Linking Learning to Improved Performance

For too many companies, there is little to no connection between learning to performance outcomes, let alone business goals.

For too many organizations, the intended outcome of learning is the learning itself. Companies are only concerned with how many programs they can deliver, how many people they can get through them, and how quickly.

There is little or no connection to performance outcomes, let alone the business’s overall goals. It becomes a vicious cycle where learning isn’t linked to outcomes because there is no mechanism to measure it, and outcomes are not measured because there is no link to the learning. The entire process happens in a vacuum where the impact on the business is incidental at best.

Connecting the Links

The biggest pushback against measuring learning based on its impact on the business is that too many other variables contribute to those outcomes. But this is really an admission that no link was established between the learning program and the business’s requirements to succeed. It is challenging because the distance between an outcome such as “increased revenue” and a learning program appears to be so vast that there is no way to connect them. But several closer links can be made to complete the chain.

Still, companies struggle with even these closer connections. For instance, before you get to the specific outcomes of a learning program, first, there are talent development objectives or the development of specific competencies and skills. Then there are the learning performance outcomes or what learners should be able to demonstrate to show they have mastered the competency or skill targeted by the learning. Unfortunately, in many cases, these links are weak or nonexistent.

To what degree are the following linked together? (4 or 5 on a 5-point scale)  
Business objectives to talent development objectives 38%
Talent objectives to learning performance outcomes 32%
Learning performance outcomes to learning objectives 45%

Brandon Hall Group, Learning and Performance Study

Achieving Critical Learning Outcomes

A lack of alignment makes it impossible to connect the dots between learning and business outcomes. This leaves learning leaders armed with nothing more than completion reports and smile sheets to demonstrate the effectiveness of learning programs. While this data can be important, it does not help make a case for further investment in learning. An inability to measure learning’s impact hurts learning’s ability to have an impact. If learning leaders don’t know what is working and what isn’t, they can’t adjust the learning strategy to build on success and rectify failures.

Which of the following are challenges to achieving critical learning outcomes?    
Inability to measure learning’s impact. 70%  
Lack of alignment between learning and outcomes. 54%  

Brandon Hall Group, Learning Strategy Study

Brandon Hall Group POV

If organizations want to learn to impact the business — and demonstrate that impact — they must strongly align their learning programs with business outcomes.

  • A working understanding of the goals of the business is critical. It is not enough to ask what they are. L&D leaders must work closely with the business to determine what talent and learning objectives are required to meet business goals. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant learning program must have a business reason to exist. For example, it is not enough to deploy a program to improve communication skills simply because it is a nice thing to have. L&D must articulate the business implications of good communication and use that as an impetus for the program.
  • Organizations must better identify and define the skills and competencies required to make the business successful. This is the first stage in turning business outcomes into learning objectives. By defining mastery, the company has a target for the learning programs. A lack of specificity makes learning programs hit or miss and keeps the organization on the assumption that the programs are effective simply because they exist.
  • Quite often, organizations establish learning objectives for their programs without making the connection to talent or business objectives. Learning programs should be designed to develop or improve specific behaviors that will drive performance. It is insufficient to ensure that people took a course, passed an assessment, or liked the program. Learning initiatives should point to specific, measurable outcomes such as a demonstrable knowledge of new sales techniques, the ability to identify all features of a new product/service, and an understanding of using a new software platform.
  • If these links are established in creating learning programs, they can be used to measure whether or not the programs are effective. The process mitigates the “too many variables” problem with learning measurement. While there may be other variables, these clearly defined links make it much easier to draw a straight line from a learning program to a business outcome and establish its role in achieving them. By measuring the state of the business, talent, and performance outcomes before and after the program’s deployment, the learning’s impact becomes clear.
Claude Werder, Senior Vice President and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group
Claude Werder is senior vice president and principal Human Capital Management (HCM) analyst at Brandon Hall Group. The firm’s vision is to inspire a better workplace experience, and its mission is to empower excellence in organizations around the world through its research and tools. Brandon Hall Group has five HCM practices and produces Brandon Hall Group’s HCM Excellence Awards and the annual HCM Excellence Conference, in West Palm Beach, FL.