For as long as Return on Investment, or ROI, has been a prevalent concept in business, it's also been a fixture of workplace learning and performance. But no longer a welcome one. What started as a concept that had value — namely, the need for the work of trainers to be more linked to business performance — has in many ways devolved into something more dangerous — a cliché. Here's a look at the reasons why, and how training and learning in the workplace truly ought to be measured.
A Brief History of ROI in Training
Many people look at Don Kirkpatrick’s work from as early as 1959 as the beginning of ROI in learning and development. It was in his early work that Kirkpatrick developed his four-level model:
Level 1: Reaction
To what degree participants react favorably to the training.
Level 2: Learning
To what degree participants acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitudes, confidence, and commitment based on their participation in a training event.
Level 3: Behavior
To what degree participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job.
Level 4: Results
To what degree targeted outcomes occur as a result of the training event and subsequent reinforcement.
Another model and methodology from Jack Phillips includes a fifth level – ROI – which adds an added financial metric to the mix.
Where Does ROI Fail?
In concept, Kirkpatrick's levels seem valuable. After all, what business wouldn’t want to have training programs that impact the performance of an organization? But like many things, ROI is a concept that I think has been a victim of its own success. Instead of being a tool to measure the effectiveness of training efforts, learning professionals and in some cases the industry itself have allowed the measurements themselves (instead of the programs) to be the lens through which success is measured. Here are some examples that show the reality of ROI.
Reaction: There are reasons post-program evaluations are commonly called smile sheets. Most evaluations are not asking business-related questions. Even if your evaluation is asking good questions, are you taking actions based on the data being collected?
Learning: Ending a program with a test is the best way to tick off the “PASS” checkbox on the LMS report, but it’s not necessarily an accurate measurement of learning.
A common failure in ROI is the metaphorical line that should be placed between levels two (learning) and three (behavior). The line represents two things. For starters, it’s the line at which implementation of ROI practices plummet. Most organizations track reaction and learning, but few collect or utilize any data related to behavior or results — the things that really matter to organization.
Behavior and Results? In many cases they are not being tracked, and when they are, we’re too focused on the metric itself. Metrics are important, but they require a level of context; they need to be part of a story in some way. Spreadsheets, surveys, and reports can be great resources for a story, but they shouldn’t be the story.
We Don’t Need New Metrics
ROI fails when it becomes the entire story. I think it’s excellent to look at your work and question whether it's adding value. It's important to ensure that training efforts are being linked to organizational targets. Regardless of your stance on the validity of ROI tracking in training, we can all agree that training programs should add value.
However, the ROI metrics themselves provide horrible language for telling the story of our efforts. If we want people to listen to us, we need to speak their language. Reaction and learning are training department terms. Even behavior and results, when described within the context of evaluation metrics, become nothing more than training-department jargon. The term ROI, even, is an offender — within training departments, ROI metrics don't even have the credibility of of metrics used in other areas of an organization.
We don't need to introduce new “training metrics” into an organization — the company already has enough of them. We need to simply understand the existing business metrics and be able to tell our story in ways that show how our programs influence them. When we use our internal training jargon, we weaken our own credibility. ROI concepts provide a nice lens through which we can consider how our programs are performing, but they're just internal training measurements. We should stop talking about ROI to business leaders, and instead describe training in their language.
David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.