the metrics that you will use to measure the success of the development programme. As well as the things that can be measured during the programme (such as learner feedback and competence levels) work out how you will track the impact on the competence demonstrated by the learners when they get back to work and their performance against business KPIs. Consider using a 360 feedback tool such as cdafeedback to track changes in the competence and performance of the learners going through the programme.
  • Finally – a single development intervention is rarely enough! Carry out some work to understand the ‘disconnect’ between the development programme and the workplace. What are the blockers which must be addressed if the development is to deliver the planned uplifts in performance? Work out the changes that need to be in place to close the ‘disconnect’ and plan them in as part of the programme.
Measuring ROI diagram