Thursday, November 8, 2007

Finding the True ROI in Learning

Finding the TRUE ROI in Learning

As long as I've been in training we have been debating its ROI (Return on Investment). We have struggled long and hard to link measurable business results to learners who attend some form of formal instruction, in class or on-line. Why has this been so hard? Why do so many still find this exercise exhausting, expensive, and often inconclusive at a meaningful level?

Maybe the problem lies in the original goal? Maybe the correlation between a training event and improved business outcomes is fundamentally flawed? Is the jump between mastering content and being able to apply that content in an effective and productive way just too great? I would argue that we've gotten this wrong from the start, and without venturing into the performance support arena, training will continue to have a difficult time, if not impossible time, tying itself to true ROI metrics.

Let's take a closer look at the learning journey to better understand where this might lead. Classroom training, and other formal training "events", including many e-Learning models, are about knowledge gain and transfer (which, by the way, is a wonderful and necessary thing!) But this is short-sighted. Even though people can't become productive without first having a fundamental understanding of what they are being tasked with doing we mustn’t stop here. We must take the learning experience all the way to true business ROI.

The journey to true ROI is actually divide into two parts:

  1. Mastery - A learner's ability to demonstrate gained knowledge
  2. Competency - A learner's ability to effectively apply what they've learned to their job or work environment.

Training has typically stopped at Mastery and has not ventured as deeply as it needs to into supporting Competency. This is where performance support delivers its real value! Training without performance support (As defined in Con's first Blog entry shown below -"What is Performance Support") will never move successfully beyond the first 2 phases of learning to sustaining learners in the last 3 moments of need where ROI really happens!

If we only stop at Mastery (or training) all we can ever fairly measure is:

  • Knowledge gain
  • Certification
  • Demonstrable skill recall
  • Compliance

But when we venture into Competency with the full range of Performance Support practices now available to us (its tools, strategies, and frameworks which compliment training) we can begin to measure our impact on:

  • Productivity gain
  • Time to proficiency
  • Lower support costs
  • Completion of job-related tasks
  • Increased user adoption
  • Optimized business processes

ROI manifests itself in the work flow and on the job. Until training departments design, deliver, and maintain learning strategies across the entire journey from mastery to competency ROI will remain a frustrating and often futile exercise.


  1. A quick question about terminology. I've read a number of articles about the stages of learning starting at Novice (or unconscious incompetence), through competence to mastery at the highest level. Your article seems to put competency at the highest level. Either way could make sense to me.. but do you know what is the most commonly accepted use of this terminology?

  2. Ben,

    Great question and it depends. We've seen the terms used interchangeably. I've always defended our order based on the definitions. Here's how I've pulled the definitions for past articles and references:

    Mastery is defined as the possession of consummate skills.

    Competency is the quality or condition of being qualified to perform an act.

    Mastery is the possession of skills where competency is the abilty to ACT or perform those skills.

    Does this help?