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Understanding business value vs learning value

Keeping an open mind and challenging L&D status quos can be the first step to understanding business value vs learning value — and why it’s so important to the future of L&D. 
Dom Murray
2020-11-05

Value. It’s the word on everyone’s lips. Okay, maybe not everyone’s lips, but if you’ve spent any time around L&D recently, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the word often enough that it has started to lose meaning (don’t worry, that’s what this article’s for). 

It all comes down to one simple philosophy: the more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter how far learning technology evolves, how sophisticated learning systems become, or how far along the path to digital transformation we are, ‘value’ will always remain a central pillar of L&D strategy. In other words, love of learning is wonderful, but without a clear, actionable plan to demonstrate the broader business value of that learning, it probably won’t get you very far. 

Laura Overton summed it up perfectly in her recent article for Go1 Business value: L&D’s bedrock of digital success, stating, “...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.” 

So, to help you understand the value of value once and for all, we’ve decided to dig further into these ideas, examining how we think about value, business value vs learning value, the benefits of business value, and 3 concrete tips for showing business value. 

How we think about value 

In L&D, there are as many unique ways to think about value as there are ways to actually learn. There are too many value variables to list, but some may include your organisational maturity, business goals, the size and skillset of your team, your learning needs, and many more. 

However, no matter how your team currently thinks about value, it can pay to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Often, we can get so caught up in standard value mindsets, that we forget to see the forest for the trees. 

We will explore this idea further in an upcoming blog post on L&D mindsets (stay tuned!), but for now, think of it this way: you derive a different value from purchasing an expensive new car (something tangible) as you do from hearing a baby’s laughter (something emotional). Basically, not all values are the same!

Even more simply, you derive a different value from a savoury bite of dinner than a sweet bite of dessert. Business value vs learning value is similar — both valuable, but in completely different ways. 

As such, keeping an open mind and challenging L&D status quos can be the first step to understanding business value vs learning value — and why it’s so important to the future of L&D. 

Business value vs learning value 

By 2022, we will be spending $7.4 trillion globally on digital transformation technologies, according to the IDC. That’s a lot by any standard. While value shouldn’t be measured purely in monetary terms, this gives a good idea of the scale we are working with. Despite this, 54% of all employees will require significant reskilling in that same time frame, while only 22% of companies see a return on their investment in digital transformation projects

According to an estimate by Training Industry, 74% of CEOs want to see ROI on their learning and development programs, yet only 4% say they currently do. In part, this is because the L&D industry has yet to settle on standard measurement models. LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report found that “the top strategic focus area for L&D this year is to measure the impact of learning [as] survey data indicates that there isn’t an industry standard.” 

A lack of digital maturity exacerbates matters, with Fosway finding that 59% of professionals think their company’s digital learning adoption is immature in the wake of COVID-19.            

It’s little wonder then that Go1’s State of Learning Report found that executive buy-in remains the final hurdle for L&D, with 40% of learning professionals saying executive buy-in is missing from their learning strategies. Given all this, it makes sense that value is a hot topic in L&D. 

At times, this can feel like a vicious cycle, so how do we break it? 

These figures show a clear disconnect between the value L&D thinks it is producing, and the value learners and executives are actually extracting. This doesn't mean that L&D isn't producing significant value. Far from it. Rather, the ways we think about value — and the ways this value is articulated — are simply not connecting. 

The L&D value is there, but are we harvesting it and communicating it in the best way? Enter, business value vs learning value. 

According to Laura Overton, learning value focuses on principles such as activity, engagement, usefulness, and efficiency of learning, whereas business value relates to things such as performance and culture. She expands, saying, “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.”

In many ways, focussing on learning value keeps L&D in a separate bubble, while business value means taking a step to ensure your learning is aligned with broader, top-level business goals. 

As Laura Overton says, “business value is scarier. We are part of a bigger system at play, and as a result, we lose control of determining our success.” 

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as a business value mindset also “allows us to work with a perspective of exploration and growth.” Speaking of which, let’s dig further into the benefits of business value. 

Benefits of business value 

According to Emerald Works’ Back to the Future report, “when it comes to engaging and aligning with business leaders and the workforce, most L&D teams struggle to focus on solving the most pressing business challenges their organisations face. Based on our 2020 findings, only one in two currently analyse the problem before recommending a solution. And only 25% regularly communicate performance impact to senior management.” 

There’s that disconnect we mentioned earlier, rearing its ugly head again. Clearly, the learning value L&D thinks it is creating is not cutting through on a company-wide level. On the plus side, this is where focusing on business value can be extremely beneficial, offering an opportunity to take L&D to the next level. 

A learning value mindset focuses primarily on measurable learning outcomes, such as completion rates, attendance, engagement rates, and test results. While these are perfectly valid measurements, they can be rather narrow and don’t always account for wider business factors. 

In contrast, a business value mindset looks at the business problem “in the context of wider factors”, taking a broader, more holistic approach to L&D’s value. By looking at things such as performance, culture, and KPIs, L&D can begin to understand larger organisational problems, as well as the context in which learning takes place. By doing so, we can then take an informed approach to how L&D can solve these problems. 

Again, Emerald Works' assertion that “most L&D teams struggle to focus on solving the most pressing business challenges their organisations face” comes to the fore. This is worth emphasising, because reading that should have alarm bells sounding for L&D professionals.

Thankfully, switching from a learning values mindset to a business values mindset means factoring in wider business challenges, which can go a long way to solving that problem. 

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. For more statistics outlining the benefits of business value, be sure to read Business value: L&D’s bedrock of digital success

Getting started: 3 concrete tips for showing business value in L&D 

Overwhelmed? Because we sure are after all that. All L&D needs to do is solve ‘the most pressing business challenges their organisations face’. Piece of cake, right? 

So, once you’ve taken a few seconds to digest that (or scream silently at your desk), let’s get back to earth with 3 concrete tips for getting started. Trust us, it’s not as scary as it sounds, and the benefits are well worth it. 

1. Understand what you’re trying to solve

According to Emerald Works, “only one in two [L&D teams] currently analyse the problem before recommending a solution”. That’s not ideal, to put it mildly. Remember, don’t just default to the same old solution. That standard L&D answer might not always be the right one. 

Instead, break the learning values status quo, and look at bigger business contexts to understand what your learning is really trying to achieve at an organisational level, and, more importantly, why. When in doubt, ask why! 

2. Ask the right questions & consult the right people 

On the topic of asking why, it’s important to ask the right questions to the right people, to fully diagnose a problem. According to Laura Overton, “Learning value is a safe place for L&D to play, as the outcomes are under our control. They are safe and familiar.” Too often, this is a case of big fish, small pond. 

To leap to a bigger pond, L&D teams need to branch out of their comfort zones by asking the right people the right questions. Ask yourself, is this just an L&D problem, or are there other factors at play? If it's the latter, consider how your solution will impact other stakeholders, and who you might need to work with to get the bigger picture. This may include consulting your learners, team members, members of other teams, or even executives. Remember, business values look at the big picture, so it pays to ask more questions, think outside the box with your solutions, be honest with your feedback, and consult the right people!

3. Align learning goals and business goals 

It may sound simple, but often the simplest solutions are the best. To implement a business values mindset, ensure your L&D goals are aligned with broader business goals. Hopefully, they already will be, but if not, there’s no time like the present.

To help achieve this, our articles on the knowing-doing gap and conducting a training needs assessment are great places to start. 

For more expert tips on extracting business value, be sure to check out Michelle Ockers’ article for Go1 on Crafting a Digital Learning Strategy that Creates Value.

What next? 

You know what you need to do, now, for the small task of putting it all into action. We know shifting mindsets at an organisational level and getting everyone on board is no mean feat. So, be sure to check back in with the Go1 blog next week, when we’ll be exploring ways to change the L&D mindset to confidence and courage, as part of our ongoing deep dive into Digital Foundations. 

If you can’t wait that long, you can always check out some of our other awesome blog posts in the meantime, otherwise, see you then! We’ll be waiting. 

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