Laura Overton examines the recently launched 2012 Benchmark Study to discuss why now is a pivotal time for those working in L&D and what we can learn from top learning companies.
When analysing the data of 500 organisations for the 2012 Benchmark Study, it was soon evident that this has been a really pivotal year in our industry. It's the year that our industry woke up to the potential of learning technologies.
Across the board, organisations are beginning to understand the potential of new learning approaches to help us get closer to the needs of the workplace.
The study showed that 9 out of 10 companies believe that it is important to integrate learning more into their different business functions such as sales, marketing, production and customer services.
This year, more than ever, L&D professionals are expecting learning technologies to help them achieve this goal. Over 90% of organisations are looking to technology to help them share good practice within the organisation, to help speed up and improve the application of learning into the workflow, to help them improve talent management and performance and to help them respond faster to changing business conditions.
"Over 90% of organisations are looking to technology to help them share good practice within the organisation, to help speed up and improve the application of learning into the workflow"
Results too good to be ignored
It's a big ask, but this year's study also shows that technology-enabled learning is starting to deliver, going beyond ticking the compliance box and saving money to providing bottom line business value. The evidence is building and this year, for the first time, we analysed the reported impact by 700 organisations over the last 30 months to identify the benefits that others can expect.
This analysis revealed how companies using learning technologies are able to roll out new products, services and IT systems over 20% faster, reported an additional 22% improvement in productivity and is even influencing improvement in both employee engagement and customer satisfaction rates (16% improvement on average).. It also highlights that companies were delivering these results more efficiently, achieving a 23% improvement in study time, 24% faster delivery time, 22% reduction in cost of training, 26% improvement in learning reach and 16% improvement in time to competency.
Missed L&D opportunities
Whilst there is a real hunger for change in the air, the report highlights that we are missing some important opportunities. For example 95% of learning professionals in this study were keen to find ways of harnessing and sharing good practice within the business, but only 25% reported that they are currently able to achieve it. Why is that? We have more tools available to us to help than ever before but we are not necessarily taking advantage of the opportunity they bring.
One example of this is the use of social media. We've seen an increase in 2012 with 45% of organisations using third party social media sites and 29% using in-house social media in the learning mix. But only one in five of those organisations are actively encouraging their staff to use those tools to solve problems together. The report explores many other examples but the pattern is clear - the tools are available but we are not leveraging them effectively.
What can we learn from top learning companies?
It is no surprise then that not everyone achieves the results that they seek. However we find that the top learning companies  are achieving substantial additional benefits through apply technology in learning more creatively. They are twice as likely than the average company to report that their use of learning technology has helped them to share good practice, improve talent, performance, respond faster to business change, speed up the application of learning at work and improve staff engagement.
So what can we learn from them? Top learning companies deliver more value but they also invest more. They spend 50% more of their learning budgets on technology than the average organisation. They also use technology in almost twice as many formal learning programmes than average (including business critical programmes around leadership and customer care) and they are almost twice as likely to invest in continual professional development for their L&D teams.
They are more likely to allocate their learning resources (time, people and budget) to strategy, planning, content development and actively supporting collaboration and informal learning than average. We see that the majority plan to focus on the activity areas that the top learning companies are actually doing today.
Top learning companies are also proactive and the report is littered with examples of the actions being taken. In the example above, compared with those in the bottom quartile of the Towards Maturity Index, they are 20 times more likely to encourage staff to collaborate and share problems using social media. They 'work' the tools available to their advantage, and the business results follow.
"The report shows that we need to take action if we are to achieve the vision of integrating learning with work."
Benchmarking with the best
The report shows that we need to take action if we are to achieve the vision of integrating learning with work. The findings highlight that as an industry we are getting better about aligning our learning to business priorities and communicating our successes. This benchmark process helps us track progress both individually and collectively and has been helped enormously by the work of leading industry groups such as ELIG, the Learning and Performance institute, the Learning and Skills Group and the Towards Maturity Ambassadors who make the research possible.
Even if learners are reluctant to engage with technology, business leaders are indifferent, or traditional trainers are slow to update their skills, L&D teams still need to explore the learning techniques that are there to help our organisations grow. This benchmark will provide you with the inspiration you need to take action and the evidence to help you open up new conversations with reluctant stakeholders.
It is a pivotal time for the industry – the opportunity and desire for change is stronger than ever. Mapping an organisation's learning activity against the free Towards Maturity Benchmark annually can help you integrate learning into the different business functions in both the short or long term to help bridge the gap between learning and work.
So do get benchmarking today – read the report, get inspired and make the vision a reality.
 we define top learning companies as those in the top quartile of the Towards Maturity Index. The Towards Maturity Benchmark Study is now closed, but you can still find out your index by benchmarking against 2200 organisations at http://mybenchmark.towardsmaturity.org/