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Learning strategy: the dangers of applying big data to learning


Technology has given us access to more data than ever before, but in the rush to make use of all this new information we mustn’t lose sight of the human side of day-to-day interaction, which can often teach us more than we realise.

Our uniqueness is our distinct advantage, not our limitation. We need to learn to appreciate it in ourselves and respect and encourage it in others.

There is so much talk about big data that it’s easy to forget that big is only the sum of small.

In business we refer to ‘big’ via aggregates, averages, and homogenous groups like customers, employees, teams etc. While this is efficient for data reporting purposes, we fail to identify with the specific detail, preferring to acknowledge the generic demographics.

It’s the same with our people – how do we get the best from them if we apply broad principles? We need to name them and personalise them too.

This results in an immediate connection, which leads to real and long term engagement with them. This is true of both leaders and followers – the people at the front line as well as in the boardroom.

In order to grow a business, you have to grow your people. It’s impossible to enjoy the fruits of one without first nurturing and investing in the other.

People matter

It’s people (the small) that comprise a business (the big), yet we tend to think of a business as possessing a DNA made up of its products and services and financial performance.

In reality, its DNA comprises those people delivering these outputs. If people aren’t given the opportunity to be the best they can be, then business performance will always be sub-optimal, whatever brilliant strategy is unfolding.

It’s the leader’s role to ensure that this investment in people is optimised to be the best it can be to deliver today and help prepare for tomorrow.

Relationships are not a science, and as we’re not uniform in our behaviour there is no substitute for observing and reflecting the humanity in others on a daily basis. 

Let’s be honest with ourselves here, if our businesses are to have a future then our people need to see that they have a future in the business too. This means that their entrepreneurial skills and personal motivation need to be harnessed.

It is they, not us, who are the engine room of innovation, relationship management and problem solving essential to keeping the business driving forward. Employees need encouragement to bring their own skills and knowledge to the business rather than conforming to a robotic script.

The training they require is not didactic but harnesses their uniqueness and builds their confidence to show the best of themselves.

Leaders matter

Leaders matter, because everything that a leader does has an impact on the business. Every utterance, every gesture and every action has a significant influence on the people ‘doing the work’ and therefore on the performance of the business.

Yet when we send leaders off to learn their craft, the focus is on strategy, understanding balance sheets, performance management and the like. This constitutes a data set from which people management systems are developed.

Doing it this way doesn’t focus on the core challenge facing the leadership role – your influence and impact on others.

It’s not about corralling people to think and be like you, it’s about you adapting yourself to support the different individuals that make up your team.

In a world of ‘big data’ we often resort to using averages, aggregates and algorithms. While insightful sources of trend information, they nullify the idiosyncrasies of individuals, whether that’s people, customers, suppliers or stakeholders.

People can be aggregated in terms of their numbers, age, gender, or ethnicity. However, in aggregating their needs and rounding their characteristics, we address no one perfectly and risk alienating most in the process. As we know, one-size fits no one well.

Individual insights matter

For engagement to become a galvanising force it must first address and respect the uniqueness of the individual. It’s not complicated to do and, if you think how you like to be recognised, it easily passes the common sense test.

Understanding individual development preferences and potential helps to create a dialogue around which we can more easily identify with the best-fit approach for each of our people.

With this insight we can also modify our own behaviours to improve our working relationship at an individual level.

Relationships are not a science, and as we’re not uniform in our behaviour there is no substitute for observing and reflecting the humanity in others on a daily basis. That’s a vantage point from which a coach leader can offer developmental support and growth in a live setting.

While there’s a place for and a budget benefit to classroom learning, we need to be aware of what we stand to lose from thinking big rather than acting small.    

Engagement is the forerunner to empowering people to build and use their expertise and know-how. It also creates an environment in which they seek to develop new skills and extend their own comfort zones.

Unfortunately, this leadership style doesn’t prove easy to many, particularly those whose leadership apprenticeship was served up on a diet of command and control, or those who are in the early years of their leadership development.

Just as the development of people is important, so too is the development of leaders – a small sub-set of people.

Leadership development matters

Attempts to improve leadership capability so often fail to bring about real behavioural change, because how we react, interact and engage with all people from customer to employee, is not given the same focus as the data of the business.

Leaders should never see themselves as the finished article. Sure, they bring a wealth of experience to the table, but every challenge they encounter in a new team or with a different individual is unlikely to demand an exact replication of a previous solution.

Leaders need a level of versatility to help them respond differently to similar situations, rather than relying upon the tried and tested.  

We possess observational and intuitive sensing skills and it is these skills that over time allow us to assess situations in real time with increasing accuracy.

Of course, we may benefit from tools that provide additional information about a person and their preferences, but ultimately it’s our ability to observe individuals as they go about their working day that enables us to form a more accurate picture of what makes them ‘tick’. After all, isn’t that what humanity is all about?  

Emotional responses matter

I remember a seasoned manager introducing psychometric testing into her recruitment process. While I applauded the initiative, I became concerned to find that recruitment had stalled.

In essence, the manager had allowed the psychometric outputs to become the decision-making tool, thereby relegating her own observations and experience to secondary importance. Up to this point she had, like many of us, made perfectly good appointments and, like all of us, endured some that hadn’t worked out quite so well.

Tools and techniques may help but it’s the underlying emotion and human experience that forms the platform upon which these can be added.

David Whyte, described as the poet of the corporate world, describes the emergence of a coach leader role that “…embraces the attentive, open minded, conversationally based people minded person who has not given up on his or her intellect and can still act and act quickly when needed.”

Coaching is a highly regarded learning and development intervention concerned with how we connect and interact with others. It’s akin to a personal workshop, free from the noise and distraction of others yet personalised in content and pace to the individual.

While there’s a place for and a budget benefit to classroom learning, we need to be aware of what we stand to lose from thinking big rather than acting small.    

Interested in learning more? Read What are the pillars of a modern learning culture?

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