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How to Calculate Meaningful ROI for Workplace Learning

Advice from L&D leaders on how to:

  • Redefine training success to align with organizational goals
  • Design learning initiatives with measurable impact in mind
  • Take credit for the business impact that learning has on the organisation
  • Get buy-in from managers to ensure learning is used on the job
  • Deliver and present convincing results to your senior leadership
  • Win the learning budget that your department needs to drive your organisation forward

Learning professionals know that proving the value of L&D is essential to keeping and increasing the resources at their disposal. According to our 2018 survey of L&D departments in the U.S., one of the key differentiators of top performing departments, regardless of industry or size, is their close relationship with senior executives and their commitment to measuring the ROI of corporate learning.

Unsurprisingly, these departments were most likely to hold more days of training per employee and consider their departments more competitive than their industry peers. At its heart, proving the business impact of learning is essential to ensure investment in your people: every organization’s most valuable and appreciable resource.

If your organization doesn’t demonstrably act on a belief that employee development is a crucial catalyst to keep your organization competitive, it is essential to make an airtight business case for learning. If you don’t advocate for employee learning by proving positive business impact “[Executives] will think that learning is a necessary evil. We should want them to look at it as a business driver,” according to Jack Phillips, Ph.D and Chairman of the ROI Institute, an organization which helps the L&D community demonstrate the value of learning.

When an L&D department hasn’t demonstrated their impact on business results, they become an easy target for budget cuts. “Executives just say we can’t afford to do this. If they see the connection, we can make the case that we can’t afford not to do this,” says Phillips.

Redefine what you consider a training success

If your departmental objectives revolve around participation in training, or positive learner evaluations, proving ROI in financial terms verges on the impossible. The added value that learning provides to business can only be solidly proven in the application of knowledge, skills, or re-engagement on the job. “We have to redefine learning success. Success doesn’t occur in the classroom or a keyboard or on your mobile phone. Success occurs when you actually use what you’ve learned and had an impact in the organization – with your work, with the customer, with the people around you. That’s the business connection. Until you have a business impact, you’re not successful,” says Phillips.

“We have to redefine learning success. ”

— Jack Phillips - ROI Institute, Inc.

Own your results in terms of business impact

Accept that whether or not employees apply learning on the job: it’s ultimately your responsibility. If you want to be able to champion the successes of your initiatives, you have to take ownership of failure as well. “We have this philosophy that we can’t control what employees do with learning so if they don’t ever use it, it’s not our fault.

Well, that may be true, but it’s the organization’s budget that you’re spending. You better be concerned about it because it’s ultimately your budget that’s going to be cut if your top executives don’t see that connection,” says Phillips.

If training misses the mark, it’s still critical to take responsibility and make changes to future training. A learning professional in the 2018 report explained that, “In the end, we compare the business metrics we originally identified in the impact map as the goal to the ones after the training event and see if we attained those metrics. If not, we can then use the different measurements we’ve taken throughout the process to go back and see where the ‘weak link’ is and address it.” 

Taking ownership of the results is what will empower you to prove positive impact and hold a strong position in securing future or continued investment in employee learning. At the international recruitment company BPS World, People and Culture Manager Jo Rapley explained in an interview with that, “when we have had a successful quarter there will be a number of people/factors that try to ‘own’ that success. We therefore set clear qualitative and quantitative objectives at the start of any program. Participants are asked to keep a learning log of how that learning has had an impact on their job/team/business and it’s collated when calculating ROI.” 

Get managers involved to ensure learning is used on the job

What’s a solid strategy for making sure that training is used by employees? Phillips
advises working with the managers of learners. “They’ve got to be a part of the process. Because the number one influence of the person using learning on the job is their immediate supervisor,” says Phillips. Bringing senior managers into the training process not only helps you ensure business impact after the training, it helps you calibrate training to better serve the employees who need it.

“L&D should adopt a consultative approach with senior managers whereby they seek to understand their L&D needs. It is paramount that there is open and honest communication, gaining feedback, and acting on it, in pursuit of continuous improvement,” says Rapley. It has the added benefit of getting a window-in on talent that you can tap into as a future training resource.

“Working with senior managers has the added benefit of helping to “identify subject matter experts in the business – who can deliver relevant training – can help engage managers in creating a learning culture,” says Rapley.

“ L&D should adopt a consultative approach with senior managers whereby they seek to understand their L&D needs.”
— Jo Rapley - BPS World

Present solid results to your senior leadership

Phillips recommends working closely with the CFO of your organization because they are most adept at understanding how investments convert into returns and commonly work with other departments to synthesize this information into a presentation that the executive team will find credible.

“[The] decision to invest in L&D is made when one of the executives sees learning as an investment rather than a cost because you’ve just shown a ROI in the same way that a Chief Financial Officer was going to show them,” says Phillips.

At BPS world, one ROI case reported a higher retention rate for a team struggling with turnover. They intervened with a leadership development program focusing on coaching and motivation. “The financial return came from increased revenues generated by the team due to an increase in their motivation.''

Additionally, there were cost savings in the recruitment of new team members as the retention rate had increased,” says Rapley. Although proving ROI may involve more quantitative measures than you already collect, Phillips recommends including intangible in your report, which can include powerful stories from employees and departments who were impacted by your training.

By aligning your definition of success with senior leadership, working with business impact objectives throughout your programs, and presenting your results credibly, you can reinvigorate your L&D budget. More than that, you can become a key player in helping your organization overcome the fear and uncertainty that will stunt its long-term growth.

“In the U.S., we’ve got record economic performance going on, high stock market, low unemployment rate, businesses are booming but learning and development budgets in major companies have been frozen because of uncertainty,” says Phillips. “Uncertainty is the time to have more investment in learning, not less. But if L&D departments don’t have data to show that, they’re going to be faced with those kind of consequences.

Featuring practical advice from learning professionals at BPS World, The ROI Institute, and ZSL London Zoo, this article is part of the U.S. L&D Report 2018: Benchmark Your Workplace Learning Strategy. 

Download the report below:

U.S. L&D Report

What's included?

  • The employee training budgets, highest priority training topics, and most-used training methods of today.

  • Down to earth advice from L&D leaders to help you work with emerging technologies, develop your learning culture, and measure and promote the business impact of workplace learning.

  • What challenges L&D professionals rate as #1 in 2018, how they rate executive engagement at their company, assess the impact of training and more!

U.S. L&D Report: 2018
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Last updated: 12 Nov 2019

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