Of Objective, Outcome, Output, and Impact

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.

Training content outline has almost zero value.

Recently, there have been a lot of chatter about content outline in the local learning & development (L&D) social media. This is nothing new. This topic is like the recession; it comes back once every so often. It never dies, just like the issue of trainer’s rates, unfair treatment of or by training providers, HRDC not taking care of trainers etc.

As usual, I have my own point of view on this, and it is derived from the little experience I have being involved in the local L&D scene as well as my social work around building community of practice in one form or the other. One other potential benefit that I might have is the fact that I have been fortunate to be playing or has played various roles in L&D from being a trainer, to a training provider, to a consultant etc.

Let’s weigh in on this topic by first recognizing what is a content online?

Even though, there are numerous definitions of what a content outline is, however each one of them do have one distinction in common which is “a general description about the content; it is not detailed.” Therefore, we can equate a content outline as a picture of a dish. This means, it is not the dish itself. It has not been cooked but a visual representation of a finished dish.

If the picture of a dish can never be the dish itself, therefore a training content outline is not the training itself. And here lies the value of the content outline – almost nothing. As much as a picture is not the dish so is the content outline is not the training.

Now, let’s take this analogy further. Do you pay for the picture, or do you pay for the dish? Of course, the dish. Now, do you pay the photographer of the picture of the dish, or do you pay the chef that cooked the dish? Ofd course the chef. This means, a client doesn’t pay for the content outline, they pay for the training, the skill of the chef, the ingredients in the dish etc. This diminishes even further the value of the content outline.

Now, can a content outline be of use? Of course. Just like a photo of a dish can be useful. Yet, the fact still stands that the picture is not the dish.

The picture can entice the diner, give an expectation of how the dish looks like, and provide a benchmark of the dish. However, it is still unable to give an indication of the taste, the freshness of the ingredients, how it is truly cooked and served. Just like a training outline provides indicators of what a training will look like, what it entails etc yet the content outline is still unable to represent how the training will be conducted, is learning really going to happen, the value of the experience and usefulness of the training to the learners.

The faster trainers realise the value and use of the content outline, the more assured the trainers will be in marketing themselves.

So, what is the real use of the content outline to a trainer? Well, the content outline is the means of increasing the potential of getting a job. That is it.

Think about it. If, the trainer profile is what truly sells the trainer, why bother to provide the content outline? Why do clients want the content outline? Think of your client as a diner that would like to see a picture of the dish to provide some sort of insight whether to order or not.

Also think about this. If a training provider can do their own training content outline, why do they need to ask it from the trainer? Won’t it be easier and cheaper if they can do it themselves? Well, the simple answer why they ask from the trainer is because they can’t do it themselves. They are not a trainer. They are a training provider. This situation is good news for trainers because the training providers are relying heavily on us for content outlines. So, help them to help us.

These two thoughts will lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the content outline is what will open doors for the trainer… through the training provider.

This also means that if a trainer is reluctant to give their training content outline, therefore, the chances of work will be less because the training provider can’t submit anything on our behalf. However, if the trainer provides their content outline to training providers, then the training provider will be able to submit more jobs and the probability of the trainer getting a job is so much higher. It is not a guarantee, but the probability is definitely higher than not giving out their content outline. It is a numbers game pure and simple.

Let us now address this so-called problem of training providers taking a trainer’s content outline and once they get the job, they pass it to someone else to do it. Usually to a trainer who is much cheaper. Many trainers cry foul over this. I can understand where they are coming from. Trainers feel their effort is not recognised. For this reason, my heart goes to them. But if the reason is about intellectual property (one of its kind… my training is special. I am special. No one do what I do), it is illegal, or my ego is slighted because I am a great trainer and I feel used etc, I have a few wake-up calls for you.

Number one.
It is not illegal. Is it unethical? I would say yes but it is not illegal. So, live with it. It is part of the game.

Number two.
Training provider is using me. Well, when we don’t get it, we say that. But when we get it what do we say? We say nothing right? The simple truth is that we are also using them to get us jobs. Grow up for goodness sake. Be fair. It is a win win. You need them as much as they need you.

Number three.
My content outline is unique, special, and one of a kind. It is my intellectual property. Let me ask you this. If it is so special and unique how come the training provider is confident enough to give it to someone else to deliver? I am sure the training provider will not give it to some other trainer to deliver and risk the job being a shambles if he truly finds it unique and special and that you are the only one that can do it. The reality is that, based on result, it is not special and unique. The training provider is experienced enough in seeing so many training content outline, even more than you, to know if it is unique to not give it to someone else. Please get off your high horse. Anyway, if you don’t get the job, just be ok that the job is not meant for you. Learn from it and move on. You can even treat this as a filter. If you encounter any training provider that does that, great news. One more training provider you don’t have to bother to work with. Isn’t that great, reducing the numbers.

Number four.
As long you decide to play this game as a freelance trainer and to rely on training providers to market you, live with the rules of the game. Please don’t bitch and whine. It is part of the game that you have chosen. Stop being a victim. If you feel strongly about it, be a training provider too and market yourself so that you can do your own content outline, you can then submit your own content outline, you will then get the job yourself, you can then hire yourself and you don’t have to give it to others. Along the way, be ok to pay for marketing cost, administration cost, other operating cost etc. If you are not willing to pay the price, don’t buy the dish. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t be a chef. Pure and simple. The choice is in your hands. You know very well the consequences.

As for me, I do not put stock to the photo of a dish. The proof is in the dish itself. Just like my mum’s asam pedas.

My mum’s asam pedas is not good looking. It is full of daun kesum (Chinese Knotweed) – all over the gravy with the stalk still attached, chili oil floating, dark red gravy with chili seeds floating, daun kantan (Torch Ginger Flower) cut haphazardly, there is cabbage in it, brinjal, sayur asin, iununiformed fish sizes etc. My word, a total havoc. It is nothing like the pictures of asam pedas in hotel coffee houses, with carved tomato decoration, chili cut into shape of flowers, clean sidewall etc. Guess which one is the best I have tasted?