Pragmatism and data – the way forward

Roy and I held this event on the basis that best practice is all well and good, but it is rare. Very rare. Further, best practice is helpful for inspiration and guidance, yet we learn the most from the hard times – those projects and initiatives where the wheels wobble and sometimes come off altogether. It’s tricky for the public spaces and conference programmes to support these insights. A smaller scale conversation might be an alternative forum to share some of those stories from the coalface and our reflections from them. (Maybe, though, we are just less careful about reputation management…?)

Reflecting on the event the morning after, it is clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the challenges and pitfalls we have faced are common. These were shared stories and experiences and often shared frustrations expressed through knowing smiles and nods. We are not alone.

In common with many conversations of the last year or so, in and around my own work, the theme of data gained a lot of active interest. Attendees were drawn from the L&D world and echoed our experience of a sector which has a long way to go to capitalise on the opportunities of data, even just to catch up with other sectors. Plenty of heads nodding at the reflection that our completion focus in reporting is impoverished. Other sources are required for that metric to become useful. “Actionable insights” are required as Viv Cole said. 

Clear ownership of the data opportunity and challenge is needed to make consistent progress. Nick Ribeiro reflected on the emergence of the “Chief Data Officer” as a structural response to the imperative. Closer to home, perhaps, we talked about the need for someone to take ownership in a learning organisation or business. Maybe not their whole role but someone with a clear set of data objectives and responsibilities. Someone to own the challenge and be given some time, pace and resource to develop solutions. They will need some specialist data skills (a conversation for another time I think), while the team as a whole needs data maturity or sensibility to steer efforts around those actionable insights. There is work to be done here for many of us. 

The notion of focusing on valuable problems to solve struck a conversational chord. Gathering independent evidence of that value is a core need of any product team and any learning team that calls itself something else. In the workplace learning context, that value needs to be clear to the customer or stakeholder and the user or learner. Absence of value for either one threatens the sustainability of the solution, and it will run aground at some point. Clear signals of that value then become the measures our data experts can focus on. Often, as we pondered, this relies on solid relationships with both audiences and owners of funding. Political skills are important and not to be sniffed at.

My final reflection is about the ‘agile theatre’ Roy described from his experience. This is the sound, look and feel of Agile without the substance and skill to really make it work. We are warned to beware of a certain type of buzzword bullshit from light reading and YouTube browsing, and equally the zealous interpretation of the Manifesto from the diehards. In between these risky poles, there is a real value in the mindset of these approaches. The flexibility and agility in decision making from build/measure/learn (that L word again) and multidisciplinary teams is highly valuable for digital learning development. Very rarely, if ever, can we be certain that our plans are correct. Gathering evidence from experimentation as we set out to towards our goal is a proven approach. Pragmatism is typically a good guide through these tensions. 

In fact, the value of pragmatism might be the overall takeaway from the conversation. The reality of complex and unpredictable workplaces requires a curiosity and willingness to forego purity and make trade-offs. I suppose that is the value of shared experience.

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