In the first two articles of this series on the ROI of learning, I covered many of the barriers that prevent learning professionals from fully engaging with measuring learning’s impact. I also covered a number things to keep in mind when figuring out where to start. In this article, I’ll cover a number of additional considerations before the series takes a more practical turn on the how-to of measuring learning’s ROI.

The Advantages of an Early Start. One of the points I made in the previous article was that the worst thing you can do is wait to measure the impact of your learning efforts after the fact. Imagine rolling out a huge learning effort over the course of one or several years. After year two or three, you are asked for an ROI calculation on the effort. What will you do if the final result is negative? Ouch. This is one of the main reasons to make sure you’re measuring early and often. Why? Because it gives you the chance to make adjustments and retool the learning program if it’s not looking like it will deliver the results needed. If, as I have suggested, ROI becomes a way of thinking rather than occasionally-indulged calculation, then you’ll be measuring continuously in a nearly real-time process. The only way to be successful with this approach is figuring out the ROI measurements and metrics from the very beginning of the learning program development process.

More than the Money. It’s also important to remember that although the ultimate aim here is a financial measurement of the value of your training programs in terms of a bottom-line impact on the company, that’s not where you start. Before you get to that, you need to lay some groundwork just for the idea that your learning efforts create value, and where that value comes from. You need to be able to show the following: that your learning program is effective in terms of improving employees’ ability to do their jobs; that there is a positive impact on the business when such improvements happen; that the positive impact results in a financial benefit to the company; and that the value of the benefit is more than the cost of the training (hopefully by a lot).

Establishing Validity. This one is critical, but far too often overlooked. If you’re using surveys as part of your overall ROI case, make sure you’re getting a variety of perspectives over time. For example, polling learners right after taking a course is fine to get some immediate feedback, but administering another survey several months later will give you a much clearer picture of what lasting impact the learning has had on participants. Even more importantly, when you design a learning intervention related to a specific business objective, the only way to scientifically prove its effectiveness is by having a control group that does not receive in the intervention at first. This can be a challenge in smaller companies, but going the extra mile to have a control group gives you the opportunity to clearly say, “Here’s what this learning program can do for people,” which is an essential step in eventually putting a dollar value to an ROI calculation.


Here’s a quick window into how this process can work. Let’s say your higher-ups are disappointed with sales and want the learning department to come up with an intervention. What do you do? Below are the steps that lead to success:

  1. HR Data Mining. Your HR department should have plenty of data that shows (anonymously) who are the top performers and who are underperforming. Your goal is to especially figure out what it is that makes for top performers in as much detail throughout the sales cycle as possible, creating a set of indicators of success.
  1. Learning Development. With a clearer picture of what top performers do, you can develop learning interventions that improve the skills associated with success.
  1. Validation. Conduct a pilot of the learning intervention making sure you have a control group that does not receive the new training. This helps you prove it is, in fact, the intervention that’s getting the desired results. Great results mean you’ll be able to roll out the intervention company-wide.

In the remaining articles of this series, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of calculating ROI and some of the challenges you will inevitably face in doing so.

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