Data can be overwhelming. From analyzing complex data sets to making sound predictions and data-driven decisions, many people view becoming data-fluent too daunting a process to even start. And for people who do eventually become data-fluent, communicating data-driven insights brings a whole new set of challenges to the table — especially for learning leaders, who are responsible for measuring and communicating the impact of training.
In fact, a recent survey by Training Industry found that about one-third of learning and development (L&D) professionals responsible for analyzing the impact of training do not have analysis expertise and, as such, are poorly positioned to illustrate their findings to key stakeholders.
By bringing data “out of the shadows” and uncovering the stories behind the numbers, says Evan Sinar, Ph.D., head of assessments at coaching platform BetterUp, data visualization can help L&D leaders earn “increased visibility” and engagement from key executives. Here’s how.
What Is Data Visualization?
Data visualization — “the graphical representation of information and data” — is an “accessible way” to communicate trends, outliers and patterns in data, says Sarah Hinrichsen, program manager of trainer enablement and certifications at Tableau Software. It is the process of converting a “numerical property” into a “visual property,” explains Sinar, who believes that anyone can master the art of data visualization.
Amy Balliett, founder and chief executive officer of visual communications agency Killer Visual Strategies, says that “building a narrative” is the first step in transforming data into a “great visual.” Throughout the visualization process, “that narrative, along with an understanding of the target audience and goals of the content, will inform every design choice,” she says.
For example, if you are looking to compare learners’ test scores before and after a technical course, a simple pie chart could do the trick. But if you are looking to prove the impact of a leadership development program, a bar graph showing each team’s progress toward key goals over time may be a better option.
Although bar graphs and pie charts are a “common baseline” in data visualization, they are only the “tip of the iceberg,” Hinrichsen says. “There’s a whole selection of visualization methods [available] to present data in effective and interesting ways,” from interactive animations to colorful maps and even GIFs.
Learning leaders have long struggled to measure the effectiveness of training and, as a result, business leaders all too often view the training function as a cost center. While learning leaders are well aware of training’s bottom-line impact, they must communicate it in a way that resonates with the people who hold the purse strings. After all, Balliett says, “Every employee needs to find a way to show their value to [their] organization.” As many business leaders “trust data far more than instinct,” data visualization can help them “realize the value” of training, she says.
To start leveraging data visualization for increased buy-in at your organization, ask yourself:
What Story Do I Want to Tell?
Effective visualization tells a story. It “removes the noise” from data sets and drives home the “points that matter,” Hinrichsen says. Sinar agrees, adding that visualization can relay a sequence of events in a transparent and compelling way. Thus, communicating the impact of training through data visualization starts with determining what story you want to tell, whether it’s a new employee’s improved performance after completing an onboarding program or a leader’s journey toward becoming more inclusive after participating in an inclusive leadership workshop. In the end, “Understanding the story [you want to tell] and the conclusions you want the audience to draw is just as important as understanding how to visualize the data,” Balliett says.
How Can I Visualize This Story?
Once you have determined the story you want to tell, consider how visualization can help you tell it. In a blog post, Nick Mannon, director of data solutions at Blast Analytics & Marketing, writes, “The audience should be able to look at your visualization and see that it clearly reinforces the point you are making.” He also suggests using color to “highlight what matters.”
Sinar says visualizations that “allow for a level of interactivity” are especially effective in bringing metrics to life. Learning leaders should experiment with various types of visualizations to determine which one best aligns with the story they are looking to tell.
What Technology Do I Need?
You do not have to be a programming expert to translate training outcomes into stimulating visualizations, Sinar says. There’s a wide range of data visualization tools and technologies on the market that enable you to simply “drop in” a data set and leave with a stunning visualization. “The accessibility and range of tools that are available to anyone [are] huge,” making data visualization easier than ever before, he says.
Proving the impact of training is not easy … and communicating the impact of training isn’t, either. Data visualization can help learning leaders illustrate training outcomes and gain stakeholder buy-in through one of the most influential tools in human history: storytelling.