Learning Measurement: Having Impact, Not Just Showing It

July 18th, 2019

Six decades and not much change

We have been talking about learning measurement for more than six decades. Ever since Kirkpatrick came up with his 4-level model, learning & development (L&D) functions have been trying to understand the relationship between what they do and business outcomes. Since that time, over 20 have been developed to help L&D functions support their claim to impact.

Lately, we have become really interested in a variation of that question: How does what and how we measure affect the organization? What resulted was a surprise. While we approached it with a “there’s got to be a right way” mindset, what we have found is quite different. In fact, through this study, we have made two large realizations:

Realization 1: There has never been a more important time to get learning impact right.

Let’s start with a short history lesson. At the beginning of the first industrial revolution, we started using assembly lines to create products. These lines were very inefficient and fraught with problems: people learned only on the job, no one had a clear idea of what their roles were, and the workloads were incredibly uneven.

Then along came a guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was a mechanical engineer who applied engineering principles to the lines in order to clean them up and make the more efficient.

One of the first things he did was to establish processes and divide up the work. Then he trained employees to do that work in efficient ways. He, in essence, turned a chaotic malfunctioning system involving both individuals and equipment into one cohesive well-functioning machine.

This made Taylor famous. He wrote a book on these principles called The Principles of Scientific Management and is considered one of the world’s first management consultants.

As industry progressed, these principles were applied to types of work beyond assembly lines. They helped organizations grow and develop by structuring their workforce and ensuring that everyone knew what their role was and how to do it most efficiently.

Today, organizations continue to define roles, add people, train employees the ‘correct’ way, eliminate wasted time and effort, and gain efficiencies using these principles. This focus on efficiency has worked for a really long time. The US, for example, had fairly consistent gains in productivity from when we started measuring in 1947 through 2007.

However, like any system or machine, it’s impossible to make it infinitely efficient. At some point, any system will reach its optimal efficiency and additional effort won’t yield very big gains. We’re seeing that now in the market.


Image 1 Having Impact, Not Just Showing It

Image 1: US Productivity is Falling Off – Possibly Because of a Focus on Efficiency | Source: Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics


Image 1 shows trend lines from 1947 to 2007 (blue line), trend lines from 2001 through 2007 (orange), and the actual productivity gains from 2007 to 2017. As you can see, our actual productivity growth is the lowest it has been since we started measuring.

So efficiency is not getting us as far as it used to. And we need to start rethinking our reliance on it for business gains. Interestingly, more evolved organizations already are. A few months ago, we stumbled upon some research done by IBM. This study compares business focuses of industry outperformers (shown in orange in Image 2) to all other companies in that industry (shown in gray). The results are telling.


Image 2 Having Impact, Not Just Showing It

Image 2: Significant Outperformers Focus on Different things | Source: IBM Global Study


While the rest of the industry is focused on improving operational efficiency, outperformers focus on items that are inherently messy and inefficient, such as developing new products and services, expanding into new markets, and developing new distribution channels. And they need workforces who can think outside of the proverbial black box, take calculated risks, and think critically.

So what does this have to do with L&D and its impact? For starters, we’re dealing with a completely different world. When Taylor basically invented the L&D department, he did so to ensure that people were being trained to do a certain role in the most efficient way possible.

But L&D’s traditional methods and measures are not going to get it done. Most organizations cannot wait (and most likely don’t care) for L&D functions to calculate an ROI on a program or initiative to determine if it was effective and then adjust; it’s too late by then. Organizations need L&D functions to react more quickly and with flexibility – which requires a radically different mindset than the one currently en vogue.

We think that L&D functions everywhere need a chakabuku – a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters their reality forever.1 L&D functions desperately need to rethink their measurement strategies and understand the implications that they have – not just for employee development, but for organizational performance as well.

Realization 2: Learning Impact is Hard.

We were hoping that our research efforts would point to definitive things that all organizations should do. What we found was just the opposite. We talked to over 40 really smart leaders doing really innovative things when it came to how they were showing and having impact. But none of them were doing the exact same things.

Some of these leaders identified strongly with the idea of ROI. Some lived and died by Kirkpatrick, Phillips, or some other model. Some focused heavily on drawing a straight line from what they did to business results. But all of them were having at least some modicum of success. As it turns out, how learning impacts an organization is specific to that organization, its goals, and its resources.

Fortunately, patterns exist. While metrics and tactics should be aligned to the organization, business goals, and employee development needs, our literature review, roundtables, and interviews led us to 7 patterns that more evolved organizations follow for moving beyond simply showing impact to actually having impact.


Image 3 Having Impact, Not Just Showing It

Image 3: Learning Impact Patterns Found in More Evolved L&D Functions | Source: RedThread Reserach, 2019


Over the next 7 weeks, we’ll be sharing these patterns, examples of what organizations are doing, and questions you can ask yourself about your own learning impact practices.

Next article in series: Learning Impact: Tying to Business Goals.

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  1. “Grosse Pointe Blank”, George Armitage, Buena Vista International, 1997