Return on Learning: A book review by Bob Morris

Return on Learning: Training for High Performance at Accenture
Donald Vanthournout, Tad Waddington, and other members of Accenture’s Capability Development Team
Agate B2 (2006)

How Accenture achieved an ROI of 353% on its commitment to enterprise learning

To the best of my knowledge, this book offers the single best source for information and counsel on how to design a high-impact learning program that can be implemented and then sustained (with continuous improvement) at all levels and within all areas of the given organization. Better yet, as the contributors to this book (members of Accenture’s Capability Development team) explain, the ROI of such a program can be both quantified and verified.

In 2001, Accenture faced a number of major challenges that are best revealed and discussed within the narrative, in context. The fact remains that, led by Donald Vanthournout, Accenture’s Capability Development team began a “journey” that had to take those challenges into full account. What they learned provides the most valuable material in this book. The story of their journey is a business story: about how one company – Accenture – advanced toward high performance through learning, knowledge management and the transformation of its workforce. By extension, however, it is about how other organizations can do the same.”

In recent years, senior-level executives have been much more interested in knowing how to increase and improve the nature and extent of employee engagement: “how can they best tap into the collective intelligence of their people and engage them in their work, for their benefit and the benefit of he entire enterprise?” Vanthournout and the members of his team shared a business-centric perspective. They were determined to link human capital investments to business benefits, both for Accenture and for each of its clients; to put in place the governance and leadership structures that increase a learning program’s chances of success; to ensure that the actual classroom and electronic training create what the team characterized as “phenomenal” learning experiences; and to maximize the operational efficiency of learning. According to Vanthournout, he selected members to comprise a team that “was more of a team focused more on corporate education than it was an education team trying to have a business impact.”

Here are some of the key lessons that members of the Accenture team learned during their “journey,” each of which is supported by hard data rather than by firm (albeit sincere) convictions:

1. Enterprise learning must be driven with the end in mind: the business results to be achieved.

2. An enterprise should build a learning strategy founded on the core values of the organization, as well as its primary leadership values.

3. Through metrics and ROI analysis, learning investments can be linked to business performance outcomes.

4. When conducting an ROI analysis, organizations should focus on how learning improved a person’s performance on the job.

5. According to Kurt Olson, a team member, “Although it may be an overused phrase now, phenomenal earning was truly the `secret sauce’ for many of the outcomes we have accomplished with the learning transformation initiative at Accenture. Phenomenal learning was how all good planning and design came to life. It’s how the `thinking’ and the `doing’ all came together to produce phenomenal results.”

6. To address the increasing emphasis on business outcomes, today’s learning professionals must have strong business skills.

7. Because the lifespan of learning content is shrinking as the marketplace changes more rapidly, Accenture must develop the means for faster, continuous, and more efficient content production or revision.

8. A global learning infrastructure can integrate vital decision-support functionalities that help increase the impact of learning and keep it aligned with the most important business needs.

9. Companies should focus on differentiating their workforces, creating deep skills in people that can be brought to bear anywhere around the organization.

10. Increasing the engagement of employees is important not only to retaining them and improving productivity. It is important to growth and innovation by tapping into the collective intelligence of value workers.

It is worth noting that, as a result of the efforts of the Capability Development team, working closely with senior management and countless other associates throughout the firm, “for every dollar Accenture invests in learning, the company receives that dollar back plus an additional $3.25 in measurable value to its bottom line – in other words, a 353 percent return on learning.” Literally, ROL = ROI. To repeat, Return on Learning is also about “how other organizations can do the same.” Or how they can at least “use learning programs for major business impact, and can run learning as a business.”

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