For decades, evaluation, ROI and business impact have been under discussion within L&D. Countless conferences are filled with the what and how of the evaluation of predominantly formal learning (1). However, responses to the question: ‘how can we translate the value of (formal) learning to business impact’ often remain anxiously silent. That is why it is time to think differently about the value that L&D delivers – beyond the boundaries of formal learning.

L&D And Formal Learning

The limitation of the L&D discipline’s focus on formal learning has not come about by chance. Clients think that L&D mainly provides formal learning solutions. This strengthens the self-selected boundary L&D has constructed to limit its service to formal learning (1). Formal learning is and will continue to be, the domain of L&D in organizations irrespective of whether it has an impact in the workplace: in the learning zone, see figure 1.

Figure 1 The focus of L&D in organizations on formal learning in the learning zone.

In the learning zone, the aim is to develop competencies of workers. L&D has an extensive range of formal learning solutions in the categories of training, eLearning, blended learning, workplace learning and learning support to address this.

L&D Business Models With An Emphasis On Formal Learning

Many new business models have emerged under the influence of innovative technology. Well-known examples are Airbnb, Uber, and Amazon. We also see business models changing in the banking sector, health care, retail, industry, services … Where do we not see it?
These new business models are intended to add value for customers and organizations through faster, cheaper, better or renewed services, or through other benefits.

Organizational components, such as L&D, also work with a business model. Often their business model is invisible, as is the case for most work processes (2). As a result, many training and learning professionals are not aware of the L&D business model they use.

A definition of L&D Business Models inspired by Osterwalder and Bock (3):

‘Business models represent action-oriented insights about the mechanisms that add value to the customers of L&D. The L&D Business Model Canvas visualizes the business model at a system level, making it possible to realize the transition from the current to the desired L&D Business Model.’

For L&D, four business models (4) have been developed as prototypes, of which the two most common are the Order Taker and the Learning Enabler, figure 2. These are two L&D business models with a strong focus on formal learning solutions and the demonstration of the value of learning (learning value). Informal learning is a blind spot for the Order Taker and the Learning Enabler. Their service provision consists almost entirely of formal learning solutions.

Figure 2 The two most common L&D Business Models: Order Taker and Learning Enabler

More (Order Taker Business Model)(4)

The world of training in organizations had its modern origin in the factories during the Industrial Revolution. Due to the exponential growth at that time it was impossible to continue training and instruction in the workplace. Hence the idea of making formal learning scalable through the training of (large) groups in classrooms. This approach grew due to its ability to meet needs and has led to doing more of the same (formal training).

The scalable form of training in classrooms and eLearning is based on the Order Taker. L&D receives an assignment to implement the solution devised by the manager. The manager has analyzed the performance problem and believes that the desired solution is training. This type of solutioneering by the management is still the order of the day in much current practice, often to the frustration of L&D professionals (5).

Better (Learning Enabler Business Model)(4)

The professionalization of L&D is in full swing. An impressive range of initiatives at practical and scientific level aims to advance the profession, its position in organizations, and the professional group. Some examples include:

  • New technology, including adaptive learning, AI, and Learning Analytics;
    Innovative services such as blended learning, social learning, learning experience design (6), workplace learning and microlearning;
  • New methods to evaluate learning: Vance with Talent Development Reporting Principles (TDRp) (7) and Thalheimer with the Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) (8);
  • New roles for the L&D professional as proposed by the ATD (Competency Model) (9), LPI (Capability Map) (10) and the 70:20:10 Institute (roles and critical tasks) (11);
  • Stimulating the connection between science and learning by Shank (12), Thalheimer (13) and Neelen and Kirschner: evidence-informed learning design. (14)

Of course, there are more examples of improvements and (technological) innovation of learning solutions in organizations. With the striking feature that it principally focuses on formal learning. The Learning Enabler is the professional learning-oriented L&D Business Model.

All the mechanisms and processes in the Order Taker and the Learner Enabler business models are designed in a way that formal learning solutions are the logical outcome. As a matter of fact, these are systems where formal learning is really the only output possible. This is the explanation as to why L&D lives in the formal learning silo.

Challenges For L&D In The Learning Silo

However, there is a fundamental problem with formal learning solutions that are designed to measurably improve the performance of organizations. Attempts have been made for many decades to demonstrate measurable business impact. However, the connection does not work very well. According to the LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report (15), the top priority for CEOs is to connect learning with the desired organizational results. To demonstrate a measurable business impact in this way. The LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report shows that CEOs see business impact as the number one KPI for L&D, but this is achieved in only 8% of cases and ROI is seen in only 4%.

Converting learning value to business value is an issue with which L&D has been struggling for many decades. This is logical because formal learning solutions usually do not remove the causes of performance problems in organizations (16).

The next blog, value-based L&D, addresses new opportunities with new L&D business models demonstrating business value; beyond the formal learning silo.


  1. The ATD’s research has long shown that the average time devoted to formal learning fluctuates between 30 and 35 hours per year. Only since 2016, the State of Industry Report pays attention to on-the-job learning. The number of hours spent on this has not been included in the study.
    ATD (2018). State of Industry Report. Alexandria: ATD press.
  2. Rummler. G. (2016). Improving Performance. How to Manage the White Space on the Organizational Chart.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  3. Inspired by:
    • Osterwalder, A. & I.Pigneur. (2010). Business Model Generation. New York: John Wiley ‘A business model describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers and captures value’: A Business Model describing the value and organisation of the business and partners required for creating, marketing, and delivering value and relationship capital with the goal of generating profitable and sustainable revenue streams.’
    • Bock, A.J. & George, G. (2018). The Business Model Book. Design, build and adapt business ideas that thrive. San Francisco: Pearson Education Limited. Kindle Edition: ‘A business model is a representation of how a business creates and delivers value for customers while also capturing value for itself, doing so in a repeatable way.’
  4. Arets, J. (In press). Show me the Value. Co-creating Value-Based L&D. London, Maastricht: 70:20:10 Institute
  5. Arets, J., V.Heijnen & Jennings, C. (2015). 70:20:10 towards 100% performance. Maastricht: Sutler Media.
  6. Overview interesting resources:
  7. TDRP
  8. Thalheimer, W. (2018). The Learning Transfer Evaluation Model Report for LTEM. Viewed on October 5 2018. Retrieved from:
  9. ATD, Competency Model:
  10. LPI, Capability Map:
  11. Arets, J., V.Heijnen & Jennings, C. (2015). 70:20:10 towards 100% performance. Maastricht: Sutler Media.
  12. Patty Shank:
  13. Will Thalheimer:
  14. Mirjam Neelen, Paul Kirschner (2018). Working in an evidence informed way. Viewed on November 5. Retrieved from:
  15. Workplace Learning Report 2017, LinkedIn:–top-trends—cha Workplace Learning Report 2018, LinkedIn:
  16. Arets, J., Heijnen, V. & Jennings, C. (2015). 70:20:10 naar 100% performance. Maastricht: Sutler Media.