Measure Learning Input, Not Output

Published on 2013-08-04

ONLY MEASURE WHAT YOU CAN CHANGE. Return on investment (ROI) measurements only tell you about the past, and as I will explain, there is a much more effective way of measuring learning.
Imagine you attend a training course about conversation skills, and the instructor introduces you to a really useful principle; “Be Interested, Not Interesting”. That’s interesting you think.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Return on investment (ROI) measurements only tell you about the past[/quote]
A few days later you meet a client on a business trip. You think about how to use this principle on this client and decide that you will ask lots of questions about them. They feel a little bit surprised about how many questions you ask them, but generally they respond quite well. This is good, you think, I’ll try this again.
Over the next few months you continue to do the same thing every time you meet someone new, gradually adjusting the amount of questions you ask to make them feel more comfortable, and continue to have the same positive results. Then one day you meet a guy called Steve. Steve asks you loads of questions about yourself and seems genuinely curious. His facial expression, his fixed gaze and his unwavering attention convince you that he thinks you are a fascinating person. You like Steve, but more importantly you learn from him that showing your curiosity adds to the effect of asking questions. So you add this new skill to your repertoire of effective conversation skills.
Over the next few years you continue to use your questions and genuine curiosity when meeting strangers, always getting really positive results. Then one day, four years after attending that course, you sign the biggest contract in the company’s history: US$2 million. The commission is enough for you to retire. As you invite the client out for a meal to express your gratitude, you ask “what was it that made you sign that contract?”. The client says, “You were the only one that showed a genuine interest in us”.
If your boss was to measure the ROI of you having attended that course, they would probably measure the difference in your sales over a six month or one year period, and then compare the difference with the cost of the course. Most likely, they would find either a very slight increase in ROI, or actually no ROI at all. They might even find an initial negative RIO.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Most likely, they would find either a very slight increase in ROI, or actually no ROI at all.[/quote]
Your ROI report measures the value of training up until the minute your data stops. This is one of the biggest weaknesses of measuring the value of learning. Who are you to say when the learning stops? In the example above, learning that one principle didn’t show a monetary result for 4 years! Believe it or not, this is actually very common. There are most likely things you learned years ago, maybe even in primary school, things that you don’t even have a conscious memory of learning, that you still have not benefited from yet but will do in the future.
Furthermore, was it the training that you benefited from? Or was it your new friend Steve? Actually, it was a combination of both of those things, plus many, many other factors. Time, sleep, reflection, experience, feedback and so on. All of these things contributed to your learning. So who are you to say that the only source of learning was the training?
Theoretically, of course you can measure the ROI of training. But you need to be aware of just how much value that training created, and the other things that contributed value, and how much time it took to realize that value, and how much of that realized value was due to the learning and how much was due to other factors. To get a precise number, you need to be in possession of some magical powers that allow you to gather that data. If you don’t have those magical powers, then trust me, your time is much better invested elsewhere.
OK, you argue, but I don’t need a 100% accurate number, a rough estimate is more than enough. Well to that I firstly argue, why bother measuring something if you’re going to overlook so many important factors? And secondly I argue that you get far more valuable information about the effectiveness of learning in your organization if you focus on input instead of output.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]I argue that you get far more valuable information about the effectiveness of learning in your organization if you focus on input instead of output.[/quote]
Let me be clear, my second argument here rests on the assumption that the higher the input of learning, the higher the output of learning. But this argument only counts if the learners themselves are proactively engaging in these tasks, not if you are forcing them. As I mentioned here and here  engagement is crucial for learning, if there is no engagement there is no learning.
So provide your staff with multiple options for learning. On top of training, have a library where they can borrow books, have monthly experience sharing discussions, encourage them to attend conferences and seminars, set new challenges for them, let them try something they’ve never done before and so on. Measure these, do not waste your time measuring ROI.
A huge benefit of measuring learning input is that you can find what works and make those things more available immediately. One person really likes going to conferences, so share with them more invitations to these conferences when you receive them. Another maybe really likes reading books, so recommend some books for them, even offer to buy some if there are any they really want to read. This information is invaluable, especially if these are things they are proactively seeking out. Measuring input allows you to identify those inputs that work, whereas measuring output literally tells you nothing, and tells you it too late.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]A huge benefit of measuring learning input is that you can find what works and make those things more available immediately.[/quote]
Don’t assume that all learning comes from training, because it comes from all over the place. Identify the things that are within your control, that your staff can proactively engage in, and that will help them learn new things and encounter new experiences. Keep a record of who does what, and reward them for doing more and more. Having a variety of options increases the chances of your staff finding a way to learn that engages them, and increases the chances of them participating in more and more learning activities. Just like a supermarket that tracks what you buy when you use their membership card; the more you buy a certain product, the more offers and advertisements the supermarket will send you for similar products, increasing the chance of you buying those new products. Aim to get your staff addicted to learning.
As the example at the beginning made clear, learning is ambiguous. You will never be able to fully identify the output of learning, you will never even be able to identify all of the inputs. Yet having a rough idea of something you can change is infinitely more useful than having a rough idea of something you can’t change.