• Employee Development
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  • March 03, 2020

Using Data to Make Smarter Learning Decisions – Part 2

Evidence – the new “e” in Learning

The learning industry loves a new buzzword, especially at the start of a new decade. Twenty years ago I remember entering the new millennium with a buzz about e-learning. This new idea was introduced by my previous employer, CBT Systems, back in October 1999 to describe how the power of the internet could be harnessed to personalize learning, making it more relevant, more social, more supported, and timelier than ever before.

At the time, few had the technology to embrace the full potential of e-learning, and the term e-learning quickly started to represent compliance, a dull throwback to the days of click-and-continue, computer-based training of the previous decade. The “e” in e-learning shifted from “exciting” to “efficient” with L&D aimed at delivering one goal – cost savings.

Twenty years later, L&D leaders are shifting to the next set of “e’s” – “experience” and “ease.” Once again, we are looking at how we design learning in such a way to make it more personally relevant and timely (now we call it learning in the flow-of-work). This time, technology has not only caught up, but it is shaping both our direction and our expectations.

Data – benefits and challenges

Data is one of the true benefits of this ubiquitous technology. L&D leaders are flooded with new facts and statistics, all of which are potential sources of insight that can be used to adapt and improve. It’s not surprising that for the first time, learning analytics is at the top of Donald Taylor’s 2020 L&D sentiment survey.

Data also brings its own challenges.

Despite the potential data can encompass, L&D leaders struggle to access the data they need, and they often do not trust the data they do have access to, in addition to not feeling supported by their organizations in gathering and using it. Most importantly, 46 percent of the challenges reported were rooted in lack of confidence to understand and apply data to help solve the problem at hand.1

Understand the problem

Data can only start to make sense when we apply it in order to solve a problem.

What do we want data to improve? To prove? To disprove? Our own curiosity is the starting point for harnessing data more effectively, and the challenge we have with data often starts with our lack of focus on the problem.

The right questions can help us make sense of the problem. They help us break down our challenges into solvable pieces.

Understand the problem

When we have clarified the question we need to ask in order to solve our problems, there are multiple options for finding an answer.

We can follow the crowd – what’s “hot” right now? We can go with our gut instinct – with all its intuition and bias. We can leverage our own experiences – both good and bad. We can seek out independent research on the question – or conduct our own. What’s clear is that data alone is not enough — it needs to be applied to a specific problem. Therefore, we need to shift our focus away from the data and onto the new “e” in learning – “evidence.”

Evidence – the new “E” in learning

Evidence is defined as ‘the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.’  Evidence helps us not only make sense of data but also helps us to direct its power.

According to Centre for Evidence-Based Management, ‘’The basic idea of evidence-based practice is that good-quality decisions should be based on a combination of critical thinking and the best available evidence.’’2

They discuss evidence coming from a range of sources –

  • Scientific studies – Dr. Will Thalheimer, Patti Shank PhD, and Mirjam Neelam all do an excellent job of curating relevant research for the L&D community.
  • Your organization – your learning data, your business data, and your stories and anecdotes all provide a unique perspective to your question.
  • Practitioner insight – professional experience and expert knowledge that is constantly honed through reflection and dedication is a valuable evidence source.
  • Stakeholder’s values and concerns – the values and concerns of stakeholders provide you with context that then shapes the environment for success.

All of these sources provide one level of insight to the problem at hand. Their strength and power come from combining them into an evidence base to support smarter decisions and more productive conversations.

L&D are faced with many decisions and questions in this rapidly changing, digital world of work. This is why we need to make evidence the new “e” in learning!

Evidence builds courage – we are more confident in making better decisions, more likely to reduce risk, and more willing to be creative and to challenge the status quo.

Evidence also opens new doors – new conversations with leaders, new opportunities to add value, and new relationships to enable change.

What evidence can you start to leverage today?


  1. Using data to make smarter learning decisions – part 1
  2. What Is Evidence-Based Management?

About The Author

Laura Overton

Laura Overton

Learning Analyst, Speaker, Author, Facilitator, Researcher

Laura Overton is an award winning learning analyst dedicated to uncovering and sharing effective practices in learning innovation that lead to business value. The author of over 40 reports and hundreds of articles, her work is based on 30 years of practical experience and a commitment to supporting evidence based learning decisions. As the founder and original CEO of Towards Maturity, she is also known for leading a 15 year longitudinal study programme (2004 – 2019) with thousands of Learning leaders and workers around the globe to uncover and share learning strategies that lead to business success.

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