The ROI of Learning

Don’t make me laugh.

The COUNTLESS conversations I have had about the ROI of learning. *bangs head against wall*

“The C-suite need to know.”

“If we can’t measure it, how will we know it was a success?”

“Yes, the idea has merit, but does that equate to bums on seats?”

And yet it keeps coming up.

I keep having it, and you know what? I’ve had enough. Enough of trying to articulate the ROI or the ROE of learning.

What was the ROI of your life when it was the last moments and you were on your deathbed? Asked no-one. Ever.

It takes money and investment to learn and develop. Yes, yes it does sadly. Mostly because education demands that people are taught the right skills and given the right tools so they discover things for themselves. So education becomes a commodity just like everything else on the stock exchange.

It frustrates the living hell out of me that even the number crunchers, who would have had the full benefit of a learning and development experience either through formal education, or through other methods, will question investing in people’s development. And what does it come down to?

Ego. That’s what it comes down to.

I know something you don’t, and I can leverage that knowledge to exert power over you.

Fear. That’s something no-one will ever admit to.

I’m afraid that if you learn and develop, you will be more successful than me.

Command and control. Because that’s what I can exert.

If I start to trust you and allow you a free path, it could lead anywhere, and I’m not ready for that.

It is the bane of my professional existence.

I do not discount that the conversation still needs to happen, and it will need to for a good many year in the future. I don’t discount that there are L&Ders out there who will be fighting tooth and nail to save budget where they can, and to walk cap in hand to the C-Suite for expenditure. I certainly don’t discount that being frustrated to the hilt with having to convince a normal sane human being that L&D is in itself an oxymoron.

Stand up, dear L&Der and be counted. Hitting that sweet spot of becoming a learning organisation is hard work. It means having to move beyond the confines of the role and being inter-woven with the organisation you’re serving.

You want to know how to do this? I don’t offer a ten point list of things you should do.

Instead I offer something better. Talk to these people about what they do, day in day out, to make their organisations learning organisations:

Andrew Jacobs

Flora Marriott

Andy Lancaster

Niall Gavin

Rob Jones

I know these people, and they give me the confidence that there is a better way to be. There is a better way to help our people, and there is a better way to make the argument work in your favour. Most of that list blog, all have Twitter accounts, and they’re all smart people.

You want the ROI of learning? Talk to them.

You want to stab yourself in the eye with a blunt baseball bat and go blue in the face with screaming? Go read another article about how the ROI of learning will lead you to the C-Suite.

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

9 thoughts on “The ROI of Learning”

  1. I feel your frustration, Sukh, but disagree with your solution. When you said “Talk to these people about what they do, day in day out, to make their organisations learning organisations,” I thought you meant the people in *your* organization, not outsiders. As good as Andrew Jacobs, et.al, are (and I agree they are very much worth following), they are our echo chamber. The conversations you should be having are the people in your own organization, outside of your profession, who show positive L&D characteristics: sharing, collaborating, learning together, taking learning initiatives, networking, etc. By championing these people, by using their examples as best practices, you gain credibility for promoting learning.

    Similarly with the discussion about ROI. It’s not the discussion itself that is worthwhile; it’s simply the fact that you recognize that learning requires valuable investment. If you’re not speaking the business language of your internal client, you’re not reaching them. And far too many of our colleagues live in their own self-defined world where they any investment in learning, not matter how large, isn’t enough and think money grows on trees. This builds resentment with hardcore business people who are required to fight for every cent they receive and justify every cent they expend. It’s not for nothing that I see many of my colleagues succeeding in fields where their client executives are accustomed to dealing with ethereal concepts (such as banking and finance) and failing in fields where they have to deal with hard, tangible business realities (industries such as construction and manufacturing).

    By sending the clear message that you realize your clients’ time is not only valuable and precious, but also that you’re doing your best to optimize their use of it, your chances of succeeding are far greater. Don’t try to prove ROI. Instead, emphasize business relevance by being a part of their conversation.

  2. First of all Sukh a big congratulations. First person I have seen in ages who has decided to address the elephant in the room – head to head. You have challenged the L&D profession on a subject matter dear to my heart and I totally 100% agree with you. I never do and never will do ROI for any training initiative.

    Its a FAD – always has been and unfortunately again I think it is a vendor / academic created concept that certain sectors of the L&D profession have swallowed without much scrutiny.

    You have made my day and I would also say you have gone a long way in making my year. Well done buddy.

  3. May I quote the head of OD from Tate Museums “sometimes we look back from a distance and see what worked. This doesn’t fit with the financial need to measure, predict and control”

  4. I agree with many of the sentiments of Leo and may repeat some of them. I too feel the frustration. Particularly when people ask me how I measure the ROI of social learning? I feel like responding “how do you measure the ROI of your friendships within work and outside of work, leisure time, marriages, having children etc? ” They cost us money, sure. But they give us much value and reward – it’s just not that tangible.

    I do however think that creating business relevance is extremely important for learning initiatives. Now this doesn’t necessarily need to be a quantitative amount but could come in the form of telling stories about how that learning has helped people think, feel and do differently in their day to day jobs. I think that considering what you want to see happen differently way up front is also important. Learning implies that someone will translate what they have gained in knowledge into action. What should you see to know that learning has occurred? Otherwise how do you know if you’ve achieved a successful learning outcome? Is that not your ROI?

    1. Hi Amanda,

      Thank you for the kinds words. I wanted to let you know that your post here has helped me enormously this morning. I had a training yesterday with an important client that didn’t go well at all. Fortunately our relationship is good enough that we’re going to look at it together to see what can be done better. I was struggling where to start with my counterproposal, but reading your post really clarified for me what’s most important:
      – Show clearly what behavior needs to change (what’s the problem?)
      – Demonstrate what the desired behavior is (begin with the end in mind)
      – Define what actions are necessary to prove learning
      These are perhaps obvious things, and things we do every time we design a training, but for some reason your words really struck a chord with me this morning. Thank you!

  5. Sukh,

    I am a big believer in evaluation of learning programs, both in financial and non-financial terms, not necessarily because the C-suite need to know, but because I want to know. I want to know that the money that we spend makes a difference, both to the organisation and to the individual participants, and if it doesn’t I want to know why. I am an enormous fan of Robert Brinkerhoff’s thinking in this regard, in particular his impact maps and success case evaluation model.
    Organisations do not have endless buckets of money to spend on L&D and there are always other parts of the business and other priorities which need to be competed with, good solid evaluation in both financial and non-financial terms helps people to see and understand the true value of learning programs.

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