Spring 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Translating Learning for the Business

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Communicating learning metrics and impact to the business takes a different approach.

Lately there has been much talk in the talent development industry about the business of learning, getting aligned with the business, and business metrics. However, many organizations still struggle in this area, and to a large degree, we as an industry are still just talking. It's high time that we turn that talk into action.


To instill confidence that the learning organization has the capacity and desire to be a legitimate business partner, talent development professionals must make a concerted effort to speak the language of the business. In addition, we should strive to show the value of talent development in recognizable ways that resonate with business leaders, starting with a focus on bottom-line impact. Our industry often stumbles at this effort.

At worst, learning leaders talk only about learning-centric metrics and impact. At best, learning leaders tend to get hung up on minutiae and precision calculations. Meanwhile, their business counterparts are making educated assumptions, claiming credit, and moving on to their next initiative.

The right language

Speaking in generalities, learning leaders tend not to be as conversant in business principles, and they lack the degree of business acumen found in other areas of the enterprise. And it results in a recursive loop—learning professionals end up spending much of their time talking with other learning professionals. It's an insularity that can cause them to lose perspective on the reason our industry exists in the first place: to support the business's goals and objectives.

How can learning leaders communicate successes the way most everyone else in the business world does? First, as a general rule, think in terms of dollar amounts and other tangible data that affect the company. Claims of employee or customer satisfaction are important—and they needn't be thrown in the trash heap—but they are secondary measures that exist to provide color and contextual support. They're background information, not the main story.

Likewise, play down the use of learning-focused key performance indicators, such as e-learning hours provided, average test score, or training deliverables created. Learning KPIs can offer insight into the efficiency and effectiveness of talent development initiatives, but business stakeholders frankly don't care about them.

"We need to wipe out the learning language," says Peggy Parskey, assistant director for the Center for Talent Reporting, a nonprofit organization committed to standardizing human capital metrics. "Businesspeople don't care what Level 1 evaluations are. They really don't care. They're speaking German and we're speaking French, and we expect them to speak French, but we shouldn't. It should not be important that they learn our language. Ultimately, what matters is whether anything we're doing in learning is having a business impact. That, they care about."

Keep in mind that when we're talking about the language of business, we're also talking about the language of a given industry—that is, the jargon. Before you can begin to address the performance needs of workers, you must possess a fundamental understanding of the business so you can effectively serve a consultative role in identifying performance gaps and appropriate solutions. Every talent development initiative must be tied to enterprise objectives, and learning leaders must be able to clearly and directly articulate how various activities fit into that broader strategy.

"Learning leaders should spend time really understanding the business that they're in," Parskey says. "It doesn't matter whether they're working for an insurance company or a retailer or whatever industry it is, they must try to spend quality time watching what people actually do in their day-to-day work to see what it's like firsthand. There's insufficient time spent dedicated to learning the business—the vernacular they use, the metrics they care about, their day-to-day challenges—from a business standpoint, and really incorporating it into the learning."

Make the case

Once talent development professionals gain that foundational understanding of the business they're supporting, they're now equipped to make the business case for the performance solution—including how it will achieve the end business objective, as well as its anticipated bottom-line impact—in a way that resonates with stakeholders, because it's now framed for them in a context they understand. It's delivering the output they want, in a way they can incorporate into their reports.

To change the way talent development professionals communicate with business stakeholders, they must first change their fundamental approach to learning initiatives and performance improvement needs. "In L&D, we're taught to start with the learning objectives—after the training, they'll learn this and this and this," explains Rich Burton, Microsoft's L&D manager for college hires. "But really, we should start with business objectives first, before diving in on the learning objectives. This is not easy—trying to break business objectives down into learning objectives—and a lot of people just don't even try because it can be challenging. But we have to do it."

Pinpoint the correlation

Talent development metrics often fail to map back to business outcomes. In a business-support setting, it's hard to tie training back to any one source. Moreover, it's easy to point out when training has a negative impact or fails to achieve its goals, but it can be challenging for learning to get the credit when things go right because so many factors go into it.

At Microsoft, before undertaking a training initiative, the talent development team takes pains to clearly delineate the program's processes and the relevant baseline metrics. When those metrics ultimately show growth, the evidence of talent development's impact is clear as day. "By setting the expectations on the front end, it helps legitimize our success on the back end," Burton says.

Change comes from believing in correlation and seeing the benefits within correlated data. Talent development professionals must partner with the business and proactively earn their buy-in. Identify the metrics that you're aiming to move as a result of the training initiative, and have a plan to show that correlation. Do this before the training starts to avoid being accused of taking credit after the fact—or worse, unfairly.

When making projections of learning's impact, start by answering these five questions:


What is the intended business outcome? Remember to frame the answer around tangible business metrics in the words your organization uses to describe these—percent increase in sales, percent reduction in average handling time for a particular type of customer call, percent reduction in error rate.

What is the behavioral change required to achieve that outcome? This can be stated qualitatively, but much like a solid learning objective, it should be identifiable—improved ability to overcome objections, increased efficiency in working through common issue types, elimination of common mistakes.

What are the metrics that relate to that change in behavior? This is where we turn that qualitative aim into something measurable—close ratio, average handling time, error rate.

What data are needed to finish the calculation? That is, what are the measurements that can prove or disprove the end goal—size of average sale, employee loaded cost, cost of error?

How much did we invest in the talent development initiative? Our total investment will include the costs of developing the materials as well as the time learners spent in the session. This latter figure is generally most important to your stakeholders because this speaks to their "opportunity cost," especially because the training cost might not be coming from their profit/loss statement.

The truth is, there is no universal learning-to-business translation because every business is different and cares about different factors. As such, KPIs and relevant business metrics will differ based on organizational objectives and industry jargon. Communicating more effectively with business leaders starts with acquiring a nuanced understanding of the business itself. What are the practical, functional challenges facing the business and its stakeholders? Who are the customers, and how is the business solving their needs—or not?

Examine the performance system from all angles because failure to consider the underlying causes of performance issues could result in misidentifying the proper solution, let alone adequately measuring its effectiveness and ultimately earning the credit for creating business impact.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Gary Schafer is president of Caveo Learning, a consulting firm that delivers ROI-focused strategic learning and performance solutions to Fortune 1000 organizations in a wide range of industries. He was formerly a management consultant at McKinsey & Co., and he holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

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