Magazine excerpt: The power of personalisation

Organisations need to understand and apply agility to support learning, argues Philip Alexander.

The marketing industry has shown it is possible to deliver bespoke advertising to individuals. The challenge for the world of HR and L&D is to provide a similar degree of personalisation when it comes to employees and their talent development. 

The power of data – and its limitations

When you go online and search for information about a holiday, look at salary benchmarks, like a post on Facebook, or complete a survey, you are helping sites build up a detailed profile of who you are. Each time you interact with a site, you are helping a company improve its understanding of what you like, when you like it and how price sensitive you may be.

This enhanced understanding of who you are and what makes you tick helps companies to target you, as a more precisely segmented audience, with ads and information better suited to you. It makes platforms more valuable for both advertisers and consumers.

However, this drive to performance-based marketing is not the be-all and end-all. As sociologist William Bruce Cameron stated: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” There are immeasurables beyond hard facts that add real value to data.

Learning is a crucial workplace activity – both for the individual and the organisation.

In the case of advertising, it might be creative genius – as witnessed by Nike’s recent ‘Just do it’ campaign, which saw the company’s stock price reach an all-time high. In people practice, it’s a company’s culture and leadership that can really unlock the potential of its people.

The challenge

Just as the market for brands is growing, so is the competition for talent. In a complex world with rapid change, ensuring you are able to adapt quickly to both internal and external change is crucial. The market for employees is also evolving at pace, creating uncertainty and complexity.

So if you now think about your own organisation, do you think you have a better or worse understanding of your people than the external marketeers who are trying to sell them goods and services? Is your L&D process informed by deep individualised insights and built-in feedback loops? Are you able to measure the return on investment?

The starting problem for employers is that information about their people is often both dispersed an limited. It is also under-utilised. 

Collating the data

The workplace-relevant information that can be collated on employees is, of course, constrained as it will lack detailed information about all previous employment. But the recruitment process is the opportunity to find out as much about them as possible – are they competent, do they have qualifications that you seek, are they culturally enhancing?

Candidates are, in general, willing to provide as much information as requested at this stage. This historic information should have great relevance but is often put to one side once the recruitment process is over. Other information suffers from being siloed within a company.


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Some is held by HR, some rests with finance, some derives from workplace conversations and interactions and is rarely recorded in way that can help build a better picture of the needs and aspirations of an individual employee.

Furthermore, in some organisations, employers might be reluctant to use – or are unaware of – the possible tools at their disposal. Automated email monitoring, for example, can show who is talking to whom, how often and on what subjects.

Although this may sound intrusive, it can provide high-level data that, when combined with other sources of information, can assist employers with helping people in their careers. 

Learning at work

Given the rapid level of change in the world of work (with the half-life of skills now down to under five years, on average),1 learning is a crucial workplace activity – both for the individual and the organisation. This learning occurs, as poker champion turned business consultant, Annie Duke, states in Thinking in Bets: “When you get lots of feedback tied closely in time to decisions and actions.” 

One of the key ways for an organisation to achieve this is to understand, and apply, agile techniques and practices to support its people. Whether or not one adheres strictly to 70:20:10 as an L&D model, it is clear the majority of learning takes place while working. 

Agile requires experimentation, a willingness to try, measure and improve. To do this, there are key learning mechanisms built in, from daily stand-ups (a short team discussion of what they are working on, and what is blocking their progress), to retrospectives (a cross-functional team review of what went well, and what could be improved).

These are ways of working that ensure learning is both proximate to the event and actionable. Depending on the size of the team, it is also possible to tailor the way that feedback is given to each individual and their style of learning.


About the author

Philip Alexander is a director of the Agile Business Consortium and CEO of People Platform.


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