Business value: L&D’s bedrock of digital success

Now more than ever, organisations need to respond rapidly to change, and workers need to be able to pick up new skills, new processes, and adapt continually. At the same time, it has never been more important for learning to show business value, so what do high performing organisations do to achieve this?
Laura Overton - Guest Contributor

Written by guest blogger Laura Overton, award-winning L&D Analyst. Laura is an experienced international speaker, author and facilitator with a passion for exploring, challenging and sharing. She believes that the role of learning leaders in the changing workplace is to unlock the potential of business and people.

It started with a stat!

‘60% of eLearning projects fail’

We all love a good statistic and I must admit that this one caught my attention…back in 2002!

It was widely quoted at that time: the dot com bubble had burst, and an avalanche of digital technologies had been thrown at training post 9/11 when the world stopped travelling for a moment. In the global chaos, online learning was necessary but messy. Unprepared (and to be honest unenthusiastic) learning professionals grappled with new tools and technologies to maintain an offering — and despite early promise, many failed.

The disappointment of digital learning wasn’t the thing that caught my eye. It was implied that 40% of projects were working! And for me, that data point alone was the trigger of 15 years of research and exploration — how do we define success in workplace online learning, and how can we improve success?

Learning leaders always want to make a business impact. However, in that first study, it was clear those that were successful in using technology didn’t just talk about business impact, they had business value as their north star influencing everything they did.

During these 15 years of exploration, the principles were tested and modified over and over again with over 8,000 global companies. New technologies and learning models came (and some went), and the economic climate ebbed and flowed, but the one critical factor that surfaced remained the same:

Business value is L&D’s bedrock of digital success

Let’s pause for a moment to talk about value

When you talk about the value L&D is providing to your organisation, what narrative of success do you use?

I have asked this question many times recently and have literally read hundreds of awards submissions over the years where L&D talk about their successes.

What comes out is that L&D’s primary value focus has been on learning value. We talk about the connection with and activity around our programmes: hours, engagement, and efficiency. Our dashboards proudly reflect our savings and reach — those passing through or rating our offerings. Increasingly, and importantly, I am also seeing value being talked about in terms of the usefulness of our offerings, including user reflections of perceived relevance and intent to change.

Learning value provides us with a great indicator about how our formal or assigned learning is being received, applied, and used, but it is not a great starting point if we want to deliver business value.

The L&D Value Models

However, what I found in my first study 15 years ago was that every participant defined their success in terms of what was important to their organisation. This included discussions around business performance, such as customer service ratings, sales figures, and faster adoption of new technology. It also included discussions about the productive culture of the organisations: their ability to innovate and become more agile. In short, their focus was on business value.

As Jos Arets, Partner at Tulser (formerly 70:20:10 Institute), describes it: “Business value is about operating off the business scorecard vs the HR scorecard”[1].

My own research found that those focussing on business value were able to harness learning innovation to deliver business results such as:

  • 14% improvements in productivity
  • 28% improvements in the speed of rolling out new initiatives
  • 21% improvements in the organisation’s customer satisfaction
  • 11% improvements in revenue [2]

Put simply, business value outcomes are achievable!

Fast forward to today

There is no denying the disruption and uncertainty that society is facing today — disruption that is impacting communities, organisations, workplaces, and individuals.

But this means that now more than ever, organisations need to respond rapidly to change, and workers need to be able to pick up new skills, new processes, and adapt continually. There has never been more demand and opportunity for learning to add business value. For example:

  • Reskilling is on the CEO agenda: not just technical skills, but ‘people power skills’. Plus, business leaders see the challenge as a shared responsibility [3].
  • It’s all change: 57% of organisations are focussing reskilling on supporting critical new business initiatives (new processes, systems, new ways of working, and more), and 53% are focussing on emerging technology disruption [4].
  • Employees are ready to go digital: 65% of L&D state that employees are willing to make greater use of digital learning [5].  In fact, during COVID, one study found 82% of business stakeholders and 71% of their end users are demanding more digital learning [6].

These are all great opportunities for L&D, offering a chance to work with organisations on the things that matter deeply. However, the way that we approach them will determine our success.

Adopting a business value mindset

Discussions about business value, aligning learning to work, and even having or earning a seat at the table have abounded in L&D circles for decades. These conversations have been useful to drive change in our processes over the years. For example:

  • New evidence informed decisions about formal learning design [7]
  • New methods to tighten up our understanding about learning transfer [8]

Learning value is a safe place for L&D to play, as the outcomes are under our control. They are safe and familiar.

Business value is scarier. We are part of a bigger system at play, and as a result, we lose control of determining our success.

Learning value must always work hard to make a leap into business value. It doesn’t help us to break out!

The reason that business value is L&D’s bedrock for digital success is that success is driven when you start with the end in mind.

If the end you have in mind is learning value, you may get some quick wins, but will always be seeking validation in the eyes of business leaders. You will probably stick to what you know (e.g. ‘how can I get my most popular programmes online?’). A learning value mindset fixes us to the rigid ways of the past.

If the end you have in mind is business value, you will be looking at the business problem in the context of wider factors. This means constantly questioning, looking for new ways to achieve the goal in a complex system of work dynamics, and testing those hypotheses. A business value mindset allows us to work with a perspective of exploration and growth.

Let me give you some examples of what that looks like. Those reporting business value (called High performing organisations in our studies) were:

  • Uncovering the business KPIs: 85% discussed the business indicators that needed to shift up front with business leaders involved from the very start (vs 25% on average).
  • Understanding the complexity of the environment the problems were occurring in: 80% of L&D leaders spent time in operations (vs 49% on average).
  • Not just responding with content solutions: they were 3x as likely to leverage available support systems within the organisation as part of their recommendations.
  • Harnessing organisation wide support: learning initiatives, when used, were supported by steering groups of stakeholders (79% vs 35%)[9].

What’s more, this type of business value mindset triggers curiosity.

The types of opportunities outlined above give us permission to be curious — how can we add value through our involvement in solving the problem?

  • It’s all change: OK, we say ‘What is the business-critical issue that really needs to change right now, let’s see how I can help.’
  • Reskilling is on your agenda:  OK, we say ‘What will happen if we don’t, is this a skills issue or a performance issue? What are we trying to achieve if we do? Let’s work on those challenges.’
  • Ready for digital: OK, we say, ‘let’s focus first on you and what you need now, so we can work out how I can help you do your job faster and smarter.’

Business value: L&D’s bedrock for success. Period.

Approaching our problems with a business value mindset might bring us out of our comfort zone as we need to explore and ask more questions. But our credibility moving forward lies in our ability to ask the right questions vs knowing all the answers. It is also about finding the right solutions to solve the problem vs relying completely on our old models of formal learning. 

It sounds uncertain — less like a bedrock and more like shifting sands! But the data backs us. Technology does not correlate to business success. How we apply our tools, our processes, and our thinking does. It’s time to adopt business value as our bedrock for success.

3 tips for building a bedrock of business value

1. Start right

  • Ask the right questions to uncover what is important
  • 'An ounce of performance analysis is worth a pound of skills training’ – Charles Jennings [10]
  • Understand the bigger picture — use process to uncover what else is influencing this situation

2. Work on fixes that fix the issue

  • Don’t just shoehorn an old offering into a new problem
  • Less is more
  • Solve the problem as close as possible to the cause

3. Get technology into perspective — it is not a silver bullet!

These tips are by no means exhaustive, but we need to start somewhere, so I’d love for you to share more of your own thoughts or tips!


[1] Learning Uncut Emerging Stronger Interview with Jos Arets

[2] The Transformation Journey 2019 Overton - Published by Emerald Works

[3] This and more in 5 themes in business conversation about skills: literature review by Redthread Research 

[4] Beyond hiring - how companies are reskilling to address Talent Gaps  McKinsey

[5]  Playbook: Managing remotely during disruption- Brandon Hall

[6] COVID L&D research authored and published -  Fosway

[7] Check out Mirjam Neelam and Paul Kirshner’s work on Evidence informed Learning design

[8] Check out Will Thalheimer's excellent LTEM model

[9] Taken from The transformation Journey and ‘Back to the future’ - published by Emerald Works

[10] Taken from https://tulser.com/escaping-the-skills-vortex-new-opportunities-for-ld/

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