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August 2019
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TD Magazine

Micro but Mighty

Through microlearning, L&D professionals can both reinforce and measure corporate learning ROI.

As organizations allocate more budget to corporate- and business-line-specific training programs, they expect to see a greater return on their investments—with the metrics to prove it. That is understandable. But is it possible?

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The answer is yes—but it requires you to rethink how you measure enterprise learning and link it directly to business outcomes to understand true ROI.

It's straightforward, for example, to measure a sales team's effectiveness in driving net new revenue. Or if a chief operating officer upgrades to a new enterprise software solution, she can point to cost savings made by automating manual processes. In both instances, there are clear connections between the actions and desired business outcomes.

But for leaders in charge of corporate training and L&D programs, trying to show quantitative ROI on their department's investments often presents issues. Showing hard training-to-business-outcomes metrics has always been a challenge. But understanding and quantifying the value these programs deliver has become a corporate imperative, given the huge financial outlay organizations are making on them, which is estimated to be more than $130 billion globally, according to Deloitte.

Typically, we measure learning programs by factors such as course completion, hours of learning, end-of-course testing, or qualitative feedback from learners. But none of those indicate whether learners were truly engaged throughout the program or whether they have retained the course material and can apply it in their jobs.

Learning programs aim to make employees more capable, and that needs a new measure: job proficiency. Measuring the correlation between productivity and performance by using proficiency helps L&D professionals tell their program's story by drawing straight lines from engagement to proficiency to fulfilling mission-critical organizational goals. Showing this value demonstrates how chief learning officers and their departments play a role in executing objectives to help move the company forward. That is the true measure of L&D's ROI.

But how do you do this? Microlearning technology, when built effectively, provides a platform for reinforcing knowledge and behavior change that you can measure and link to business outcomes. Because every interaction within the tech platform collects usage analytics, you can measure engagement from the beginning of the course to its completion. Plus, the testing and spacing effects incorporated within microlearning mean that the content is delivered repetitively over time, which is proven to increase learners' long-term knowledge retention. From this, you can measure proficiency insights over a continuum of time to show proficiency gains or gaps, which helps organizations make ongoing adjustments to measurably improve job performance and effectively upskill or reskill employees.

Proficiency as the new currency of corporate training

We often look at an employee's performance and productivity as success measures. Performance, of course, is the end result of an employee's efforts, while productivity measures what the individual does on an ongoing basis.

Yet, performance and productivity, viewed in isolation, don't give the whole story. Unless learning leaders can connect the impact of their investments to specific business outcomes, L&D can't demonstrate its ultimate value to the organization.

Most training program coordinators agree it's difficult to draw a direct connection between individual L&D efforts and revenue. What learning leaders can influence, however, are employees' knowledge, skills, and behaviors—or their proficiency. To do this well, L&D and training departments must align their programs to company and performance goals.

I like to refer to performance, productivity, and proficiency as the three Ps. In many ways, proficiency is the most insightful metric. After all, employees take actions—whether making calls, delivering presentations, or visiting customers—that create results. But why do some employees fair better at these tasks than others? It's because some employees respond to training in different ways, which results in a unique proficiency profile.

Measuring proficiency in necessary job-related knowledge and skills surfaces precise insights of what employees know and don't know. If learning leaders, business-unit heads, and frontline managers know the gaps, they can shape learning programs or coach to individual weaknesses to close those gaps.

Despite the logic, the metrics needed to monitor proficiency gains typically aren't readily available through learning management systems or other learning apps.

The leading indicator of learning success

Engagement, or lack thereof, in the learning process is a leading indicator of an employee's interest to participate, improve professionally, and perform at his best. Consider:

  • If the highest performers are also the most engaged learners, this shows business value.
  • If learners engage in the program, they see value in the training content and enjoy the learning experience.
  • If low performers aren't engaged at first but show improved proficiency throughout the program, there's proof they can upskill with support.
  • If new employees aren't engaged with your learning program, this could be an early warning sign of their commitment level.

Without engagement, there is no learning, so learning leaders need to track this as a key metric of learning programs.

Measuring proficiency and engagement using microlearning

Let's explore what a best-practice microlearning solution looks like and its role in driving proficiency.

Accessible and time efficient. Microlearning's beauty lies in its simplicity. It's completed in just minutes a day and within the workflow. Microlearning lessons present challenges to employees that they must answer and for which they immediately receive feedback.

Context-based. Microlearning reinforces critical thinking skills through scenario-based questions that put learners in real-world situations they'll face in their job roles. This type of company-specific training content, rather than hypothetical questions or canned content, helps learners cognitively link the training program to their daily work so they see value.

Social. Humans are competitive, and data show that game-like elements incorporated in L&D and training initiatives pay dividends. Using elements like point scoring and leaderboards make the experience a friendly competition, so organizations can foster fun, engagement, and camaraderie. Note: Don't go too gimmicky with gamification, which may undermine the program's value if employees deem it too childish.

Measurable. With one-off testing or simply measuring the activity after a course is complete, managers are only able to observe or address areas of weakness at a point in time. Remedial action can lag between course completion and coaching action that managers take after they receive the results. But continuous learning presents real-time data and analytics that enable managers to analyze and take immediate action on knowledge gaps to improve training and coaching effectiveness now—not when it's too late.

Implementing a mobile, context-based, and social microlearning solution in your L&D or training efforts is essential in securing employee buy-in and seeing engagement rates and proficiency increase.

Making use of microlearning data

Every unique microlearning program gathers thousands upon thousands of data points each time a learner responds to a question, comments, or doesn't participate. These data illustrate current knowledge and skills gaps that managers need to coach. Because microlearning is continuous, this information is constantly updated and managers are informed in real-time as to whom, what, and when to coach.

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Having these data enables managers to make an immediate impact on employee performance, because employees can put this new-found knowledge into practice the same day with the goal of forming long-term habits. Additionally, when these data are rolled up at team, business line, or group levels, learning leaders can continuously pinpoint issues that need addressing or keep employees engaged through upskilling and reskilling efforts.

For example, after managers at a large sales organization hypothesized that their sales reps were struggling to clearly differentiate their company's products from those of their competitors, the L&D department implemented a six-week microlearning program that featured questions on objection handling, competitive differentiation, messaging proficiency, and product proficiency.

A team of 160 reps answered up to three questions two to three times a week. The results show that, while the team scored highly on objection handling (85 percent) and messaging proficiency (91 percent), they struggled on questions involving competitive differentiation (53 percent) and product proficiency (62 percent).

Those results not only proved the managers' subjective view was correct but also pointed to an area of weakness: product proficiency. Although sales reps knew what they were supposed to say (messaging), they didn't understand what they were selling. This could also help explain why reps struggled when comparing their products with the competition, leading to deepening the training on their own products.

That is one example that can be extrapolated to other learning programs. It shows how microlearning helps CLOs, training leaders, and business managers shape data-driven discussions on the areas where they believe deficiencies exist and test their hypotheses, rather than simply listening to the loudest voice in the room or using subjective input. The hard data collected through microlearning improves operational efficiency by presenting information that otherwise wouldn't surface.

The immediate benefits and cost savings

Taking precise and immediate action on weaknesses discovered through collecting proficiency data can save companies ample time and money and align organizations top down.

In addition to determining areas of strength and weakness, microlearning enables managers and leaders to identify upskilling and reskilling opportunities that can empower employees. Unfulfilled employees will likely disengage, underperform, or leave for greener pastures. But if you provide them with constant training, a thoughtful growth path, and a transparent and supportive environment to learn and develop, retention rates can rise as recruiting costs decrease.

Promoting in-house hires also can save a company time and money, because the learning curve is much shorter. Current employees have likely already made headway on upskilling, and the company trusts them because of their familiarity with its business model and culture. Beyond logistics, having internal promotions motivates employees and gives them a more optimistic outlook about their long-term growth.

Plus, in an increasingly competitive landscape, offering continuous training programs through a microlearning solution is one way for organizations to show employees they care about their professional growth. According to recent research, 65 percent of employees expect training and career guidance from their employers, but 43 percent found their current training to be ineffective. By giving employees what they want—and making it fun and engaging through gamification—organizations are able to position themselves as a work environment that employees want to be a part of.

Proficiency gains are your ROI story

Proficiency metrics are L&D's and training departments' answer to the decades-long question of how to prove their department's ROI. By convincing C-level executives to focus on proficiency improvements and their impact on goals instead of only financial analysis, CLOs can better show executive management how their initiatives improve employee knowledge and affect the company's bottom line. These data strengthen your business case and

enable CLOs to show the missing link between productivity and performance, which creates a higher connection between training program's impact on business goals.

About the Author

As CEO of Qstream, Rich Lanchantin is responsible for running all facets of the business. He brings a proven management track record and more than 30 years of experience driving customer success and sales growth in the life sciences and software industries.

Prior to joining Qstream, Rich was senior director of global sales, consulting, and customer success for Abbott Diagnostics’ Informatics division, with responsibility for all commercial sales and services worldwide. Prior to that he served as global director of consulting and customer success with Thermo Fisher Scientific. Earlier career tenure includes sales leadership positions at Rational Software and Lotus Development, now part of IBM.

Rich holds a BA from Rutgers University and an MS from the University at Albany, SUNY.

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