Do we always need learning analytics – or is gut instinct a valid approach?
Learning analytics is essential to assessing the impact of L&D solutions on the performance of both learners and the business. But is there a time and a place for going with gut instinct too?
In my opinion, before any major learning programmes take place, data should be collected to inform any decisions about the actions that are required to plug a performance gap. Equally, it should also be collected after the learning has taken place to measure the impact and any subsequent performance improvements.
However, not every problem encountered with an organisation necessarily has a training or learning solution. In any business, which is never a closed system, there are many factors as to why something may not be working:
Lack of resources
Faulty systems or processes
People lacking motivation (not skills or knowledge)
Lack of clear goals and targets
People not empowered to make the changes required
Silo-working where mistakes are repeated and not shared
Lack of a shared vision
This is to name just a few. Each organisation will have its own barriers to growth, unique to itself and its culture. Having said that, there are many common barriers that can be seen across the board in many sectors.
Delivering learning innovations that increase performance
With the right information, L&D can help create a more agile organisation, rich in relevant learning experiences in a variety of different formats. All of these, when working together, consistently create a trusted company brand where people thrive.
When people thrive and innovation in learning is the norm, then the ‘top deck’ (as defined by Towards Maturity) is three times more likely to report that “learning innovation has resulted in an impact on business innovation and on staff motivation”.
Staff motivation and learning innovation are rarely the sole goals of any organisation. Most organisations want to improve their performance in some way, such as improved sales, reduction in complaints, less waste, bigger profit margins, larger market share and growth.
It is knowing how to affect these performance improvements through improved learning that is sometimes the sticking point. In my last article about measuring the success of soft skills I shared my HIRE model as a way to dig deeper into an organisation’s needs. Not just perceived needs or desires but the performance gaps that need to be filled, sometimes with learning and at other times with changes in resources, relationships or attitudes.
If you begin every major L&D project with an analysis and then keep using the data to inform how well you are making the improvements then this is a sensible approach to applying sensible learning analytics, in my thinking.
Anyone who has worked in an industry long enough will begin to develop a ‘gut feeling’ for what is (or is not) going on.
But do you need data for every project, or can a useful gut instinct be developed?
Here is an excerpt from my book ‘How not To Waste Your Money on Training’ which discusses this very subject:
Our ability to make good decisions comes from what we might call ‘intuition’ and some information to back up that choice. Intuition itself has been researched (CIPD 2014) and those found to have great insights and make good decisions quickly are practiced in doing so.
They have gone through the process of questioning, data gathering, sense making, interpreting that information and applying it to their situation many times. They have honed these skills so much that, on occasions, they can skip the data gathering and get a ‘gut feel’ as to the solution to a problem.
Anyone who has worked in an industry long enough will begin to develop a ‘gut feeling’ for what is (or is not) going on. Their ability to sense what is happening will improve with time. Some people develop this skill faster than others and some need to go through that process of data gathering, sense making, checking and validating to gain enough confidence to listen to their instincts.
That said, should we only go by what our instincts are telling us?
What I might suggest is:
If you lack confidence and experience, use information to inform your decision making, while trying to sense what might be happening. Reflect on what you thought were the underlying problems and compare to what you found them to be through analysis
If you have experience and confidence in your gut instinct, periodically check in to that instinct by using solid information to back it up
When your gut instinct is saying ‘no’, but the information says ‘go’, do not ignore your gut. Double check the data sources you used. If you have used three, for example, try a fourth to get confirmation
When the information says ‘no’, but your gut says ‘go’, ask yourself what may be behind your gut feeling. Could it be some bias or desire driving that feeling? Could it be a time pressure from elsewhere driving you to make a hasty decision?
My background in engineering has shaped my approach to learning and development. Skills I learned as a young engineer have stood me in good stead as a professional in a field that does not always rely on a scientific approach in decision making.
Let me share a few short anecdotes that may surprise you about your fundamental beliefs surrounding engineering. You may think that every decision an engineer makes must be backed by maths, physics or some scientific formula. Yet I have seen the importance of instinct on many occasions in my engineering career.
Going with my gut in engineering
As a fuel technologist, I was often asked if a specific coal would be suitable for converting a particular oil-fired boiler to coal-firing. I would look at the technical drawings of the boiler, determine if there were any tight bends that the combustion gases had to navigate and if the ash content of the coal proposed would cause slag to form on those bends.
Slag build-up could have catastrophic consequences on the running of a boiler; hence needing a sense of whether the combination of that coal with that boiler would work. If the answer was yes, then I could go on to run short trials to confirm my suspicions. If the answer was no (based on past experience), I could propose a different coal, just to be on the safe side.
If you’re reading this article, thinking you have to abandon any sense of intuition in favour of collecting data, I hope you have been reassured.
Going with my gut in meteorology
As a meteorologist, working in a company that manufactured wind turbines, my role was twofold:
To collect and analyse data from prospective and existing sites
To find the best place on a site to position the wind turbines
Data collected on prospective sites could be extrapolated to determine if it was windy enough to justify the expense of a turbine. The hourly variation of the wind speed and the topography (from a map and site visit) would allow me to judge if the prevailing wind was too inconsistent or likely to cause unbearable stresses on the turbine blades.
Data collected from existing sites and the subsequent power output from the wind turbines would confirm initial estimates. The more often I went through this process of data collection, siting and then further data collection, the better I became at judging the suitability of a site.
After a while, just looking at a map or visiting a site, my gut feeling would be enough to make the determination about where to situate a wind turbine. Though I can’t say I was ever confident (or foolish!) enough to do so.
If you’re reading this article, thinking you have to abandon any sense of intuition in favour of collecting data, I hope you have been reassured. And if you firmly believe that all decisions should be driven through analysis, I hope there is a little room for you to explore the development of your own intuition.
As always I would love to hear your views!
With 30 years experience in L&D, Krystyna has been training trainers, facilitators and subject matter experts as well as line managers since 2008. Noticing a lack of experience and skill in the area of needs analysis drove her to write her book 'How to Not...