The growing importance of learning analytics in organizations calls for L&D professionals to embrace a whole new skill set around data. This might be a stretch for those who feel they didn’t get into learning to spend more time staring at spreadsheets. But exciting career opportunities could be there for those who make the switch.
We are all data nerds now. The subject of data is now a central concern for ‘ordinary’ people. People like us.
We are aware in ways we never before were that everything we do generates data. Fitness meters track our heart rate, social media platforms know our music taste, our movements, our political opinions … Banking, exercising, liking things on Instagram—even sitting in a chair passively consuming TV. All these normal everyday things generate data that companies and governments can respond to. Affecting and changing the world around us.
This is the world we live in now. One where we all have a relationship with data that is intimate, conflicted, by turns fearful and ecstatic, but in any event inextricably a fact of our existence.
This makes for an odd, slightly disconcerting shift when we turn to look at the role data in learning. Or not.
Learning analytics in organizations
The learning function in organizations tends to lag behind other parts of the business in its use of data. And experts believe that by picking up the slack in this regard, L&D has a huge opportunity to improve its standing. This equates also to a big opportunity for aspiring managers.
There seems to be a consensus among thought leaders, analysts, and high-profile practitioners that L&D needs to up its game on data if it is to improve the perception of its value within organizations. More specifically, it needs to show that its activities result in tangible, measurable performance improvements. As industry expert Donald Clark puts it: ‘Learning departments need to align with the business and business outcomes’. ‘Aspiring managers will take note of this advice and embrace learning analytics as the route to more fruitful careers.’
In his report on the 2020 Learning and Development Global Sentiment Survey, Donald H. Taylor wrote: “For L&D practitioners to use analytics to best effect, they need to correlate data around learning activity with data from the business. In the words of Trish Uhl, this allows them to ‘prove the value of and improve the effectiveness of’ their work.”
Donald H. Taylor says that L&D needs to prove its worth by using data to show that it can move the needle in terms of metrics that mean something to the business.
This argument is often couched in terms of an existential threat: if L&D can’t up its game on data, it will become irrelevant, sidelined, and ultimately cease to exist. On the flipside, aspiring managers who embrace learning analytics will become more relevant. More likely to be seen as on the critical path for the future success of the business and will tend to have more sustainable careers as a result.
What learning analytics skills do aspiring managers in L&D need?
Research from the UK-based Learning and Performance Institute (LPI) indicates that of 25 skills it has established as essential for L&D in the 21st century, L&D professionals feel least skilled in data analytics. Results from Learning Pool’s Learning Analytics Maturity Model diagnostic, which asks L&D professionals a range of questions to ascertain their readiness to exploit learning analytics in the workplace, back this up. The majority of participants suggest they have no one on their team who is qualified or working on learning analytics.
It is probably true to say that by and large people don’t get into L&D because they have a burning desire to spend more time making pivot tables in Excel, and it is often felt that there is something inherent in the personality type L&D attracts that has led to this situation. “The learning world attracts ‘people’ people, with an interest in the development of others,” writes Donald Clark. “Rather than many from a scientific or analytic background, with an interest in systems and data. This, in a sense, pushes learning professionals away from learning analytics.”
So how should learning professionals think about the change they need to make in their outlook in order to embrace the opportunities offered for their careers by learning analytics?
We could make a comparison with marketing, a discipline that has become increasingly data-intensive over the last 20 years as digital has become dominant within the media environment. New skills and awareness have become necessary in the process. Marketing teams will now typically include specialists in data-intensive areas. However, although change has continued apace, the essential character of the discipline has not changed all that much. No one feels that they have to be a data scientist in order to embark on a career in marketing.
It is true that marketing has always been a data-intensive field. It is also possible that learning, being harder to measure than marketing requires a more sophisticated level of data skills even to get started than is necessary for marketing. (There is no “buy” button in a learning program, as Mike Sharkey of Blackboard has observed). However, as the Villeroy & Boch case study shows, even an incremental change in approach can yield extraordinary results.
Surely L&D as a practice area can make the move to adjust to a new capability map, just as marketing professionals have done. Institutions focused on workplace learning such as ATD and the LPI offer resources to help upskill in this area. And as for learning professionals, L&D people should know better than most how to go about reskilling themselves effectively!
Learning Pool offers free resources to help learning professionals embrace learning analytics. Principally the LAMM maturity diagnostic mentioned earlier, and the Learning Analytics Canvas, a powerful step-by-step planning tool for learning evaluation.
So help and resources exist for L&D professionals wishing to upskill in learning analytics, and the arguments we have offered here show that there are strong drivers in the shape of career opportunities for aspiring managers. All that is needed is the will to make the change.
You can view more of our learning analytics examples via our case studies page. Or download our new eBook, ‘Adding data and learning analytics to your organization’ to find out more about good analytics practice.
Anna is a highly experienced digital education and training specialist, working in education and training product development and management for the past 10 years.
Having worked as a senior leader in large education companies, Anna has lead teams developing and managing a wide range of learning products reaching hundreds of thousands of learners.
Outside of work, Anna volunteers as a Beaver leader for the Scouts.