02 February 2019

Learning Impact

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead


RedThread is launching a study into how organizations can (and more importantly, should) measure the impact of their employee development.

Why is this important right now?:

One of the most common questions we get is, “How can our learning function show impact?” Though the more useful question is “How can learning functions actually have impact?” the enduring nature of the question indicates learning functions feel pressure to tie learning to the business, using numbers. And a lot hinges on getting the answer right – not least L&D reputation and budgets.

Measuring the impact of learning has always been difficult. It requires measuring the knowledge and skills of individuals, and measuring how what individuals know affects the overall performance of the organization.

And it’s even more complicated today. Different types of learning methods, an emphasis on skills that aren’t easily measured with a multiple choice assessment, new tools that allow employees to dip in and out of learning at will, and a general recognition that learning also happens as a natural part of work, complicates the process of how to have (and show) learning impact.

And, unfortunately, the 20+ learning measurement models and the many thousands of articles written about ROI are barely helpful in this new reality.

Today, we’re launching a formal research project into how organizations can (and more importantly, should) measure the impact of their employee development.


The premise driving this project is a simple one: Traditional mindsets and methods of measuring learning impact hobble the organization – not just the L&D function – the organization.

We must rethink how we show learning impact to account for new tools, metrics, data sources, and learning methods. This is a bold statement, we realize. Two quick examples to illustrate how what we've done is no longer sufficient:

Primarily measuring courses.

Almost all organizations (and every single learning measurement model we could find) use the course or initiative as the unit of analysis. We measure everything from what the course cost and how well people liked it to its return on investment, and perceived impact on business.

While measuring courses is our “safe space,”, it creates challenges. Among these: new types of learning are hard to isolate, particularly as learning becomes more integrated with the work itself. We no longer have complete control over the content, tools, and experiences that employees use in their development efforts. If we’re only measuring courses or initiatives that we are responsible for, we’re missing the myriad other things that impact employee development and readiness.

Measuring only courses or L&D initiatives shortchanges the organization by drawing focus away from a broader definition of employee development. This in turn keeps us from enabling key activities outside our direct control that could vastly increase the effectiveness of the workforce.

Over-focusing on conformity.

Back in the early days of the efficiency movement, Taylor established training as one of the most important things organizations could do to improve worker efficiency, as measured by output . Since then, organizations have been built with a focus on efficiency.

And L&D has been built to serve that focus: efficiently teaching employees to do the same tasks in the same way in hopes of realizing efficiency (productivity) gains. This approach no longer works (if it ever did). Most organizations tell us that innovation and agility are increasingly important in their increasingly competitive environments. Neither agility nor innovation are inherently “efficient,” which means L&D's focus on developing an efficient workforce is disconnected from the workforce the organization now needs.

In a world where the half-life of a workplace skill is between 2.5 and 5 years , workforces must adapt to changing market conditions, often acquiring skills that we often aren’t aware of yet. Effective learning focuses less on making sure that employees learn the same things in the same way, and more on creating the right conditions so employees have the tools, content, and connections they need to move business forward.

The traditional mindsets and methods learning functions have used to show impact are inhibiting progress. How and what you measure matters – not just to L&D, but to the organization .

This Project:

This project will look at how organizations and thought leaders are rethinking learning impact. Specifically, we'll be exploring the following topics:

This is a tough problem and we’re looking for people with strong opinions about it. As with all research projects, we’ll be taking a much more collaborative approach to this project. Specifically, we’ll:

Ask you to engage in the process. Throughout the project, there will be short polls, invitations for interviews and roundtables and other opportunities for you to offer your input. Please do! The more heads working on this problem, the better.

Publish our results as we go along. Instead of one massive report after 6 months of work, we will be sharing our findings throughout.

We welcome comments from the getgo! Please comment, share with others interested in learning measurement / analytics, tell us where we're wrong, suggest people we should talk to!

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead at RedThread Research

Priyanka Mehrotra is a Research Lead at RedThread Research. Before joining the company in 2018, she was part of the research team at Bersin by Deloitte where she worked on talent management, D&I, and people analytics as well as conducted research and contributed content for Bersin’s Mid-market study. Prior to Bersin by Deloitte, Priyanka worked at several non-profits, think-tanks, and international organizations where she published and co-authored several articles.


  1. Bill

    Great study hypothesis.

    • Dani Johnson

      Thanks, Bill!

  2. Robert David

    Is this sponsored research?

    • Dani Johnson

      Sorta 🙂 forMetris is sponsoring half of the project – we're very excited to be partnering with them on this!

      • Ken

        How is IP (Intellectual Property) dealt with for contributors? Will there be an "open source" type approach or how does that work ?

        • Dani Johnson

          Hey Ken – good question. Yes, participation will be open sourced. We believe strongly in giving credit where credit is due – so any insights that are gained from others will be sourced as such.

  3. Elena

    Fascinating! I am especially interested in measuring knowledge transfer into work environment. If and how performance changed after the training? Did face to face training have more impact in comparison with e-learning? What would help people to remember and implement new skills in their everyday work.
    Very exciting to find answers to these questions.

  4. Al Redding

    I am very interested in following this work and providing feedback wherever appropriate.

    • Dani Johnson

      Thanks Al!

  5. Bonnie

    This will be fun. We try to start with the business goals first (start with the end in mind), then backward to learner/performer outcomes, then to behaviors, then to what they "consumed" and traditional learning metrics. We also try to pull in as much "environmental" data as we can….stuff like manager-to-staff ratio and such (all based on hypotheses of the "other factors"). Anxious to learn what others are doing and what we learn from this project

    • Dani Johnson

      Bonnie- sounds like you have the right mindset 🙂 We'll send out next steps early next week.

  6. Kevin M. Yates

    I wholeheartedly believe there's facts, evidence and data for the impact of training and learning on performance, behavior, organization goals, and business strategy. I predict this research will be groundbreaking!

    • Dani Johnson

      Aw thanks! Thanks for following it. The more input the better 🙂

  7. Dave Fletcher

    Dani, this type of research is long overdue! Good for you and forMetris….Dave

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