From data to ta-da!

by | Oct 10, 2017 | Articles, Featured, General

Everybody’s talking about it and nobody wants to miss out. It has the potential to disrupt business, automate jobs, create competitive advantage and to transform learning. But data is also scary. The jargon associated with data is mind-blowing and bewildering, from algorithm to analysis, from collection to correlation, from mining to metadata. And yet we know that top performing teams are 4 times as likely to be using learning analytics to improve the service they deliver. They are also 3 times as likely to be improving staff retention and 4 times as likely to improve productivity [1]. So what do they know that we don’t?

This year, early analysis of our current research with over 700 L&D leaders shows that a whopping 94% want to improve the way that they gather and analyse data on learning impact. The trouble is that only 18% believe they are being successful. It’s no wonder that data analytic skills are flagged by L&D leaders around the globe as one of their top 3 priorities for their teams.

Data has the potential to help us plan, persuade, to predict, personalise and improve performance. So how do we get started in understanding how this ocean of data can shift to that ‘Ta da’ moment of inspiration?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about this…. a lot! Following a conversation with Piers Lea, I have been reflecting on my own journey with data over the last 14 years – what have we learned about the power of data and, perhaps more importantly, how did we learn it. I am not a data scientist but I am curious and I am also passionate about one thing – finding out how learning innovation can deliver business impact. Today I head up one of the leading global learning analyst organisations but our own starting point of journey ‘towards maturity’ with data is probably no different from any other learning professional.

If you are new to data, intrigued by it’s potential in L&D – I hope that these 6 tips from our own data journey will help!

Tip 1:
 What is the burning question

This is where it all starts. Our first report Linking Learning to Business was born out of one question – what are the common factors that contribute to online learning success in European organisations? In 2003, elearning was, even then, becoming a bit of a swear word. The dot com bubble had burst and research reported that over 60% of elearning projects failed. I knew that some were successful and as a newly independent consultant I wanted to find out why. That burning question has morphed over the years but has propelled everything that we do. Today we are all about understanding how learning innovation delivers business impact – really that’s all that matters. It’s not about data but about finding out solutions to the issues that really matter.

Tip 2:
  Sceptical curiosity

Individuals independently recommended for their success were at the heart of our first research piece – I knew that I might have been biased in choosing who to talk to so an external perspective was critical here to identify the right people. I did a short survey and supplemented this with in depth interviews – two sources of information from L&D leaders that led to incredible insights (I’d been working in the industry for over 17 years at the time but learned so much by approaching the burning question with a fresh perspective!)

However my sceptical curiosity kicked in. Of course these leaders would be proud about what they did, but what about their learners? In the days before survey monkey and question pro, I teamed up with an organisation experimenting in online surveys and managed to gather insights from over 2000 learners – it blew my mind! And proved that those first 16 organisations were really onto something.

Tip 3:
Use all the data sources available

Even in the early days, we used three methods of collecting information – interviews, paper questionnaires and online surveys – I also got a bit of guidance from an academic friend of mine (thanks @michealnieto!) no formal learning but enough to keep my sceptical curiosity going. Three simple data collection tools – chosen from what was available at the time – provided perspectives from different audiences. As the insights started coming in – my excitement in the process was building exponentially.

Tip 4:
Prioritise Communication

Was the first research paper sophisticated? Was it deeply statistical? No. But did it uncover ideas that others would really benefit from – absolutely. We started to talk about the findings – to everyone and anyone who would listen: getting their feedback, understanding what resonated, challenging thinking, questioning the findings. I guess in hindsight, we were applying design thinking to data – let’s release something and then improve. The early lesson we learned was that data positioned in the bigger context of a burning questions that resonates, drives conversation. And conversation creates buy-in.

Tip 5:

As interest grew in the findings, the opportunity to collaborate with the industry to improve the study and extend it’s reach also grew. Early findings provoked questions and ideas in key stakeholders – including the UK government at the time who saw the potential of the programme to reflect the employer voice back into the system. We established a Virtual Advisory Network (VAN) to ensure that any additional research was refined and improved and most importantly to ensure that the findings were actually USEFUL (some of our Ambassadors and Supporters were part of that original VAN).

As the programme extended, our collaboration with data experts and data scientists also became critical – working with others on the data allowed us to identify new ideas, new patterns and new answers to our big question…

Tip 6:
Differentiate to support decisions

Over the years the volume of the data we have gathered – literally 10’s of millions of data points from over 6000 L&D leaders – has meant that The Towards Maturity research programme has become a trusted friend of those L&D leaders to support decision making and to build buy-in to new programmes. When we have access to volumes of data we can start to explore it in new ways.

Firstly, we can look at descriptive data from audiences around the globe, across sectors to understand trends and impact. Measuring impact is something that very few do but over the years we can consolidate what we know – we’ve asked questions about the impact of learning on productivity and other KPI’s and whilst the % of the total might be small, the consolidated answers of over 1000 different organisations who have been successful provides some descriptive data that can really challenge thinking and influence change.

Volume of data also means that we can start to analyse it differently – what factors actually have a relationship with business impact? What influences success? Finding correlations between actions and impact throws a completely different light on decision making, prioritising actions and reducing risk.

Tip 7:
Build confidence

Over the years the burning question has created a common purpose around our data which , combined with conversation, collaboration and sheer volume of data eventually builds confidence. We are applying what we know to tackling a complementary question – how do staff learn what they need to do their job. Insights from 41,000 learners later means that we are on the next stage of our journey towards maturity!

Turning data to ta da! Lessons for L&D?

Just start! Not with the data or with the need to prove yourself but with a burning question that your organisation will have a vested interest in! Just start with the tools and the network you currently have to explore that and just start having data inspired conversations that build intrigue and engagement.
Just start!


[1] Foot note – Unlocking Potential – Learner Benchmark Report 2016

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