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To prove the true value of learning at work, a shift towards measuring the impact that learning has on the business as a whole – rather than just on an individual – is key.
Learning and development is a significant investment for most companies. To illustrate, the global corporate training market was estimated at $130m per annum in 2018, and eLearning is set to reach $325 billion by 2025.
Despite these large sums, few companies assess the contribution of their L&D investments to desired business outcomes. A few will have tried using the best-known methodology in this space – the Kirkpatrick model – only to find that it suffers from two major drawbacks: the first (as we will show) is that it is difficult to implement.
And the second is that it only measures the impact of L&D programmes from the perspective of the individuals undergoing the training, rather than the impact of the programme on the organisation as a whole.
This is referred to as individual-level versus organisational-level impact (or less formally individual versus organisational impact).
The Kirkpatrick Model
Donald Kirkpatrick introduced his four-level model to measure the business impact of training programmes on individual participants in 1954. The model is based on the premise that in order for training-programme participants to deliver measurable business improvements, the following assumptions must hold (see Figure 1):
Trainees must experience a positive reaction to the training. The assumption here is that trainees who experience the programme negatively are less likely to learn from it.
Trainees must gain new knowledge as a result of the training. This seems reasonable because unless trainees learn something new, they will simply continue to behave as they did before the training.
3. Behavioural change
Trainee behaviour must change following the programme. Again, this seems reasonable because individuals whose behaviour does not change are unlikely to achieve improved business outcomes.
4. Business results
If all of the above conditions are met and an appropriate L&D programme was delivered, then a positive impact on business outcomes is expected.
If positive business outcomes are not achieved, then either the above conditions have not been met, an inappropriate programme was selected, or non-specified events have worked against the programme’s success. These might include, for example, a change in the economy or labour market, an inappropriate organisation design or a change in leadership.
The Kirkpatrick Model is deployed as follows:
Prior to the L&D programme, obtain baseline (pre-programme) measures for each participant’s current knowledge (learning), behaviour and business results
Deliver the L&D programme
Measure each participant’s post-programme reaction, learning, behaviour and business results again after the programme.
If the reaction is positive, and learning, behaviour and business results all show an improvement, the programme is said to have made a positive contribution to the business.
(For those interested, Jack Phillips extended the Kirkpatrick Model to calculate the ROI of the programme; however, his methodology also does not include organisational-level measures).
Limitations of the Kirkpatrick Model
While theoretically useful as a teaching tool, the Kirkpatrick Model presents a number of challenges:
1. Measurement of business result improvements
While measuring business result improvements is relatively straightforward in line functions such as sales or divisional management, it is not as simple in support functions such as HR, finance and marketing.
For example, how does one measure the business impact of updating a general ledger or processing administration for new joiners?
2. It is difficult to isolate the impact of the training programme
Consider a company that experiences improved business results after delivering employee productivity training. At the same time as that training, the company also underwent an organisational restructure and introduced significant automation as well as a new product-line.
How can the company be sure whether the improved business outcomes were the result of the training programme versus one of these other factors?
As Alec Levenson notes, most companies’ business results are simultaneously influenced by a variety of factors, making it difficult to isolate the business impact of any training delivered at the same time.
3. Impact is only measured at the level of the individual and not of the organisation
The Kirkpatrick Model measures improvements in the capabilities of each individual trainee participating in the programme. This means that the model provides no insights about potential improvements in organisational-level capabilities such as productivity or innovation.
This is an important deficit of the Kirkpatrick Model because it is quite possible to achieve significant individual-level improvements while only achieving marginal organisational-level improvements.
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