Donald L. Kirkpatrick’s passing last week at age 90 caused a moment of reflection for me. I never met the man, but his ideas have been an ongoing subject of discussion and debate in my professional life.
In a dark and smoke-filled office at a place called Chemical Bank, near Wall Street in Manhattan, I was first told of Kirkpatrick. In my first months as a “training” person, coming off an unsuccessful stint as a high school English teacher, I was taking instructions from a senior member of the training staff on his expectations for me to design the evaluation of a new-hire training program. The man (whose name is long-forgotten) explained to me the four levels of the Kirkpatrick Model:
- Level 1: Reaction. Did people like the course?
- Level 2: Learning. Did they learn the stuff they were supposed to learn?
- Level 3: Behavior. Were they able to perform the skills on the job?
- Level 4: Results. Did the application of the skills lead to improved business results?
The beautiful order and simplicity of the system immediately appealed to me and set off a long-lasting moment of clarity. It was then that I first understood the difference between what we do as school teachers (teach people content, for no apparent reason, other than knowing all of the stuff that all educated people know) and what we do in corporate training functions (teach people skills, for the purpose of doing a job).
Over the years I participated in a number of task teams charged with implementing a Kirkpatrick-esque system of evaluation. Typically, the task team would spend 6-12 months creating a meticulously-crafted standard Level 1 Evaluation instrument (smile sheet, if you will), before running out of steam and disbanding. This very tendency points to the peril of Kirkpatrick – people get so focused on following the Levels one at a time, starting with Level 1, that they lose sight of why they were pursuing them in the first place. My experience is supported by copious research that repeatedly shows that almost all organizations have Level 1 instruments in place, and almost none of them have Level 4 systems in place. This only serves to reinforce the instinct within training types to expend too much energy thinking first of how to make their classes or eLearnings aesthetically appealing or, even better, fun!
My conception of why we train people has evolved considerably in the intervening 20 years. Rather than a sequence, I prefer to think of the Kirkpatrick Levels as a taxonomy. All evaluative activities fall in to two categories: Measures that Training people care about and measures that Business people care about. While there is value in the former, we should emphasize the latter.
I know that Kirkpatrick himself understood this critique and tried to get out in front of it. Today, his family’s company, Kirkpatrick Partners, has consciously clarified and updated the presentation of the original concept in the form of the New World Kirkpatrick Model.
Being misunderstood and over-simplified is a fate that Donald Kirkpatrick shares with Winston Royce, the “inventor” of the waterfall method of managing large software development projects. In 1970, Royce wrote a highly influential paper that is often cited as the basis of the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC), which today is routinely massacred by agile development enthusiasts. His paper explicitly denounces the end-to-end, one-way street that is waterfall planning, yet it spawned a multi-million dollar cottage industry. Royce and Kirkpatrick both gave the world ideas that were almost too elegant for their own good, so much so that many of those espousing the method only considered the ideas themselves in a superficial manner.
By any measure, Donald Kirkpatrick was a giant in the field of learning and development. His evaluation concept was first presented it as his PhD dissertation topic in 1959, and it was refined in many articles and books in the ensuing 50 years. To those of us steadfastly pursuing the holy grail of correlating training to business outcomes, he has been a constant inspiration.