How big data could transform L&D

22 Feb 2018 By Christophe Coutat

Despite its challenges, big data could be the next big thing in the learning world. Christophe Coutat explores what’s on the horizon

Many believe that as computers have become more intelligent, they have started to deliver more precise and faster decisions than humans. With big data in the picture, it seems that L&D practices in organisations around the world have also started to evolve.

After all, big data relates to the compilation and analysis of data sets most commonly related to human behaviour. By looking at a large amount of information gathered over extended periods of time, HR practitioners are able to identify patterns in human habits and interactions that can then be used to make razor-sharp decisions for sustainable staff improvement and satisfaction. As such trends unfold, artificial intelligence may soon replace HR decision-makers.

However, others argue that there is no such thing as big data in HR. The idea that empirical methods can give an all-encompassing answer to big age-old HR questions is thoroughly rejected by authoritative sources like Harvard Business Review. HBR claims that Google’s Project Oxygen, a multi-year project that analyses people data and was poised to figure out what makes a good manager, has come to a conclusion that researchers had identified decades ago. Big data’s role in HR, sceptics argue, is not one of acumen, but of analytics.

Where is the challenge? 

Clearly, there is a debate about the pros and cons of applying big data to HR management. Part of the reason may lie in change management at the area of disruptive digitalisation. Traditionally, change management has been at the forefront of digitalisation, but also its biggest obstacle, because it relies so heavily on the personal attributes of the manager, and the willingness of employees to follow through with their plan.

The use of big data opens up a world of possibilities for L&D departments, but it is also a substantial challenge. Those challenges include the imperfection of current tools, the lack of human skill in analysing the data and internal resistance to this sort of generalised data-based decision-making.

And so it falls on the leaders of all departments, change managers and C-level executives alike to tackle these challenges and turn them into opportunities.

What opportunities does big data offer L&D?

Challenges aside, there are some practices that have already taken root and have proven to work. All of them build upon existing HR methods, but also borrow heavily from other fields such as consumerism and marketing, which have benefited greatly from digitalisation.

Little data

The routine measurement of things such as number of participants, courses, hours spent, costs, duration and participant reaction, and amount learned has long been analysed by L&D managers. However, the fact that this is not typically cross-referenced with other metrics leaves most L&D divisions with ‘little data’ instead of big data.

Still, years of gathering this kind of information has allowed for the understanding of the impact of learning on employees. These practices should be continued but, more importantly, they could be used as a base to build on and expand big data analytics.

Employee-centric design

This has to do with designing L&D tools that cater to the employee, rather than the manager. It is a shift from so-called ‘instructional design’ to ‘experience design’ – phrases coined by senior Deloitte L&D analyst Josh Bersin.

Experience design makes learning and information support easy and intuitive to use. It borrows from the IT term ‘user experience’ (UX), which puts ease and preference of use above all else. Designing apps, intranet resources and even non-digital tools with this philosophy in mind can be achieved via big data analytics by tracking the way employees use these instruments to learn.

Data-driven content

The current L&D framework at companies around the world is similar to the way digital marketing is conducted. Guillermo Miranda, IBM’s chief learning officer, describes it as being composed of various types of content, whose data on interactions and activities is meticulously collected and analysed. This data is then used to create intelligent systems to promote this content and monitor the way employees are using it in order to personalise it to their needs.

However, as Deloitte highlights, to make the most of big data opportunities, before embarking on a data-driven digital journey, change managers must align the entire organisation towards digitalisation and agree on the value it adds to the whole operation. Only then can L&D executives start planning with big data in mind.

Christophe Coutat is founder and managing director of Advent Group and organiser of the MERIT Summit

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