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L&D: Data’s great.

But it means nothing without context.

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A couple of years ago data became a really big deal. You’ve heard ‘big data’ touted around, right? It’s massive now – in fact, it became an $18.3 billion industry last year. Not small. And in L&D, data is becoming just as popular.

It refers to the huge volume of data that every business collects, providing a lot of great potential insight into audience and customer behaviour. It helps to guide decisions about future approaches and marketing strategies, increases ROI and conversion and even spots those customer advocates which can be consequently nurtured.

According to McKinsey, companies using big data can increase their operating margin by 60% and can reduce expenditure by 8%.

L&D = Leveraging Data for Bottom Line Results

Those valuable improvements, iterations and insights which other business functions are using every day could certainly be leveraged more by L&D, who would benefit greatly from better using and understanding data already at their disposal. Subsequently, the business could reap improved bottom line results. How?

Here’s just an example of some of the positive influence data could have on L&D:

  • Better insights into audience behaviour: Wouldn’t it be great to know how your learners behave, both when learning and when in their LMS? Wouldn’t it be nice to know their behaviour, to help you guide the way you design things in future, where you put it on the LMS or indeed how you serve it to them?
  • Guide decisions about future approaches: By understanding your learners through data, you will be able to better inform your wider L&D strategy by letting go of approaches that aren’t working in favour of more of those that are. This ultimately helps to increase learner engagement; you’re giving them more of what they want.
  • Spot customer advocates: In the world of user-generated content and greater ownership of learning being placed in individual hands, it’s important to have advocates. You know the people I’m talking about. The folks who share, engage and positively talk about your brand and business (you have them, trust me). Those people are your promoters within the business and with 37% of businesses reporting learner reluctance to engage, these people will help your learning become much more popular, when in the right hands. You just need to unearth them using behavioural data.
  • Increase ROI: For the reasons stated above, you should be able to better improve your ways of working in L&D and spot opportunities for efficiencies within your department. And therefore realise greater ROI.

Do you have these things? No? But you want these things, right? I’ve harped on about how L&D needs to better leverage the big data they collect for years – but many businesses still aren’t doing it. Which is a problem – and I began to wonder why?

Potential barriers to L&D data adoption

Big data, although a welcomed addition to the likes of L&D, doesn’t come without its own set of unique problems. Getting a handle on this huge volume of data points can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

Siloed data systems make harnessing data hard

This is a legitimate problem in marketing and I’ve no doubt that it’s a huge challenge for L&D too. Perhaps you have an LMS or LRS. Maybe you also have a HR system. Your learners may also get company news and interact with one another on an intranet, or indeed via their own personal social channels. So much data in so many places.

Either way, acquiring, disseminating and analysing this data can be a real headache, which could well be why many L&D departments are struggling to really use it yet.

No key stakeholder buy-in

I’ve worked in quite a few organisations in my time which don’t value data, in spite of the fact that there is ample research to support the fact that organisations which leverage data see better bottom line impact. They are not abnormal and are actually very common, which is weird since according to Richard Joyce, Senior Analyst at Forrester: “Just a 10% increase in data accessibility will result in more than $65 million additional net income for a typical Fortune 1000 company.”

Big gains with big data – but it’s still low on the list of many business priorities. Getting businesses to change their ways of doing things can be hard. Change is tough – and evolving ways of working can be even harder.

Lack of data analysis skills

Having all that data is one thing – but how on earth do you make sense of it all? A recent Towards Maturity report found that only 18% of L&D professionals have skills in data analytics.

Clearly, we’re a bit stuck as to what to do with data when we do have it.

That’s not really a surprise with so much qualitative and quantitative data at our fingertips including duration in the LMS, duration of overall training overtaken, tenure in role, content types consumed and more, it’s a minefield out there. What does it all mean?!

And that’s the point isn’t it. Yeah – data’s good. In fact, data is great. But it means nothing without context and analysis.

Context for data is critical for success

Having a wealth of knowledge and data is a huge advantage for L&D departments, but if people don’t know how to apply a significant piece of information, that data is useless.

Data in silo is completely pointless in and of itself; it’s the insights and subsequent actions that you translate those insights into which are the real game changers.

For example: LinkedIn recently chose to feed me some extremely erroneous data. How exciting, I have a SSI rank in the top percentile of my connections. Jolly good – but what on earth does that even mean?


The data gets even more pointless when we examine my ‘social selling index’ – apparently I only score 14.82 out of 25 for ‘finding the right people.’ Firstly, I don’t even know the source of this data. And secondly, there is zero context around what I can do to improve the score, or indeed how I got that score in the first place. What is the point of sharing this information with me if I can’t do anything to consciously affect/improve my score?

You know what LinkedIn could have done that would have been really smart? Used those data insights to then trigger links to Lynda training modules in my weaker areas – promoting me to subscribe to Lynda. Turning data into increased ROI and profit.

This type of data is a vanity project – and I suppose I’d like to just say let’s not collect data for data’s sake. Perhaps we can get enamoured with the idea of ‘the next big thing’, and lose sight of what we’re really trying to do it. And without the right preparation, L&D could run the risk of collecting data, getting internal buy-in etc, without the skills in-house to analyse and translate that data into actionable insights. That’s the real key with data – inferring it and changing actions and behaviours off the back of it. Clearly we still have some work to do, even if we are taking steps in the right direction!

Ashley Sinclair is CMO at Thrive Learning and has over five years working in the Learning Technologies space. She is passionate about data-driven environments which provide key insights into audience behaviour and has an iterative approach to marketing and learning.

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