“What’s the ROI from Training?” is the Wrong Question

🕑 4 minutes read | Dec 27 2022 | By Richard Head, TTA Learning Consultant

Wait. ROI is a key measure, so what’s wrong with asking about it?

Let me start with a story.

I worked for a large company as Director of Training and was in a meeting with several senior executives, including my boss and the Chief Financial Officer. At one point the CFO asked one of his favorite questions: “Richard, what’s the ROI from this training effort.”

I said, “Tom, you might as well ask about the ROI from the expensive artwork on the walls or the ROI from the fountain in front of the building.” My boss was not happy, but I continued.

“Like everything that involves training, this is a huge change management project. The training we’re conducting is only one component. Training is an input, not an outcome. We’ll measure what students can do before the training and compare that with what they can do after the training. At that point, however, it will be up to other people—the people in this room—to make sure that the learners have the opportunity to use their new skills every chance they get, and have those skills reinforced on a number of levels. Other project partners—Marketing, Sales, IT, HR—have to do their parts as we determine whether the changes the organization made had the payoff that we desired. That’s the ROI measurement—the ROI from the entire change effort. Training is only one part.”

You could have heard a pin drop when I finished, and I won’t bore you with the chewing out I got from my boss after the meeting, but I’d had it with his perennial question, “What’s the ROI from training?” I’d made the point with everyone in the meeting, and it reinforced that every person involved in the project had a role to play in determining ROI, not just training.

Managers have a huge role in ROI

For those who insist that the capability to perform newly learned tasks is an outcome, it’s really just an output. The outcome—the end business result you want, and what ROI is all about—is only gained by performing the new skill on the job. And that’s something only managers can guarantee.

In his book, “What Every Manager Should Know About Training, or ‘I’ve Got a Training Problem’ and Other Odd Ideas,’” Robert Mager, one of the seminal thinkers in the learning and development field, said that trainers can only guarantee skill and confidence, not on-the-job performance. Managers, not trainers, must be held accountable for OTJ performance using the new skills.

Mager said that “…although trainers can provide skills and self-confidence, only you (the manager) can provide the opportunity to perform, and only you can provide an environment that encourages and supports performance….” Every L&D professional should read that book, along with others in Mager’s L&D series referenced at the end of this post.

Sure, we can measure what learners can do differently at the end of a training event. But whether learners can perform differently back on the job is not a function of training; it’s a function of management.

The Elements of Performance

What people are really getting at when they ask about ROI are measurable, sustainable changes in employee performance, and whether those changes meet the stated objectives of the change initiative. Learning and development activities are only one part of a structure, something I call a Performance House. The graphic below illustrates that structure, and that it takes TIME to maintain. It’s not a “one and done” effort where training is expected to ensure the success or failure of a change initiative based on a training event.

While self-explanatory, the graphic reinforces Mager’s point that there’s a lot of effort that must happen after the training is complete. Behavior change and business results are the responsibility of the line manager following the training initiative. The trainer or L&D manager can work with the line manager on what kinds of after-learning-event supports are necessary, but, following the items on the graphic, it’s up to the line manager to make sure that employees have incentives to keep using the new skills, managerial support for the new skills (constantly reinforcing the new skills and their necessity), and the proper environment (systems, tools, equipment, etc.).

ROI from training

A Shift in Perspective
It’s a trap for L&D professionals to answer the “What’s the ROI from training?” question, but, with a bit of effort (and a bit more tact than I showed in the story above), we can educate people about the dynamics involved in ROI calculations, ensure that learners have the managerial support required, and ensure the success of a change initiative.


“What Every Manager Should Know About Training, or ‘I’ve Got a Training Problem’ and Other Odd Ideas.’” Robert F. Mager.

The New Mager Six-Pack.” Robert F. Mager. Titles include:

  • “Analyzing Performance Problems”
  • “Preparing Instructional Objectives”
  • “Measuring Instructional Results”
  • “How to Turn Learners On…Without Turning Them Off”
  • “Goal Analysis”
  • “Making Instruction Work”

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