While talking to a colleague in finance about an upcoming customer golf day his company was organising, I innocently asked him what sort of return he expected to see on the investment in the event. “Oh, you can’t measure something like this,” he said. “And you don’t really need to. It’s obviously good to have so much time with our customers in a relaxed setting.”
I was struck with the contrasting angst expressed by us learning and development folks over whether we can measure the effect of what we do. If we decide we can measure the impact, what method is most valid? Then, if we choose a method we like, do the people we give the results to believe them or really care?
Do metrics matter?
Why is there such a difference in attitude towards measuring success in different sectors? Of course, metrics matter. I’ve spent so much time sweating over level 5 data to demonstrate a c.1500% ROI – it can’t have all been in vain. But the above conversation with my friend made me wonder why there’s so much hand-wringing about proving ROI in learning and development. Is it a deep-seated insecurity? Is it a reaction to being too easily dismissed as a cost code? Are we suspicious that many of our colleagues don’t believe that the majority of learning activities deliver value?
This insecurity isn’t due to a lack of technical expertise, poor instructional design or ineffective facilitation. Rather, it comes down to the extent in which learning is considered central to the achievement of key business deliverables – the extent to which it’s considered critical to business success.
L & D prosperity: delivering on business goals
Maybe that’s the first prerequisite of L&D effectiveness – whether learning is thought of as necessary to the achievement of a business outcome. If the outcome itself is critical and the delivery of it requires employees to learn and apply new capabilities, then a fairly obvious sign of learning success is whether the outcome was achieved or not. In my experience, when learning is considered a critical enabler to delivery, and delivery happens successfully, there’s usually far less pressure to wave ROI stats under the CFO’s nose.
It’s about how learning and development is positioned in an organisation and what it commits to work on. It can be quite tough, for example, to sell leadership programmes to your top team on the basis that leadership is, by definition, a good and important thing.
For learning to prosper in an organisation, it always has to be connected to a very clear business purpose. If L&D people are routinely involved in conversations about important business goals, and they focus their energies on demonstrably helping the business achieve those goals, then we’ve found our place in the value chain. As long as we continue to deliver, we can be a little less paranoid about proving our worth with ROI stats.