Confronting CEO Expectations about the Value of Learning: Top-Level Support Is Vital to Maintaining Any Organizational Learning Function. Survey Data Provide Some Clear Directions for How, and How Not, to Provide Executives with the Appropriate Evidence of Learning Success

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There is no stakeholder in the learning and development process more important than the CEO of an organization. In the August 2009 issue of T+D, we examined the results of a significant survey of CEOs. This study revealed what CEOs want and do not want for measures of success of learning and development. In this article, we'll combine those survey results with other executive input to develop prescriptions for what is needed to ensure that learning professionals meet the expectations of this critical group.

Executive concerns

All of the data points to several critical concerns, and consequently, opportunities for learning and development leaders. As expected, CEOs want to see value in terms that they can appreciate. They view the value of learning and development in terms of business impact, business alignment, and return-on-investment. They do not see value in the inputs (how many people attended training) or reaction (participants rated overall satisfaction 4.2). There is very little data at the business contribution level presented to them, and yet, that is their most important data set. Ninety-six percent of the CEOs said that they wanted to see learning and development connected to business impact data, but only 8 percent see this now. Seventy-four percent wanted to see ROI data, yet only 4 percent see it now.

They see little value in lower levels. As anticipated, top executives see very little value in having a tremendous amount of input data. Although it is needed (they want to know how many people are involved, how many hours, and the cost), this information does not show value in terms of contribution; it's only input. Also, the least-ranked data item is reaction data. Executives view this as people enjoying their experiences. A few suggested that it is important, because satisfied customers are necessary to make the process work; however, they do not see the connection with actual business results. Additionally, there is not much appetite for learning data. As a few executives commented, that's an operational measure.

Executives want to see the higher levels of evaluation. Interest picks up with application data, but there seems to be a disconnect here. Sixty-four percent of executives said that they would like to see application data (change in behavior, use of skills, use of technology), yet only 11 percent actually have this data. More revealing was the tremendous disconnect with this business impact and the ROI, as discussed earlier. In comments on these surveys, executives routinely mention terms such as "business contribution," "business alignment," "business value," and "connection" to the business. Eighteen percent of CEOs said that they determined the funding for learning and development based on the payoff of the investment.

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Most CEOs do not see a learning and development scorecard. If learning and development organizations are using a scorecard, it's not making its way to the top executives. Only 22 percent of executives said that they have a learning and development scorecard. Executives noted that if there were a scorecard, they would probably use it and use it properly because they're applying it across many parts of their organization. The scorecard, however, must not be dominated by inputs (Level 0), reaction (Level 1), and learning (Level 2). It must have information that includes application and that connects to the business in terms of both tangibles and intangibles. And yes, awards and ROI would be appropriate, too.

Other concerns. CEOs are not as actively involved in learning and development as they need to be, and like many other functions in an organization, learning and development needs executive support. Direct involvement by top executives is an excellent way to stimulate the interest and ownership of others and helps drive results for the various programs. More effort is needed to increase executive commitment. …