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Why are we so afraid of data in L&D?

Thoughts from a Chief Marketing Officer

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As a Chief Marketing Officer of a burgeoning brand and business, I have used data tirelessly to drive better, more meaningful interactions with our target audiences to maximise impact and drive emotional connections to the people we love the most – our customers.

Data is the lynchpin of everything I do in marketing; it enhances my understanding of the people I am trying to connect with and ultimately ensures that my decisions extend way beyond that of ‘gut instinct’, and because of that, I love it. Better data = better marketing. Surely the same applies to learning?

The parallels are irrefutable:

  • We are both focused on getting people to do things they don’t necessarily want to do or even know about yet. Frankly, we’re both contending with a potentially distracted, detached audience.
  • Our core objectives are outcomes focused and ring-fenced by overall business goals – if we aren’t aligning with them we aren’t doing our jobs well.
  • We are trying to instigate a change in behaviour, whether that’s to come to our website to buy something new, or visit a new learning environment.

So why isn’t L&D using data more, and in the same way marketers are?

Data is a hot topic…why?

Firstly, before we start delving into the daunting world of data, let’s understand a bit more about what’s going on here. In the past two years, data has suddenly become one of those omnipresent buzzwords that seem to haunt the LT industry.

In fact, according (rather hyperbolically, in my opinion) to the Economist, data is now more of a valuable asset than oil. Apart from the impossibility of parallels within this claim (comparing data to oil has some serious flaws, after all) – I think the point they’re trying to make is that data is a profitable and relevant resource to the world. It’s valuable and important in every single business function, not just marketing or IT.

We in L&D appear to think so too. Below is a chart I took from a content marketing tool using the search term “learning and development + data analytics”. The blue bar chart signifies the volume of content (blog posts, videos etc) using this term, and the black line maps engagement (likes, clicks, shares etc). There is a clear upward trend of both.
Data in L&D - data analytics content trends
Cool. So we’re interested in data. That’s good. But do we know why we’re suddenly so interested in it, or indeed what to do with it when we have it? According to (you guessed it) the data, nope.

Skills gap or struggling to change?

We know our learners have different expectations now. Their personalised, consumer-grade, relevant experiences in day-to-day life has left them expecting so much more from the workplace. With us having a workforce comprised of 46% millennials by next year, clearly we need to evolve our ways of working to meet the needs and expectations of those digital natives better. Data helps with that.

Conversely, key stakeholders within businesses are now seeking more too. L&D is commonly expected to now PROVE its value and impact, something which often wasn’t required in the past. Data helps with that too.

So what’s going on? Recently, I chanced upon a PwC report which states that although more than 60% of HR professionals agree that using data analytics to make workforce decisions is important, only 27% are actually doing it. Clearly, we recognise the importance of data in our roles from both a learner and an organisational perspective. What’s stopping us using it then?

Challenge 1: Clear skills gaps

The challenge that organisations face with skills gaps is well known and well documented. But how often do we introspect and recognise that those skills gaps are also present within our own L&D teams? According to Towards Maturity, 51% of L&D professionals say they cannot use data effectively due to a lack of in-house data skills. Their research also suggests that even when L&D departments do collect data, rarely do they analyse it. It appears that in many cases we just don’t presently have the capabilities in-house to confidently and competently tackle data analytics.

Perhaps it’s time to look beyond the skills contained with L&D and introduce some new blood – maybe pull in a marketer. Or even look to introduce a cross-departmental data analyst to help you understand your data better.

Challenge 2: We can’t commit to change (even if we want to)

Another thing I commonly see in marketing departments (nevermind L&D) is an appetite for some of those amazing results that our competitors are achieving. We want to do more, and we want to do it well. When do we want it? NOW!

That’s great, but in many cases, that’s as far as the appetite goes. When new processes or ways of thinking are proposed, they are dismissed, ignored and batted away (often by the people who asked for the change in the first place). Why?

Because the reality is, change is hard. Change at leadership and decision-maker level is even harder. It’s uncomfortable. It’s awkward. And it really does require a commitment to attaining new outcomes. Which means new approaches. It also definitely means new mindsets and the advent of new ideas (and maybe even new people), all of which can be a really daunting situation for any business.

Let’s be honest, even if they want better results, a business whose present success relies on these specific ways of working and doing things is going to struggle to stand by and watch those processes be disrupted (even in the positive bid for change).

But it needs to happen. Honestly, if I hear “but that’s how we’ve always done it” once more, I am going to pull my hair out. Change has to come from the inside first!

Challenge 3: It highlights your weaknesses (which can be scary)

There’s also a reluctance with data adoption which I think needs to be recognised and that’s the fact that it can sometimes expose the flaws of your ways of working. It will clearly highlight both the successes and failures of your strategies, which can definitely be unattractive to some. But the realilty is, failure is important.

As a marketer, I am always testing and trying out new things (and using the data off the back of it to determine it’s success or indeed, failure). And failure is an intrinsic part our continued success because it allows us to understand what doesn’t work. From there we learn and move forward to doing things with more information and insights. It really is that simple.

Fear of failure or highlighting of flaws is not a good enough reason to refrain from using data – the reality is the benefits will always outweigh the risks.

Doing more with data

We clearly have a need for more data in L&D to better understand our audiences and drive more meaningful interactions with them. But there is still a long way to go and the fear of the unknown runs deep within us. So becoming more comfortable with data and learning how to embrace it is the first step. I want to help you with that!

This is the first in a series of data-related articles which I am going to share with you. The next one will explore the types of data L&D should be capturing, and what you should be doing with that data once you have it. It’s what I focused the bulk of my talk at LT19 last week and I am super excited to share more of my passion with you! Until next time!

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