Usually, we think of ROI in financial terms. Are the investments we make measurable and worth what we are spending? This kind of thinking has some background assumptions that limit how we generate costs and benefits of spending choices when it comes to less tangible things like learning.

The Limits of ROI Thinking

When we assume that ROI needs to be measurable, we are usually thinking about something that is tangible. For example, if we purchase a new boiler, we ask how many years of savings will it take to pay it off? Then, that question leads to an assessment of what a worthwhile time frame is to wait for the investment to pay for itself. Often, this is answered in five-year time frames (maybe more in some cases) – which is relatively short-term thinking. 

The slippery slope to this kind of thinking is that the traditional ROI framework doesn’t work with things that are less tangible or more long-term. For example, many organizations I am working with are focused on increasing the speed and focus of their individual and collective learning. It might be on the topic of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) where an organization develops individuals and assesses its culture, policies and processes to see if there is unconscious bias in its system. Another example is learning that is connected to the speed of adaptation. Given the rate of disruption happening with the pandemic, many people have had to learn how to adapt their business models, change their approach to teaching online, examine the impact their business has on the planet, or adapt to a workplace where their employees want to be treated differently.

All of these disruptions require rapid individual and collective learning in order to adapt to new and emerging realities. But how do we measure the ROI for learning itself? 

Financial vs. Impact Accountability

Traditionally we have used financial accountability to assess the success of a business. However, that doesn’t help us measure our resilience in the future. We need to expand the way we measure accountability. The Blandin Foundation created a document titled the Mountain of Accountability in 2013 with Michael Q. Patton taking the assessment to a new level. Here are the three levels of accountability:

Level One: Basic Accountability answers these two questions:

  • Did we implement our work as planned and authorized?
  • Did we meet basic quality standards in carrying out our work?

These questions are measured on financial audits, investment returns, staff performance, legal oversite, etc.

Level Two: Accountability for Impact and Effectiveness answers these three questions:

  • To what extent are we building strong, positive relationships with key stakeholders and partners?
  • To what extent and in what ways are we attaining desired and intended program outcomes and impacts?
  • What are we learning and in what ways are we applying what we are learning to improve effectiveness?

These questions focus measurement on major program evaluations, synthesis of grantee’s reports on impacts, and feedback from the board, participants, employees, public, etc. 

Level Three: Accountability for Learning, Development, and Adaptation focused on answering these four questions.

  • How are the world and the systems we work in changing and how do we understand those changes to learn, adapt and develop?
  • What does it mean to take our strategic framework seriously and inquire deeply into its elements and their implications for how we do our work and the impacts we have?
  • What are the interrelationships and interconnections between and among our diverse stakeholders and partners?
  • To what extent do the many and diverse parts of the Blandin Foundation constitute a coherent and aligned whole?

It is in this third level of accountability the problems with traditional ROI make themselves known.  Accountability for learning and development requires deep reflective practice, focusing on systems change, innovation and adaption within a complex dynamic system. In other words, it is not your typical set of challenges or measures.

We know that our challenges in this work are requiring us to do deeper learning and adaptation – I don’t see that slowing down in the future. What if today’s pace of change and disruption will be seen in retrospect as relatively calm? What if the speed of disruption and intensity of change will only speed up from here? Given climate change and the vulnerability that it causes will bring more disruption, the answers to these two questions are likely – YES.

So, it will serve us if we figure out how we measure the value of something that takes time, reflection, and experimentation – like learning and adaptation. It can’t look like a traditional ROI. The Mountain of Accountability is one possible approach, what are your organizations experimenting with?