What Does “Effective Learning” Really Mean?

person taking training on a mobile deviceThe goal of all workforce training is to be effective, but what does “effective” really mean?

When discussing the effectiveness of learning and development (L&D), learning pros often bring up KPIs, information retention, completion rates, but what do we want our training to look like, and how do we define a good training program?

There are as many definitions of “good training” and “effective learning” as there are learning programs. Some lean into skills development, while some are more focused on personal growth. Some programs focus on teaching, and others encourage employees to direct their own learning. Many of these programs are effective, even though they are completely different. Can there be a common definition that includes them all?

What does “effective” L&D even mean?

While everyone is likely to have their own idea of what effective training is, it might help to start by looking at the purpose of L&D.

Here are some definitions laid out by some industry experts:

  • The Association of Training and Development (ATD) defines L&D as the “function within an organization that is responsible for empowering employees’ growth and developing their knowledge, skills, and capabilities to drive better business performance.”
  • Gartner defines workforce training programs as “mechanisms by which organizations can facilitate skill development of employees.”
  • According to McKinsey, “one of L&D’s primary responsibilities is to manage the development of people—and to do so in a way that supports other key business priorities.”

Each definition is different, but the common thread in all three is the development of skills and knowledge that benefits both the individual and the business. By that logic, if your L&D program’s end result is employees who have learned skills that help them succeed in the workplace while driving your business forward, you’ve created effective training.

That creates another problem: how do you measure it?

How do you know if your training is effective?

Finding key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure training is a perennial issue in L&D, especially during budget time, when L&D department heads are looking for ways to prove their programs’ return on investment (ROI) to leadership.

There are some metrics, however that can help you understand the effectiveness of your learning program:

  1. Job performance: One of the most straightforward ways to measure training effectiveness is to measure employees’ performance on a single task or skill before and after training – for example, looking at the number of deals closed by your sales department, or measuring the number of slips and falls after safety training. This data can give you proof your training is working. However, while this approach works for skills-based training, you may find it more difficult to measure the effectiveness of other sorts of development initiatives, like leadership training or personal growth.
  2. Knowledge retention: Effective training stays with your learners long after they’ve taken the quiz and closed out the course. Measuring the stickiness of knowledge can be done via follow-up courses or quizzes, by observing a learner applying knowledge, or by talking to that learner’s manager to see if the learner has remembered what they learned.
  3. Career growth: Leadership training has become more important in recent years as L&D has taken on the responsibility of growing their organization’s next crop of leaders. The number of internal hires can show you whether your leadership program has been effective.
  4. Employee retention: Keeping employees at work has never been more important than it is now. 2021’s Great Resignation saw many workers leave their jobs while companies scrambled to fill positions. Because many workers link training with opportunity, higher job retention numbers may be an indication of an effective L&D program.
  5. Engaged employees: McKinsey uses several pillars to describe effective learning in detail. One of them is “engaged, motivated” employees. While it’s not always easy to measure the emotional state of learners, it is anecdotally observable when workers are motivated, happy to be at work, and contributing to their teams. The best way to measure this may be conversations with managers and learners themselves. If your learning is sparking a fire in learners, it’s definitely effective.

What does “effective learning” mean for your organization?

Effective learning serves both the learner and the organization, but it also must serve your organization. No learning program will be effective if it does not mirror the values, culture, and brand of your company.

One of McKinsey’s learning pillars stipulates that learning must “create a values-based culture.” You must build your learning around the mission and values that are important to your organization so it’s able to serve both the learners and your company as a whole.