The Business End of the Learning Stick

A 3 step program to establishing alignment

Learning has a direct impact on the business. Now, Learning and Development professionals within companies’ Human Resources Departments have to address the challenges of aligning learning goals with the business.

“Learning doesn’t drive the corporate strategy, it aligns with the strategy,” Martha Soehren said. Soehren is the Chief Talent Development Officer and Senior Vice President with Comcast. 

For that to be the case, examine the implementation of current learning programs and business goals to aid in the production of an aligned strategy.  One that predicts learning output and outcomes.

Soehren explains how Comcast does this.

“We established a National Executive Learning Council for Comcast last year, and it includes members of the C-suite and some of the most senior leaders at Headquarters and the field. When we meet, this body ensures alignment between the business and learning, sets new expectations and strategy, ensuring learning priorities are in alignment with both the business imperatives in the pipe line as well as key performance indicator (KPI) data across the business that is monitored on a minute-to-minute basis, in many cases. At the end of Q4, the Council implemented a requirement that all front-line leaders in Comcast get 24 hours of instructor-led training this year so that we can ensure we’re building their skills in alignment with job expectations. We want supervisors to spend the majority of their time coaching their team members. We want them in the field, in the homes, and in the call centers assisting, giving feedback, and driving a better customer experience with their team members. This important group of executive leaders on the Council sees this need and for the first time, implemented a goal that holds us all accountable for developing the leaders with the goal being to improve the employee and customer experience.”

“We feel so strongly about ensuring we’re in front of the pipeline of business imperative work, that we established a business imperative team in Comcast University to connect daily with our enterprise project management office to define what’s needed from a learning solution perspective and drive the learning components of product trials, betas, and pilots. It’s serving us extremely well. When we presented the business case for a centralized learning organization in 2009, the most pushback from the business was we wouldn’t stay in front of the pipeline and be as responsive as needed on business imperatives. That is now a myth.”

In the case of Parkland Health and Hospital System, learning goals align with the organizations overall strategy through culture, employee engagement, and patient satisfaction.

That’s not all.

“We also align with the goal of growing talent and great careers,” Parkland Chief Learning Officer Paul Rumsey said. “We are starting to track the internal promotion rate and improvement in team engagement scores for leaders who complete our year-long leadership development programs.”

It also ties into their annual performance appraisals.

“Our individual goals come directly from the Parkland strategic plan; therefore, all employees understand how their performance and work aligns with the greater strategic plan and organizational goals,” Rumsey said.

So, how does one do that?

Step One: Evaluate learning and development programs that already exist in light of shifting business strategies and priorities. Too often, companies revise or adapt what they use for training rather than potentially scrapping and reinventing programs to support future needs.

As an HR professional, the first question to ask concerning your learning and development programs is: "Can our programs remain unchanged in a dynamic operating environment?" To be sure, we change and adapt technical and sales training to follow new product launches, yet we may overlook the relevant capabilities of those designing our products and leading our organizations. This is not to suggest that all existing learning and development programs quickly become outdated or irrelevant, rather, there must be an objective and formal process to assess, evaluate and reinvent these programs to ensure alignment of human capability with business strategy.

Step Two: Establish metrics for measuring training’s impact on the business to determine if the learning objectives are driving the intended behaviors and performance.

Assuming that you have assessed and evaluated learning and development programs to validate relevancy to business strategy, the next question to ask is: "How do I know programs are having the desired impact on the business, and to what degree?"

Simply stated, without addressing this question, your conclusions would be based on speculation rather than concrete evidence. A great deal has been written on measuring training effectiveness. While it’s not the intention of this article to prescribe methods, there are several considerations to incorporate in your approach.

First, consider the top level metrics that capture the overall performance of your company: measures like sales and earnings growth; quality; on-time delivery; product cost and safety are common examples.

Next, establish the linkages that tie these metrics to people activities and the incremental benefit or performance expected to result from the learning and development program. For positions that directly generate revenue (i.e. sales) or reduce costs (i.e. operations) the connection between incremental performance and outcome is more easily defined. For indirect, executive or other management level positions, the connection to hard measures may be more difficult. In these cases, core competencies or behaviors may be captured through evaluations from internal or external sources such as customers and suppliers.

Once the measures and incremental benefits are defined, they should be captured and tracked through the company’s performance management system using the smart criteria: specific; measurable; achievable; realistic and time-bounded. As an alternative or supplement, structured survey instruments can be developed and sent to stakeholders who are positioned to observe the degree of improvement.

Finally, do not be deterred from evaluating the impact programs have on employee engagement and retention— two strategic measures that are often overlooked. Although this approach will not precisely capture and measure the benefits of training, it is vastly superior to using intuition or other subjective methods to determine the business improvements.

Step Three: Measure the efficiency and process effectiveness of delivering learning and development programs.

Once you determine that the right programs are being offered and the desired results are being achieved, the last question to ask is: "How do I know that these programs are being delivered in the most efficient and cost effective way?" Aside from the program cost, the number trained and the frequency, determine the overall value compared with outside alternatives.

As a general rule, we are inclined to eliminate, off-load or outsource whatever we do that is not part of our core business, or that which can be delivered cheaper through alternative means. There are numerous firms that sell and deliver training programs – and some of these may be the right solution for your business. However, do not relinquish ownership and responsibility for learning and development programs that tie directly to the core competencies of the company. Like other forms of intellectual property, they drive the performance of your business. Although it may be the right decision to deliver these programs through third party providers, retain control of the design and development.

Establish a means of evaluating your learning and development programs against objectives standards for cost, quality and delivery. There are plenty of professional and industry resources to draw upon. Start benchmarking to generate ideas, compare metrics and adopt best practices.


Continuous improvement and the need to sustain earnings growth drives us to evaluate everything we do. Every HR professional should evaluate human capability and performance in light of changing business needs. The three steps outlined above provide a framework for implementing a more comprehensive approach.