Learning diagnostics: L&D’s SatNav

Organisational learning is always a voyage of discovery. Understanding where your destination is – and what success will look like when you get there – is essential. But when commencing the journey, how do you know where you’re starting from?
Brightwave CEO Caroline Walmsley discusses how learning diagnostics determine your organisational capabilities – and shape their advance.

The skills and knowledge that your workers are educated and equipped to deploy are the true drivers of value in your organisation. Everything starts and ends with what goes on in their heads: from the working practices and techniques they use to work faster and cut overheads, to their skill and flair for using the tools that craft your core product. Everything your organisation is able to do flows from their heads and, to be blunt, most of it stays there*.

(*OK, there is the tacit knowledge held within your organisational infrastructure to consider too, of course, but that is structured to make sense to you already – your internal systems aren’t – or shouldn’t be – the closed shop your employees’ personal knowledge and skills are!)

Let’s be blunt again: if you take the 70:20:10 framework as an approximate model for how learning and development occurs in today’s organisation – and it’s becoming more and more rare to find people who don’t subscribe to its reasonably accurate version of daily reality – fully 90% of what learning and development (L&D) does disappears into a black hole. Repeat that: 90% of what we do provides no verifiable impact on the wider organisation. Unquantified. Unverified. Unaccountable.

L&D’s perennial concern has been that it doesn’t get listened to at the top table, unable to proactively influence executive strategy. It doesn’t seem to make sense, especially in the mature economies and knowledge sectors, where learning and working are fast becoming the same thing.

But think of it this way: if 90% of any other function’s output was all off-book it would have been rationalised out of existence shortly after Mr Ford picked the colour of the Model T. Getting that 90% figure down should be the top priority of any L&D practitioner who cares about adding real value to their organisation and raising the bar for the profession.

Luckily, advances in the learning technologies space are rapidly providing viable solutions to 70:20:10’s ‘90% problem’. There’s the Experience or xAPI of course, which can track informal, offline learning experiences and turn them into shareable, actionable data assets, suddenly making some of the 90% visible for the first time. The xAPI is beginning to attract some serious interest from global giants like Amazon, who recognise its potential for capture and analysis of previously unavailable forms of information, and understand the value of leveraging that data for smarter personalisation.

Emerging alongside and boosting the effectiveness of the xAPI are learning diagnostics: automated organisational surveying tools which work out the current skill competencies and capability levels of your workers, and benchmark them against your preferred criteria, whether a specific set of competencies, the deliverables on a current project, or an individual’s personal development goals.

This has incredible benefits in making visible the results and benefits of L&D investment. With an intelligent diagnostic tool providing a thorough map of both your skills gaps and your operational strengths, for the first time the organisation truly knows itself.

Why benchmark your learners’ capabilities?

What can a smart learning diagnostic tell you about your organisation that you don’t already know? Well, it’s the other way round: the diagnostic uncovers what you do already know.

The skills and knowledge inside your workers’ heads – the sum of all those learning experiences, all those trials, errors, triumphs and failures are the true indicators of value in your company. Learning diagnostics audit this previously invisible input, letting you build its effects into your strategic planning. Coupled with the xAPI, today’s new diagnostics can capture even the learning which happens outside the workplace. It enables you to understand what skills and competencies you are strong in, and ultimately what your organisation is capable of doing. It’s about turning your learners’ knowledge – and the intellectual properties (IPs) and practical efficiencies they invent – as resources and assets that you can plan for and factor into strategic parameters: if you are designing a new internal initiative or programme for a select group of learners, you need to understand the scope of their current capabilities and requirements, ensuring your learning provision is efficiently customised for each individual learner, making their learning journey as aligned and effective as possible. In other words, this is finally the opposite of a top-down, ‘one size fits all’ approach. The benefits just in terms efficiencies and improvements to present working practices should be clear enough, before we even start to think about the application to recruitment and retention processes, succession planning, talent management and leadership development.

There are clear advantages on the learners’ side too: smart diagnostics assess their needs for learning content and resources to help them perform better in their roles and transparency when it comes to their competency in relation to a defined organisational framework. Diagnostics also provide the ideal learning environment to keep them curious, autonomous and engaged, with the option to retake a diagnostic to see how they are developing.

Once the competency framework has been established – and the learners’ place in it – it’s easier for individuals to direct their own learning journey through their preferred mix of learning modalities and resources. Gamified incentives can turn the diagnostic into an opportunity for individual learners to over-achieve, earn rewards, gain recognition for legitimate expertise, and enhance the social capital of their personal brand.

Demonstrate improvement to demonstrate impact

Too often the kinds of organisational development managed by L&D which require significant behavioural change or the widespread adoption of new skills and practices are hampered by a lack of real visibility in both the process and the goal, hampered by too many unknowns: where are our strengths? What are our current capacities? How do they differ across teams or functions? How do we know what we can do?

It’s like asking for directions in a strange land and being told, “You want to get to [insert place here]? Well, if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here at all!” The insight smart diagnostics give us into our skills gaps, the way they show us the path to real change, and the way they inform and enhance organisational capability frameworks could make this learning technology innovation into the indispensable SatNav for L&D’s journey into the future.

This article first appeared in e-learning age magazine.

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