In designing a learning session, we often come across words like Objective, Outcome, Output and even Impact. Often, new trainers designing an RFP (Request for Proposal) will need to articulate these terms well and do get confused. Well, even seasoned trainers too get mixed up with these terms. What more new trainers. It is understandable this happens because even in the RFPs, they sometimes get it wrong.
This phenomenon was brought up recently by one of my mentees. I have about 9 trainers in my current apprenticeship program. Two of them came for a one-day workshop and in the workshop these terms were brought up by another participant. While a few understood it, quite a few expressed their desire to know the distinction of these terms. I knew this was important to address because this issue falls smack in what we call Distinction Work. My late mentor always mentions that the two important area of study that a trainer should be good at if they want to be a great trainer is distinction work and context work.
So, let’s unpack this issue by first being acquainted with the meaning of each term.
- Objective: a thing aimed at or sought; a goal.
- Output: the amount of something produced by a person, machine, or industry.
- Outcome: the way a thing turns out; a consequence.
- Impact: a marked effect or influence.
Now, we need a model to tie all these terms together. To this end, let’s use the Theory of Change as the model.
What is the Theory of Change (ToC) is the logical follow-up question to be asked. So, Theory of Change is …
… essentially a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved. It does this by first identifying the desired long-term goals and then works back from these to identify all the conditions that must be in place (and how these related to one another causally) for the goals to occur.
These are all mapped out, usually in a diagrammatic template. The template then provides the basis for identifying what type of activity or intervention will lead to the outcomes identified as preconditions for achieving the long-term goal. Through this approach, the precise link between activities and the achievement of the long-term goals are more fully understood. This leads to better planning, in that activities are linked to a detailed understanding of how change happens. It also leads to better evaluation, as it is possible to measure progress towards the achievement of longer-term goals that goes beyond the identification of program outputs.
(Source: Centre for Theory of Change)
In terms of a visual, below is a diagram explaining the ToC.
This diagram clearly shows the relationship between Output and Outcomes. What about Impact? In terms of impact, there are a few schools of thought on it.
The first school of thought equates Outcomes to Impact. Basically, it is one and the same. When someone says refers to Impact, that person essentially is referring to the Outcomes of the program or project.
The second school of thought says that Impact is after Outcome. This school of thought pushes the Impact even further into the future. In essence, the Outcomes produces Impacts way into the future, and it is a significant effect of the Outcomes.
The third school of thought (which I subscribe to) splits the Outcomes into Short Term and Long Term. The Impact is basically the Long-Term Outcome. It is described as the ultimate outcome of the program or project.
Here is the diagram with the Outcomes being split into two thus showing the relationship between impact, Outcome and Output.
Regardless of which ever school you subscribe to, clearly Impact is after Outputs. Therefore, when referring to Impact, it is important for us to spell out our ToC so the others are aware what we are defining.
Now that we have address the topic of Impact, let’s now look at Objective.
Based on the definition of Objective, we can than conclude that an Objective can be either Activity, Output, Outcome, or Impact. Objective is basically what we want to achieve. In a project, the objective might be generating activities. It can even be certain results that we would like to achieve out of the activity. It can even be the short-term effect or even the long-term consequences of our actions.
However, in L&D, the Learning Objective refers to the Output of the learning session. What do the learners immediately get at the end of the learning session. The Learning Outcome will then refer to who will they become or what can they achieve after the Learning Objective (which is the session output) is met. This can be referred to as the Learning Impact.
Below is a diagram that summarizes these points.
Gone are the days when what is delivered and measured is the Activity and the Results. Increasingly, more and more L&D managers are concern with Learning Impact. This puts a new demand on trainers to evolve from just a deliverer of content to a designer of development. The development part of L&D now becomes even more pronounced. To this end, a trainer will need to embrace and incorporate other developmental skills such as facilitation and coaching, not to mention learning session design. Trainers need to now evolve to L&D consultants. The effectiveness of a consultant will to be based on the measurement of their impact.
Using the ToC, it becomes clearer what we need to measure as a trainer.