How To Speak About Training ROI Without Devolving Into Bullsh*t!

Learning How To Speak About Training ROI Without Making Unsubstantiated Claims

Post hoc ergo propter hoc. (After this, therefore because of this.) -  Logical Fallacy

“I do believe you’re talking out of your ass.” - Floyd to Red in the Shawshank Redemption

You guys are just a cost center”, a sentence that has tormented many learning professionals and led some to question their long-term viability within an organization. The comment stings. After all, it suggests training plays no role in the success of an organization. “You’re just a cost center” submits that training doesn’t drive top-line sales, create efficiencies, or reduce costs through compliance. Those who work in learning development know better; training can accomplish all three of those things.

Unfortunately, the need for self-preservation, and the instinctive defensiveness that arises upon hearing such a statement, prompt learning professionals to argue the converse with unfounded vehemence. We learning professionals know our solutions work! We’ll show them! The result: We fall into the trap of overstating impact.

Speak About Training ROI Carefully And Consistently: 3 Examples

Company 1: Of course training matters. We just saw a 5% increase this quarter after our reps completed the new sales training. That translates to $100MM in revenue.

Company 2: “The efficiency course shaved 20 minutes off the process which equates to ten dollars per employee, per day. Based upon mean compensation, with 200 employees, we’ll save two thousand dollars daily, and millions for the year!

Company 3: “We just assigned the new compliance training and violations dropped by 12%. We avoided six digits worth of fines.

The problem with the 3 examples: Unless you have a true control group and implement a training initiative in a lab-like setting that isolates all other independent variables, you will overstate or understate its impact by claiming that the change stems from training alone. What if company 1 launched a new product line in conjunction with the training? Wouldn’t excitement over the offering constitute some of the uptick in sales? Company 2 not only pushed out training, but hired a new operations manager. Did the training drive the 20-minute efficiency gain or the new manager? Company 3 released two low-performers shortly after implementing the training. Which event drove the 12% drop, the eLearning class or removing two low-performing employees?

These 3 examples represent a tiny piece of a complex web of innumerable variables that interact simultaneously to affect results in real world situations. If true, does that mean we learning professionals cannot honestly speak about training ROI? Are we sunk? Thankfully, no, but we need to speak carefully and consistently to maintain a defensible position on the matter.

Learning professionals don’t implement solutions in a vacuum so assigning a specific ROI to training appears duplicitous at best. Yet, common sense dictates training does make some impact, particularly if one observes learners applying new behaviors while achieving improved results. Rather than think in terms of 1:1 causation, e.g. “The training led to a 5% increase in sales during the second quarter”, you can note that the training correlated to the increase. How much did the training impact sales? Most likely (but not definitely), it drove them somewhere between 0 and 5%.  Training represents one of many events that immediately proceeded the sales increase. The fewer additional events, the greater the correlation between training and results.

Speaking The Right Language

To defeat the learning team as a cost center perception without making unsubstantiated claims that further damage the industry, learning professionals should speak about training ROI in terms of influence. If you document on-the-job behavior change, empower yourself to stick out your chest and proclaim “The training influenced a 5% positive gain in sales during the second quarter”. The word “influence” offers a simple way to articulate correlation without jumping to unsubstantiated direct causation. Using the term “influence” frames training as a component of organizational success. It denotes value without hyperbole. It cuts through bullshit which anyone with a cursory understanding of statistics will eviscerate.

Language serves the purposes of creating shared meaning and understanding. It drives perception, attitudes, and decision-making. Nowhere should learning professionals take greater care with the language they use than in discussions around measurement. Training can improve performance, attenuate deficiencies, and support compliance; it can both save and make money. Let’s take care to speak to this fact with credibility and sound logic.