The Business of Learning

Start with the End in Mind

If your learning initiatives weren’t designed with impact or business results in mind, reconsider how you spend workforce development resources.

By David Vance
CO_WebSite_BlogHeaders v2-08The end of the year is always a good time for reflection, and it seems particularly appropriate to reflect on starting with the end in mind. The concept sounds simple, but most struggle with it in practice. Basically, starting with the end in mind means establishing a plan or goal at the start of the year or project, then working backward from the goal to determine all the events that must happen to achieve it.

This approach is advocated by all the leaders in our field including Jack and Patti Phillips, Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick, Roy Pollak, et al. in “The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning,” and many other books and resources.

So, what does starting with the end in mind look like in practice? Let’s first consider the type of learning that can contribute to your organization’s goals, such as sales training, cost reduction, quality improvement, employee engagement and leadership improvement efforts.

Most learning professionals do set a plan at the start of the year for a number of participants, a level 0 or efficiency measure. That is definitely not what we mean by starting with the end in mind. Some set a target for participant reaction, a level 1 effectiveness measure, such as 80 percent will be satisfied or highly satisfied with the learning.

Is that the end? No. How about a certain pass rate or average score on testing, a level 2 effectiveness measure? Still no. A few set a goal for how much of the learning is actually applied on the job, a level 3 effectiveness measure. This is much better than the number of participants and levels 1-2, but it is still not the appropriate end. It doesn’t answer why the learning is being conducted in the first place.


Only impact — an outcome measure which doubles as a level 4 effectiveness measure — addresses the reason for the training. Therefore, impact must be the starting point when training is aligned to your company goals. For example, if the goal is to increase sales or employee engagement, what impact do you believe training can have on achieving the goal? A lot, a little?

The greater the planned impact, the more effort and time you and the goal owner will have to dedicate to the training. And the more important it will be to set targets for all the critical steps required for success. This is where you decide how many employees must take the training, how satisfied you want them to be with the learning, what their minimum passing test scores must be, if appropriate, and what percent must successfully apply the learning to achieve the planned impact or end.

Number of participants and levels 1-3 are all important, but they are not the end. The end is planned impact. Start with planned impact, then work backward to determine levels 0-3 as well as roles and responsibilities for the goal owner and the learning department.

Note: Although the Kirkpatricks don’t focus on it, I know they would agree the learning investment must make sense financially. Jack Phillips introduced the level 5 measure of ROI to address this issue. So, we can modify our end to be an impact that makes sense financially. In other words, don’t invest in learning if it is going to cost more than the impact is worth.

Let’s conclude our thoughts on starting with the end in mind by considering learning initiatives to improve efficiency and effectiveness measures. Most learning departments focus on improving a couple of these measures each year. Examples might include reaching a higher percentage of employees, increasing utilization of online courses, or improving enterprise scores for levels 1-3. In this case the end is indeed the number of participants or a higher application rate.

Starting with this end in mind, the next question is, what must we do to achieve this goal? Work backward from your planned level of improvement to identify all the steps required along with appropriate resources such as staff and budget, measures, roles and responsibilities. You will need enough specificity to know whether you are on target to meet the planned improvement each month.

As this year comes to an end, reflect for a minute on what percentage of your initiatives were truly designed with the end in mind. If the percentage is small, you might resolve to improve in 2017.

David Vance is the executive director for the Center for Talent Reporting, founding and former president of Caterpillar University and author of “The Business of Learning.” Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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