In defence of learning hours

By Marc Zao-Sanders

4 minute read

For over a decade now, I’ve heard complaints that learning hours are a poor metric for measuring success in Learning and Development (L&D).

At the first corporate learning event I ever attended, during one of the break-out sessions, someone said, ‘I can’t believe we’re still measuring learning hours’ and every person at the table nodded in unison. I felt left out and puzzled at the incontrovertible truth I had apparently just heard. Since then, I’ve heard it many, many times, from vendors and buyers alike. The issue was debated hotly on this recent LinkedIn post.

Yet organisations continue to measure learning / training hours, often stating them and celebrating them publicly:

Furthermore, analysts routinely use time spent in their evaluations of corporate learning, like this, from Training Magazine:

Learning hoursIt seems that half the industry claims they're useless and half think they’re indispensable.

Who’s right? I think learning hours are a useful metric. Here’s why.

The Main Objection

The primary objection to measuring learning hours is that it’s not directly related to business value or impact. Critics argue that it’s more about justifying budgets than achieving measurable outcomes and performance improvements.

While it’s great to measure downstream impacts if you can, the connection to direct business value often loosens as you go further downstream into ongoing employee performance. There’s no doubt that we’d like to measure harder-hitting business outcomes from learning if we can.

Sometimes we can. Targeted, thoughtful learning initiatives can bring about immediate, tangible, measurable change: reduced call lengths in call centres, faster deal resolution in sales teams, improved customer satisfaction scores, higher employee retention rates, decreased instances of non-compliance. When there’s a metric that the business really cares about to which we can attribute some learning as a true cause, happy days.

But it’s not always possible. When a manager listens better, a new joiner feels less anxious, or an C-suite leader is more mindful, something good has come about. But that good won’t necessarily be recorded on any learning, HR or business system.

The benefits of learning are often difficult to measure because they manifest over the long-term in many, disparate ways.

Recognising, accepting and working with this insight is a happy place to get to if you plan to work in L&D for a long time with minimal exasperation.

Efficiency Versus Absolute Hours

A second common objection to learning hours is that we should measure learning efficiency (least time to competency), rather than absolute hours.

This must be true. To get to this we also need to have some way of measuring competency such as a test or some criteria against which to track observed behaviour. But we’ll still need to understand how long it’s taking to achieve that competency, for which learning hours is a useful clue.

Six additional reasons to measure and value learning hours

While the two main objections can be countered, there are many positive, compelling reasons to measure learning hours.

Ease and simplicity. Learning hours are easy to track and easy to understand. They come for free with LMSs and LXPs. And people outside of learning — including senior stakeholders and budget holders — get what it means. They are likely to ask for this data and it’s better to have it and qualify it than not have it at all.

50 hours? Isn’t there a sensible, optimal average number of per capita learning hours at your company? At least to use as a rule of thumb? 50 hours a year is an hour a week. This is both affordable for the company, and easily implemented by the individual (especially if they carve out a weekly, recurring 60-minute timebox to learn). If this heuristic is of some use, then average learning hours for the company, a department, a business function or for an individual is of value.

Indication of interest. Learning hours represent actual user behaviour. They indicate which subjects, topics, themes, modalities, languages are of most interest to your workforce. Even if you are cynical about the absolute numbers, the relative proportions (are people more into project management, Excel or AI?) and trends (how much more interest in AI was there in 2023 vs 2022?) can unearth some truths. Note, that to run this kind of analysis, you’ll need to be able to map the content to some of the parameters you’re interested in, such as skills. (Filtered happens to have a lot of experience in this and we carry it out on behalf of some of the world’s biggest companies and the industry’s leading content providers.)

Waste of time. Suppose for a moment that learning hours are indeed wasted hours, as certain cynics maintain. Then wouldn’t it be helpful to know who’s wasting time and on what? Those will be helpful clues in understanding the why and finding a remedy. Even in this daily cynical scenario, this data cannot be spurned!

Conversation starter. Learning hours for an individual can be invaluable for a manager during an appraisal of even just a regular 1-1 meeting, to ask the employee about that learning, what’s interesting, how it can be applied, what might come next. If it’s not logged and not looked at, this invaluable interaction will be harder to come by.

Trust. The CLO at one of the MAMAA (Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet) big tech companies suggested to me that if you know that learning is happening + you have some indication of how much + you’re comfortable that it’s not too little and not too much…how about you just trust that it’s netting out positive for you? Though this clearly won’t fly everywhere, it’s a useful provocation. Could you adopt that attitude in some situations?


There’s too much groupthink in our industry and too many learning mantras are passed down, unchallenged. Think for yourself, your organisation and your context.

While learning hours are not everything, they are quite clearly something. Use them, hone them, respect them, and keep reporting them. Surround them with additional data points and join them all up to enrich your understanding of how your workforce is developing to unlock higher-order business decisions.

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