"Thanks. It’s just what I wanted..."

As the focus moves from training to learning, professional development becomes learner rather than trainer-centred, says Martyn Sloman

Martyn Sloman will be speaking on “The value of learning” and “Helping people learn” at HRD 2008, Europe’s largest learning and development event, taking place on 15-17 April at London’s ExCeL

Some years ago my wife Anne and I went on holiday to the south of France. Since she had organised everything, she suggested that in return I might arrange a night out for the two of us. I readily agreed and set about my task with enthusiasm, securing two tickets for us to see Nimes play Toulouse at rugby. For some reason this didn’t go down too well!

My mistake had been to put a great deal of effort into an offering that my wife, its intended recipient, didn’t value as much as I did. As HR and training professionals we often do something similar when we try to demonstrate the value of what we do, rather than trying to understand what matters to those at the receiving end of our efforts.

It’s a problem that HR commentators Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank identified in their book, The HR Value Proposition, when they argued that: “Value is defined by the receivers of HR work – the investors, customers, line managers, and employers – more than by the givers. HR is successful if and when its stakeholders perceive that it produces value. Delivering what matters most to stakeholders focuses on the deliverables (outcomes of HR) rather than on the doables (activities of HR).”

The idea that value is defined by the receiver lies at the heart of a challenging new approach to the evaluation of learning and training, which has emerged from research carried out for the CIPD by the University of Portsmouth.

The traditional model of training evaluation is based on assessing the impact of interventions devised by trainers. It is made up of four levels: reaction (how well did training participants like the programme), learning (what knowledge did they gain), behaviour (what positive changes did the programme produce) and results (what impact did it have on costs, quality of work and so on). First outlined in a 1975 magazine article by a US academic, Donald Kirkpatrick, this hierarchical model has displayed amazing longevity.

However, much has changed over the past 30 years. We have seen the emergence of the service-led, knowledge-driven economy. Organisations now deliver value to their customers in different ways, and the knowledge and skills that the workforce acquires underpin that value creation.

As a consequence, a shift is taking place from training – an instructor-led, content-based intervention – to learning, which is a self-directed work-based process. This shift reflects a recognition that only learners learn. They can, of course, be made to sit in a classroom or work their way through an e-learning package, but they will learn only if they want to. As the focus moves from training to learning, professional development becomes learner rather than trainer-centred, while the role of the trainers also changes. Instead of acting as instructors, they are now supporting, accelerating and directing learning interventions that meet organisational needs and are appropriate to both the learner and the context.

All of these changes demand a fresh look at how we measure and report on the value of learning. They also paint the background to the CIPD-commissioned research.

Working with 12 organisations, the University of Portsmouth researchers took a simple approach. They put identical questions on the strategic value of learning and its measurement to a senior member of the operational team in each organisation and to the most senior person in its learning, training and development function.

Generally, they found that the operational managers placed much more emphasis on the initial alignment of learning interventions with organisational strategy. Get that right and the ways of measuring and reporting become much more apparent. By contrast, those in a learning, training and development role placed more emphasis on after-the-event reporting.

The researchers also identified four different approaches to assessing the learning value contribution, all of which are used to different degrees in organisations today.

These are:

  • learning function efficiency measures, which concentrate on assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning function;
  • key performance indicators and benchmark measures, used to evaluate HR processes and performance through a comparison with external standards;
  • return on investment (ROI) measures, which look at the economic benefits of specific learning and training interventions compared with their costs;
  • return on expectation measures, which assess the extent to which the anticipated benefits of any learning investment have been realised.

The research showed, first, that learning function efficiency measures are popular with learning and training practitioners but are not valued by senior managers. Second, and more importantly, ROI is not the most highly valued or most appropriate technique for determining the value of learning. It may still be a good indicator for a small range of learning interventions, but it is not the best indicator. Instead, the interviews pointed to the greater usefulness of return on expectation (ROE) measures.

The use of ROE measures involves establishing “up front” the expected benefits of learning interventions and then assessing how far these benefits have been realised. Such measures take into account qualitative “soft” assessments, as well as quantitative measures. They assess changes that have occurred as a result of learning processes and the extent to which stakeholder expectations have been met.

This emergent approach to learning evaluation, therefore, addresses questions such as whether employees are learning to exhibit required behavioural competences, how successfully management succession and talent pool issues are being managed, and whether organisational learning and growth targets are being met.

So, for today’s training and learning professional, making a “value contribution” calls for a wide-ranging approach that involves aligning learning processes and investment with the organisation’s strategic priorities, and establishing, through dialogue with senior decision-makers, what are the most relevant evaluation methods for the organisation.

“Evaluation”, in other words, is no longer a trainer-centred activity. It is not to prove the value of the training department or justify its existence. The key challenge is to understand and respond to the legitimate expectations that key stakeholders, especially senior managers, have in relation to the strategic value of learning.

I first learnt about the importance of focusing on the outcomes of training activities, rather than the activities themselves, while I was director of management education and training at Ernst & Young. The firm’s chairman was an inspirational figure called Nick Land. He had tremendous understanding and energy, and would always find time to talk during his regular visits to senior training events.

Land was very clear in his priorities. In his view, the right people were coming through the talent pipeline to partnership assessment. However, while they were first-rate accountants or tax specialists, they were not demonstrating the wider strategic business awareness that was needed to drive the organisation forward. He therefore required HR to design and deliver opportunities for people to develop that awareness.

How we did this was up to us – but he knew what success looked like. It would be evident in the way individuals performed at partnership assessment centres. Putting together a table of ROI figures showing how clever our initiatives had been would have left him cold: he would have seen this as an unnecessary attempt to justify our activities.

Not every organisation will have leaders as interested in the development of their people as Land. However, the principle is the same everywhere. We must enter into a dialogue with our key stakeholders to find out where they believe that learning can make a strategic impact. This must then determine how we measure and report on learning.

The value of learning at Lyreco

Effective people development and learning strategies have been vital to the growth of Lyreco UK, part of a large family-owned office supplies group operating in Europe, Canada and Asia. In the words of Ian Lawson, training and development director: “You are only as good as the people you have got. You need the people to deliver the results”.

Developing leaders and teams, and becoming an employer of choice have, therefore, been key components of the company’s successful drive to increase market share.

Lyreco, one of the organisations taking part in the CIPD/University of Portsmouth research, manages to align learning activities to strategic priorities largely because its training and development director is in the senior management team, alongside HR and reporting directly to the managing director. In this way the learning function contributes to a five-year planning process and the creation of the business plan for the current year.

Lawson says: “The directors are identifying their challenges, their opportunities, the people that they need, and also any learning that those people will need to be able to achieve the objectives.”

Metrics are a central part of all management processes at Lyreco and these inform the learning investment and planning processes. In field sales, for example, measures include sales turnover, margin and new business, while in customer service they include abandoned call rate, average call time and average wait time.

Monthly performance results in all areas are scrutinised to identify areas for attention, and the learning and development team runs learning sessions and activities aimed at helping people to improve their performance and make good the promise the company makes to its customers: “Yours tomorrow or yours free”.

Further info

  • M Sloman, The Changing World of the Trainer, Butterworth Heinemann, Oxford, 2007
  • D Ulrich, W Brockbank, The HR Value Proposition, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2005