A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Business Case for Learning and Development

June 20, 2024 | Reskill Your Workforce | 12 min read

TL;DR: How to Deliver an Effective Business Case for Learning

  • Research: Start by researching the main business challenges and strategic initiatives to identify where training can have the greatest impact.
  • Form Alliances: Form partnerships with key stakeholders, like department leaders, to formulate plans that tie back to tangible work in the organizations.
  • Compile Options: Gather all your material to formalize good, better, and best options that you'll present to senior leadership.
  • Predict ROI: With plans all but complete, estimate the potential ROI for your solutions. Weigh the costs against the risks and benefits.
  • Present: Present your solutions to stakeholders, senior leadership, employees, and anyone else who stands to benefit from learning programs. Winning your case helps position the organization for growth.

Anyone who's dealt with budget cuts knows the frustration and stress of making do with less. Unfortunately, learning and development dollars seem to be one of the first cost-cutting areas when times are tough.

Tech executives who participated in Skillsoft's annual IT Skills and Salary survey say budget and resource constraints are the greatest challenge they face this year, followed by workload and talent retention. The first challenge, tight budgets, also impacts the latter two, creating a vicious cycle of divestment that hurts business and operations.

"When there isn't as much of an emphasis on learning and development, you certainly see a higher turnover rate and that attrition comes at a very high cost," said Bill Anderson, digital services training specialist at Corewell Health. "So, in essence, it has the opposite effect of what you're really trying to accomplish. That investment in learning and development will certainly pay back in lower attrition."

There are steps department heads can take to help prevent budget cuts because ultimately learning and development helps close gaps but also anticipates what skills the organization will need to remain competitive long term. For those leading these departments, the objective is to both educate and persuade executives that talent development can help more than hurt during lean times.

This win-win scenario unfolded at Corewell Health after a significant merge that created Michigan's largest hospital system. Editor's note: Corewell Health is a Skillsoft customer.

With the merge came a complex consolidation effort to cut costs, reduce duplicative efforts, and unify the two organizations. Virtually every aspect of the organization was under consideration, including technical training.

According to Anderson, the learning and development team managed to protect its training investments by building and presenting an effective business case to leadership. It was a win for the learning team, but also a win for an organization focused on delivering modern, technology-powered experiences for employees and patients.

Here's how they did it:

Step 1: Research Strategic Priorities and Business Challenges

Building a compelling business case for learning starts with research. You want to have a thorough understanding of what the organization is going through and how that impacts goals. For this first step, ask questions and dig deep. You want to connect the top-level challenges to outcomes — good and bad.

For example:

Consider how onboarding new technology without training could cause a ripple effect throughout the organization.

⬇️ The IT department onboards a new vendor. 

⬇️ Without training, employees don't know how to use it. 

⬇️ Adoption suffers, and some employees buy different solutions.

❌ IT doesn't see the ROI or meet its goal; organization takes on more risk.

In the scenario above, training could help in a big way. Telling the inverse of this story would show a clear need for learning programs that ultimately benefit different areas of the organization.

Where to Focus Your Research

By understanding the broader landscape and best practices, professionals can understand where training can have the greatest impact and tell why. Getting intel on what's listed below will help identify the organization's specific needs and demonstrate how targeted training can effectively address these areas. And remember, drill down.

Internal research:

  • Current business challenges
  • Current and future strategic initiatives
  • New deployments
  • Employee performance
  • Retention rates
  • Existing gaps in current skills
  • Desired future skills or certifications

External research:

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Step 2: Formulate a Solution with Stakeholders

After gathering data and doing your research, it's time to visit with other department leaders who will likely benefit the most from training.

Department leaders across the business serve as both your stakeholders and your supporters when making the case to executive leadership. In essence, you must form a partnership with these leaders to ensure alignment between their department initiatives and the training that you will deliver. Doing so helps measure the readiness of the department against its intended goal and lends more tangibility to your case for learning.

You want to understand: 

  • What their challenges and needs are
  • Their expectations for training programs
  • Impressions of third parties and vendors
  • What skills or certifications they're focused on
  • What vacancies they have on their teams

...And more. The more you know, the better.

Along the way, take notes and compile your evidence. Documenting your findings ensures all insights, data, and analyses are ready to share with others. When working with department leaders, thorough documentation can also demonstrate transparency and facilitate collaboration.

Step 2.1: Assemble a Team of Skill Champions

Through meticulous research, professionals can compile a data-driven, persuasive case that aligns organizational goals with training and demonstrates the value of L&D initiatives.

But what's it all for if adoption is low or employees don't see the value in it?

It's worth reiterating the importance of connecting with stakeholders early in this process and assembling a cohort of champions who not only see the value of training but also spread the word.

"We were fortunate enough to have a portion of our business that had already been using Skillsoft Percipio for learning and development," Anderson said. "So that word of mouth from those team members already using Skillsoft was very helpful when we went to extend training to our entire IT team."

Step 3: Form Your Argument with Good, Better, Best Options

By this step, you've done your internal and external research, met with department leaders, and you have a clear understanding of the organization's strategic priorities and key challenges.

Now, it's time to prescribe training as a solution in support of the organization. And it helps to offer options that illustrate the impact training investments can have at varying levels.

Providing several scenarios allows stakeholders to compare various approaches and their implications. This comparison should include both internal solutions, like leveraging in-house expertise and resources, and external options, such as partnering with specialized training providers.

What Does Good Look Like?

With a low investment, learning and development teams can support modest training programs that help meet compliance requirements and build select skills among a cohort of employees. 

The Pros and Cons: By keeping costs low, the upfront investment doesn't burden the organization while also meeting compliance and some skilling requirements. However, the solution may not scale easily, which makes it tough to forecast future needs, and the program may only benefit a limited number of employees and stakeholders.

What Does Better Look Like?

With more investment, learning and development teams can begin to scale learning programs more easily and offer more training to more employees.

The Pros and Cons: While the cost is higher, training programs have a wider impact on the organization and stakeholders (employees, patients, customers, etc.). Programs scale more easily, and it becomes easier to see the short- and long-term impact of training at an organizational level, including cultural and behavioral changes.

What Does Best Look Like?

With a best-case-scenario investment in training, learning and development teams can deploy and support enterprise-level programs that are measured, optimized and scaled.

The Pros and Cons: The upfront cost of this option is the highest, creating the most burden for the organization. However, the investment will pay the organization back in time through a range of dividends, including closed skill gaps, more productive employees, faster product development and time to market, and higher employee satisfaction.

By evaluating these options, stakeholders can make informed decisions that balance costs, benefits, and risks. Presenting a range of solutions also demonstrates to stakeholders the strategic approach to delivering effective training programs that solve business challenges.

Don't be Shy About the Benefits of Learning

Especially in tech, department leaders today struggle with talent recruitment and retention, developing stronger teams, innovation and change management, workload and more. And because of skill gaps, employees feel more stress, projects slow down, and business objectives falter.

All of these challenges can be solved — at some level — with investments in learning and development.

According to Skillsoft's IT Skills and Salary Report, tech leaders say these are the top benefits of training:

  • Improves team morale
  • Shortens project durations
  • Improves talent retention
  • Makes it easier to attract talent
  • Increases revenue
  • Increases ability to innovate

Step 4: Estimate Your ROI of Training Investments

In L&D, demonstrating a return on investment is often difficult. Sometimes, the metrics aren't there. Or the effort is too cumbersome. But there are ways to simplify the process and still make your case.

The team at Corewell Health created a process that helped them assign a dollar value to training, which substantially strengthened their case for learning. The learning and development team looked at the resources being consumed and assigned dollar values to them.

For example, if learners accessed a book in Skillsoft Percipio, they cross-checked what it would cost for the individual to buy it outside of the subscription. They added up all the times a person accessed that book and totaled the cost. They took the same approach to other resources, including courses, labs and so on.

It looked like this:

Cost of books +
Cost of courses +
Cost of Labs +
Cost of Certification Prep +
Cost of Training Resources


Cost of Training Resources x Number of Accesses = Gross Training Cost

From there, you'd identify the cost savings by comparing the "gross training cost" to, in this case, the cost of the training subscription. 

"Money talks," Anderson said. "What I found in our situation was our leadership really wanted to know how much money we were saving by taking classes with Skillsoft rather than taking them at other institutions. That really ended up being a great measurement to show how our team was adopting this tool."

When they tallied up the cost savings using this method, Corewell Health saved about $150,000. Anderson said a range of metrics can work in building your case, including skill assessments, course or journey completions, badges earned, and gamification or leaderboards to show participation.

Other ways to show cost-savings include weighing the training investment against estimated recruiting costs or that of managed services, and the cost of team vacancies.

Read Next: Measure Mastery: How Interactivity Showcases Earned Skills - Skillsoft

Step 4.1: Anticipate Opposition and Risks

From a business perspective, senior leaders want to keep costs low and benefits high. And when costs become too much, they have difficult decisions to make. During such times, leaders might see learning programs as less critical than other areas that can have short-term or immediate impact on the bottom line, ultimately diverting money away from these programs.

Corporate training programs often require an upfront investment in both time and resources, with benefits that may not be immediately visible. Additionally, skepticism fuels opposition. Some leaders may doubt the impact of training, questioning whether it translates into measurable business outcomes. This skepticism can be reinforced by past experiences with poorly executed training programs that failed to deliver.

Convincing senior leadership to overcome these reservations requires presenting a thorough argument that clearly demonstrates the success and ROI of well-implemented training programs and how the team helps anticipate future business needs. By preemptively acknowledging these concerns and providing compelling evidence to counter them, L&D leaders can build a stronger, more persuasive case for investing in learning.

Step 5: Present Your Case for Learning to... Everyone

Arguably the most important part of undertaking this effort is spreading the word throughout your organization because training can (and does) have a tremendous impact on developing new leaders, securing coveted skills, and fostering a vibrant company culture. As you present your case, it's important to consider your audiences and what they care about.

"Understanding your audience and communicating value effectively can significantly enhance the impact of your business case," writes Cathy Hoy, CEO of CLO100.

Hoy recommends presenting your case for learning using a flow like this:

  • Executive Summary — Condense the presentation and list key takeaways.
  • The Business Challenge — Call out what hurts the business today.
  • The Ideal Solution — Offer a solution (or better yet, multiple) to remedy the situation. 
    • The Benefits — Answer what the organization gains by implementing the solution.
    • The Risks — Get in front of the risks or concerns people may have and refute them.
    • The Costs — Address what the investment costs the organization and why. Include the estimated ROI.
  • The Timeline — Communicate what people should expect and when.
  • The Call-to-Action — Articulate what you need from your stakeholders and ask for it directly.

As you embark on the campaign trail, tailor your messages to the respective audience. Pro tip: Constantly ask yourself, "what's in it for them?"

Your Message to Executives — Communicate how training aligns with strategic business goals both now and in the future, highlighting the financial benefits and ROI over time. Their buy-in secures funding and protects your investments.

Your Message to Department Leaders — Show how training can lead to outcomes they care about, like improved team performance, while supporting the organization's overarching mission. Their buy-in ensures smoother implementation and ongoing support.

Your Message to All Employees — Educating the broader workforce about the value of ongoing learning fosters a culture of continuous improvement. When employees see how training will benefit them — career advancement, improving performance, etc. — they are more likely to participate. Their buy-in ensures the adoption of training programs, the closure of skill gaps, and more systemic outcomes, like higher morale, lower attrition, and more.

An Effective Business Case Protects Investments, Secures Budget

When done well, an effective business case for learning can protect hard-won learning programs and demonstrate to leadership the impact training can have on powerful outcomes, like customer and employee satisfaction, productivity, and more.

However, it takes time to build a thorough case — especially alone. Doing so with support from other areas of the business will strengthen the argument for learning while also decentralizing the planning and execution process. This will help while building a case, but also when the case has been won.

If you're building a case for your programs, consider reviewing Skillsoft's Total Economic Impact Studies, commissioned through Forrester Consulting. Each of these studies shows the potential return on investment a composite organization would realize by investing in Skillsoft training.

Further, this year's Lean Into Learning Report and IT Skills and Salary Report dive deep into training data and industry trends to help inform L&D strategy. Use resources like these to bolster your argument in favor of training.