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4 Questions to answer when creating an impact map for your training program

The butterfly effect concept is a powerful one. I’m not convinced that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a typhoon halfway across the world, and yet the imagery has stayed with me to this day.

I’m bringing this up now because impact mapping is somewhat similar, at least as a mechanism. Small changes at an individual level bring a positive transformation to the highly complex system that is the organization.

So, here are some questions — and their answers — about how to create very effective impact maps for the L&D initiatives in your company.

1. When is the best time to draw such a map?

It’s never too late or too early to consider making an impact map, but there are specific moments when it is wiser to create it, and there are certain types of programs that benefit more from impact mapping:

  • L&D programs that are required for the business to leverage a new opportunity;
  • Training sessions that are aimed at solving an existing problem within the organization;
  • Learning paths designed to improve bottom level results;
  • Programs that need to support a new vision or mandate from the executive level.

As to the timing of the impact map drafting, it is optimal to do this in the early stages of designing the learning strategy. You can also consider it when a certain program has already been beta-tested or has been running for some time (and there is a need to re-evaluate its efficacy).

2. What needs to be showcased on the map?

The three categories that have to be visible are capability, job performance, and organizational results. The degree of detail in the first two depends very much on the company’s internal communication processes.

While it’s important to have the most relevant items written down, going too far with this may result in a confusing presentation. It could even draw attention away from what is essential in impact mapping – the impact on final results.

Since this is not an L&D document but a transversal one, it doesn’t have to be exhaustive in presenting the learning modules, their content, and their purpose. Impact mapping is a strategic rather than a tactical endeavor and should be treated as such.

3. What will be helpful and what may stand in the way of impact?

The researchers at the Centre for Learning Impact advocate the creation of a supporting map for the main one. This should contain the elements that are thought to help or hinder reaching the desired outcomes when it comes to the capability section of the map (the training objectives) and the job performance section (the actual transfer of the new knowledge or skill into practice).

It’s important to write down both the enablers and the barriers so that the first ones are set into motion once the program is deployed. If, for example, one of the predicted barriers is a lack of managerial involvement, a buy-in from them can be secured and the hurdle removed from the get-go.

4. What are the steps to take in creating an impact map?

1. First, the L&D team makes a impact map draft for the program. It is essential that it is and looks like a draft – with potential issues and questions. The point of it is to act as a starting point, not to get passed around in people’s e-mails and get “looks good” replies from busy managers who didn’t bother to look but “trust your judgment.”

2. A first live (either online or offline) mapping session needs to happen with at least two key stakeholders from various departments. There should be one instructional designer and one subject matter expert. Try to attract managers from the departments targeted by the program and at least one senior manager – ideally the program sponsor.

3. Revision and getting consensus on the ideas that emerged from the initial mapping session are crucial. This is the moment to fine-tune the alignment of learning objectives.

4. A final draft can be sent for revision and approval to all stakeholders. It’s important to let them know that alterations are still possible, and the discussion remains open.

5. Finally, update it whenever necessary. An impact map is more like a beacon in a stormy sea than a set of coordinates for navigation.

Closing thoughts

L&D has for a long time been the dark horse of all organizational support functions. Managers and executives tend to bet on it whenever there is a need for a change, an improvement, or a shift of vision. Impact mapping is a powerful tool that learning specialists can employ to get all the stakeholders involved and accountable and make sure they win that bet every time.

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