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Learning Impact, Two Ways

In a few recent conversations at networking events, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my experience of moving from academia to corporate learning and what that means to the idea of learning impact. The comparison is an interesting one to me. I spent the first decade or so of my career in academia, boots on the ground teaching college-level English and writing classes with learners and other educators. I had the opportunity to see the impact that my learning experiences (i.e. classroom teaching, presentations, exercises, resources) had on the students, face to face. I watched their growth over the course of a semester, and in some cases, when a student took more than one of my classes, over a series of semesters. I listened to their feedback when things were difficult, and gave them the support they needed to accept those challenges. I heard them when they expressed that this activity and that presentation weren’t working. I could also see what worked and didn’t work based on performance and tweak accordingly, but it often was based on instinct and less on actual data. This built the foundation of my understanding of curriculum — how to arrange smaller pieces of “learning” to build up to a crescendo of a performance-based deliverable, which was often a final exam, paper or project. Contrary to popular behavior in academia, I always strove to give out ALL great grades. I knew that if I had succeeded in building a good curriculum, the deliverables would be high quality. This was my measure for success. I used these measures to adjust, but there was very little accountability to a bigger entity to understand these impacts; they mostly existed in my own little microcosm of the classes I was teaching. I mostly used my gut and observation skills to assess, tweak, and redeliver.

Underlying that structure, though, was, and arguably still is, a basic assumption in academia: learning is valuable. While some of academia is clearly driven by research and publications, the core operates out of the basic assumption that the work we do to educate students is necessary, valuable, and makes an impact. It was a safe place to experiment and grow, fail forward and feel supported in that effort. We did our best to be better teachers, thus hoping to make a better impact on our students and prepare them for the challenges they will face once outside of school. But as teachers, we did not have to prove that the work we were doing was meaningful or was worth “funding;” this was a given. My focus as an educator was to educate — to build the curriculum, interact with students to enable them, offer them the resources the needed, challenge them, help them make connections, and prepare them for more challenges ahead.

In early 2010, I made a change to corporate learning. I was mostly delighted that such a thing existed because of the lack of jobs in academia for qualified teachers. But I wasn’t expecting what I was about to face: the business of learning takes nothing for granted.

In my first corporate learning position at Accenture, I was asked to create a business case and ROI for the curriculum I was creating. It was an international curriculum to help instructional designers overseas acquire better English and writing skills, but it was an internal training program that would require funding. It was the first time I’d been asked to quantify the value of learning and make a case that learning was important. I was dumbfounded to think that such a thing was necessary — of course learning is important! Of course it has an impact! (Don’t get me wrong — Accenture has an amazing culture of learning — probably one of the best I’ve seen. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have even conceived of this program and hired me to create it.) Quantifying the value of learning and connecting that value to business would prove to be both a great challenge and great opportunity.

Over the past decade as a corporate curriculum developer, and now a manager of a team of learning strategists, I’ve grown to appreciate and even elevate the intersection of business and learning. Business does great work to make learning relevant by demanding that it prove its value — quantify its impact when it matters most. While most executives understand fundamentally that learning is valuable, they challenge those of us in the field to do the work of proving it. As learning professionals, determining a measure of success for each project is the only way to quantify this impact and prove (or disprove to adjust) the value of each learning experience.

This is why learning strategy is such an important element in the business of learning. Breaking down the activity of “teaching” into project and business elements allows for careful thought about the approach to solve the problem. Approaching the business problem strategically, identifying a measure (or multiple measures) for success, and then determining an approach to solve that problem and achieving that measure (not to mention just measuring it in general — wow!) gives clarity to the impact of learning so it’s not just something we assume is valuable but something we can prove is making an impact.

While the assumption of learning impact in academia offers safety and a certain freedom that corporate learning does not, corporate learning and learning strategy from a business perspective offers a deeper look into measures for success and impact that can be quantified and proven. Using these metrics and building them into a feedback loop (the E of ADDIE of you’d like) offers more clarity into the impact of those elements when the time comes to readjust.

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