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We’ve Got Your Business Case for Learning Right Here

By: John Gibbons, i4cp
Last updated 6/20/2012

I've always been a very business-focused HR practitioner and researcher. I firmly believe that if we are serious about driving business results through the smart mobilization and management of talent, we need to hold ourselves accountable to demonstrating how talent provides differentiated value for our companies.

Yet in my years of doing this advocacy and research, some of the most passionate resistance I've encountered to embracing this accountability has come from the learning community. In fact, at times I've actually encountered overt hostility expressed by learning professionals when discussing the topic of holding themselves accountable to delivering business results. Why such resistance—especially in light of the intuitive understanding of the value of learning? I think there are a number of reasons including, but not limited to, some of the following:

The learning community has traditionally attracted brilliant people who are talented teachers and coaches, but who are often not well prepared to empirically evaluate the long-term changes in behavior of learners, let alone demonstrate the impact that those behavioral changes have on the performance of their organizations.

The link between human capital management interventions and business performance outcomes is a derivative relationship. In other words, the impact is realized through one or more steps of cascading influence, ultimately leading to better business results. This multistep relationship has been amply explored over the past decade, launched largely by concepts introduced by Heskett, Sasser, and Schlessinger in their 1990's classic, The Value Profit Chain.

Additionally—unlike compensation, staffing, or even performance management models of influence—learning is likely to be even more derivative than most others human capital management methods. For example, an array of management competencies may impact the retention of good talent which, in turn, may have gradual positive impact on innovation and productivity.

Compared to other forms of human capital management, learning has a longer maturity curve. In other words, since learning is a continual process of knowledge and skill development that extends over the course of a career (or, indeed, a lifetime), does it make sense to expect learning professionals to demonstrate tangible value in the short-term?

As a result of these and other reasons, learning professionals have been subjected to criticisms by colleagues and executives that their contributions have only “squishy” business impact. Further, since the impact of learning on business performance is more difficult to demonstrate (and at times to understand), perhaps learning's true value must be only marginal at best. So it's no surprise that when the economy goes south, some of the first budget cuts are targeted at learning.

And because the positive impact of learning on business performance is derivative, so are the cuts. Evidence-based approaches to HR take into account not only the impact of an intervention, but also lost opportunity as a result of failing to introduce an intervention. As a result, the negative consequences of cuts in learning budgets and programs are just as difficult to demonstrate as the positive impact of having programs in the first place. This creates a vicious circle of potentially damaging stop-and-go approaches to learning that track the availability of disposable cash of a company.

Fortunately, I'm pleased to announce that this particular cycle may have come to an end. i4cp has just released the latest iteration of its annual issues survey, The Best Get Better: Critical Human Capital Issues of 2012, and some of the headlines are not only eye-catching, they are specifically of profound importance to the learning function. Analysis shows that high-performing organizations—those that are better at driving financial performance, market share, and customer satisfaction—also happen to be extraordinarily more effective at managing the learning function than their low-performing counterparts.

While intuitively this difference is not a surprise, the sheer magnitude of mastery of learning compared to low-performers is extraordinary. Consider the following:
—The percentage of high-performing companies reporting that they are effective at overall learning strategies is 7 times that of low-performing companies.
—The percentage of high-performing companies reporting that they are effective at leadership development is 5 times that of low-performing companies.
—The percentage of high-performing companies reporting that they are effective at coaching is 5 times that of low-performing companies.

The list goes on and on! In fact, in all, high-performing companies report that they are at least twice as effective on nearly a dozen dimensions of learning, talent management, and organizational development than are low-performing companies.

These findings are too important to ignore and I'm looking forward to hearing the stories of learning professionals who use them to not only defend the learning function but, in fact, to silence the criticisms they receive from their executive colleagues. And, on a more personal note, with my passion for analytics and empirical demonstration of business value, maybe I'll start making more friends among my colleagues in the learning profession. 

About the Author(s)

John Gibbons, i4cp , is Vice President and General Manager of Research and Development at i4cp. He has been a human resources practitioner, researcher, and thought leader in human capital strategy for more than 20 years. His work has been featured in hundreds of publications and news outlets around the world.