posted 26 Oct 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 2
Return on Learning – Training for High Performance at Accenture
Authors: Donald Vanthournout, Thomas Barfield and others
Publisher: Agate Publishing
The Dilbert cartoon is, perhaps, over-quoted among management gurus. But there is one Dilbert strip that is almost universally applicable across the Anglo-Saxon corporate world.
“We keep saying that our staff are our number one asset,” says the ‘point-haired boss’ to his staff. “It turns out we were wrong. In fact, money is our number one asset.” Staff came in ninth, just after carbon paper.
The joke encapsulates how many staff feel about how greatly their company values them. Sure, they always say that staff are their most important asset, but the staff themselves often feel differently.
It is the training that an organisation offers that can make all the difference and help make staff genuinely feel that they are, indeed, the organisation’s top asset.
When consulting giant Accenture started to examine and re-evaluate its training strategy in November 2001, after corporate growth had ground to sudden halt, it found widespread disillusionment with the way its training had failed to keep pace with changing needs.
While Accenture had a reputation for driving raw recruits hard and expecting them to rise to the challenge or to leave, a key part of that implicit bargain was training. This was reflected by a number of staff surveys, which suggested that many staff would even trade a portion of their pay for more training.
Yet by 2002, 40 per cent of staff requests for classroom-based training were either being immediately denied, or subsequently cancelled due to pressure of work. “The deal we had made with our people [had] been broken,” said Donald Vanthournout, Accenture’s chief learning officer.
Return on Learning therefore chronicles the training ‘turnaround’ executed by Vanthournout and his team in the past five years.
Its main guiding principle was the simple declaration that training had to be planned and executed according to the business value produced for the company.
That would require the company to develop a set of return on investment criteria, called return on learning, which would enable the organisation to put a figure on the value of its training and development investments – easier said than done.
Most organisations simply consider training to be a ‘good thing’ in its own right, but Vanthournout wanted to know just how much of a good thing financially training and learning was for Accenture.
Vanthournout wisely delegated that task to Tad Waddington, a former research director at pollster Gallup who cannot only freely quote philosophers such as Kant and Plato – in Chinese – but, more importantly, boasts a doctorate in measurement, evaluation and statistical analysis.
Waddington had a low opinion of most training ROI studies. They were either guilty of misrepresentation – concentrating on only the most successful schemes – or they relied too much on subjective survey data, which often provides little more than satisfaction scores, not true ROI figures.
At the same time, says Waddington, “to create a sound ROI model for training, one needs to look beyond operational statistics like numbers of courses, completion rates, total number of students and course satisfaction scores”.
Often, ROI studies do not go far enough – asking in a survey whether a course made someone more likely to stay with a company is less valuable than actually examining the human resources records to find out whether they really did. “You want to ask questions… but you also need to follow up with an analysis of the facts,” he says.
Waddington began his work by assuming that training had zero value – because every step in building the ROI model had to be defensible. He then commissioned an analyst study in which Accenture’s training and development programme was benchmarked against competitors’. The results suggested that Accenture was providing more learning opportunities and at a lower cost per hour – not a bad start.
However, answering the next questions – in what ways can training have a positive business impact and how might training improve a business? – were more challenging. From course evaluations, it was clear that one of the biggest business benefits was simply in terms of better knowledge sharing. It put people together and they could exchange notes and experiences for months afterwards, learning from each other.
Putting this benefit into cold, hard numbers, however, proved impossible, even for Waddington. “While the research may indicate that training has broad business impacts, we were only able to quantify a portion of these,” says Waddington.
In short, an accurate ROI for training has to be assessed via a combination of hard numbers, where possible, and softer measurements – it cannot all be boiled down to the financial figures.
The ROI of training is one small part of a surprisingly well-rounded book – one that covers every facet of e-learning from a business point of view.
It is rare that an insider’s account of any facet of corporate strategy proves its value, especially when those insiders are still there and have written with their employer’s approval, but this is the exception and highly recommended as a result.