ATD Blog

Creating Business Value Through Learning Innovation

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Value is less about what is done and more about the impact of what is done. Individuals build on their strengths to strengthen others; leaders’ real power is about empowering others; and organizational culture is less about internal values and more about how they deliver value to others.

As such, an organization’s learning agenda is less about what is taught and more about the impact of what is taught. In today’s volatile, changing, uncertain business world, learning matters more than ever. The outcome of learning is to access ideas with impact, to discover innovative and fresh approaches to emerging opportunities, and to ensure that change happens.

In the following figure, which cell is the best to be in? Obviously, cell 1 (we do the right thing well); but which is the worst? Not so obvious—but it is cell 2. We do the wrong thing well. In a world of rapid change, the right thing can quickly become the wrong thing, but if we do it well, we want to continue to do it regardless. This is why learning matters so much. It keeps us doing the right things, well!

Figure 1: What We Do (right or wrong thing) and How Well We Do It (well or poorly)

What we do
Right thing Wrong thing
How well we do it Well 1 2
Poorly 3


So how does a learning agenda keep organizations and individuals on track? We think learning has to respond to three questions:

1. Why do investments in learning create more value?
2. What are some of the emerging learning investments?
3. How can learning be more effective?

The answers to these three questions highlight 10 ways that learning that delivers value to those who participate in learning events, business organizations that sponsor learning, customers who seek new and innovative products and services, and investors who seek higher returns for their investment.

Why do investments in learning create more value?


1. They help us understand the emerging context of work. Learning does not occur in a vacuum. The business context requires learning about the social, technical, economic, political, environmental, and demographic trends that shape business. Appreciating and anticipating these trends enables a response to them. These trends set the stage for any learning event.

2. They make us recognize what value creation means, and lead us to see learning as a source of organizational value. Learning is not about what is taught, but rather the value it creates for those who are taught. L&D professionals should carefully identify the key stakeholders of learning (participants, organizations, customers, investors) and tailor learning experiences to deliver value to those stakeholders. For each learning experience (teaching module, coaching, job assignment), we ask L&D specialists to ask “so that”—which links the activity to the value it creates.

What are some of the emerging learning investments?

3. Changes are occurring in where learning occurs. We have found that 50 percent of learning occurs through on-the-job experience (job assignments, projects, coaching, mentoring); 30 percent occurs through education experiences where participants are guests of the learning, not tourists; and 20 percent occurs through experiences outside of work (parenting, volunteer groups, life experience). L&D professionals can access a mix of learning settings.

4. Who attends and who teaches is an area of change as well. Who attends training determines who gets value. Formal learning experiences can be attended by the individual participant, but also a team, customers, and investors. Who delivers training impacts how it is received. Delivery may be self-taught (for instance, through technology), by experts (such as faculty), line managers, or external stakeholders (for example, customers or investors). L&D specialists who get the mix of who attends and who teaches increase learning impact.

5. Learning outcomes can be individually focused (how can I improve?) or organizationally focused (how do we improve?). We have found that organizationally focused learning (improve the culture, capabilities, or systems) has four times the impact on business results of individual focused learning (improving personal skills). L&D specialists who mix personal learning with project learning have the most impact.

6. There is an evolution of learning pedagogy from presentations to case studies of other companies, to facilitated discussions, to action learning, to learning solutions. Ultimately, learning solutions start with the challenges a learner faces and offer the learner insights on how to respond. L&D specialists need to focus less on what they know and more on what their audience needs to know to improve.

7. Transferring learning ideas across a boundary (from classroom to workplace) is always demanding. To create sustainable learning, L&D specialists need to focus on transfer of knowledge skills from one setting to another.


How can learning be more effective?

8. Leverage technology. In today’s world, technology enables learning. The trap is to not use technology as just an efficiency learning tool (for example, online learning), but to use technology to create learning communities where learners share insights and experiences. Social learning networks move beyond classroom to work settings.

9. Create accountability. L&D specialists are architects who build blueprints for learning. Line managers are the contractors who build a house and have responsibility to make learning happen. But the ultimate accountability for learning rests with the individual employee who is the resident of the house. L&D specialists should continually encourage personal agency and accountability for learning.

10. Measure learning. Without measurement, learning outcomes are dreams, not realities. The right measures are not about activity (who or how many attended), but ultimately about business impact. Learning experiences create value for others, and measures should reflect that value.

Change happens. Learning creates value by helping individuals and organizations anticipate and respond to change. By responding to the three questions (why, what, and how) with the 10 learning innovations, L&D specialists ensure that they learn as much or faster than those they work with (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Summary of 3 Questions and 10 Learning Innovations

Learning Trends Ulrich Figure 2
Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2018 Middle East Conference & Exhibition in Dubai in April. I will be sharing insights on Creating Business Value Through Learning Innovations in a Disruptive Workplace.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on the The HR Observer.

About the Author

Dave Ulrich has spoken to large audiences in 87 countries, performed workshops for over half of the Fortune 200, and coached successful business leaders. He is co-founder of the RBL Group (, a consulting firm that increases business results through leadership, organization, and human resources. He gives back to the profession and others, having served as editor of Human Resource Management for 10 years. He works as a trustee and advisor to universities and other professional groups.

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