The analytics challenge

Justin Collinge says that L&D needs to get involved in the data revolution

We’ve been hearing about ‘big data’ and the impact it will have/is having on our world. Now it begins to challenge the very fabric of learning and development. Two scenarios below explore how social sensing technology, already being used by companies in other countries and now being rolled out in the UK, might impact L&D. The first scenario explores the safe, evolutionary uses of data gathering within a familiar setting. The second scenario explores a more dramatic, revolutionary use of data gathering – one that poses a serious challenge to L&D departments. The first will seem more comfortable to the average L&D professional, but be warned, the second is already beginning to happen.

Scenario A – The training room

The group arrives at the brightly dressed training room for ‘Managing People’, a one-day training event for managers. They dribble in a few at a time, giving the facilitator the chance to ask each one to put on a ‘badge’ – a lightweight piece of technology about the size and shape of an ID badge, worn on a lanyard around the neck.

At half past nine, after some bitter coffee and sweet biscuits, the training starts. The two facilitators take the group through a reasonably predictable agenda, starting with outcomes and then they begin to explore different models linked to typical management challenges. The morning includes some sitting and listening, some participative discussion and some group activities. Around halfway through the morning things get quite heated during a group discussion.

Following an initial explanation, no comment is made about the badges and they are swiftly forgotten in the flow of the training day. It is only at the end of lunch that people notice the badges again as they are collected up by one of the facilitators, who disappears with them while her partner begins the afternoon session.

About an hour later, she reappears and begins to give feedback to the group using data the badges collected. Of course, the group are initially apprehensive that, despite all the assurances to the contrary they are going to be exposed in terms of behaviour. However, it quickly becomes clear that the data is aggregated, showing only group behaviour, not identifying any individual. They begin to lean forward as three areas – cohesion, energy and dominance – are identified
and explored:

  • Cohesion – how much each individual in the group talks to all the other individuals.
  • Energy – how much they are actively involved.
  • Dominance – how discussions are dominated by some while others become almost invisible.

Cohesion: The data shows that there were two people who used the coffee and lunch breaks to network and get to know others in the group, that four others consistently isolated themselves (probably catching up on emails or phone calls) and that the rest of the group mainly communicated with only one or two others, most likely those they came with or already knew. Then a network graphic is shown, starkly illustrating the impact of the three good informal connectors on the group.

The facilitators take the group through the research around informal conversations, the impact of ‘weak ties’ and the surprising influence that this can have on productivity and engagement. The group then applies this learning to strategise, focusing on (1) how they can become more socially intelligent, (2) how they can create a more integrated culture within their teams and (3) how they can encourage connections beyond their
team limits.

Energy: Then the facilitators move on to show energy data. This follows fairly consistently with the flow of the day: earlier in the day when the group was sitting quietly listening they were reasonably low energy and when involved in activities energy levels were higher. What is more interesting is identifying times when they were working in small groups and seeing the difference in energy between the groups. Research from MIT has shown that people who talk to others with high energy (lots of movement, gestures etc.) are far more productive than lower energy people.

This time, instead of just looking at team data, each individual is given a discrete personal report, to identify their own data on the visualisations. Each individual’s identity is protected: they only know which bar on the graph represents their behaviour, not any of their fellow participants. However, identifying their own energy levels has a profound effect on each person as they recognise the impact that they are having. Or not having.

Dominance: Next, selecting only a thin slice of time – the heated discussion that happened halfway through the morning – the group was asked about it. Initially they believed that everyone had been involved and that there had been a strong discussion with some interesting conclusions. However, when the facilitators show the data, it is immediately obvious how the whole discussion was controlled and directed by a few individuals with half the group not adding anything to the discussion at all.

As with the other data points, this revelation is followed by an exploration of the implications. This time their focus is directed towards their regular team meetings and how much ‘airtime’ each person really gets, who shares first and how to handle people who take more air than is fair.

The day concludes with a quiet excitement among the participants, each eager to create better integration and higher energy in their teams while keeping a close eye on over-dominant people (including themselves!).

Scenario B – The workplace alternative

Scenario A explored an imaginary workshop and how new data-sensing technology could provide new insights within a training context. Now let’s explore a more revolutionary way that this technology might impact the typical L&D function.

Imagine that the same managers and their teams are provided with data-sensing badges and wear them for a few weeks. This would provide the organisation with direct comparisons between the behaviours of successful and less successful teams (for those who are rightly worried about privacy, remember that individual data is never revealed to the organisation, it’s only ever revealed to the individual who owns all rights to that data). Now, instead of applying generic, best guess solutions, or ones that have worked in other organisations, we can actually identify the exact behaviours that create high productivity in your organisation. For example, high cohesion might be desirable in a call centre but it can be highly undesirable in a typical creative team where high exploration may be more important.

What works best in your organisation can now be used to inform organisational change. For example, one organisation, informed by the data captured, saw a 5 per cent increase in productivity by making small but important changes to company structure. That 5 per cent is a game-changing improvement and one that typically might be seen to need a big structural change. In this case, it came simply from providing longer lunch tables in the cafeteria! This happened because originally the same 3-4 people would always sit together to eat lunch, now more diverse groups sat together and swapped stories. These stories included all sorts of information about what was going on in the business, enabling much higher engagement of the workforce. A very small change and yet the benefits to the company were huge.

The point to note in this last example is that the L&D department weren’t involved, or indeed needed.

Data gathering technology is not coming. It has arrived. At the moment it’s in the shape of discrete wearable ‘badges’ but soon it will be built into everyone’s company ID badge. It’s going to create more ‘human’ workplaces as we understand how important informal conversations are and how well-rounded teams outperform their counterparts who function in more isolated ways. Crucially, it’s also going to revolutionise the role of L&D.

The danger here is that instead of embracing the potential of this new technology, L&D might try to hang on to its historical focus, its standard workshop-based solutions and offer what it has always offered just because it’s worked up to now. In the whirlwind of change that big data is bringing, that behaviour will make L&D a costly irrelevance. Instead, the challenge here is to get involved with the data revolution and lead, rather than be led by others. There is still such a clear role for personal development, it’s just not likely to be in the same areas, with the same delivery style or include the standard modules that the organisation has (successfully) delivered for the last few years. For example, rather than running a traditional ‘meeting effectiveness’ workshop, the L&D professional could now sit in on meetings and give regular in-the-moment feedback as to what’s really happening during the meeting. I bet you can guess which alternative is more impactful, much more cost effective and most desirable by those who want to see ROI.

A final example. Imagine that one of those individual managers from Scenario B wears the badge for a few weeks and comes to you for coaching – giving you permission to access his or her data. Just think of the possibilities for personal coaching now available when a minute-by-minute breakdown of their behaviour is available, including:

  • Their posture during an important meeting
  • Their tone of voice in a one-to-one
  • Their energy at different times of the day
  • Whom they speak to regularly (and whom they never seem to speak to)
  • Where they are located at critical times of the day
  • How much time they spend sitting isolated at their desk compared to how much time they spend talking with team members

…and so much more. And, of course, this data can be used to directly compare behaviour and results going forward.

A futuristic new world? Perhaps.

A fabulous opportunity for L&D to evolve into a more strategic and value-added role? Absolutely.

Coming your way? No! It’s already here.


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