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Stephanie Morgan

Bray Leino Learning

Former Director of Learning Solutions

Read more from Stephanie Morgan

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Learning analytics: why it’s time to look at the bigger picture


If L&D is going to embrace 2019 as the ‘year of data’, practitioners need to take a step back and look at learning analytics more strategically to reap the results the industry is hoping for.

Learning analytics. There’s no doubt that it’s a big talking point in L&D at the moment. In fact, it may even be ‘THE’ talking point; Donald Taylor’s annual benchmark study went so far as to call 2019 the ‘year of data’.

We know data is an essential part of modern L&D and want to make the best use of it. But of all the hot topics doing the rounds, analytics could be the most daunting.

This is not surprising given the results of a recent survey, where more than a quarter of learning professionals admitted not knowing how to get started when it came to learning measurement. This is despite the majority saying they felt pressure from their organisations to measure the business impact of learning.

The message is a familiar one: in a rapidly changing digital environment, L&D teams must keep up and prove their continuing value to the business. Naturally, they look to data to measure the impact.

Data collection then becomes something you have to do rather than something you necessarily want to do, a reactive activity driven by the desire to prove your worth.

Learning analytics: too much ‘doing’

And this is one reason why the current approach is so problematic. It is based on the outdated assumption that L&D teams are order takers who do the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘thinking’.

In other words, it’s far too tactical and not strategic enough. Tactical thinking encourages a focus on answers. Strategic thinking asks questions first.

To me, we’re doing things the wrong way round: starting with the answer by diving into data collection without linking it to wider strategic aims. There could be an intention to prove the ROI of the learning, but this narrow focus only encourages us to obsess over what we’ve done in the past, rather than what we could do in the future.

This short-term, reactive activity risks collecting meaningless data that doesn’t really tell us anything at all.

To implement a ‘big picture’ approach effectively, you need to get away from your desk and start engaging stakeholders.

An alternative approach

In our eagerness to justify our existence to senior colleagues, it feels like we’re losing sight of the bigger picture. What we should instead be asking ourselves is ‘what can L&D teams do now to identify and address business needs, to ensure they are delivering long-term value?’

We need to shift our mindset from looking backwards to looking to the future. We need to see the bigger picture, having the confidence to speak out and support business needs effectively.

Adopting a strategic mindset to data

This means taking a broader, more strategic approach to data and analytics. Rather than diving right in with complicated ROI measurements, pressing the pause button and taking the time to really understand your organisation.

Think of it like performing a health check. To understand what’s working well and identify areas for improvement in your organisation, you need to understand each of its constituent parts.

To use Charles Jennings’ recently-coined term, the emphasis here is on becoming a ‘Performance Detective’, moving beyond learning analysis to think in terms of business and performance analysis.

Rather than starting with the aim of finding a learning problem, take a more strategic approach by thinking in terms of wider business performance. What data will you need to systematically evaluate performance problems?

This proactive approach will place your L&D team at the heart of strategic and operational planning in your organisation – a key step towards ensuring your solutions are aligned with the needs of the business.

Engaging stakeholders

To implement a ‘big picture’ approach effectively, you need to get away from your desk and start engaging stakeholders. This is where L&D professionals can really come into their own as business partners.

You need to have the confidence to ask for a seat at the table, speaking with managers in each part of the business to find out what data they collect, and to understand the KPIs they use to measure success at each level.   

Only then will you be ready to start using the data yourself, looking for trends and anomalies that might point to wider performance issues.  

Taking a strategic approach to data will put you in pole position to become a true business partner.

Identifying sources

There really is a wealth of information at your fingertips, waiting to be uncovered. What does your organisation collect data about that could give you insights into broader performance trends?

Absence rates, disciplinary statistics, order processing data – all can reveal insights about your performance. It could be anything from unusually high sickness rates in the finance department, to declining order processing speeds in the call centre.

And remember that qualitative data can supplement your quantitative data. Consider holding interviews and focus groups with your colleagues, and even observing them in their day-to-day tasks to gain new insights.  

If you’re unsure whether a statistic or trend is exceptional, benchmarking using industry reports can be very effective. This will tell you what’s typical in your industry and offer a point for comparison with your own figures.   

Interrogating your data

You then need to probe a little deeper to understand what the root cause is.

Are there recurring patterns behind your finance colleagues’ sickness? If they’re all suffering with migraines, for example, is that caused by elevated stress levels, or by taking too few screen breaks?  

Are your call centre staff lacking the knowledge to use your order processing system effectively, or does the page freeze every time a new order is submitted, clogging up the entire process?

The answers to these questions will tell you whether a learning fix is needed, or an operational, systemic or even cultural fix is required.

Crucially, this process will mean you’re aligning the right solution with the right problem.  

The end result

Taking a strategic approach to data will put you in pole position to become a true business partner.

Armed with new insights, you’ll be a valuable source of information for stakeholders. After all, the performance issues you’ve come across will affect the bottom line if left to fester.

It doesn’t matter that some of these issues will need solutions outside of learning. The fact is, you’ve identified significant issues that are affecting organisational performance, and shown your value to the business as a result.

By taking a step back and taking a ‘big picture’ approach to data, L&D teams can become a proactive voice of change. To me, that’s exactly what embracing this ‘year of data’ is all about.     


One Response

  1. Top article Stephanie, one of
    Top article Stephanie, one of the best i have read on the subject of learning analytics. Your suggestions for us to look forward instead of backward, become business partners and interrogate data to identify performance problems is spot on. Also your view about us not minding if the solution to the performance issue needs to come from outside L&D is brilliant. Thanks for a great article.

Author Profile Picture
Stephanie Morgan

Former Director of Learning Solutions

Read more from Stephanie Morgan

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