How to turn business goals into learning outcomes


t’s one of the biggest nightmares of an instructional designer: you spend weeks developing learning experiences full of amazing content, media and interactions… but when you show it to your clients or the executive team, they hate it!

It’s easy to feel frustrated, defeated and confused at this point - why can’t they see how amazing your courses are?

Stop. Take a deep breath. Go for a walk. When your head is clear, sit down and ask yourself, “Does my solution meet the business goals?”

And if the answer is “What business goals?”, then you may have found the issue: your learning outcomes weren’t aligned with the business goals.

So if you’re in this position now, or hoping to avoid it in the future, here’s what you need to know. 

What is the difference between business goals and learning outcomes?

Business goals are statements set by the leadership team to determine the direction of the business for the future. They are used to describe what the business aims to achieve within a set time period.

Learning outcomes are statements set by the learning designer that determine the direction of a learning experience. They are used to describe what the learner should be able to achieve by the end of the experience.

From these two definitions, it’s easy to see that business goals are very high level and generic to the whole business, whereas learning outcomes are very specific to a single learning experience.

3D rendering of a yellow and white bullseye on a pale blue background with a ring of arrows pointing to the bullseye.

Why is it important to align business goals and learning outcomes?

When a leadership team sets business goals, all future decisions need to service those goals. In other words, every project needs to prove that it can help the business reach its stated goals. Otherwise, it is a waste of time and resources for the business.

This holds true for learning and development strategies. L&D must demonstrate the value of their projects by showing how they are working to achieve the business goals, or else lose their budget and place at the table.

To be an effective and valuable business contributor, it’s not enough just to understand learning theory, principles and strategies; learning and development professionals these days need strong business skills, financial literacy, consulting skills and an ability to creatively problem solve and sell solutions to the business.

If a learning solution is not connected to business goals and evaluated against business performance indicators, then what’s the point? As the old management saying goes, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ — and this certainly applies in the world of learning.

When faced with the challenge of proving the business case for learning and development, you can demonstrate the value of your learning by setting outcomes that align with those of your business. So, how can you do that?

#1 Specify the business goals

To be taken seriously by key business representatives, and to be able to devise learning solutions that can achieve business goals, you need to know your organization back to front.

First, spend time ensuring you have a thorough understanding of the organization’s business goals and objectives. What needs to be achieved, and by when?

Every business goal should be specific and measurable. For example, the goal “Improve customer satisfaction” is not specific or measurable enough. Instead, try honing this to something like “The business will achieve an average NPS score of 8.5 within twelve months.”

Getting clarity around the business goals will help you develop a targeted, impactful training strategy that can turn your goals into reality.

#2 Map the business’s capabilities

The next step is to map your business’s capabilities. What existing knowledge and skills does each individual and/or department contain?

When you have mapped these capabilities, you can begin to identify what knowledge or skills are currently missing from your workforce that are needed to meet the business goals. 

To continue the example of improving the business’s NPS score, you may identify that your customer success team has strong capabilities in upselling products, but lacks skills in problem resolution, or lacks specific information about a product. By building those missing capabilities, you can start to align your learning outcomes with the business goals.

You can take your capability map into a project pitch to clearly demonstrate the pathway from your training strategy (i.e. your learning outcomes) to the achievement of the business’s goals. Doing so will allow you to speak the language of the leadership team, radically improving the chances of a successful pitch and a successful project.

A man of south east Asian ethnicity smiles at a laptop in an office.

#3 Write your learning outcomes

Building skills and knowledge in the workforce is the key purpose of learning and development. When you have identified what new capabilities the business needs to achieve its goals, you can start to write learning outcomes for your training solution that directly target these missing capabilities.

New to writing learning outcomes? Check out our guide on why learning outcomes are critical for engaging learners (and how to write them).

#4 Determine the feasibility of your solution

It’s easy to get excited about possible learning solutions and get caught up in ideas over practicalities. It’s all well and good to envision a grand, gamified eLearning course with videos of Brad Pitt teaching sales strategies through interpretive dance, but if the resulting budget or scope is well out of the means of your business, your poor alignment will only frustrate your leaders.

Before you go ahead and design any training, you will need to take the time to evaluate:

  • What resources do you have?
  • Can you realistically obtain the funding to implement your program?
  • What new training is required and what can wait, be improved, or be retired?

Some answers may be easy to gather, such as what learning technologies you have available, or pre-existing budget allocations. 

Other answers may take some time. You will likely need to reach out to the team leaders in your business to get an understanding of barriers to implementing new training, such as how much time their team has available to spend on new training initiatives. 

Throughout this process you may need to balance ambition with reality. In other words, aim a little higher than what might currently be possible. 

An overhead view of a man and woman in casual business wear sitting next to each examining an iPad.

#5 Understand the budget cycle

Finally, when you’re ready to pitch your learning solution, it’s important to be strategic about when you pitch. How do you know the best time to pitch? By knowing the business’s budgeting cycles.

When does your business typically announce its annual (or biannual, or quarterly) budget? If you’re not sure, try asking your finance department or officer.

Budgeting cycles typically align with the determining of new business goals. The business goals state the destination and the budget gives a map of how the business thinks it can get there.

Once you know when the budget is being prepared, aim to deliver your pitch at least a month beforehand. A clear, well-justified plan delivered before the budget is finalized can effectively influence the final decision. This also gives you time to negotiate and make amends to your strategy if required to get it approved.

There’s nothing worse than spending the time and energy to create an exciting learning strategy that can’t be funded because your pitch arrived too late!

Alignment is critical

All learning projects must serve the goals of the business. Otherwise, they are ultimately a waste of time and money that will send your leaders into a panic. 

To ensure that projects further the business goals, the learning outcomes of any training project must be fully aligned to the capabilities of the workforce to meet the business goals. By aligning the business goals and learning outcomes, you can clearly demonstrate the value of the project to your leadership team and justify the project investment. 

Need help conducting a needs analysis or building a capability map? The HowToo Xpert team is  all about supporting learning professionals to provide better programs and empowering opportunities for their employees. If you’d like more information or a consultation on your company’s goals and needs, feel free to get in touch with our friendly team.

Sep 1, 2022

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