Rallying for ROI around training

Investing in People project nears end of three-year run with plenty of insights, impressive returns on investment

The timing was perfect. Having just launched a long-term plan around a change in strategy, the David Suzuki Foundation realized it would also make sense to look at the return on investment around a pilot training program. So in the summer of 2009, it signed on with the Investing in People project, a three-year, $1.3-million initiative sponsored by the federal government to substantiate the ROI of training and encourage companies to invest more in skills development.

It was an opportunity “to really learn how to learn more effectively,” says Marie-Claire Seebohm, director of HR at the Vancouver-based foundation, which is transforming how it does its work, how it interacts with Canadians and how it can take a more collaborative, engagement-oriented approach.

“That really does have impacts internally on how we see leadership, how we define our roles individually,” she says. “(Investing in People) was very timely.”

In vying to change from campaigners and activists to facilitators, moderators and catalysts, the organization has shifted people around in recognition of the need for more management capacity, says Seebohm. There are 63 employees at the non-profit and 14 mid-level leaders are participating in the six-month leadership development program being evaluated through Investing in People — a project awarded to the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) in May 2007.

The training has proved to be an ambitious endeavour, says Seebohm. Originally the group met every two weeks, with a topic for each meeting but, after three months at a rushed paced, the foundation decided the group should focus on one topic for a whole month.

“We let the group drive that really based on their challenges in their roles and their projects and how they’d like to develop,” she says.

In the end, the group came up with three themes: leadership, team effectiveness and project management, along with two or three sub-topics.

The format for the training is peer-facilitated, with internal and external experts for support, and the group meets in person in Vancouver, with others video conferencing from offices in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. The experience levels in the group are mixed, so some act as mentors to the others. So far it’s going very well, says Seebohm, and the foundation expects to continue this type of format for future training.

After each session, as part of the Investing in People evaluation, participants are required to provide feedback around satisfaction and update their action plans. At first, these requirements were a lot to absorb but the leaders knew it was part of the deal in signing up for the program, says Seebohm.

“It has been really good in terms of helping us do course corrections as we go through it — we’re learning what works best for this group.”

While it’s too early to gauge the ROI, participants are very engaged and enthusiastic. The foundation knew it would be a big commitment getting involved with Investing in People but, because of the timing and the value, it was worth it, she says.

“It’s been so great, it’s been better than expected,” says Seebohm.

And she credits much of that to Learning Designs Online, the facilitators implementing the project, who helped the David Suzuki foundation set up how it would measure results, as the Investing in People project is very focused on the application of learning and business impacts, a challenge for a non-profit, she adds.

“We wanted to see impact in terms of policy changers, effectiveness of our work, as well as financial impact, so they’ve been incredible about coming up with creative ways to help us see that,” says Seebohm.

“They’ve also been incredibly patient and willing to change and modify the measures as we develop and modify the program. It’s really been an iterative process.”

Measuring ROI

To calculate the ROI, Learning Designs uses its own methodology — the Learning Value Chain — which evaluates a training program at each of four “links” (capability, transfer, business results and ROI). At each link, data is gathered to assess the extent to which the training has achieved key outcomes, added value and enabled the next critical event in the chain to occur.

ROI numbers are just starting to come in from the 12 participating companies, says Allan Bailey, CEO of Learning Designs Online in Toronto. Dillon Consulting, for example, has seen ROI of 28 per cent — meaning for every $1 spent, the company gets back $1.28 — and Logitech has seen 214 per cent. Other participants include the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, WestJet, Trillium Health Centre, ArcelorMittal Dofasco, the Ekati diamond mine and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

Along with ROI, the facilitators are gaining other important insights. They have found one of the greatest challenges organizations face is aligning training with real business results and identifying business metrics.

“A lot of times, organizations feel they should be getting their money’s worth and when they try to invest to improve the business success, they have a very hard time aligning the training with the goals of business,” says Bailey.

“We see that as a bit of a gap that ­organizations need to address. Everybody should be aligned to what keeps the CFO awake at night.”

Organizations need to be more focused on that side of training, says Lynn Johnston, president of CSTD in Toronto.

“We’re finding when you do that, your chances of success go way up.”

Even assessing along the way is important, she says, so companies should look at the first stage to see if people walk away from the training feeling more confident they’ll be able to perform better on the job and feeling they actually learned something.

“If you say yes to those things, your chances of the impact all the way down the line are much higher,” says Johnston.

Another revelation is training is not targeted well enough, so some people are being trained when they might not benefit from the initiative, says Bailey, such as employees with more experience.

“If you can focus your training a little better, you’re going to save yourself a lot of money,” he says.

Learning Designs is also finding organizations need strategies to allow the training to transfer to the job. It’s a serious issue, as there’s a lot of frustration because supervisors may not know about the training, says Bailey, and “therefore are not predisposed to help them transfer this new knowledge and use this new knowledge.”

And people often get bogged down with work, forgetting what they have learned.

“Preparing the workplace so learning can be transferred to the job will probably become a really important strategy going forward for organizations,” says Bailey. “We think that’s going to be an exciting area.”

BDC nears end of project

The BDC is coming to the end of the whole process, with Learning Designs facilitators talking to a sample of the 200 employees who underwent a sales management training program.

The number-crunching is done and the ROI is looking very positive, says Jacinthe Higgins, director of learning and leadership strategies at the BDC in Montreal. However, the company wants to remove factors that could skew the results before the final report is delivered.

“Obviously with the downturn of the economy, it had an impact, so what exactly, tangibly, are those impacts and how could it influence the numbers?” she says.

The tools provided by CSTD for the Investing in People project are very useful, says Higgins, citing one that asked participants what barriers might prevent them from applying their learnings.

“It raises flags which other tools currently, if you hadn’t thought of that, you wouldn’t think of asking that and it provides very good data,” says Higgins. “There was a flag that was raised in one of the groups and we were able to address it very quickly.”

While time-consuming, the project was a good internal education and now the organization knows what’s involved in doing ROI around training, she says. The BDC has always invested a lot in training, averaging about 4.5 per cent of payroll, and the company is using the CSTD tools on a regular basis, integrating them through its evaluation strategy, says Higgins.

Those involved in the project have gained plenty of insights around what works, what doesn’t and what work needs to be done upfront, including a needs assessment to figure out business issues and what needs to be solved before launching into the training, says Johnston.

CSTD has put the Investing in People tools online, which include a capability questionnaire, a transfer questionnaire and an effective practices audit.

Case studies from each of the 12 participating organizations will eventually be posted online, allowing people to share results and build the community and it will be exciting to see the results as the range of training evaluated — such as cost reduction, increased sales or management capability — cross the spectrum, says Johnston.

CSTD will continue to hold workshops around the initiative to keep the momentum going, she says.

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