April 19, 2022

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What is the secret of a healthy L&D relationship with data?

‘Hello Data, my old friend’

I’ve always been interested in what the data could do for me long before I was interested in the data itself!

As a young (and I have to say it, female) L&D professional, I heavily relied on evidence to get heard. Back in the early 90’s I worked with many individuals who clearly wondered ‘What does she know?!’ It didn’t matter that I had studied how people learn for my degree or had spent 10 years working with organisations to successfully implement and deliver results using technology. When action was needed and my profile didn’t always fit with the in crowd, data became my friend!

When I had questions that I needed answers for, or my customers had questions they needed answered, I scoured the evidence around me. What did the science say? What did the data from big consultancy firms, IDC or Gartner say? What did the internal reporting programmes say? What did data from competitors say?

When I started to back my arguments and suggestions with evidence and data, it got attention… and action.

When I was curious about a stat that said 60% of elearning projects fail, I started asking more questions – of those who knew about successful programmes, of L&D leaders in those programmes and of the learners themselves. When that data came in, I asked more questions – of the L&D community, of government stakeholders to help try and make sense of it. This was the start of a 15-year research programme exploring the stages of L&D maturity around the globe.

So data has been a professional friend to me throughout my career!

And now, with shifts in technology, data is big L&D business!

High hopes from our data relationship

To be honest, data has been on the L&D agenda for some time now. Over the past 10 years it has been discussed and dissected in L&D circles as we’ve challenged ourselves to become more familiar with it.

Back in 2018 I conducted some research with friends from Kineo and Filtered digging into L&D’s relationship with data. The study showed high hopes for data with 9 out of 10 looking to data to help them improve decisions, improve recommendations, track business impact, and enhance experience.

Yet, according to the LPI’s latest L&D dashboard in April 2022 our relationship and confidence with data has not improved.

Is our relationship with data a healthy one?

So, for all of the L&D profession’s talk about data, I’ve been wondering lately if our relationship with data is as healthy as it should be. I’ve been observing this for a while and have seen a wide range of L&D responses to data over the past few years. I think there are a number of ways describing our relationship with data:

  • The Data Junkies – who live day to day for their next fix of data, hungry for the latest tools, technologies, and dashboards – they hunker down in their analytics and can’t move without them.
  • The Data Deny-ers – who believe in their instincts, after all experience and gut sense got them where they are today and believe that there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’!
  • The Data Dabblers – very happy in their comfort zone of the learning system dashboard of usage and completion metrics but always have plenty of reasons not to step out into the deep end of new data sources.
  • The Data Ostriches – who stick their head in the sand because they conflate data with proving ROI and know that proving value is both difficult (how can I prove I make a difference?) and scary (what if I can’t prove I make a difference?!).

Whilst these are just pen pictures I do wonder if our relationship to data can sometimes be a bit lopsided.

Does the Data Junkie have time to lift their head to see what’s happening in the real world? Do the Data Deny-ers really think that what worked in the past will continue to work today? Are the Data Dabblers missing out on insights that will help them make sense of their dashboards? Do the Data Ostriches live in fear of data vs experiencing the opportunities it offers?

The secret ingredient of a healthy relationship with data

For me a healthy relationship with data involves having a realistic perspective about what data brings to our practice AND what we, as practitioners, bring to data.

Combining both allows us to turn data into insight and insight into action.

I genuinely believe that a healthy relationship with data doesn’t start with our ability to gather or analyse data. It starts with genuine curiosity.

Our questions are the secret of a healthy relationship with data. The more interested we are in the answers, the more invested we will be in discovering them.

For example, I’m curious to know

  • How can data help me improve my practice?
  • How can data help me make sense of what’s going on around me?
  • How can data help me diagnose, design, evaluate better?
  • How can data challenge my assumptions or help me build a business case?
  • Who already knows about what data can tell me about my organisation?
  • How can I make sense of data?

We don’t need to be data analysts to have curious questions about how we improve. As a team at Emerging Stronger we recommend that we use data as a lens to explore our world around us. Lenses help us see things differently and explore our world in fresh ways.

But we have to be curious first!

When it comes to L&D’s relationship with data what are you curious about and what questions should we be asking? Please share and let me know in the comments below.

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