Objectives are the Objective

Learning programs too often lack critical impact objectives.

Jack J. Phillips is the chairman, and Patti P. Phillips is president and CEO of the ROI Institute.

When we speak to talent development groups, we sometimes ask what percent of talent development programs have impact objectives. Impact is the fourth level on the classic five levels of outcomes (reaction, learning, application, impact and ROI).

In a group of 100 people, probably less than five say they have any impact objectives.

This is a mystery that defies logic. Most would agree with the statement usually attributed to management thinker Peter Drucker that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Most would also agree that without a clear, smart objective to drive something then you won’t be able to measure it.

Consider these three impact objectives for example:

  • Increase call volume by 10 percent in three months.
  • Decrease transaction errors by 20 percent in four months.
  • Decrease turnover of critical talent from 18 percent to 7 percent in 12 months.

What and when to measure becomes clear. We need more impact objectives like these.

Ten years ago we wrote a book, “Beyond Learning Objectives: Develop Measurable Objectives That Link to the Bottom Line.” The publisher, the Association for Talent Development, created the title to remind learning and talent development professionals we must move beyond learning objectives. This is good advice.

So back to the basics. We need objectives at four levels for any important program. Learning objectives for Level 2 are usually in place. We know how to do that well. Rarely do we have Level 1 reaction objectives although reactions such as relevance, importance and intent to use are almost always measured. Level 3 application objectives that define what participants should do with what they’ve learned are rarely in place. Impact objectives at Level 4 are almost nonexistent.

We need to set objectives at Levels 3 and 4 more often. Objectives at these levels provide designers and developers the guidance to show participants what they should do and the impact it will ultimately achieve. Participants need objectives at Levels 3 and 4 to clearly understand what they should do with what they are learning and the impact it will have in their work.

For live programs, facilitators need application and impact objectives so they can teach to the actual use and remind participants what impact it will have in their work with customers, clients or the team. Finally, sponsors who fund programs need these objectives but particularly Level 4. After all, business value is their favorite measurement category. We have never seen an executive get excited about a learning objective but we have seen them excited about an impact objective.

So why are objectives not there? It comes down to why a program is being implemented. They are often initiated for the wrong outcome. The success driver has been learning. In other words, did they learn the content? Executives will quickly suggest that success doesn’t occur until participants use what they learn and have an impact in their work.

If you don’t start with a business measure, it’s difficult to have business impact. Programs need to start with why — why we are doing this — and that’s often a specific business need. That makes the business connection to the impact objective in the beginning which in turn keeps the participant focused on that objective. When you follow up and track the impact measure, you see the actual improvement. It’s not that difficult. It’s the basics of having good program design.

Leadership development is often the area where this is ignored. A good leadership program should start with a business measure such as a key performance indicator that a leader needs to improve and that can be changed with their team using the leadership competencies. When we do that, the participant has his or her own impact objective. So the goal of this leadership program is not to be a great leader but to improve the business measure through greater leader competency. When this is achieved, we’re driving the business.

Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer at SAP, said during a conference keynote more than two years ago that she won’t implement a learning program at SAP unless there is a clear business need for it and a precise business objective to drive it. It’s time for all of us to think about this approach at least for major programs.

Jack J. Phillips is the chairman, and Patti P. Phillips is president and CEO of the ROI Institute. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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