The CEO’s Perception of the Learning Investment

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The CEO’s Perception of the Learning Investment

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Have you ever asked top executives or a chief financial officer about the value they would like to see from talent development? We have had many of those conversations routinely over the past 25 years, and we know what they need. Their responses have been documented quite well, dating back to a major study that we conducted with ATD nearly a decade ago. That study, involving Fortune 500 CEOs, indicated that 96% of executives wanted to see a business connection to an investment in learning. Yet, at that time, only 8% of them had that type of data. This is their number one desired data category. Further, 74% of the executives wanted to see the ROI from investments in learning, but only 4% said they have it now. This is their number two measure. The number one measure provided to executives from L&D was reaction data, but only 28% wanted to see this category of data.

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Recent Data about ROI

This study, first published in our book with ATD, Measuring for Success, was a wake-up call for many CLOs and others involved in talent development. Collectively, they said, “We must do better.” The good news is that was 10 years ago. We are well on the way.

More recent data from the Business Intelligence Council of Chief Learning Officer Magazine showed that improvements are happening. When asked about how the learning organization shows its contribution to the broader enterprise, 36% said they use business data for the request, and 22% said they use ROI. When asked if they plan to implement ROI, 49.6% said they planned to implement ROI in the future. All totaled, 71.2% of respondents said they were either using ROI or planning to implement it. We think that is a little ambitious, although it came from 335 CLOs.

Fast forward to 2017, and we noticed a major benchmarking report from Training Magazine. This report examined the organizations that were “Hall of Famers” in their awards system. These are the organizations that are consistently at the top of their 125 best learning organizations lists. These “Hall of Famers” are very important for benchmarking because others want to know what makes them so successful. The success comes down to whether it improves business results.

These top learning organizations advise that you must connect the investment in learning to the business to capture executive attention. This benchmarking report is generated every year. In the following year, 2018, this report contained three best practice case studies: onboarding, an ROI calculation on a follow-up basis, and an ROI forecast. You can see that we are making progress to meet the requests from top executives.

What Can You Do If You Are Not Showing the Business Value of an Investment in Learning?

You can take five very important steps:

  1. Be proactive. Don’t wait for the request to show business value. Start delivering business value on a major program now. Take charge and drive the evaluation initiative. Keep ROI on your agenda, not your executive’s agenda.
  2. Be selective on which programs you evaluate at the business impact and ROI levels. Use ROI for programs that are very expensive, strategic, important to organizations, and yes, those that attract executive attention. That will usually be about 10-20% of the programs each year at the impact level and approximately 5-10% at the ROI level.
  3. Change the thinking of the complete learning cycle. Start with why for your programs; connect it to the business measure at the beginning. Then, make sure you have the right solution. Next, expect success with very specific objectives to impact and share them with the team. With this approach, you are designing for the results you need. With the business data clearly defined in the beginning, you will have the desired results at the end.
  4. Share the joy. Make sure that the entire team is involved in designing, developing, and implementing learning and development to deliver impact. Designers, developers, facilitators, participants, and managers of participants are critical to achieving impact success. Each stakeholder has a role, not just the evaluator. This approach makes a world of difference.
  5. Think about all the benefits. While business data will convince executives to continue to fund your programs, connecting to the business will help you build partnerships with business leaders, obtain needed support to make programs more effective, and secure the commitment you need to be successful.


Collectively, the team can make a difference.

Update headshot of Patti Phillips smiling
Patti P. Phillips, Ph.D.

Patti P. Phillips, Ph.D., CEO of ROI Institute, Inc., is a renowned leader in measurement and evaluation. Patti helps organizations implement the ROI Methodology®️ in more than 70 countries around the world.

Since 1997, Patti has been a driving force in the global adoption of the ROI Methodology and the use of measurement and evaluation to drive organizational change. Her work as an educator, researcher, consultant, and coach supports practitioners as they develop their own expertise in an effort to help organizations and communities thrive. Her work spans private sector, public sector, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organizations.

Patti serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). She serves as chair of the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), People Analytics Board, Principal Research Fellow for The Conference Board, board chair of the Center for Talent Reporting (CTR), and is an Association for Talent Development (ATD) Certification Institute Fellow. She also serves on the faculty of the UN System Staff College in Turin, Italy.

Patti has authored or edited more than 75 books on the subject of measurement, evaluation, analytics, and ROI. Her work has been featured on CNBC, Euronews, and in more than a dozen business journals.

Connect with Patti on LinkedIn, FacebookTwitter, and at

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