The Big Connection: Learning and Performance

For many companies, learning exists on a lonely little island in the midst of bigger business outcomes. Cut off from the impact that learning has on the business, the ostracized learning function putters on, tallying course completions and course grades. In these organizations, learning is just learning. Nothing more.

But wait! There’s a better way. In high-performing organizations, learning is the engine that drives performance. It’s time to think in terms of business results so that our learning and development programs are laser-focused on specific skills and behaviors. We call this the learning-performance connection, and with it, you can achieve business results that matter.

Where we are with learning measurement 

According to the Brandon Hall Group’s 2018 Learning Strategy Survey, most organizations find themselves in the early stages of learning-measurement sophistication, and fewer than one-third use a wide variety of metrics to measure multiple types of learning programs. This lack of experience leads to a disconnect between learning and performance, as there isn’t a clear line between what the organization needs and what learning does.

When we look at the metrics that companies use, they focus on things such as completion rates and learner satisfaction. These learning-focused items cannot be tied to business results.

High-performing organizations (HiPOs) tend to use more business-focused metrics. Instead of tallying course grades, HiPOs are far more likely to use actual outcomes—performance, revenue and profitability—as learning yardsticks. In almost every case, a wide gap separates the percentage of HiPOs using these outcomes and everyone else. In fact, Brandon Hall’s research shows that organizations with mature learning strategies are at least 40 percent more likely to see increases in key business metrics.

How to make the learning-performance link

When you’re ready to boost the connection between learning and performance, the secret sauce is drawing a line from business outcomes to learning outcomes, whether through cascading goals or by assessing the alignment of learning goals and other desired outcomes within the organization.

Does your learning strategy need an overhaul? If your organization drives learning from a lofty perch at HQ and it’s compliance-driven, event-based or keeps track of classes and completions, you need to get serious about change.

The new learning paths are self-driven. Your people want to learn, and they seek out what they don’t know. They share and collaborate, so much so that this new way of learning feels very natural. It’s what we do! Needless to say, this learning takes place anywhere and anytime. And when the learning is complete (for today), it’s usually immediately applied on the job.

Define the skills you need

As you begin setting learning goals and then aligning them with organizational goals, consider the skills required for success. What do we need to get to the end result? When you know those skills, you can align them with learning from the very start to make sure the learning affects the outcome.

This approach works well for St. Louis, Mo.-based BJC Healthcare. They use an onboarding program that provides new employees with a training and engagement roadmap, linking managers to their new hires in a common workspace to ensure tight alignment and real-time coaching during the critical onboarding period.

Build a continuous learning culture

If your employees want to learn something, are they going to wait weeks or months? No way! Learners today want to control their own experience. So help your employees self-identify their learning needs. This can be done in a department meeting or in a one-on-one meeting with a manager.

First, define what skills or competencies need to be learned. Employees should look at their current goals (if they have them) and figure out 10 steps they can take to achieve each goal. Be very specific so your people walk away knowing exactly what they need to do.

Next, the employee should develop a personal action plan. Using the classic SMART tool (specific, measurable, actionable, responsible and time-bound), employees can begin to take control over their learning. As we all know, sometimes in our workplaces, there is not a lot we can control. This is one area where we can give employees some control, so let’s do it. Ultimately, everyone wins because managers and employees are developing their skills to perform at the highest level possible and to accomplish their goals.

Create a personalized learning experience

As we link learning to performance, it’s not all about the numbers. The best-performing organizations today are hot on the trail of the ideal learning experience. In this type of environment, employees flourish as they delve into personalized formal and informal learning.

But this learning experience is just a step (albeit a large one) toward the goal of improving organizational performance. By creating a personalized learning path that is guided by the employee’s goals (and linked to the organization’s goals), companies are able to do a lot of things at the same time: engage learners, drive business results, and point to learning’s impact on those results.

This strategy has been successful for Saba customer Sunrise Senior Living. Using talent management technology, Sunrise Senior Living continuously develops all its team members, helping them grow, for example, from a care manager to a lead care manager. They can identify key succession candidates and build a development roadmap to get them to where they need to be in a set timeframe.

Why effective performance management matters

Pursuing effective performance management is not a one-and-done practice. It’s an ongoing effort that ensures employees get the continual direction, feedback and development they need to improve and succeed. Additionally, effective performance management helps promote job-specific competencies that are needed for organizational success.

When employees are able to see how their work contributes to the organization’s achievements, they become more engaged and inspired at work. Indeed, when Northwestern University’s 7,000 support staff linked learning and performance goals with their development targets, staff reported feeling valued and engaged.

Review L&D goals quarterly

It’s important to review goals because businesses don’t stand still once goals are entered into a performance management platform. On the contrary, businesses shift, markets rise and fall, and industries face disruption. Supply chains can be disrupted, and world events can alter the shape of business development. So make sure learning is aligned with business goals and needs.

A final takeaway

When updating learning programs, remember to think in terms of outcomes. Create learning programs that focus on specific behaviors, skills and competencies. Use modern technology to leverage linking learning to performance. As a final thought, remember that learning and performance management depend on each other. Both are important, and both are key players in your organization’s future success.

About Hawley Kane

Hawley Kane is head of Organizational Talent and Leadership Development at Saba Software. As the OD leader at a talent management provider, she marries Saba's ongoing performance, continuous learning and career development strategies with the company's own cloud solutions and services.

View all posts by Hawley Kane →

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