Has anyone ever asked you to prove that breathing contributes to the bottom line?  Or small talk or smiling or thinking – or countless other things we all do each day just by virtue of being alive?  I don’t expect so.  Then why, I wonder, am I so often asked to make the business case for learning?  In other words, to prove beyond reasonable doubt that work based learning (let us assume that the learning in question is ‘good’) has a beneficial impact on the financial performance of a business.

Frankly, whenever I’m challenged on this I keep outwardly calm but underneath I experience feelings of mild exasperation.  Nothing life threatening, but sufficient to set me wondering why such an ostensibly respectable question should give rise to any negative feelings at all – especially since I firmly believe that negative feelings are things we ‘choose’ to have.  It seems silly to succumb to unpleasant feelings of irritation when, instead, I could choose nicer feelings such as being intrigued or fascinated or even pleased to be consulted on such a weighty matter.

So, I’ve been pondering why I feel irritated by the bottom line question and I think I’ve got it sussed (the reasons why – not the answer to the question!).

Firstly, people who ask for evidence that learning contributes to the bottom line are usually muddling up training and learning.  Bundling the two together by assuming they are one and the same, clouds the issue.  I have no problem accepting the need to find ways to quantify the bottom line contribution of training interventions.  I know evaluating training isn’t necessarily easy, and I accept that often it isn’t practical, but it is clearly a sensible thing to attempt.  Learning is, however, a different matter.  Training is an ‘event’ with a beginning, middle and end, whereas learning is a continuous process – both conscious and unconscious. Events are easier (I didn’t say easy!) to measure than on-going processes.

Secondly, I feel affronted that something as self-evidently laudable as learning should be subjected to a bottom-line challenge at all.  For me, the business case is so obvious, so transparent, that it is a no-brainer.  My colleague, Professor Ian Cunningham, turns the question on its head.  He explains; ‘Reductio ad absurdum is the process of proving a proposition by showing that its opposite is absurd’.  Using this approach he quickly demonstrates that no organisation could function without learning.  Recruits would be forbidden to learn how to do the job, they would have to be completely competent from the word go.  If there were changes to, say, technology everyone would be told not to learn how to use it.  Experienced people would not be allowed to coach the less experienced.  Conversations between people over coffee or lunch would have to steer well clear of anything that might be construed as knowledge sharing.  In fact, breaks would probably have to be taken in complete silence for fear of stumbling on something that might actually be useful.  Ian Cunningham concludes that all organisations, whether they recognise it or not, invest in learning on the assumption that it makes a vital contribution to performance.  Not to do so is so patently absurd that it renders further proof superfluous.

Thirdly, I’m irritated by a clear case of double standards.  Just think of the numerous things that happen in organisations that escape bottom-line scrutiny; meetings for example that cost money but are rarely evaluated.   I have other niggles too.  When the bottom-line question is asked, I feel annoyed about being forced onto the defensive and an uneasy feeling of dissonance grips me.  On the one hand, I believe in measuring things – even difficult things such as learning – my maxim is; if you can imagine it you can describe it, if you can describe it you can behave it, if you can behave it you can measure it.  But on the other hand, quite unreasonably, I want learning to be exempt.  Everything else can be subjected to bottom line scrutiny but not, surely not, learning?

Activities in organisations with ‘measured benefits’ are few and far between. So why dare to question the worthwhileness of dear old work based learning?  I’d far rather accept that learning contributes directly to the bottom line than, say, a change of company logo.  Learning definitely comes much cheaper!




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