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.

Business minded L&D

So you know how we hear lot’s in the profession about being more business minded to give ourselves value? Well, I’m onboard with that as a concept and as an ideal. It helps me to understand there are things I can and should be doing which will help me to be better at the job I do. If I choose to.

But what does it mean to be more business minded? How do you get more commercial acumen? How do you gain business acumen? As an L&Der, does this stuff actually make a difference to the job we do?

Well, it can make a big difference. It’s what sets ‘trainers’ apart from ‘L&D professionals’. To my mind, there’s a role for both in organisations.

We need trainers. That is people who are proficient (or even possible expert) in a particular skill set, and can help others learn that skill set. That’s all we need them for. They come in, deliver the training and leave. In terms of evaluation, they’re lucky if they get happy sheets completed, and a sign of success is if they’re brought back for more sessions in the future. They may call themselves consultants to feel better about their product, but titles don’t really matter in this regard. If someone comes in and delivers training, I expect a fairly high standard of delivery, mostly because I’ve helped to commission them, and so the return on expectation as well as return on investment needs to be quite high. In terms of tailoring their content to meet the needs of the training, I would fully expect this to happen, with a full consultation about how to make it relevant for the people involved.

L&D professionals need to be good trainers. Not effective, but good. I know, I know, how do you quantify good from effective. Let’s not go there today. Training is a core part of what L&Ders do. Then there’s the rest of what comes with the territory.

L&Ders have to be consultative about the organsiation itself. That is, they need to be going out there and finding out just what the different parts of the organisation do on a day to day basis. It’s one thing knowing that retail planning is all about floor space and how much rack space is optimum for different products, it’s another thing knowing why and how they’ve come up with those equations, and how does that affect brand success and thereby retail success. That meat on the bones, that’s the shit which makes things happen in organisations. It doesn’t matter if you’re in retail, professional services, manufacturing or healthcare. Getting to the core of each part of the organisation is one of the key ways to understand how the organisation becomes successful. This is one of the steps to business acumen.

Talking with the leaders is another key part in the mix. The people leading the organisation are the ones who have stories to share, and their stories are worth heeding well. In those stories are nuggets of information which provide context to a lot of what you see happening around you. The culture is like this because. The process is like this because. The success of the organisation is like this because. The leadership is like this because. It doesn’t matter which level of leadership you engage with, as long as you get a range of stories. That’s what helps you get under the skin of the organisation. Once you’re there, you’re part of the fabric. You’ve become part of the story, and whatever you do in your time will help to mould that story. Those leaders will help craft it continually, and they’re the ones to keep listening to. Doesn’t mean you have to act on everything you hear, just listen.

Get a sense of what the press, social networks and media are saying about the organisation. How is it doing? How is it perceived to be doing? How are people talking about the organisation? What’s the recruitment like? What’s the brand like? What’s the message people leave with when interacting with the organisation? This is all valuable information. It helps to craft more stories you can use to help you understand about the organisation.

Read business related material. Be this from the likes of Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, a business book, a blog, or listening to BBC Radio 4, you have to be in the know about current affairs. It’s what affects organisations daily. Understanding the strengths and pressures being faced in society can help to inform you of what your organisation might be facing. It’s not to be underestimated how savvy the people at the top are. They’re tapped into these conversations readily. You need to be to.

Those four things, they provide L&D with the basis of how to be business minded. The next step is probably the hardest. Aligning what you do to the organisations goals. From everything I’ve described above, you have the knowledge – the acumen – to be good at what you do. To then take the organisations goals and create meaningful aligned L&D goals is hard. You might think you want to create a course on Time Management, and it might be needed, but which organisational goal does it relate to? How about that leadership workshop? That e-learning provider? Those external trainers? The training budget spend? Which areas of the organisations goals can you draw a clear line of sight to for all of these things and more? Once you can do that, that’s when you’ve got it sussed. And if you’ve done that – can you share that success story with the rest of us? Cos that’s like the golden egg right there.

Other things like creativity, innovation, technology, social learning, informal learning, all become part of the mix, and can make for a highly effective L&Der. But those things come with the continued CPD every L&Der needs to be maintaining in their own way.

The end of life

This week, I’ve been writing about business acumen. About how it’s one of the hardest topics to provide training on, and there’s actually a range of things you need to have in place that enable people to develop this core business skill.

In the final piece of this, it’s worth considering what happens when people leave the business. Business success isn’t just dependent on developing the ability to make good business decisions, or just about developing that knowledge internally, or just about putting people through focused training that can increase their capacity and ability to be better at this skill. It’s also about retaining the knowledge once someone walks out that door. That person, they did something for the business. They brought with them a wealth of knowledge, experience, success and failure, that made them a part of the business. So what can be done to ensure we don’t lose that?

Let’s assume the parting is a mutual one, and not one forced by factors such as dismissal or redundancy or something else. In this case, we will know that we have period of time within which we can insert a data cable into said person’s brain and download everything they know about life. Wait, that’s a scene from Johnny Mnemonic. What do you mean you can’t take everyone’s knowledge and experience and skills when they leave?

Wait, wait, here’s what you’re doing. You’re getting them to hand over their knowledge, skills and experience through hand over notes. If you’re lucky enough to have hired a replacement you’ve got them joined at the hip until the minute they leave. One person has to interpret and make meaning from x years of experience in a matter of weeks, and decide what they’re going to listen to and what they’re not. You’re getting them to document their life in your business. It’s all there. For posterity. Waiting to be read. To gather dust and die because no-one goes back to that shit.

Can we do this differently? Of course we can! Else this would be a really short blog post.

Let’s start with some presentations shall we? Or some workshops? Some environment where Leaver Bob – because HR have to label him as a ‘Leaver’ you understand – shares his knowledge to a group of people. It should be quite structured. On Project X, I was involved like this. These are my learnings from working on it. This is a set of successes and failures. Here’s my take home messages. Let’s Q&A this project.

Let’s continue with some interviews from cross departmental peers. What did you do here? What was it like? How do we make it continue? What’s your perceptions on our effectiveness? Similar questions to what might be asked in an exit interview, but done by the business, to understand what’s happening in the business. Information like this is seriously rich and insightful and shouldn’t be left in the very capable hands of HR.

Get them to document stuff if they need to. Cos you know, that gives security. And death, but mainly security that we have things written down.

Help them leave well. I speak very well of my time at QVC because I bloody enjoyed every moment of it, even when I was leaving. A lot of teams/departments will just let someone go with no effort. That’s just poor. A good sending off – and I don’t mean a party or getting a leaving gift or getting drunk – means Leaver Bob will only recommend the company once they’re long gone.

Starter for ten? Am I on to something here? Am I spouting rubbish?

This is your life

Yesterday I spoke about the first steps in developing business acumen in the workplace. Already you can start to see that it’s wrought with an array of challenges simply in defining what does business acumen mean for the business. Simply, it is about helping people to understand the consequence of decisions on the business. From a decision to introduce a work/life balance policy, to introducing fresh fruit to the business, there is always the ripple effect, and there is always a consequence. We can’t plan for every outcome, but we sure can be mindful of making the right decision.

Those first steps were about when introducing new starters to the business. It’s then interesting to look at what’s happening with current people in the business. I’m not talking about learning and development specifically here, I’m talking about developing business acumen across the business. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.

With the prolification of technology in all we do, it’s easy to let staff share knowledge across a variety of platforms. At HRD two years back, I remember Peter Butler, former Director of Learning at BT talk about how they used Sharepoint as a platform to allow anyone to produce videos and upload them about the work they do. At the time I thought, yes that’s brilliant! I think the same now. Give people the opportunity to share knowledge, and they will make the best use of it. By and large, people are good willed, and willing to share what they know. Here within LBi, we have an internal blog which is used by many different departments to share content they find across the interwebs, and creates a good place to find good information and inspiration.

How does that link to making better business decisions? Because by sharing information on what you do, others are better able to understand how you might need to be involved in making something happen, or how you might need to be consulted for something to be effective, or why the idea might need to be refined because you hadn’t considered something. Good business sense?

Expanding on the previous, it’s quite easy these days to also create e-learning modules about different business services. This is really useful as people can go in and access these when they want. They can go quite in depth and allow for better exploration of what a team does, how they produce work, when they should be involved, and what they can do to help collaborate. Sounds quite rosy doesn’t it? Good business sense?

What about the management team, what business guidance are they being given? Let me guess. You put them through management training, and they receive a quarterly update from the Exec on business performance. That’s not developing their business acument. That’s skills training, and cascade of information. What they need is something like this. They need to go through a Finance for non-Financial Managers course. They need to go through a business simulation. I once worked with a company called Profitability, who may not be the best company to have a client relationship with, but by God did they have an awesome two day business acumen exercise to take you through. Truly cuts to the heart of what it means to make good decisions and how they impact business performance.

Do you distinguish between the management team and the leadership team? If so, then the leadership team are likely to be the Exec or the Senior Leadership Team, right? What about these guys? Aren’t they also liable to receive some sort of continuous professional development? They bloody well should, because they’re the ones who are meant to be guiding the business to absolute success. Send them on MBA courses, or get Cranfield School of Management involved to give high quality training. Invest in executive coaches who have steered businesses to success and help guide this team to identifying the right objectives to be focusing on. The value of an external facilitator at this level is quite vital. Sometimes the Exec team in particular can get so caught up in themselves, they lose sight of how to make good business decisions and get wrapped up in politics instead.

Internal knowledge sharing sessions are awesome. I don’t mean team meetings where someone is asked to present something for 20 mins. I mean regular internal business wide presentations that are an hour long, and allow the opportunity to discuss and share some fascinating insights, knowledge, and new thinking that helps to inspire the business to do and try new things. A lot of people in your workplace have their own pet projects they’re working on right now. Some would like to have a pet project. Others didn’t know they could have a pet project. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is engage the workforce to share what they know. Where’s the business sense in doing this? You never know where a good idea might come from. Any business that has success, finds it because those ideas get surfaced in the right way.

Welcome to life!

In my role of L&D, one of the things I’m always keen to ensure we’re getting right is how we help the business understand itself. Not just itself, but also the consequence of actions taken on the business, and how we might make better business decisions.  Yes, I’m talking about business acumen. The thing is when you try and break that down, it’s a really hard thing to create L&D initiatives around.

I’m going to do a short series on how we might develop this very important skill in organisations, and what we can do to support the business enabling decision making to be better. Gosh that last sentence had a lot of horrid business speak, but sometimes needs must.

I think the first step in handling this topic is to have a well developed set of opportunities for your new starters. They are the ones who are being recruited into the business to bring about something different and or new, and is vital they receive the right kind of introduction.

The ‘hygiene’ stuff has to be in place. That is, give them a station to work from, the right tools, a line manager, probation objectives, set up on payroll, and all that kind of stuff. We’re talking onboarding, so let’s get it right.

The things that start to make the difference are what happens around all of the day to day tasks. Have you got a developed plan for them which shows them what they can expect to learn, who from, when, within their first six months? This provides security to both the new starter and the line manager in setting clear expectations for what will be achieved.

They may have a distinct role within the business, but this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be exposed to everything the business does. Get them meeting people in other departments. Shadowing for a day can be highly insightful. One to one meetings are great way to nurture relationships. Is there information they can access in their spare time on wikis or e-learning modules that have been created?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I’m proud of our company Induction at LBi. It’s consistently one of the best learning events we deliver to our new starters. A number of things have come together to make this happen. The Exec, Senior Leadership Team and Department Heads all see the benefit in being personally involved. The insight they bring when delivering their presentations is highly relevant and key to developing understanding of how the business operates. The day is mixed up with exercises that help the new starters think about how decisions impact the business through using case studies. We also focus a whole piece just on the culture of the company. Not a presentation, but a workshop piece which works better than selling how great we are to work for.

I facilitate the whole day. Having someone present the whole day like this is absolutely key to the success of the day. People know who they can turn to, if the agenda needs changing what to do, if exercises need to happen, what to do when the technology goes tits up. Someone needs to be there to just get things done. More though, the facilitator gets a sense of the success of the day. Are people ok? Are they grumbling? Are they being fed enough? Do they need a break? Are they engaged?

Good things should also be happening on the Induction. Host a lunch, everyone appreciates a free lunch. Get people from the HR team to be part of that too. We are a social bunch, and there’s nothing like breaking down some barriers eh. Have fresh fruit available just because it’s a good thing to do! Give people plenty of opportunity to mingle and just chat. Doing the hard work is good, relaxing the brain during the day is good too. Celebrate the end of the Induction. We’re an agency, so this naturally involves alcohol. Whatever you choose to do, it helps to give a sense of, wow that was a long day, and we did a lot, and now we can enjoy the end of the day too, as opposed to being shuffled back to their desks.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The company Induction is by far and above one of the key L&D activities, that I believe just has to take place. If there’s no other formal learning and development intervention in place, and you had to pick one to do, this is the one to pick and do. It doesn’t matter if it’s not monthly. But it has to be regular, and it has to be excellent.