Return on learning (ROL): More than a boring statistic

Fireworks in Grand Rapids on July 4, 2011.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, the day before Selma’s favorite holiday: Independence Day. He claims to “love this holiday because it celebrates the journey of our country and there’s no commercial mandate for superfluous gifts. No running from one house to the other because of tradition. It’s shorts, t-shirts, beer, BBQ, friends and fireworks.”

For me, it means a much-needed couple of days off as conference season ramps up. Next week I have the pleasure of participating in the Michigan Society of Association Executives’ annual convention, colloquially known as OrgPro. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop a set of concurrent breakout sessions that everyone will participate in Wednesday morning called, “The Solution Room.”

I’m also very much looking forward to Ignite. It’s been many months in the making, but the day of reckoning is nearly here – and it’s go time for 11 very excited association and supplier professionals who are eager to hit that stage and share with the world (yes, we will be broadcasting live!) their personal and professional passions related to the theme of transformation.

The following week, I once again make friends with my mobile office. This time, it’s a road trip of epic proportions (for me, at least). I’m headed down to Muncie, Indiana. A simple check of Google Maps indicates that in relation to Grand Rapids, Muncie is nearly due south – though, of course, the route will be slightly less direct. When you factor in road construction, there’s no telling what to expect.

Nevertheless, I’ll be speaking at the Indiana Society of Association Executives’ (ISAE) annual convention Thursday afternoon. My closing keynote presentation – Return on Learning (ROL): More Than a Boring Statistic – is intended to be a highly interactive session explaining what exactly ROL is, how to calculate it and why it’s important.

I’ll start by defining return on investment (ROI) as a performance measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment. To calculate ROI, the benefit (return) of an investment is divided by the cost of the investment. (Hang in there!) ROL is simply a derivative of ROI that sheds a spotlight of laser-like proportions on an organization’s learning investments.

That’s great, but what does it mean in practice? For those who know me well, the concept of bridging theory with practice is one I often preach from my soap box as an essential conference deliverable. So, we’ll use the ISAE annual convention as a case study. This will allow participants the opportunity to experiment with ROL and begin to uncover innovative ways to calculate and market ROL for their own events.

The first step in calculating ROL (or ROI, for that matter), is examining the cost of training versus perceived/actual benefits. Training “costs” may include registration fees, training materials, transportation, lodging and meals, as well as time and lost productivity.  On the other hand, training “benefits” may include session content (e.g., tools, technologies and processes), association contacts, vendor contacts, best practices and skill development.

Obviously, placing a dollar value on benefits such as networking and knowledge acquisition can be tricky, particularly in the short-run. However, long-term value is a bit easier to calculate and generally manifests itself in terms of products and services that are then sold to association members and clients for a profit. In other words, this is where conference learning (unique for each attendee) intersects with his or her organization’s mission, vision and values to create a value-add.

With the volume of education programs available today, it’s clear to see how understanding and effectively sharing your meeting’s ROL with your target audience could impact not only program attendance, but ultimately perceived value and your organization’s bottom line.

Finally, I intend to conclude with a brief discussion about staff learning investments, inherent benefits and tips for maximizing staff ROL. For example, learning organizations accept a set of attitudes, values and practices that support the process of continuous learning that could result in improved decision-making skills, future cost savings, increased productivity, higher quality work and better efficiency.

Conversely, organizations deficient in professional development competencies are unable to overcome poor quality, inefficiency, low staff morale, communication issues and turnover/high recruitment costs.

Ultimately, learning investments are the right thing to do and the effects of learning on business performance are cumulative over time. Organizations can expect a financial return on investment, as well as a multidimensional return on their commitment to learning (e.g., culture, reputation and productivity).

Following are three tips for maximizing staff ROL:

  1. Create individualized development plans for each employee focused on specific leadership competencies defined by the requirements of the position, team, organization and profession.
  2. Establish management champions and mentors that support employee learning.
  3. Blur the lines between classroom, workplace and relationships, ultimately promoting the immediate application of learning within your organization.

So, my question to you is this: How does your organization leverage ROL when marketing programs and events? How does the learning environment of your organization impact work performance? What would you add to this discussion about return on learning?

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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