The plight of any learning leader is improving pace and maintaining quality while ensuring performance change through learning programs that are linked to improved business results. Measure well, and you have reached enlightenment. Measure poorly, and be prepared to defend your team’s work in perpetuity.

One of the biggest challenges in good measurement is convincing a partner who sees knowledge as equivalent to learning that good training is more than an information dump. When the focus is on knowledge instead of performance outcomes, trainers hear questions like, “Mary went through training, so why is she still unable to do her job well?” As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we need to influence stakeholders to think about measurement in the earliest discussions, before we design and develop training. We must build programs with a performance focus, and we must know what good performance looks like. If completion or satisfaction is the measurement, we will never prove impact.

Historically, much of the problem is attributed to the way we often measure data in a learning program. Satisfaction and completion (Kirkpatrick levels 1 and 2) will never prove that a training program works, but many organizations stop there. We need to measure whether learners use what they learned on the job (level 3) and whether there is a positive impact on the business (level 4) to prove a program is truly working. When programs engage learners through experiential methods that include practice, reflection and feedback, we can communicate performance results effectively and follow learners on their journey to success.

Telling Data Stories

Data visualization makes a huge difference in communicating results. Numbers alone will put many people to sleep. L&D professionals must use visuals to engage stakeholders and explain how training drives performance. Through good visualization techniques, we can create consistent measurement tactics, so the business can make decisions based on visible trends and patterns and stakeholders see the story behind the data. Our success will be clear, and we can course-correct quickly when needed. Over the long term, L&D will gain a seat at the table, because we can show clear, evidence-based results that are easy to digest.

The biggest challenge is helping learning teams think about data in a way that makes sense to them when it is not the language of their day-to-day work. Many trainers and instructional designer fear data, because they think it will somehow point to their work being less than stellar. The reality, however, is that if we can measure something, we can make it better and, in turn, solidify with cold hard facts that our work made a difference. We have to help make all levels of the learning organization comfortable with data and telling good data stories.

One way to do so is for data analysts to work with trainers and designers to help them develop a complete understanding of what is happening throughout the learning journey with the learning group they support. Measurement should be a forethought, not an afterthought, so they should discuss what success looks like and how they will measure it. Create a process that walks your designers and trainers through what a good result looks like, how they can prove it and how they can visualize the data once they’ve collected it. Remember that a good data story highlights performance change.

A narrative or script will help you help build relationships with stakeholders, because you can personify results. Leaders have an emotional connection to their department and their results. Telling the story doesn’t just bring the results to life; it keeps your promise to align the program to business priorities.

Here are some strategies that will help you tell a good data story:

Questions to Ask Before You Begin

    • Know where the data comes from and where it is stored.
    • Is data manually scrubbed, or is there any manual process that has a potential for errors?
    • Does the data have potential bias?
    • Is the data used for more than one program or purpose?
    • What common assumptions do the stakeholders have regarding data?

Tips as You Prepare the Story

    • Always tell the truth — good or bad.
    • Set the stage: How does the data fit into the bigger picture?
    • Know the relevance of the data to the listener. Different audiences have different needs and will require different levels of the story.
    • Consider the timeline; have a beginning, middle and end, and know where the “Aha!” moment falls.
    • Discuss how you are leveraging the interventions or training modalities to impact the success of the program.
    • Call out what the learners were expected to do, how well they did it, and whether any barriers existed or came up that kept them from being successful. This data can help you pinpoint how much learning is actually happening.
    • Use a quick look or dashboard that gives a fast overview of the tie to business metrics.

As you prepare to tell good data stories and show the impact of your program on performance, realize that you have a point of view and a level of empathy that matters. Use them to connect with your audience as you share the numbers in a meaningful way. You have the ability to demonstrate impact on performance and influence the future of learning.