Business Impact of Social and Informal Learning

by Jay Cross on June 12, 2009

On Tuesday I led a session on Business Impact of Learning in the Real World for the Learning & Skills Group in London.

To implement social/informal learning infrastructure projects, learning and development professionals need to shift their focus from learning to earning. The place to begin is by identifying a business objective that is vital to a corporate sponsor.


I contend that networks have turned the world of learning upside down. Everything is business is becoming interconnected and this drives ever-faster cycle times. Groups have become more important than individuals. The interplay of complex systems has rendered the business environment unpredictable. And as a result, we must focus our attention on learning ecosystems instead of courses and workshops: platforms, not programs.


Measuring the impact of an ecosystem is a different exercise from evaluating a single program. Often the payback is so enormous that precision is unnecessary. We looked at an example where a combination of eLearning, performance support, and structured activities led to billions of dollars in new revenue.

When this project’s sponsor questioned the numbers, the learning manager asked if it would be reasonable to attribute, say, 3% of the increased revenue to the new approach to learning. The sponsor readily agreed. So the learning manager took credit for bringing in a mere hundred million in new sales.

A sponsor is an individual with the authority to make budget decisions. What are the appropriate metrics for success or failure of a learning ecology (a learnscape)? Whatever the sponsor buys into. This is a major theme of What Would Andrew Do?

If you can’t make the case for a learnscape project on the back of an envelope, it’s time to pick another project. We gave everyone in the room an envelope and challenged them to jot down their elevator pitch for their next encounter with their sponsors. If managers of learning can’t sell their projects on business terms, they won’t survive in these topsy-turvy times.

I expect to be leading sessions like this in-house at corporations that have been stymied by reduced funding and lack of forward motion.

Slides from the workshop are on SlideShare. A companion handout is available on Scribd.

Jane and Jay at Westfield Mall
After our presentations to the Learning and Skills Group, Jane Hart and I took a breather at the Pommery Champagne Bar in the Westfield Mall.

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