Recent research underscores what learning executives have known for decades - effective communication between learning leaders and executives in the C-suite is difficult to achieve. Even in the most visionary organizations that have complete executive buy-in, engagement, and a considerable budget for training and development, language about learning does not always translate to language about business and the greater enterprise.
The research, conducted by Expertus in collaboration with TrainingIndustry.com, found that training leaders often struggle with how to determine and communicate critical business metrics that demonstrate training effectiveness and success to senior management.
Respondents indicated that training leaders often struggle to use business outcome-based metrics to communicate with senior management about the impact and efficiency of their operations. Only 23 percent of the respondents indicated they used these types of business metrics, while the majority (62 percent) used learning-focused metrics such as Kirkpatrick's Levels 1 through 3 and volume-based metrics on the amount of training delivered or learners participating.
Speaking about training volume and learning metrics to the C-suite is similar to ordering your dinner in English while sitting in a caf in Paris.
Bridging the gap is possible, but the burden of translation rests on the shoulders of learning leaders. Unfortunately, "fill rates" (how full a class is) and "hours of training" are almost never the terms that bring management to their feet. These are "busy-ness" metrics that have no bearing on the success of the enterprise. Instead, key phrases such as "increased sales," "reduced costs," "improved productivity," or "increased customer satisfaction" are terms that will hit home with C-level executives concerned about the performance of the enterprise.
The secret to learning leaders communicating with the C-suite resides in identifying metrics that align with the business goals and succinctly delivering them in a format that reflects the C-level view of the enterprise and concern about the future.
Purposeful learning pursuits
Training and learning has come a long way over the years, evolving from a "nice-to-have" to "a must-have." Today, learning organizations are becoming cornerstones of successful enterprises that recognize that their most significant asset is their people. Senior management has come to accept that if managed properly, learning organizations can accelerate enterprise growth, reduce risk, and advance organizations in the knowledge-based economy. These are facts that learning leaders have believed for a long time, but have been unable to prove.
In my opinion, a training or learning department should exist for only three reasons:
- to increase top-line revenues
- to heighten productivity and therefore reduce costs
- to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when looking to translate learning activity into enterprise results, whether you are a C-level executive or the leader of a training organization.
Metrics, metrics, metrics
Learning departments are often blamed when a group isn't measuring up to expectations, because it appears as though the group were not trained properly. Conversely, learning departments often complain about metrics around what knowledge gaps need to be filled. Without baseline data, it's difficult to fix this training problem. Let's take an example:
In Company XYZ, the call center has been underperforming. Employees have been unable to take calls quickly enough, and a large percentage of calls have necessitated a supervisor's involvement. The director of the call center went to the executive team to complain about the poor training that the call center's employees received.
After the executive team briefs the training leader about the complaints, it seems evident that the learning program needs to be enhanced. As a result, the training organization immediately begins to revamp the whole program: bolstering courses, adding instructor-led courses, and reallocating the budget. However, the call center issues are still the same 14 months later. Now what?
There were no metrics determined to measure the issue. Therefore, there was no strong basis for the solution. It became an expensive endeavor on blind knowledge that "something" wasn't working.
The key here is to have solid metrics defining the problems to have meaningful metrics for solutions.
Learning leaders need to get to the root of the problem and build a business case for a well thought-out strategic solution to a well-defined, documented, and understood problem.
The C-suite, business head, and learning leaders need to agree on the problems and build metrics in which the solutions can be measured. This requires strategic alignment and communication about metrics so the problem and solution can be accurately assessed.
Once problems are resolved and results (such as retained customers, increased sales, or shorter time to productivity for new hires) can be documented and shared, only then have learning leaders demonstrated value to the enterprise. The difficulty in this approach is that learning professionals want to measure the effects on individuals (microresults), and the C-suite wants to measure the bearing on the enterprise (macroresults).
Save money and make money
The most successful learning leaders operate more like a profit center than a cost center, whether or not they actually bring in any direct revenue. This means approaching each decision as an investment - a business decision with a measured, quantifiable return in top-line revenue; productivity; or satisfaction and loyalty.
It's a fact that effective training programs with sales teams, resellers, and channel partners can drive increased top-line revenue. Be creative with ways to educate these critical constituencies and turn the learning department into a meaningful, effective part of the business.
If every dollar you invest in training the internal salesforce and the channel partners, for example, can be linked to an incremental $3 of product or service revenue, then the enterprise will notice and care about the learning organization. Often, it probably won't be a direct cause-and-effect link, but a correlation between training and top-line revenue growth can be demonstrated with minimal effort.
Scalability is equally important because it extends the reach and reduces the costs associated with learning. Learning leaders need to select appropriate deployment methods proven to be an effective way to manage costs. By critically selecting from instructor-led courses, webinars, e-learning, and other channels, the "investment decisions" will pay off.
Formalize the Informal
The key to the learning business is investing dollars and manpower wisely. Learning leaders need to take the time to look at the organization's business objectives and decide which metrics are effective.
While learning management systems can be excellent at tracking some course (formal) metrics, approximately 80 percent of what an employee does to learn about his job is informal learning. Employees execute quick research (for example, via a Google search or an internal learning database), find the appropriate information, and go back to work. For the first time in decades, informal learning is taking a central role in organizations, and both the C-suite and learning leaders need to embrace new ways of sharing information and knowledge and measure them more effectively.
In August 2007, Forrester Research analyst Claire Schooley (with Kyle McNabb and Shelby Semmes) released research indicating that "informal learning continues to gain ground in the corporate training environment as instant messaging (IM), blogs, communities of practice, and expertise location find homes in lines of business. Today's workers enter the workforce expecting access to the same kind of tools they use in their personal life to help them do work. But there's a disconnect: most organizations still spend the majority of their training dollars on formal learning even though most employees now learn primarily through informal activities."
There are a variety of new tools that have the capacity to measure informal learning - on-demand video deployment tools, "audio over slides" presentations, on-demand webinars, searchable white papers, wikis, blogs, communities of practice infrastructures, and other implements. Thanks to these new measurement tools, we have access to metrics such as number of downloads, page views, and click-throughs.
The added benefit of informal learning techniques is that companies have lower costs and a scalable business solution that yields tremendous returns. T+D