Telling a Story With Data

Data Story

by Christine Lawther, PhD
Senior Advisor—CEB (now Gartner)

Data is everywhere. In our personal lives, we are continually exposed to metrics. The number of "likes" on social media, usage metrics on every bill, and the caloric breakdown of burgers at the most popular fast food chains are all examples of common metrics that society is exposed to on a regular basis.

Looking at data within a business context, data insight is in high demand. More organizations are focusing on doing more with less, and so data often becomes the key element that determines decisions on goals, resources, and performance. This increase in data exposure acts as an opportunity for learning and development (L&D) professionals to showcase their efforts and to truly transition the conversation from being viewed as a cost center to an essential contributor to the organization's goals.

One common challenge is that L&D teams are often not staffed with team members that have a rich background in analytics. When instructional designers, facilitators, program managers, and learning leaders hold the responsibility of sharing data, it can be rather challenging to translate stereotypical L&D metrics into a compelling story that resonates with external stakeholders. It's because of this that tapping into some foundational best practices in telling a story with data can be valuable to consider.

Structure Your Story: The Funnel Approach

If you visualize a funnel, imagine a broad opening where contents are poured in and a stem that becomes increasingly narrow. Apply this visualization as the framework to craft your story: start with broad, generic insights, and then funnel down to specifics. Doing this enables the recipient of the story to understand the natural flow of moving through diverse metrics, but still understand the overarching picture of L&D performance as a comprehensive whole. For example, it may be helpful to start by outlining overall satisfaction or utilization metrics, and then transition into something slightly more specific such as breaking out scores of key courses within your portfolio that are the biggest contributors to those overall metrics. From there, you can move into more detailed metrics by delving into components such as highest/lowest rated items within that course, time to apply training, barriers to training application, and insightful qualitative sentiments. At the very end of the story, one can conclude with specific actions that the team plans to take. Following this approach not only paints a comprehensive picture, but it also creates momentum for next steps.

Speak Their Language

Metrics that L&D often focuses on (e.g., activity, cost per learner) may not easily translate into insights that external stakeholders innately resonate with. Each department within an organization may have their own custom metrics. However, it is imperative that a function can demonstrate the linkage back to the broader organization. Doing this enables one to exhibit that they are being good stewards of the resources granted to them and also reveals how their day-to-day efforts align with the broader organization.

So, how can you demonstrate that leadership should be confident with your decisions? Communicate your impact with metrics that resonate with decision makers. If there are any core metrics that the company tracks, identify ways to directly demonstrate L&D's linkage to them. If you are unsure, look for organizational metrics that are announced at company-wide meetings or shared on a regular basis. For example, if Net Promoter Score is something that your organization tracks, establish a Net Promoter Score for L&D and include it in your story. If increasing sales is a priority, identify how sales training is contributing to that effort.

Strike a Balance

It can be tempting to share only successes, however, it is vital to also include opportunities for improvement. Why? Because demonstrating transparency is the key to establishing trust. A strong approach is to share an opportunity for improvement and also include a few specific actions the department is planning to take to improve this. Doing this will provide a two-fold benefit. First, it will demonstrate that you are aware of opportunities to work on. Second, it exemplifies that you have proactively mapped out a plan to address those areas.

If you are finding that your story is entirely positive, consider looking for differences within the population you support. For example, does every region/department/tenure bracket report the same level of impact? Often a team may find that on a holistic level they are doing well; however, when you dig into varied demographics, there may be an area that can drive greater value. By transparently sharing your data to outline both successes and opportunities, the learning organization can become the best at getting better.

CEB Metrics that Matter is committed to helping organizations achieve more precision in strategic talent decisions, moving beyond big data to optimizing workforce learning investments against the most business-critical skills and competencies. To learn more about how we help bridge the gap between L&D and business leaders, download a copy of our white paper, Aligning L&D's Value with the C-Suite.

About CEB (now Gartner)

Leading organizations worldwide rely on CEB services to harness their untapped potential and grow. Now offered by Gartner, CEB best practices and technology solutions equip clients with the intelligence to effectively manage talent, customers, and operations. More information is available at gartner.com/ceb.

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