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The C-Level Stumbling Block

Learning professionals must outline clear ROI, show business success, and present value throughout the process.


Before the resources or budget for any new initiative or program can be approved, the C-suite asks the all-important question: “How will this affect the bottom line?”

In CGS’ 2016 Enterprise Learning Annual Report, one of the top challenges nearly 200 senior-level corporate learning professionals reported facing was obtaining resources, including budget, to fuel programs. The root of this stumbling block often comes from the inability to show value and quantify results to C-level executives.

To get the support needed to initiate or continue learning and development programs, learning professionals must outline clear return on investment, use data to show business success and present value throughout the process. The following best practices and real-world examples can help guide the task.

Lay out a path to value. C-level executives and board members are hyperfocused on two important factors: cost and results. Laying out the value of a learning program when its proposed addresses these two checkboxes. One way to do this is to use available data to articulate business need as well as success. For instance, for customer-facing learning programs, tie a customer scorecard or feedback data to determine the type of learning needed and what qualifies as success. Or, for a program to improve management or employee engagement, use retention data to lay out a path to value.

CGS helped launch an initiative with a large telecommunications company using available data to find retention opportunities. Originally, the organization wanted to deploy a customer service learning program to improve employee retention. Before diving in, we looked at publicly available job boards to see if there was any external data that would best shape the program. We found approximately 72 percent of employees attributed poor management skills to their reason for leaving the company. This data revealed that management training, in addition to customer service training, would drive value for the organization. We also measured behaviors and conducting analysis of internal retention data. This helped to link the learning program to true business results — improving employee retention and reducing recruiting costs related to turnover rates.

The present program wins often. As in the aforementioned telecom company example, it’s essential that learning is created with a business goal in mind. This is key to show the C-suite a path to value as well as to present wins or progress throughout the program. When working to meet a business objective, learning programs should include short-term goals so business success is clearly achieved throughout the process. This creates an opportunity to share updates with, and engage, the C-suite.

Consider another example. One of the largest IT companies in the world was tasked with improving its software quality. To achieve this, the company wanted to increase unit testing, testing individual units or components of software to ensure quality at a lower level. After ensuring the right attendees were engaged, the learning initiative used several steps to ensure goals were being met. Some of these steps, which outlined “wins,” include:

  • Using demographic data to demonstrate global program reach and relevance/value to key executives in all geographies.
  • Obtaining training feedback, including whether developers expected to practice what they had learned. This provided an early indication of motivation and buy-in for the change.
  • Assessing participants to ensure they could identify the benefits — “what’s in it for me” — and had acquired the skills to perform unit testing.
  • Offering the instrumentation to automatically, quantitatively determine the degree to which unit testing was being performed.
  • Measuring trends in software production defects and severity following the program — outlining how the training and unit testing improved software quality.

When presenting the program’s value to the C-suite, it’s also important to integrate reporting best practices. Results should be delivered and displayed in a way that’s relevant to each stakeholder. For example, the chief financial officer will be interested in how the training lowered costs, while the chief operating officer will be interested in how it improved overall company operations. Further, results should always portray accuracy. Any discrepancy in reporting can cause the C-suite to re-evaluate the investment.

It’s important for any initiative in an enterprise to gain C-level buy-in, and learning and development programs are no different. But with a clearly outlined return on investment, data that shows value, and clear milestones throughout the program, learning leaders can ensure that they will receive not only C-level buy-in but also continued support and resources for learning initiatives.


Doug Stephen is senior vice president for the learning division at CGS. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.


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