Data analytics needs to become a reflex not a chore. We have lessons to learn in L&D.

A couple of things have happened recently that have made me feel nostalgic for my days in the search engine industry.

The first was an email from WordPress (upon which this blog is hosted). It was titled “Google Analytics is now available on WordPress.com Premium”. “I’m a premium customer” I thought. So that means me. Nice.

Clicking to open the email warmed me further: “In just a few clicks, you’ll have instant access to hundreds of new reports to help you grow traffic, engage site visitors, generate more leads, and convert more sales…”. (The claim of ‘just a few clicks’ was accurate, even for my clumsy site admin practices).

I realise that there is nothing special about a website using a Google Analytics account. It has become pretty much the standard tool for digital analytics since its early days in 2005. Essentially, my site had been upgraded to receive a normal analytics service. Normal analytics for the digital content industry, however, is like getting the first DVD player in the L&D home. It is a significant redefinition of what is possible and should be taken for granted.

Even when using digital platforms, the industry is preoccupied with analog measures of attendance and consumption. These metrics were always poor indicators of anything much more than efficiency of delivery. In 2019, completion monitoring is surely a sign of solving problems of the past. What kind of decisions will be taken from this analysis?

My nostalgia arose from being able to routinely and simply review measures such as bounce rates, entry pages, top content pieces, visit frequency and depth, the flow of visits through my site and so on. These are examples of the data items we would reflexively look at in my Ask.com days. As a media business, they were some of our our performance metrics. I realise I have missed that clarity of both purpose and understanding of performance that this data enabled.

I know that Google Analytics reporting is not a panacea to the metrics challenges L&D faces in a digital world. There is more to our analysis needs than that. It is a pretty useful foundation though. One upon which to build more sophisticated questions and answers. It is a good candidate for the new normal, I reckon.

The second moment of nostalgia came from reviewing trends in these metrics. Back in my early days of what we now call digital advertising, we spent quite a lot of time arguing about the veracity of online data. There were lengthy and painful debates about the definition of a “unique user”. Could a browser be counted as unique? What about adding other data such operating system? We discussed the usefulness of cookies as an identifier. Now the digital advertising industry rests on them.

Two points emerged from those painful arguments. First, the definitions and the data they yielded were accurate enough to be useful – they supported investment decisions and commercial choices. That’s the point of analytics: decision making, not counting. They also allowed businesses to view trends and make comparisons. Whether they described absolute truth or not, the cookie count could be compared to last week, last month and last year. We could compare performance in verticals and across sites. In a chaotic and nascent industry these were revolutionary steps. L&D needs some of the hard work that this revolution was created from to agree more useful measures. (Or maybe, just use Google).

My nostalgia has taken further hold this week and is giving voice to my inner product manager. That voice is telling me to test some possibilities and gather some further evidence.

The bounce rate on my site is very high. Seeing that % and starting to look at the trends is making me think about managing my site as a product with a value beyond single blog posts. A blog is mainly a one page unit of value proposition: visit one page, read an idea and leave. No harm in that perhaps (providing there are signs of loyalty in the user base), but the visit volumes and activity signal greater potential around some posts and content themes. Looking further at the activity data on social media around some posts supports that possible further value might be possible. Some experiments are needed so test some emerging hypotheses.

And finally…to indicate that this is an industry challenge and not only my romantic ramblings. The LPI has some evidence from the L&D world in 2019: data analytics is ranked 25 out of the 25 skills required in modern learning organisations in the LPI research released earlier in the year. Yikes. In the third decade of the digital era, that is a sobering analysis. In 2019, data analysis needs to be in the top three, doesn’t it?

Product managers are required to get to grips with this challenge in the digital L&D space, I believe. Evidence based consulting is also required, looking beyond the boundaries of learning data for signals of real value in our work. Some hard effort is required but we have some useful history to guide us.

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