Know your learners

In this final part of her practical series on getting the best from L&D, Laura Overton looks at evidence to help L&D leaders 

Data, numbers and L&D professionals do not always make good bedfellows. As people people, we are comfortable with relationships and our pivotal role in supporting the development of individuals. Return on investment often makes us turn on our heels as it takes our energy and time away from the work that really matters. However, in this series, we’ve been taking a fresh look at how evidence and data can actually help us ‘get the edge’, build relationships with the business and do our job better than before. 

What is clear from all of our past research (and early findings from this year’s 2015 Benchmark) is that today’s L&D leaders are passionate about supporting change, improving performance and are increasingly looking to new tools and models to modernise strategy. Yet often our expectations fail to be met.

In part one of this series, we looked at how L&D leaders can use new learning benchmarks to help accelerate progress and avoid the pitfalls on their journey towards modernising learning.

Benchmarking against high performing L&D teams helps us prioritise actions and improve our own performance. We explored how benchmarking does not mean delving head first into data and budgets of our peers but instead involves stepping back and using the effective practices of others to reflect on our own. Reflection should resonate with L&D even when data doesn’t.

We also looked at how L&D leaders can use external evidence to open new conversations and connect business leaders with our vision for modernising learning. Instead of grappling with graphs, we now have the opportunity to use external evidence wisely to help predict how our new ideas might impact business and use this to persuade business leaders that they need to be demanding more than just a catalogue from their L&D teams.

In the final part of this series, we turn to evidence related to our learners to explore how learner-related data can help improve L&D performance and increase engagement.

Evidence to inform our strategies?

What evidence do we actually use about our learners to inform our strategies? When asked this question in workshops most L&D professionals rely on anecdotal evidence. Now I do not deny the power of a good individual story to illustrate a successful learning approach. Our own benchmark shows that it helps to engage other learners and is a powerful communication tool in both learning and communicating. But positive individual stories and negative one-off criticisms do not provide a solid evidence base on which to base an ongoing strategy. Anecdotal experience, even experience as trustworthy as our own does not count as evidence – either for or against.

We are also tracking a lot of activity via our LMS – courses completed, courses started but

not finished, hours spent training. Metrics that look at cost and efficiency.

Another source we turn to regularly is the evidence gathered from external sources such as the role of learning styles or the differences in learning approaches for the new millennials vs the baby boomers. However, for the last five years a big debate has surfaced about learning styles and the lack of evidence for them1 when it comes to generational differences in learning approaches, it is far from clear. Towards Maturity’s Learner Landscape work with more than 17,000 learners hasn’t surfaced solid evidence that those under 30 are learning what they need to do their job that much differently from those over 50 (and trust me, we’ve looked hard!!).2

Now one thing we do well in L&D is the online survey of our learners with 81 per cent of L&D professionals using online surveys and questionnaires to gather learner input3.


• Only 24 per cent gather information on the extent to which learning points have been applied at work

• Only 15 per cent go on to measure specific impact on business metrics

• Only 21 per cent know how long it takes for learners to become competent in their jobs.

So what are we asking? These are the types of questions that can give valid insight into the current impact of our work, it can inform our plans and strategies moving forward. Instead, we are asking about whether we enjoyed the experience.

Are we boxing ourselves in?

The evidence we currently turn to about learners puts our learners and the L&D function into a box.

Focusing on learner styles and generational differences stops us from asking what are our staff doing and what do they need from us? We box ourselves in by only tracking efficiency gains or course completions – if we don’t see ourselves as more than a cost centre taking course orders, why should anyone else? The ubiquitous ‘Happy Sheet’ helps us to massage our ego and fix some surface issues but sometimes the best learning is the hardest. It won’t be enjoyed, it will be hard won but it will be worth it.

None of these sources of evidence help us plan ahead or even to personalise the experience of learners.

Evidence for planning ahead

We need to let go of our current perception of evidence and look to new sources of learner evidence that will truly inform and challenge our decision-making.

This means thinking about how staff are actually learning what they need to do their job vs how much of the L&D catalogue they are engaging with. It means focusing on what matters to them vs what matters to us. It means understanding their attitudes to technology rather than apply our preconceived ideas to our staff.

When comes to learners, we need to be willing to use evidence to challenge our own thinking about the way that we develop formal learning programmes, our role in supporting learning beyond the traditional courses and our views on how technology should be used in learning.

We need to explore learning from the perspective of our learners and let’s be honest, for the most part they won’t even consider what they do as learning.

Learning analytics provide great insights based on the actual behaviours of learners as they engage

and connect with your systems. When staff are leaving your online course or video after five or six

minutes – you’ll have a clear indication that it is time to design shorter interventions. (Only 21 per cent of L&D practitioners use learning analytics to improve the service they offer).

In Towards Maturity’s Learning Landscape programmes, staff are asked to reflect on how, when and where they actually ‘learn’ what they need to do their job. This not only surfaces some interesting facts (see box opposite on the responses of 5,700 knowledge workers) but when staff actively reflect on a wider definition of learning, we’ve found it opens their minds to new learning approaches from their L&D team that they haven’t considered before. Listening to the learner voice helps us shape our programmes. For example, we know from our research with both learners and L&D leaders that 56 per cent of line managers agree they pick up learning travelling to and from work and yet only 27 per cent of L&D are actively looking to technology to specifically support the way that they are developing leaders. Most of us are unable to respond to the learner voice because two thirds of L&D leaders do not know how their staff learn what they need.

Let go of old thinking

Evidence about what works for today’s learners in our own world helps us identify what we need to do to support our staff more effectively, to help us plan ahead and personalise the experience. But it also increases our ability to connect our staff with a new agenda. History has shown that the classroom course is often used as a reward. Asking any staff member if they would like to replace a great location, time away from the office with an e-learning course that they can do on the bus is bound to meet with resistance. Staff need to also let go of their preconceived ideas about learning.

Our modernised learning programmes will require change and evidence about how our staff learn for themselves can actually help prepare the way for change. It helps us position new ways of learning as an extension of what they currently do.

Be open minded

It is an exciting world for L&D. There are opportunities to redefine our offerings but we need to step out with confidence. We need to turn to an evidence-based approach to decision-making to help us reduce risk, communicate more effectively and plan ahead for a positive future.


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