Data. It’s the most important topic in the workplace learning profession right now. More important than compliance. More important than virtual reality. More important than eLearning. Simply put: the L&D profession cannot progress until we get better with data.

By no means am I the first person to stress the importance of data in L&D. Plenty of very smart people have been urging the professional community to shift its focus in this direction for years. But until recently, the decision to worry about data has been a choice for L&D pros. When stakeholders were just asking for numbers around how many people went to the training and what scores they got on the post test, we didn’t have to really worry about our data deficiencies.

But our stakeholders have evolved. Now they’re demanding more of us:

  • “Use the latest and greatest technology.”
  • “Move faster.”
  • “Provide personalized experiences, but at the scale of our global operation.”
  • “Re-skill the workforce so we’re prepared for the future.”
  • “Prove your value.”

L&D can’t just build more content to address these needs. We need to be targeted AND scalable in our solutions. We need to be proactive to get ahead of performance challenges before they become big organizational problems. And we need to take responsibility for the role we play in helping the business success. To do any of this, we need to get better with data … and FAST!

But this shouldn’t be very difficult. After all, you have data scientists on your L&D team, right? What’s that? You don’t have a data scientist? And your L&D teammates didn’t take advanced statistics courses in college? Uh oh ...

In real life, most L&D pros don’t have strong data science backgrounds. In fact, many of us (myself included) don’t have formal training in this profession at all. If you are in a position where you can bring in people with formal expertise, that’s awesome! But if you work on a team with limited resources, this likely isn’t an option. Plus, a practical understanding of data should not be limited to a few experts. Everyone—from designers to project managers to consultants—must be able to leverage data within their work. That means we all have homework to do.

Here are some simple things L&D pros can do to begin improving their data practices RIGHT NOW.

Toss the models

The most popular L&D measurement models have been around for a long, long time. If they actually worked, L&D would have figured out data by now. The biggest problem with these traditional methods is that they look at measurement from an L&D perspective, not a business perspective. Even if they include some elements of business metrics, they are either afterthoughts or just too difficult to execute. L&D pros must expand their mindset when it comes to data and think beyond “learning metrics.” You know how L&D teams just can’t seem to get to Level 3 or 4? It’s time to stop trying and instead start thinking about measurement in the same ways as the rest of the organization.

Take your BI person to lunch

The smartest data person in your company probably doesn’t work in L&D. Find that person, and take them to lunch. I’m not kidding. Buy them a meal … because food = relationship. You’re going to need their help to find the data within your organization and determine the best ways you can leverage that data to evolve your measurement strategy. And it’s always better to build that relationship BEFORE you need to ask for something.

Find resources

L&D pros don’t need to become data scientists to get better with data. But we do have to improve our functional knowledge of data practices so we can incorporate them into our decision-making, regardless of our L&D roles. The good news: There’s a ton of great information on modern data practices floating around online. Most open course providers, including Coursera and edX, offer educational content on business analytics. Plenty of wicked smart practitioners regularly share proven practices on people analytics. For example, if you find this article even remotely interesting, you should follow David Green and subscribe to his “Data Driven HR” newsletter. To get smarter with data, you don’t have to take time away from work or enroll in a traditional education program. You can slowly expand your knowledge and start applying new information in the work you already do.

Start experimenting

Several years ago, I plugged Google Analytics (free) into my organization’s Wiki-based shared knowledge platform. I didn’t realize at the time that this would become a BIG DEAL. Instead of talking about completions and test scores, we were suddenly asking questions about user behavior and search terminology. It was a small improvement in our data strategy, but it opened the door to even more meaningful conversations moving forward.

Rather than attempt to launch a completely re-imagined data strategy at one time, start conducting small experiments that help you look at organizational data in new ways. Begin asking questions about the data that you would need to measure the impact of your learning initiatives. It will also help you get to know your business better and understand how your stakeholders are using this same data to make their decisions. These experiments will eventually help you shape your own measurement model that fits the learning experience within your organization.

Data is an essential component of the future of workplace learning. It will inform our decisions. It will validate our impact. And it will help us provide more targeted, personalized support. L&D doesn’t have a choice. The industry needs to get better at data … NOW!