Smart organizations recognize early that leveraging their people’s knowledge helps them deliver superior business results and gain a strategic edge over the competition.
With the significant volume of available business data, the complexity of data sources and real-time information requirements, the real challenge is having your people assimilate and being able to leverage the critical information that will help you to respond to rapidly changing markets and evolving customer needs.
Leveraging an organization’s business data to develop a more focused learning strategy is an opportunity for those responsible for workplace learning and performance. This is also the secret of those smart organizations: Getting people to learn how to recognize relevant business data and using it to your advantage.
Over last few years, companies have been trying to make strategic use of the vast amounts of business data and information they acquire. Business data is now an essential part of strategic and tactical business management.
In fact, a 2006 survey of 1,400 CIOs by Gartner (an independent IT research firm) reveals that business intelligence is a priority for their organizations. Business data is becoming a strategic tool to help people lead, measure, optimize, discover and innovate to change the landscape of their organization.
The ability to access, use and share information in an efficient and relevant way helps improve business performance. Effectively using business data can empower employees to:
- Align day-to-day operations with overall company strategy and objectives.
- Identify and understand the relationship among business processes and their impact on performance.
- Access information relevant to specific user roles and responsibilities.
- Gain contextual insight into business drivers.
- Monitor the vital business indicators that are needed to move an organization forward such as:
- The status of the company’s financial performance and trends thereof.
- Organizational effectiveness and profitability.
- Critical operational metrics and key performance measures.
Every type of business data helps companies gain a comprehensive and integrated view of their business and facilitate better and more effective decision making. This is where learning professionals need to begin integrating the available business data to help them develop more-focused learning strategies and initiatives.
The biggest challenge is that business is not a subject that often comes up when you think about workplace learning and performance. For the longest time, one topic would not cross paths with the other, as business managers did not see the relevance of learning and development within an industrial environment, and learning often played a supporting role that tended to be viewed as a cost center (or money pit).
Fortunately, this is changing, mainly because of the increasingly significant role of information and knowledge on business — this is a knowledge-based economy.
Organizational leaders who require their employees to act on the business data to gain an edge over the competition through critical business metrics such as developing internal efficiencies or building market share also support this. The goal is to recognize, learn from and act on the business intelligence at hand.
What does this have to do with learning? Business data is information the company obtains through various sources. It must become knowledge employees can use. Without this data, you risk making the wrong business decisions based on misleading or misinterpreted business data, which could lead to missing significant opportunities or even eventual disasters.
Identifying potential business opportunities such as increasing profitability, rigorously cutting costs and calculating precisely where to spend resources for optimal impact are key issues not only for top management but also for business managers and employees at all levels. Learning must be proactive in interpreting the business data to deliver targeted and result-driven solutions.
Although the old adage states that knowledge is power, business knowledge is useful (i.e., powerful) to an organization only if it is relevant, learned and applied — simply possessing business data means nothing. And because the business data is information leading to knowledge, learning plays a pivotal role, not only as a conduit but also as a catalyst in leveraging the business data at hand.
The Role of Workplace Learning and Performance
Traditionally, those responsible for the learning needs of an organization focused on ensuring new skills and capabilities were effectively acquired and (with any luck) that employees applied them. Naturally, these are the core competencies of workplace learning and performance (WLP) professionals.
On the other hand, the organization’s leadership — specifically, senior management — is concerned and focused on the business outcomes leading to improved performance. Closing the gap between what management wants to see and what learning can deliver is what will build value for those involved in WLP. Filling this gap by using the business data to develop learning solutions will deliver lasting and tangible results for the organization.
Economic uncertainties and rapid market changes make planning and decision making much more difficult, but exceptionally more critical, than ever. The best protection against uncertainty is figuring out how to avoid being surprised by having your organization proactively using the information presented to it.
Learning’s revised role is to provide managers with the ability to quickly adapt to business scenarios and work closely with business units to have employees react instantaneously to changing business conditions. To reach their goals, companies must constantly improve their ability to identify, organize and analyze all the information (business data) available to them. Learning must be actively involved to help make this happen.
First, forget the idea that any organization’s business leaders will recognize the importance of learning — their focus is on improved business performance, and learning and performance is one of many tools in their toolbox to help get them to where they need to be, and it is one of the more important tools available.
Business leaders will listen to and use any catalyst that helps them get to their results. Learning must position itself to do this by connecting into their world and demonstrating it can link the business data to performance-oriented learning initiatives.
Just as you would learn about the culture and language when visiting another country to facilitate your efforts in achieving your objectives, the same applies to your organization. In this case, you are in their country — not only do you have to speak the language (business and performance), you also need to turn the information provided into learning solutions that best apply to the environment (culture) and directly correlate to organizational results. Interpreting business data is a proactive role for learning and will lead it to be an essential enabler to improved business performance.
What Learning Needs to Know
Learning professionals must understand business managers’ decision-making process and how they leverage an organization’s business data to be able to develop effective learning solutions. In effect, there are three kinds of decisions an organization can make.
- Strategic: These are the major decisions that companies make in the perspective of their overall corporate mission and strategic objectives. These types of decisions are crucial to the overall success of the organization and often will affect every part of an organization when implemented. The value is large but occurence is infrequent.
- Tactical: These decisions usually are the ones that use business data the most and are implemented in a relatively short period of time. They help to achieve strategic goals, leveraging the intelligence they have at hand. Examples include a product manager deciding what discount schedule to put in place, a pricing decision for a product or the marketing strategy required to build market presence and brand awareness.
- Operational: These decisions occur on a daily basis. Individually, they do not pose a threat to the organization. When taken in aggregate, however, operational decisions can play a major role at the tactical and even the strategic level of the decision process. These types of decisions usually are made by employees who are not knowledgeable or too concerned with business data. There is an opportunity to gather these types of decisions to drive improved business performance.
Every business decision can be categorized in one of these three areas, along with relevant and corresponding business data. Arriving at a proper decision depends on the information available to the decision maker and will determine the outcome and level of impact the result of the decision will have on the organization. Business data not only facilitates the decision-making process but often dictates that some type of decision must be made.
The Role of Learning and Performance
Business data usually prompt organizational leaders to make critical decisions — business data incitechange, and whenever change takes place, learning solutions are sure to follow. The business data itself also might require the support of learning and performance to help managers understand the data in arriving at a decision. Recognizing and acting on the available data will add credibility and value for learning and performance, providing for more-targeted and result-driven learning solutions.
Leveraging business data to develop more-effective learning solutions easily can enable the three categories of decisions types to drive better business decisions.
Learning Based on Strategic Data
The business data available for this type of decision is usually more complex and involved. The data itself requires deciphering because it involves many factors, and the decision-making process is more intense, affecting the organization as a whole.
Learning solutions at this level are primarily informal and targeted. The learning solutions developed to support and help resolve the decision-making process are tied directly to the overall learning strategy and key performance indicators. This means a proposed learning solution at this level must cascade down through the organization and support the changes as they occur at the tactical and operational levels.
For example, if some business data demonstrate a primary competitor is finding success with a new feature on one of its products, then your organization needs to evaluate how to act on this critical information. A change or modification in the business direction will affect your organization’s strategy, and your learning strategy will have to address the requisite changes and necessitate new learning requirements at all levels of the organization.
Further, the outcomes of the learning initiatives you develop must be directly correlated to key performance indicators, usually through some type of strategic score card.
Learning Based on Tactical Data
As mentioned earlier, tactical decisions tend to use business data most of the time. Tactical data affects decisions that have direct implications on business and strategic objectives, especially in the short term. Tactical issues indicate how aligned or deviated the business is from its strategic objectives. As such, learning solutions based on tactical data should demonstrate tangible results and be aligned to key performance measures that are cascaded down from the strategic level.
For example, if your company’s strategic goal is to be the most customer-responsive and supportive organization in its market space, the tactical business issues associated with this mission (such as customer service, employee product knowledge and any other customer-oriented task) must be in line with the company mission.
The resulting tactical data obtained from these business concerns also must be positive and aligned with the strategic mission. If the tactical data (with any luck, a leading indicator such as customer satisfaction measures) indicates any deviation from the mission, then learning must act immediately. Preferably, as a learning professional, you would simulate scenarios for possible deviations before they happen, as well as continuously monitor and control the staff’s knowledge and skills development and act on a just-in-time basis.
Learning Based on Operational Data
Even though this type of data does not normally indicate any immediate threats to the organization, like a small crack in a dam, it might provide early indications of deviations that can lead to bigger business problems if not addressed early. A ship never sinks from the top down — it always begins with a leak in the hull (in a company’s case, at the bottom), and if the leak is allowed to get bigger, it makes it way up. Learning initiatives at this level are more in line with maintenance and support of employee skills, and the earlier you are able to read the operational data as it relates to the organization’s daily activities, the more effective employees become.
For example, introducing customer relationship management software would facilitate how a customer service representative (CSR) responds to and addresses the needs of a customer in an effort to create a more intimate experience. But if the CSR does not leverage the new system’s capabilities, problems begin — the learning solution did not address the need adequately. Learning should work in close partnership with other business units to learn what specific operational issues are affected and how to deliver effective learning solutions.
At this level, each learning strategy should be tailored to the needs of the business units and their specific operational requirements that cascade up to and align with the organization’s tactical and strategic concerns.
Gaining an advantage in increasingly competitive environments is essential for organizations to simply survive, let alone thrive. Whether a company has access to relevant business data can mean the difference between real success and mediocre performance.
Every piece of business data available provides companies with evidence and an early indication of how well the organization is meeting its business and strategic objectives. Companies that can exploit their own data and information to gain insight and make smarter decisions will have a clear competitive advantage over their competitors.
This is where the role of learning gains prominence in how it translates the data into useable knowledge.
As business data plays a greater role and becomes a priority for senior management, companies will need flexible learning solutions that will address and help them act on the business data at hand, and not only in the short term — as a company grows, the acquisition of more complex business data increases, and learning and performance will no longer be relegated to the “back seat.” Rather, like oil in an engine, learning and performance will be viewed as an enabling force that allows companies to leverage the strategic usefulness of their business data.
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