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Learning maturity ladder concept
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Why we need to redefine learning maturity for 2022

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Award winning industry analyst Laura Overton has been researching learning maturity for nearly 20 years. But how does it stack up in a post-Covid world? Here she shares key highlights from the Learning Benchmark 2022 report, published by Mindtools for Business.

13th Jul 2022
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When I first researched how to link learning back to the business in 2003, I didn’t realise I was kick-starting a personal interest in L&D maturity that has been with me ever since.

A couple of years earlier, we had seen a global surge into digital learning as travel literally stopped overnight post 9/11. Many grappled with using technology to support learning for the first time and many stumbled.

People flooded back to face-to-face learning now armed with their own ‘proof’ that digital didn’t work. Ed tech companies, originally leading innovation had to take a step back to keep in line with customer demand (or lack of it). 

During this period, a stat was circulating: 60% of eLearning projects fail! I have no idea where the data came from but, unsurprisingly, it resonated with many. For me it raised the question of why 40% were successful? And my journey began!

Models of learning maturity surfaced that could be tracked and benchmarked using an industry index that tracked predictive behaviours. 

The development of a learning maturity model

For the 16 years that I ran an L&D maturity study, we explored the data that learning and development professionals shared about business impact – their goals, achievements and practices. 

It was developed for the industry and by the industry, continually shaped by experts and practitioners around the globe. The research on maturity level was L&D model agnostic – our questions deconstructed the frameworks being expounded at the time (you’ll know the ones!). It was a dynamic process. As we added new practices to the question bank, we were able to watch and see if anyone was actually doing this and, if yes, what difference it made to the impact they reported.

Over the years of working with thousands of learning practitioners, workers, managers and millions of data points, patterns emerged. 

As our analytic capability increased, we were able to see what practices and tools were correlating back to business impact and what weren’t. Models of learning maturity surfaced that could be tracked and benchmarked using an industry index that tracked predictive behaviours. 

Over the first 16 years of the study, technology significantly shifted business models and consumer behaviours and the economy survived a major recession. Yet the factors influencing L&D success remained pretty constant. Business impact followed when the learning and development function:

  • Improved how it aligns with what is important to the business AND what is important to the individual

  • Understood and responded to and works with the wider business environment

  • Built its own capability to more effectively enable the capability of the organisation 

  • Was proactive in engaging with the organisation

  • Was willing to continually track and improve

Such business impact equated to more than just reductions in cost. It also comprised improvements in employee retention, organisational agility, customer engagement and revenue.

We found that as these factors improved as a whole, the maturity characteristics of the L&D team and the learning culture of the organisation shifted. 

To the left of the maturity curve, we found that learning activity was transactional. Learning professionals were seen as producers and benefits were limited to cost saving and pushing numbers through. To the right of the maturity curve, L&D became enablers, with learning becoming a strategic business imperative with impact owned and tracked by multiple stakeholders.

Whilst the data that I worked with led to one definition of a maturity model for L&D, it was very similar to others in the field at the time. Maturity models, for some, became invaluable for shaping people development decisions, justifying budget and benchmarking with peers. 

How do learning maturity models stack up post-Covid?

The challenge with any learning maturity model is that it is a map, not the territory. It doesn’t reflect the complexity of an organisation, its dynamic culture and the continually shifting competitive commercial environment in which it operates. And boy, has our environment shifted in the last two years!

In 2020, Covid-19 catapulted corporate learning into the digital world, ready or not! So two years on, I couldn’t wait to explore the findings of the Learning Benchmark 2022, now in its 19th year and in the capable hands of Gent Ahmetaj, who heads the research team at Mind Tools for Business, and his colleague Dr Anna Barnett.

This year’s report has flagged to me that our thinking about maturity needs to shift. 

What were the stand-out findings?

Here are some of the key findings that jumped out at me from the report released this week:

  • In terms of driving better business value, the L&D maturity model is still standing strong. Those at the highest stages of the curve are two to three times more likely to report a reduction in employee turnover, an increase in organisational productivity and an increase in organisational revenue

  • The Organisational Learning index (tracking the elements described above) has gone up from the dip in 2020 when people scrambled 

  • Overall, organisations are struggling to sustain the short-term gains reported last year – I’m getting a sense of déjà vu from my early days of learning maturity research here!

The report also outlined detailed insights on the activities in 2022 that predict the extent to which organisations can become futureproof, develop a maturing learning culture and create smarter digital learning interventions (essential for those looking to upskill or reskill the organisation). 

This insight showed the importance of:

  • Working with others – Top performers were 8x more likely to work with experts in other parts of the business (data, marketing) compared to the lowest performers

  • Using data to improve the service offered (17x)

  • Supporting career development of individuals (8x)

  • Auditing L&D skills (12x)

  • Building relationships with stakeholders (4x)

  • Curating content to support performance (10x)

  • Focusing on business outcomes - Identifying actions that employees need to take to achieve business outcomes (6x) and integrating  performance management with learning strategy (6x)

Note that this is just a sample of the actions flagged through the detailed analysis – the report highlights plenty more!

Reimagining learning maturity for a post-Covid world

The 2022 report isn’t unearthing anything that the data hasn’t shown before. What it does highlight, though, is that the maturity models and indicators still stand and are valid.

But this year’s report has flagged to me that our thinking about maturity needs to shift. 

Originally for me, learning maturity was all about results, all about that impact on performance, agility, people and organisations. 

But now I am wondering if we need to define what L&D maturity means for us individually to make a difference. 

Maturity isn’t guaranteed. We might age as we grow from child to adult, but it doesn’t mean that we mature emotionally or personally. 

As an adult or as a learning professional, maturity means:

  • Taking personal responsibility for our own actions rather than blaming others

  • Understanding that not everything will be going our way all the time

  • Working with others to achieve goals rather than being the hero

  • Knowing when we can make a difference and when we can’t

  • Applying our knowledge and experience in new ways to cope with new challenges

  • Letting go!

L&D maturity in a post-Covid world will be defined by the way that we take personal responsibility and step out in courage

The maturity model holds true but the climate has shifted dramatically

This year’s Learning Benchmark study shows us that the maturity models still stand. The actions that correlated to better culture, agility, and performance back in 2003 are the same actions that are correlating to those business results today.  

The difference today is that the world has changed – workers are ready to learn and the path ahead is clearer.

Our success won’t be defined by where we sit on a maturity model, although that process is vital to help us prioritise. Our maturity won’t be defined by what we see trending, what we know or what we discuss in conferences – that just helps us know we are not alone!

L&D maturity in a post-Covid world will be defined by the way that we take personal responsibility and step out in courage to act on the basics that we know work.

For 19 years, this Learning Benchmark study (alongside many others) has consistently flagged the practices that make a difference for L&D professionals. I want to personally thank the team at Mind Tools for Business for continually holding up the mirror to the industry, reminding us that we need to improve.

But when it comes to learning maturity, the response is down to us!

So with that in mind, which of the above actions will you start working on today?

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