How to make the business case for learning
Whether you’re a full-time learning & development (L&D) professional, a leader responsible for developing your department, or just an advocate for learning, making the case for employee L&D initiatives isn’t always easy. And in fact, you should face challenges—you want everyone in your organization to take a thoughtful approach to adopting and rolling out new learning solutions. However, if everyone is on board with the goal of creating growth opportunities for their teams, it’s much easier to make the case for learning.
Traditionally, it’s been difficult to measure the ROI of learning, especially in ways that make sense to CEOs and executives. In the 2017 PwC 20th Annual CEO Survey, 77% of CEOs feel concerned that key skills shortages could impair their company’s growth. This places higher demand on the learning & development function and 77% of L&D leaders say they feel more pressure to demonstrate the business impact of their work. Yet only 33% of business leaders think the L&D function impacts business outcomes, and fewer consider the function to be relevant or timely, according to the CEB.
How can L&D leaders drive this statistic up and win over key business leaders? Based on my experience as an HR executive, I offer tips and advice in our recent guide, Building the Business Case for Learning: A 5-Step Process to Get Your Stakeholders On Board.
Here are 3 of the 5 tips from the guide and how I’ve been able to gain internal buy-in when rolling out a new learning solution.
1. Act like a consultancy: your employees’ ROI is your ROI
Don’t start with the fancy bells and whistles of your new learning solution or program. Instead, start with your business leaders’ concerns and map your learning & development programs to those needs. What are the skill sets their teams need? What are their core concerns? And what do they want to accomplish in the next year or two? Start with the core pain points and skill sets that decision-makers need and then work back from there.
For example, if a business leader shares they need 3 more mid-level managers within 18 months, that’s a need you can address through L&D by offering management training to develop internal managers for these roles. For software engineering teams, it might be providing online coding courses to enable new hires to become productive faster.
2. Assemble your dream team
If you’re trying to launch a new learning solution and require resources to make it happen, you’ll need to assemble your dream team of champions and partner with all the players in the procurement process—Finance, IT, Legal, HR and key business leaders.
Partnering with your HR team is a natural place to start, especially if your HR team holds the purse strings for learning & development. L&D initiatives solve problems like employee development, retention, and tenure, which are metrics the HR department is increasingly under pressure to solve. This presents a perfect opportunity for you to partner with your HR team to help them meet their goals.
Before starting the procurement process for your solution, spend time having conversations with IT, Legal, and Finance to show how the learning solution is going to help them and their team grow. Get them excited about the learning approach you’re investing in and how it will help them elevate their team or grow personally. When people understand the value of learning, then they get the full context. If people see how they will benefit from the new solution, it will help you push your learning initiative successfully through the procurement process.
3. Speak in numbers: build the business case for learning
When working with executives and business partners, it’s important to speak in a language that resonates with them and start your conversation with key metrics that matter. I mentioned earlier that only 33% of business leaders think L&D programs affect business outcomes. In order to convince them otherwise, you’ll need to draw a clear line to their ROI. For example, you can track the courses an employee has taken and and then look at that individual’s performance metrics. Did they receive a promotion? Did the person stay at the company longer than the average employee?
But what if you’re launching a new initiative and you don’t have those numbers yet—what can you do in that case? Here’s what I’ve found to be an effective approach.
Get data from referrals: I like to flip the order of operations during the procurement process. Normally, you talk to a sales person first, internal stakeholders second, and then you get customer referrals. Instead, I like to talk to the customer referrals early in the process, even before I speak with internal stakeholders. I usually ask the salesperson to give me customers who are at a similar-sized company facing a similar choice. Learning from their experience can often provide me with stronger data to make the case to my C-Suite. I’m always pleasantly surprised by other HR leaders and their openness to discussing their decision-making process. I can often use metrics and anecdotes from their experience to make my case internally.
Get benchmark data: I also like to use benchmark data to show what’s best in class and what we should be striving for in terms of our learning & development approach. I research what leading companies are doing in the same space. I usually rely on a number of sources for my research--including HR thought leaders like Josh Bersin, former Google People leader Laszlo Bock, relevant articles or blogs, and my network of HR leaders. I then piece together a program that is adapted to my company’s needs, budget, and size. I call this the ‘mini-me conversation’ where I map out what the best-in-class companies are doing and then show our CEO and other key business leaders how we can do something similar without breaking the bank.
Get new data where you don’t have metrics: In cases where I don’t have and can’t find any metrics, I fill in the gaps by collecting new data. For example, take the pulse of how employees rank learning & development at your company via a survey. If your survey shows employees rank L&D in the top 3 of their priorities, you can share that information with your CEO and C-Suite. You can also ask employees if they feel like they have opportunities to grow at your company and track how this sentiment changes after you introduce your new learning solution.
Finally, take the time to consider how different stakeholders will view your request for budget and resources. If you’re able to work closely with them to position your initiative as helping them meet their goals and alleviate their pain points, you’re much more likely to succeed. And ultimately, taking a strategic approach to your L&D program will benefit everyone.
Get more tips and advice from HR and L&D leaders in our latest guide: Building the Business Case for Learning: A 5-Step Process to Get Your Stakeholders On Board.
Cara Brennan Allamano is the Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Udemy and formerly led the People function at Planet Inc., Pinterest, and other San Francisco-based companies. She’s a proven leader who has successfully built People functions in fast-growing companies, aligned HR strategy with strategic business needs, developed departmental roadmaps, and grew HR/Recruiting teams from scratch to achieve aggressive growth targets while maintaining high levels of employee engagement.