Corporate life is often frustrating. When you take two steps forward and one step back, the way forward feels arduous. When things get really bad, it can feel like you’re taking one step forward and two steps back. When executives suddenly call for proof of your learning programs’ effectiveness, the result is often a deer-in-the-headlights effect – sheer panic. This is the exact time when you need to start by taking a step back in order to take several steps, if not a leap, forward.

Take a step back and look at the big picture, then ask yourself this question: What will we measure? This is a critical question, and the answer you don’t want to give is “Everything.” But that’s often what happens when it comes to measuring learning’s effectiveness. You can collect scads of data and analyze it every which way and still come up essentially empty-handed.

Instead, try taking a more counterintuitive approach to minimize what you’ll measure. A handful of well-placed, well-designed, well-executed, and well-presented metrics will often be dramatically more effective than the typical “snow job” of measuring anything and everything, hoping something will stick and make your case for you. Focus on quality rather than quantity, carefully selecting a limited number of metrics for maximum impact. You want to gather the right data.

Understand the business objectives. Another very basic starting point is to make sure you fully understand the business rationale for learning and training. What are the business goals the company is trying to reach? Hopefully, they’re SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely), because that will make your life easier. This means clearly defining what knowledge or skills hold the key to unlocking the behavior modifications that will lead to the achievement of the business goals. If you can’t make a solid link between those, then it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to develop a learning program to move the company in that direction.

Once you have that piece of the puzzle, you’ll be able to develop specific learning objectives and even key performance metrics (KPIs) that the learning program will address. Again, all of these need to be SMART. Adhering to the SMART framework ensures your attempts at measuring ROI will be as accurate as possible.

In addition, making critical internal connections is a key part of the process. Any business objective involves various functions and departments all doing their part to reach the goal. If the goal is reached, teasing out who was responsible for what (and the credit) portion of reaching the goal can be difficult. In that sense, your learning efforts are typically only one piece of a much larger, more complex puzzle. You’re all in this together, but make sure your learning team gets the credit its due for the role it played. This is easier and more likely to happen naturally if you make sure all the different functional teams involved understand and support each other’s shared stake in what will undoubtedly be a collective outcome. All too often, if an increased sales goal is reached, it’s the sales team that gets the credit, but what about the critical role your learning program played by increasing the sales team’s knowledge of the company’s products that were identified as a key enabler?

The ROI of Learning Part 2: Where to Begin

If you’ve done your homework on business goals, learning objectives, and KPIs, then you’ve already got a huge head start of developing a clear and specific evaluation plan for the learning program – something that should never be left until the end of the learning development or (worse) implementation process.

Keep in mind that ROI is more than just a mere calculation – it’s more like a whole way of thinking. It needs to be something as basic to your learning efforts as developing quality programming. As long as it is not, learning and training budgets will continue to be the first to be slashed in an economic downturn. Stay tuned for more strategies as this series of articles on the ROI of learning continues.

Here are all 5 parts to this series: The ROI of Learning Part 1: Barriers,The ROI of Learning Part 2: Where to BeginThe ROI of Learning Part 3: Additional ConsiderationsThe ROI of Learning Part 4: Learning/Training ROI MethodsThe ROI of Learning Part 5: The True Costs of Learning