The language of alignment is data. In order to become more aligned with business leader partners, L&D must make the best use of business data to make decisions, monitor progress, troubleshoot issues and make directional adjustments.
While data about how successfully L&D develops and delivers training are interesting because they validate L&D’s internal processes and capabilities, they rarely bridge the gap to business goals. It’s an unfortunate reality that our business partners have been left to learn and accept data about L&D’s world, while they run the organization using a different language that describes business outcomes in terms of revenue, profit, productivity, efficiency, cost-benefit and return on investment. Common L&D metrics like the ones listed below are a long way from demonstrating the value of training to the business in their terms:
- Cost of training
- Participation rates
- Cycle time and/or effort for creating training
- Program evaluation results
- Learner satisfaction with training
Since L&D data don’t typically help business leaders understand how well they are attaining their goals, learning professionals have to work with business leaders to use the data they use to help make their evaluations. Business goals are constructed to create change – described either as an improvement or as a response to an issue (faster, more, less, bigger, better, etc.). When talking about business goals, L&D must be comfortable asking three key questions:
- By how much?
- How will you know?
- By what data?
Expanding the Availability of Business Data
Technology allows organizations to collect and tie together data about customers, processes, employees, equipment, locations, etc. More business data are becoming available every day, along with more ways to organize, use and learn from them.
More data is not necessarily a good thing. Poorly designed data collection systems or the amount of raw data can be counterproductive and even paralyzing. The good news is that new tools are emerging and existing tools are improving, making access to these data easier. L&D is experiencing similar trends with data gathering, data aggregation and reporting functionality. While the experiences may parallel, to align to the business, L&D must learn how business leaders are using the data to predict, plan, monitor and adjust.
New and rapidly maturing tools are helping business leaders customize dashboards on the fly, allowing leaders to create and run custom reports, display data and ultimately make data-driven decisions. Business intelligence, business analytics, dashboards and scorecards are becoming more powerful and used more widely. As artificial intelligence matures and is tied tighter to data-driven decision management, the form and the value of data will improve and penetrate businesses more deeply.
Data-mining techniques and the ability to associate more kinds of structured data (designed data with inherent classification, organization, filtering and reporting schemes) and unstructured data (irregular data, natural language and text data) enable more exploration, modeling, machine learning and predictive analysis. Additionally, capabilities are rapidly improving to scrape data from external sources, such as social media platforms, to better understand customer experience, customer satisfaction, competitor actions and competitors’ customer satisfaction.
All of this is to say that nearly every process, task, activity, interaction and transaction has – or soon will have – some form of data associated with it, and methods of surfacing and reporting on it.
Predict, Model and Then Measure the Business Value
To L&D, the additional data and more sophisticated tools don’t change the challenge of alignment. Alignment starts by establishing an understanding of the business goals, important obstacles to overcome and the metrics the business will use to evaluate whether it met the goal.
It is rare that an organization can achieve a meaningful business goal entirely by closing a gap in knowledge or skill or changing behavior or practice. Predicting, modeling and then measuring the business value of learning requires defining a subset of the overarching business goal. Here are a few examples of business goals:
- Improve customer net promoter score by nine points within 18 months
- Reduce production waste by 10 percent within a year
- Improve supply chain efficiency by 8 percent by 2019
To establish the learning goal and metrics, L&D professionals must enter into conversations with business leader partners with the proper mindset – ready to discuss and negotiate the forecasted value and potential impact of training. Here are a few questions to start the conversation:
- What factors contribute to successfully achieving the goal? (They may include policies, processes, consequences, leaders, processes, software or technology, equipment, leadership, and employee knowledge and skills)
- How much does each factor contribute to success? (Use a percentage and force rank them to total 100 percent.)
- What data will be used to measure each factor?
- If we maximize the improvement of employee knowledge, skill and performance, what impact will it have on the overall goal?
- What investment can we make to achieve a reasonable ROI?
Discussing the goals and measures with business partner colleagues dramatically improves L&D’s ability to align to the business goals. It will also help both sides use existing business data to forecast and measure impact.