The Learning Evaluation Equation isn’t about ROI

A while ago I asked the question, is learning is about performance? Broc Edwards wrote an excellent response which convinced me that it completely is. After all if the learning someone undertakes doesn’t improve their performance at work, what were they hoping to achieve?

There’s a lot of focus on the ROI of learning, and I’m moving towards the opinion that when we ask about the ROI of learning, we’re asking the fundamentally wrong question because we have fundamentally misunderstood what learning is.

When we buy a product, we can test the ROI by any number of factors. An industrial machine is measured by its efficiency and its ability to improve the equivalent of a human process. We can test the efficacy of medicine by its ability to treat a disease or illness. A tablet or smartphone is measured by its ability to support day to day living. A movie is judged on a range of attributes such as acting, sound score, visual production and more. As products, we can look at them with clarity, objectivity and remain detached about its value.

With learning, though, we forget that it is inherently an organic process that cannot be measured. So when we are asked to produce evaluation methods of the learning delivery, we need to consider quite clearly what it is we want as outcomes. Those outcomes have to be out performance improvement.

Why did you complete that data protection e-learning? To protect the company in case you make inadvertently provide confidential data? Possibly. What’s the outcome you’re expecting? That good decisions are made with respect to data protection? More likely. How do you measure that? Not by whether or not the e-learning was completed, but more likely by identifying if it supported on the job performance.

Which illustrates the difficulty of talking about performance improvement versus talking about the standard metrics of training we are used to.

In the modern age of learning provision and content curation, how do you measure if the access to learning was a factor in performance improvement? You can’t, because the equation is missing an important element. What did the learner do with the knowledge? And with that answer, we start to uncover the outcome, whatever that may be.

With learning readily available via the magic of the interwebs, and networking a much more common feature of professional lives, the old equation of ‘training=ROI’ is broken and wrong. The equation is now a rather more complicated ‘learning+action=outcome’. And if that outcome isn’t about performance improvement, then the learning was wrongly identified.

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