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Dani Johnson

RedThread Research

Cofounder, Principal Analyst

Read more about Dani Johnson

Having learning impact, not just showing it


One of the most common questions we get from companies we advise is, “How can our learning function show impact?” But the more useful question for them to ask would be “How can learning functions actually have impact?”

The enduring nature of the question indicates that learning functions feel pressure to tie learning to the business, using numbers. And a lot hinges on getting the answer right – not least L&D reputation and budgets.

And it’s even more complicated nowadays. Different types of learning methods, an emphasis on skills that aren’t easily measured, new tools that encourage employees to dip in and out of content at will, and a general recognition that learning also happens as a natural part of work have made quantifying learning impact even more difficult.

Unfortunately, many L&D functions have failed to adapt their measurement and evaluation methods to accommodate these changes. Traditional mindsets of measuring learning impact hinder the organisation – not just the L&D function – the organisation. As it turns out, how and what you measure matters.

Early findings from our Learning Impact research study identify three things that may be keeping companies from effectively rethinking their learning measurement strategies.

Learning happens everywhere – but we tend to just measure courses

Almost all organisations (and every single learning measurement model we could find) use the course or the initiative as the unit of analysis. Employers measure everything from what the course costs to how well people liked it to its ROI and perceived impact on the business.

Focusing largely on courses or L&D initiatives shortchanges the organisation because it doesn’t account for all the ways that employee development happens. This keeps companies from enabling key activities outside of their direct control that could vastly increase the effectiveness of the workforce.

What to do:

Employers should be looking more broadly at the conditions within their organisation that affect employees’ ability to develop. L&D functions should be enabling employees to:

  1. Plan their development for their current role and their future career goals

  2. Discover the types of content and activities that will help them reach their goals

  3. Consume and access relevant content easily

  4. Experiment with new knowledge and skills on the job

  5. Connect with others who can help them learn and grow

  6. Perform better while learning on the job

Currently, most organisations focus on metrics specifically related to the ‘consume’ responsibility – course completions, assessments, etc. However, when L&D functions focus more broadly, they look for metrics that can help them understand how the conditions can be adjusted to encourage the right types of development and help the company meet its goals.

Information is often not shared with those who could best use it

Back in the early days of the efficiency movement, Frederick Taylor (in his book ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’) established training as one of the most important things organisations could do to improve worker efficiency.

Until fairly recently, organisations have been built with a focus on efficiency, and L&D has been designed to serve that focus: efficiently teaching employees to do the same tasks in the same ways in the hope of realising productivity gains.

As an industry, we’re beginning to acknowledge that learning happens continuously – and measurement and evaluation should mirror that.

However, most businesses tell us that innovation and agility are increasingly important in their competitive environments. Neither agility nor innovation are inherently ‘efficient’, which means that L&D’s focus on developing an efficient workforce is disconnected from the workforce that organisations now need.

In a world where the half-life of a workplace skill is between 2.5 and 5 years (according to  Salim Ismail and Michael S. Malone in their book on ‘Exponential Organizations’), employees must adapt to changing market conditions, often acquiring skills that the L&D function isn’t aware of yet.

However, until fairly recently, employees have had little actual information about their own development – as most businesses opt to keep that information at the manager level or above.

What to do:

Advances in both technology and data analytics makes it possible for organisations to better help individuals understand how they’re performing, what skills they have, where those skills can take them, and how their performance is affecting the company. Sharing this information with employees helps them to make better decisions about how and what they learn.

Employers should take stock of how much information they are sharing with employees, either manually or through their systems, and increase it as much as possible. By pushing information down to the employee level, organisations are enabling their people to take control of their development and gain skills that will help to meet business goals.

Learning is a continuous process – but we only measure part of it

Our research indicates that many L&D leaders have a tendency to think of measurement and evaluation as something that happens at the end of an initiative. This makes sense if an initiative actually has an end; however, as an industry, we’re beginning to acknowledge that learning happens continuously – and measurement and evaluation should mirror that.

What to do:

Businesses should recognise that while they don’t have complete control over all learning they can affect the conditions for learning, and the effectiveness of those conditions can be evaluated and monitored.

Instead of looking for ‘proof’ that employees have ‘learned’, they should look for correlations between the development activities of their employees and business results.

To do this, employers should also reevaluate their measurement processes and their metrics. They will likely be considering and monitoring metrics that are not readily available in the LMS.

Measuring the impact of employee development isn’t easy. And frankly, it’s getting harder. But it’s also getting more important.

Traditional learning metrics are joined with business and other people metrics, activity metrics and other latent information in the organisation to give a more complete picture of how people are developing and what effect that has on business goals.

Dashboards and access to continuous data feeds also become more practical than static reports. Dashboards make it easier to see trends and take action than monthly or quarterly reports, and can more easily integrate additional data sources to add even more insight.

Continuously monitoring employee development offers two key benefits for companies. First, it allows organisations to continuously tweak and adjust the conditions to ensure that what they offer is effective and aligned with the desired business outcomes. Second, since more data is being collected, it provides organisations with much richer and more useful information about their workforce and their skills.

Learning analytics: hard, but critical

Measuring the impact of employee development isn’t easy. And frankly, it’s getting harder. But it’s also getting more important.

As L&D functions identify and enable the myriad ways employees develop, they also have the opportunity to monitor them in a way that will better help organisations meet their goals.

Author Profile Picture
Dani Johnson

Cofounder, Principal Analyst

Read more from Dani Johnson

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