The Legitimate Need for Measurement as Evidence
I keep coming back to a quote from President Clinton at Learning 2011:
“If you already know the truth, you don’t need the evidence.”
He was using that in context of a political topic, but I really think it’s applicable to measurement. If trust isn’t the real issue, and if performance and business results are the “truth” we are seeking, and if we can prove those business-related results, do we really need “evidence” that training—either as learning events or as a continuous and integrated process—got us there?
If the purpose of our occupation is to make our companies better, to improve performance, then the primary measurement should be whether or not our businesses are in fact becoming better. In either case, our evidence should ultimately be based in the “proof” that our business objectives are being met.
While this is true in most situations, there is the possible exception of compliance training in which there is a legitimate need to prove learner participation and present it as evidence. However, there is a real danger in perpetuating what I call pseudo-compliance courses, where compliance is mandated but not linked to any regulatory need nor real business drivers or goals.
Compliance vs. Pseudo-Compliance: What’s the Difference?
“But…,” you say. “I have course XYZ that I HAVE to make sure everyone takes.”
This is the classic compliance model. The notion here is:
- There are organizations that are legally mandated to provide a training event and must prove that employees did observe the event.
- There are organizations whose legal exposure will be unreasonably high if they cannot prove that their employees observed a training event.
- There is a strong feeling that training creates a real, actionable alignment between a body of knowledge and the day-to-day behavior of employees.
Clearly items 1 and 2 happen in real life and pass as legitimate reasons for measuring compliance. However, item 3 falls short since it is not linked to a measurable business goal or driver. It’s that simple. It doesn’t mean that it’s not important or that you shouldn’t do it, but you may not need the evidence to back it up.
The Danger of Pseudo-Compliance
The biggest danger in measuring compliance or gathering evidence on compliance comes from tracking things as “compliance” that do not meet the criteria. It’s really easy to incorrectly identify a training event as being either legally necessary or subject to unreasonable legal exposure. These pseudo-compliance courses or events, if allowed to, will:
- waste your time and resources
- perpetuate poor impressions of formal training
- provide cost justifications for systems and processes that do not contribute to your company’s business objectives
It’s perfectly reasonable to set an expectation that employees participate in a pseudo-compliance course, but there are generally ZERO measurable returns on that activity or event. Measuring compliance does, however, have a measurable cost in terms of systems and labor.
The most common occurrence I see of pseudo-compliance courses are around philosophical topics. Sure there are ethical issues that have concrete actions and legal repercussions that are legitimate candidates for measuring compliance, but I’m talking about philosophy here in terms of asking or expecting an employee to believe or think a certain way. Topics like integrity or honesty. You can give examples of someone acting in a way you want your employees to act, but it’s not measurable in the business. Lack of compliance with a mandate for honesty or integrity is typically grounds for dismissal of an employee. What does it matter if you have evidence of the training event when this type of mandate is violated?
Assuming that the training you wish to track is legally required or implied as such, it’s reasonable then to assume that the legislation that defines the requirement is strongly linked to either the financial, personal, or civil liberties of persons who work with or for, or come into contact with, your corporation. The premise is that it is in the best interest of your company and the public to comply with the legislation. The rebel in me would love to argue against the idea that all legislated training is needed, but the fact remains that it is a reality of business that there are legal requirements that make compliance necessary.
Assuming for a second that legislation is good and there is a public interest or common good in our compliance, isn’t that something we should want to do regardless? After all, aren’t we as individuals party to the laws of our land? Therefore, the training we do should be such that we not only comply with the law, but also ensure that our behavior is such that we never violate the intent of the law or requirement.
It’s easy enough to leverage an LMS to prove 100% compliance in the eyes of a legal requirement, but the true measure of success is that we have zero violations in our business practice. Thus, our performance measurement is zero or our compliance measurement is 100%. Which measurement is more important?
By definition, legally mandated training is a cost center. We have a responsibility to manage expenditures and be efficient with our companies spending, but that should never interfere with our performance measurement of obeying our legal obligations.
Now I’d like to move onto to the scenario in which we are legally compelled to provide a compliance measurement, but it is not legislatively mandated. This is a cost-avoidance mechanism. We are, in principle, agreeing to invest in learning in exchange for a reduced or minimized cost should legal action occur at an unknown future date. But let’s be honest with ourselves; legal liability occurs as a result of a tort. Under tort law, companies are held liable for the behavior or actions someone commits while acting as a representative of that company. The reasons for the tort action vary, but can be generally attributed to:
- Negligence—lack of knowledge or insight that an action performed on the part of the company could cause damage to another party
- Intent—purposeful gains realized by a person, persons, or the company itself at the expense of another party
Much like legally required compliance training, legally-compelled training may have a compliance measurement that could be used in defense of legal action, but the true measure of success is once again that zero actionable behaviors are committed by individuals acting on behalf of our company.
To avoid negligence, we must make sure that people know better, but more importantly, that their actions of behavior reflect that knowledge. When you know better and act in defiance or without deference to that knowledge, then that is the definition of intent. In either case, to truly realize the cost avoidance measure, you must have evidence of compliance yet your obligation doesn’t stop there. Ultimately, performance is the real measurement of success, not compliance.
What Not to Measure
The problem with cost avoidance as a measuring stick is that there is no guarantee that the expense you try to avoid would ever have materialized had you taken no action at all. It’s just a possible expense you may have incurred down the road. There is no direct link to sustainable profitability unless you can say with certainty that you had a consistent, if not fixed, expense that you incurred at a defined level that will no longer be incurred or, at least, will now be incurred at a reduced level. There is no real ROI—only an imagined or implied ROI.
Looking at compliance training as whole, there is a real business requirement, if not a legal requirement, to measure compliance with prescribed formal training events. But that shouldn’t be our justification for creating, maintaining, or supporting those formal training events. And by no means should training compliance itself be a measure of effectiveness upstream in your organization.
At the end of the day, quarter, and fiscal year, the list of training events that we gather evidence of participation on should be as small as possible. This evidence has value, but only as a vague measurement of possible cost avoidance. If we want to actually measure the effectiveness of that training, then the measuring stick needs to be performance based and evidenced by a LACK of adverse occurrences.