Just like good learning outcomes answer the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the learner, a sound goal answers the WIIFM for business. It helps explain the need for a training intervention, and sets the direction for the project once it kicks off, course correcting and providing guidance as required.
Having established that (it’s important to have a clear business goal at the start of a project), we advocate for learning outcomes which read as follows:
- Ask questions to probe the customer
- Uncover the customer’s ‘real’ need
- Explain the benefits (not features) to the customer
- Lead the customer towards the sale
And, these learning outcomes contribute towards a larger business goal, which should read like this: “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.
The understanding is that if learners are able to successfully demonstrate the desired behaviors on the job, then the business goal will take care of itself (considering other environmental factors, of course).
It should, but I have a couple of issues around this:
1. The above approach works well for outcomes that directly contribute to a business goal. It is not difficult to imagine similar learning-outcomes-leading-to-business-goal situations in other contexts, such as:
- Better hand hygiene (learning outcome) results in fewer infections (business goal)
- Tighter password security (learning outcome) results in lessened security threats (business goal)
- Better call handling and resolution (learning outcomes) result in improved customer satisfaction ratings (business goal)
- Greater use of personal protective equipment (learning outcome) results in fewer safety incidents (business goal)
- However, let’s say we need to create a course on ‘E-mail Etiquette’.
The learning outcome would be to write effective e-mails (e-mails that are addressed and copied to the right people, and are clearly worded and structured).
(Aside: There was a real need for a course. E-mails that were poorly worded, as well as those without proper structure or call-to-action were part of the folklore at this organization.)
How do we equate this with a meaningful business goal, a metric that is important to business? We could say that effective e-mails lead to better clarity and lesser confusion within a team, and therefore this might enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.
So, the business goal would be to improve team effectiveness? The goal seems contrived at best to me, and I’m not convinced that effective e-mail alone will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the team. There are so many factors at play – the culture of the organization, team size and dynamics, the goals and challenges faced by the team, not to mention other forms of communication.
I don’t think we need to force ourselves into that circle. While there is no excuse for poorly formed learning outcomes (actually, they should be performance outcomes; i.e., outcomes that lead to a change in behavior), a business goal is something that can be bypassed, if the outcome doesn’t directly impact a meaningful metric.
2. The second issue that I have relates to the measurability of the business goal. “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.
Sales will absolutely improve if learners are able to implement the actions they learned in the course. But what about “5%” and “Q3”? Let’s look at a scenario and see where this goes.
Say the sales division has a team of 100. The course is rolled out in January, and all 100 go through the course within a month’s time. If the course is designed well, with plenty of practice, spaced repetition, and post-training performance support, we can reasonably expect that at least 60 will be able to demonstrate the stated behaviors. And given a time gap of four months (March – June) in which to practice and hone their newly learnt skills, they will be more effective, and successful, salespeople than they were before the training.
So, if the team was selling 500 units a month in January, they should ideally be selling at least 560 (60 salespeople selling one unit more each) in July (Q3) – an increase of 12%. Now, we know there are other factors to consider – product pricing, market conditions, competition, etc. – which probably haven’t changed much in the last two quarters.
Looking at the above, a conservative estimate of “5% by Q3” does seem achievable.
However, my discomfort with assigning such numbers to our lofty business goal stems from the fact that there are too many variables unrelated to the design of the course. The course must be rolled out in January, people should finish taking the course in February, and market conditions, competition, etc. should not have changed. All of which are well beyond the control and influence of instructional designers. Considering these factors, I believe that assigning such targets seems arbitrary, and a bit frivolous, to me.
Cathy Moore has some good advice for us here. She says “Consider this only a goal, not a guarantee.”
However, I still feel that we would do well to focus on what we can influence (change in behavior), rather than chasing a target which we have no control over. Of course, we want to prove that we are valuable to business. So, the goal can read “Sales will improve as learners are able to…”. If it leads to a 5% improvement, great. If the improvement is 10%, why not?
What am I missing here? How can we improve our business goals in a way that they are meaningful, realistic and achievable?