Only 44 percent of companies attempt to measure the results of training--and even fewer measure their return on investment in financial terms, says a report by the New York City-based Conference Board. Despite the lack of hard numbers, however, 97 percent of the 315 executives surveyed said they "agree" or "strongly agree" that training at their companies will increase.

Of those who do measure training, the primary reason given for doing so is "to be a strategic partner"; in other words, to prove the value of training by linking it to the bottom line. Other reasons given include "to measure the result of rapid change," "cost control," and to "to build the image of the [training and development] function."

"We're finding that every staff function today is being asked to measure its value to a company," says Brian Hackett, senior research assistant in the human resources/organizational effectiveness department of the Conference Board, and author of the study. "The question is: Are the measures valuable?"

A number of those surveyed believe they're not. Of those who do not measure the value of training, 23 percent said the problem was "too many variables," while 20 percent said the value of training has different meanings to different parts of the company.

The study also found that companies are not necessarily measuring what they believe is the most important, but simply what is easiest to measure. For example, 92 percent of those surveyed believe leadership development is most important, but only 18 percent attempt to measure the value of such training, while 27 percent of technical skills are measured, with 80 percent believing that's the most important area of training. The reason is simple: Technical skills can be measured more easily than leadership skills.

"There are experiments with more holistic measures of all kinds of learning," says Hackett, "but most often they're linked back to customer satisfaction and sales from new products. Change is happening, but it has to be integrated with variables other than return on investment to make sense."