Kirkpatrick Learning Model: Everything You Need to Know

I wish every employee on my team came in on Day 1 knowing everything they need to know about doing business in our industry.

As a manager, does that look like your fairytale scenario?

Unfortunately, this is always going to remain little more than a pipe dream. The reality is clear: in order to be set up for success, employees – especially new or inexperienced ones – need robust training. Yet, essential as it may be, many managers still struggle to convince whoever controls their organization’s purse strings that in-depth, continuous workplace learning is worth the investment.

There are a number of reasons underlying this struggle, but in many cases they boil down to one of two facts. Either:

  1. an organization’s corporate learning processes work but are too opaque or inconsistent to clearly exhibit their success
  2. an organization’s corporate learning processes are simply not that effective. In other words, either your training works but it’s hard to show it, or your training is sucking up resources without delivering results.

It was with this problem in mind that Donald Kirkpatrick embarked on research that would become the core of his doctoral dissertation, “Evaluating a Human Relations Training Program for Supervisors.” First published in 1959, Kirkpatrick’s research details a four-level training evaluation program – now known as the Kirkpatrick Learning Model – designed to assess whether and/or how a company’s employee education program is effective. In 2010, Kirkpatrick’s son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Wendy Kirkpatrick, crafted the New World Kirkpatrick Learning Model, a slight reimagining of the original model, optimized for the modern world and ensuring Kirkpatrick’s fundamental principles continue to be the gold standard for evaluating training effectiveness.

For managers struggling to demonstrate the value of their training programs – and especially for those struggling to find value in their programs in the first place – the Kirkpatrick Learning Model can be something of a godsend. As such, we’ve outlined the general approach and, of course, the four specific steps that Kirkpatrick and his progeny have shown to be a boon to corporate training programs the world over.

Download the Free Kirkpatrick Learning Model Workbook today. Click here to get your copy

Using the Kirkpatrick Model to Assess Education Program

Every business process – training-related or otherwise – should have a clear ideal end result. That is, if executed effectively, what is the outcome that this process will deliver? When it comes to employee training, high-level stakeholders always want to know things like how long the process will take and how much the process will cost, meaning establishing realistic expectations from the get-go is absolutely critical.

According to Kirkpatrick, the most practical way to demonstrate the value of an employee education program is to focus on what he termed “return on expectations” (ROE).

Return on Expectation

Let’s run through them one-by-one.

1. Focus on organizational mission

When it comes to proving that the end result of a training program constitutes an undeniable good for your business, it’s important to frame your approach in terms that align with what your company is all about. What is the meat of your company’s mission or vision statement? What, ultimately, is your company trying to offer to its customers? A training program only has value if it contributes in some way, shape, or form to these endeavors. As a manager in charge of training, you’ve got to be able to say, “My program improves Metric X among my employees, which directly bears upon Goal Y of the company.”

2. Identify leading indicators

Speaking of metrics, beyond those that measure your highest-level goals, companies must also focus on “leading indicators.” Simply put, leading indicators are short-term metrics that measure whether your company is headed in the right direction and whether your employees’ critical behaviors are where they need to be. Figures on employee retention, customer service satisfaction, and product quality ratings are all common examples of key leading indicators. Paying close attention to these indicators helps managers demonstrate how proper training influences employee actions, which then drive your highest-level metrics.

3. Define critical behaviors

Determining precisely which employee behaviors need to be measured – and, if the leading indicators don’t look good, adjusted – is itself a process. Oftentimes what appears to be a poor behavior or insufficient skill ends up being attributable to extenuating circumstances.  For instance, say your team is failing to meet expectations related to new customer acquisition. You might assume that this means you should commit additional resources to prospecting training, but this isn’t always going to be the right move. In fact, your team might be more than proficient at the mechanics of prospecting, but could be struggling with poor product knowledge or a lack of time to dedicate to prospecting on account of too much time being spent on other responsibilities like servicing existing customers. Communication is of paramount importance here. Before deciding to hone in on any one critical behavior, always survey your team to make sure you’re defining the problem properly.

4. Determine required drivers

Once you’ve figured out exactly which behaviors need work, you must come up with a set of drivers that can push employee actions in the right direction. Depending on the circumstances, an effective driver can take many forms. Consider introducing an element of formal self-monitoring into your team’s processes. Have team members submit goals or action plans for each week – to build off our previous example, acquiring X number of new customers – and report on their own performance in their weekly reports or one-on-one checks-in. Having successful team members offer strategies and feedback to their peers is also quite effective, and it allows you as a manager to easily leverage the valuable experience of senior team members to your advantage.

Download the Free Kirkpatrick Learning Model Workbook today. Click here to get your copy

5. Design Learning

With all of this in place, you can finally begin to craft a pinpointed, streamlined employee training program. Since you’ve already done a lot of the legwork, you can typically formulate the learning objectives for your training session by combining your notes and determinations from Steps 3 and 4. You know you’re trying to influence a certain set of behaviors and are planning to drive these changes with a certain set of drivers, so now all you’ve got to do is make this information accessible to your team in a productive and encouraging fashion. With the right tools, learning materials can be as customized and dynamic as necessary, guaranteeing that each employee receives the exact assistance he or she needs.

6. Monitor and adjust

Of course, no matter how well-conceived your training program, it’s not going to deliver high-level results unless the lessons you provide are actually put into action in the workplace. Micromanaging aside, the only way to judge the effectiveness of your training program is to keep an eye on your team’s performance metrics. By monitoring required drivers, critical behaviors, and leading indicators, you can gain access to early warning signs of training failure. If your team doesn’t seem to be making substantive progress after a few weeks, run through this six-step process again, making adjustments where you see fit. As long as you remain vigilant and are willing to experiment with your processes when their effectiveness falters, you will retain an authoritative voice on your programs’ ROE.

…To Recap: Determining “ROE”
  • Focus on the organizational mission
  • Identify leading indicators
  • Define critical behaviors
  • Determine required drivers
  • Design learning
  • Monitor and adjust

The Four-Step Kirkpatrick Learning Model

Now that we understand the Kirkpatrick Learning Model guidelines for delivering a training program that meets or exceeds all stakeholders’ expectations, we can dive into the substance of his actual evaluative model. According to Kirkpatrick, evaluations of the effectiveness of any employee learning process should follow four steps:

Kirkpatrick Learning Steps

Again, let’s break each step down one-by-one.

1. Reaction

The Kirkpatrick Learning Model opens with a first level that gauges how your employees reacted to their training. In order to improve your performance as an instructor for future sessions, you should probe how your trainees felt about the topic, the learning materials, the presentation, and the venue (whether virtual or physical), but these are ultimately secondary concerns. General trainee satisfaction is helpful, but what you really want to be on the lookout for is engagement and relevance.

  • Engagement: As any school-teacher will tell you, learners will report satisfaction with a lesson based only upon the fact that it wasn’t too demanding. As such, as a corporate educator you must do your utmost to ensure that your employees are actually engaging with the learning materials. Is everyone actively involved during training, asking questions, seeking clarification, and contributing to a learning-friendly atmosphere? These are vital questions.
  • Relevance: As previously mentioned, a training program is rather useless if the trainees don’t put what they learned to work in their everyday operations. Your responsibility is to make sure that your employees even get the chance to do so. In other words, voluminous as your well of knowledge may be, you’ve got to be careful to only teach your team things that are actually relevant to the demands of their jobs. If something is inapplicable, leave it out.

2. Learning

Now, as wonderful as your team surely is, you can’t rely exclusively on their reception of your training program if you hope to accurately assess the program’s effectiveness. Sometimes training will be well-received but ineffective, just as sometimes it will be poorly-received but effective, so you’ve got to dig a little deeper for the truth.

Your training program likely has a set of learning objectives – usually a blend of critical behaviors and drivers – and in order to evaluate the success of the program, you need to take both initial and final measurements related to the objectives. Specific metrics will vary depending on circumstances, but should all fall under one of the following categories:

  • Knowledge: Many learning objectives revolve around the retention of raw information. If a training program is successful, employees will walk away being able to say, “I know X, Y, and Z.”
  • Skill: While knowledge often dominates on-boarding and other training for novice employees, more experienced employees tend to benefit most from being taught how to practically apply their existing knowledge. This will typically take the shape of a skill. At the end of these training sessions, employees should affirm, “I can do X right now.”
  • Attitude: As a manager, you know that morale can have a powerful effect on performance. Even if your team acquires the requisite knowledge or skill from your training program, if they do so begrudgingly, it’s hard to call the program a resounding success. Ideally, employees will conclude, “I believe this will be worthwhile and will help me do my job better.”
  • Confidence: As previously alluded to, training is only valuable insofar as it is put into action on the job. Acquiring a skill is, obviously, the first step toward this objective, but you should make an effort to foster confidence among your employees so that they walk out of training saying not only, “I can do X right now,” but, “I think I can do X on the job.”
  • Commitment: Finally, you’ve got to contend with employees who can put their learning into action but are ambivalent as to whether they will. Much like with attitude, it’s important to get your trainees into the right mindset before setting them loose. The aim is to convince everyone to echo the commitment, “I intend to do X on the job.”

 3. Behavior

Several weeks – or even months – after an initial training session, you can start to observe whether your employees’ behavior has changed for the better. In addition to being a longer-term endeavor, assessing employee behavior can be challenging to quantify. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to gauge. Indeed, the following questions can provide penetrating insights into how far your team has come:

  • Have your employees’ performance metrics increased in a way that is explicitly tied to the lessons you taught?
  • Are your employees able to teach their new knowledge, skill, or attitude to others or convincingly attest to their new personal confidence or commitment?
  • If they in fact have, are employees aware that they’ve changed their behavior, or were the changes happy accidents?
Download the Free Kirkpatrick Learning Model Workbook today. Click here to get your copy

It’s worth pointing out that the likelihood of positive behavioral changes depends not only upon the effectiveness of your training program, but on favorable workplace conditions as well. If your organization has yet to build a culture of learning and improvement, employees will have little incentive or encouragement to change. This is where drivers become incredibly useful, as they can be used to reinforce, encourage, and reward results-oriented behavioral shifts.

4. Results

In the end, the final word on whether your training program was successful comes down to whether it delivers tangible results. Whatever your objectives – more efficient business operations, improved employee aptitude, or just, simply put, a better bottom line – if you don’t meet them, you’ve got a problem. Like measuring behavioral changes, measuring objective completion can get very complicated very quickly.

Even if your desired outcomes have been achieved, it can be difficult to establish a direct attribution to your training program, which leads us back to where we began: return on expectations. Adhering to the Kirkpatrick Learning Model is priority number one, but when it comes to completing the model’s fourth and final evaluative step, Kirkpatrick’s six-step guide to demonstrating ROE is just as important. Fortunately, if you craft your training processes and process evaluation procedures according to Kirkpatrick’s comprehensive advice, you’ll be well on your way to unparalleled corporate learning efficiency and effectiveness.

Download the Free Kirkpatrick Learning Worksheet

Final Thoughts on the Kirkpatrick Learning Model

There’s a reason the Kirkpatrick Learning Model is so popular and widely-used: it works. That being said, the workplace has undergone changes literally unimaginable in 1959, and while the Kirkpatrick organization has done a fine job updating the model as times change, the fact remains that the model’s skeleton was conceived in a pre-internet, pre-digital data age.

This is not to suggest that the Kirkpatrick Learning Model is outdated – far from it – but only that modern companies would be wise to pair the model with cutting-edge corporate learning technology. Manually managing the intricacies of a model like the Kirkpatrick Learning Model within a modern workplace environment can be prohibitively expensive, especially when it comes to collecting and analyzing all of the data implicated by Steps 3 and 4. Luckily, there are learning management systems (LMS) like Continu that are optimized for the modern learning experience. Like any tool, Continu is only as good as your deployment of it, but when paired with a firm company-wide commitment to a proven corporate learning strategy like the Kirkpatrick Learning Model, it can work wonders.

We’d be glad to answer any and all of your learning questions, and encourage you to stop by and give our platform a try. Happy learning!

At Continu, we develop beautiful Learning Software for modern teams. #alwayslearning