Optimising L&D performance

In the first of three articles, Laura Overton looks at how L&D leaders can get the edge

Everybody is talking about it – data! Big data, little data, HR, talent learning analytics of every kind. You name it and somebody somewhere is counting it. But why the big fuss all of a sudden?

From a business perspective, the focus on data driven decision-making is big news. Research with MIT and IBM showed that analytics trumped intuition every time with top performers five times more likely to be using analytics than low performers. It looks like the same is true for HR – Bersin reported that 14 per cent of HR organisations believe they “regularly use data to make talent and HR strategy decisions” and those organisations are twice as likely to believe they are excellent at selecting the right candidates and that they are delivering a strong leadership pipeline. They are generating 30 per cent higher stock returns than peers and are three times as likely to believe they are operating HR efficiently.

In the Towards Maturity study, we have analysed millions of data points gathered from L&D leaders over the past 10 years. In 2014, we found that the top performing learning organisations are twice as likely to agree that their strategy has helped them improve productivity, respond faster to change and they are three times as likely to agree that their staff put into practice what they’ve learnt compared to the average. Guess what – they are three times as likely to be using learning analytics and twice as likely to be benchmarking their strategies with peers.

Enough numbers I hear you cry! What does this mean in the real world of L&D where resources are tight and expectations to deliver more value for less increase every day?

Historically, many of our decisions in L&D were made as a result of trial and error, intuition or by working with a very credible and convincing sales person! Today, L&D professionals are constantly bombarded with the latest model for workplace learning, the shiniest technology or a new approach that will change the world. [pullquote]In a time of constant change, we can no longer afford to jump on (or off) every bandwagon[/pullquote]. This is where a more systematic, evidence-based approach comes into its own.

The box across shows six different benefits of adopting a data driven decision-making approach to learning.

How can we use data to improve L&D performance?

Benchmarking is a business improvement tool that has been widely used in many aspects of business since the 1990s when Xerox used the approach to turn their organisation around. Benchmarking is all about gaining insights from data that specifically measure and improve the quality of an organisation’s performance. Other parts of our businesses have been doing this for years but L&D leaders, until now, have been slow to catch on.

Recently we’ve noticed an increased interest in the field.

The trouble is that this has manifested itself in an abundance of surveys! We’re surveyed about trends, about budgets, about technologies and about the latest ideas. These are useful to give a sense of what others are doing, a pat on the back (or even a sense of complacency) but, let’s be clear, they are not a benchmark in the true business sense.

We used to track progress against old style ‘benchmarks’. However, knowing the annual spend, days spent training or even compliance training completion rates will not help improve the quality of the outputs of our L&D team. In fact comparing our overall budget, team sizes and hours of training tend to serve only one purpose – they focus on how much cost we are adding to the bottom line of the business. If I was a business leader and I was presented with these types of figures, I’d struggle to see these as a performance benchmark. In fact, all these figures would do is prompt me to ask how do I reduce spend in these areas? When we focus on these indicators to compare ourselves with others, it’s no wonder that so many L&D teams are on austerity measures of their own.


Applying benchmark to adding value vs cost

The box on p15 takes a look at the consequences of old style learning benchmarks. If we are going to take benchmarking seriously – using it as a tool to direct activities for the year ahead, to improve our game, increase engagement and deliver more value – we have to look beyond the surveys that track what we’ve always tracked. If L&D are to move forward, we need to start looking at new learning benchmarks that drive action and equip L&D teams for the future rather than shackle them to the past. There are two big questions to focus on when defining new learning benchmarks.

 1. Why are you doing this?

First we need to think about why are we doing this? L&D excellence is clearly not just about a pat on the back, a tick in the box or even a formal accreditation. It is all about performance, adding value to business, supporting individual performance, building engagement and commitment and delivering results.

With this in mind, if you are going to spend time benchmarking your L&D strategy to help you achieve those things, make sure it is
 well spent!

Before you complete any review for the purposes of benchmarking, ask yourself are there clear, proven links that the questions you are being asked and the behaviours that are being investigated, will help you deliver the results you are looking for?

Results were at the heart of our first study in 2003, Linking Learning to Business which started to unpick the behaviours of successful L&D teams in terms of the things that really count for business leaders: revenue, productivity, customer satisfaction, time to competency and more. These are output KPIs, tough to track but keep us focused on the business output rather than
the input.

Tracking the L&D behaviours that lead to better business impact has to be the priority for establishing new learning benchmarks.

 2. Who is getting the best results and what can I learn from them?

Benchmarking is not just about comparing data on business outcomes but it is also about understanding the activities that set the top performing organisations apart and then conducting a formalised review and comparison of your activities vs the top performers. Action benchmarking helps you identify your current strengths and weaknesses and then to identify your priorities moving forward. However, to do this you need to trust the process and also to be willing to look outside of your own sector to challenge your thinking. Attending conferences and reading great case stories help to flesh out the approach that you plan to take but true data driven decision making will also involve actively comparing and reviewing your strategy against an independent framework. The framework should show validated links back to business impact and be credible, regularly updated and transparent. 

New learning benchmarks are all about action – focusing on the results needed by the business, by individuals and the actions that are required to move L&D forward. New learning benchmarks use data to establish firm foundations for making innovative decisions that deliver results.


Taking action today

IBM has shown that top performing organisations are those that turn data into insights and insights into action – it’s time for L&D leaders to do the same. Benchmarking is a data driven approach that supports L&D performance and helps prioritise actions. In the coming series, we’ll look at how data can help L&D leaders connect with business leaders by providing insights to help persuade and plan and also with learners as we use data to personalise learning and plan for their future. 

A fully referenced version is available on request.

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