Making the Right Choice When There Is None

The most informed, most effective decision comes down to the tools and strategies in place to improve learning and development.


Generally speaking, chief learning officers have one major question to consider: Does the learning strategy fit with the organization’s overall, long-term business strategy? From there, they must gather the best information, surround themselves with the best people, and use them to make well-informed decisions. Preparation is key, and so is the skill to prioritize the important over the also important.

Gathering the knowledge isn’t the hard part. In the financial industry, for example, being prepared may mean noticing changes in the economy, following the stock market or speaking with clients or co-workers about the state of the industry. In any case, these are the straightforward, necessary things that chief learning officers must do to stay on top of their game. Because their decisions affect all learning and development in the organization, they can never be too prepared.

Meanwhile, within this strategy, there are nuanced, critical decisions, according to Gina Abudi, business expert and president of Abudi Consulting Group:

  • What skills, development and knowledge are required for the organization’s future success?
  • How do future leaders need to be developed to ensure long-term organizational success?
  • How do we retain top talent and compete to secure additional top talent?
  • How do we deliver training in ways that work for the organization and the people?

What makes the overall process complicated is that it’s an art, not a science, said Richard Spires, CEO of Learning Tree International and former chief information officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Leaders can have all the information, but they need the skill, too.

With so many options for any given decision or scenario, there’s rarely a “right” decision. But there is a best, and the right tools and strategies can make the best more accessible.

Prioritizing ‘Right for Whom?’

Prioritizing can be the biggest challenge. With limited resources in budget and talent, how can a leader decide where to focus? What project or program deserves the top-skilled talent and the largest investment?

At the end of the day, investing in one person or program means not investing in another. It’s a trade-off, which requires you to think of what maximizes the outcome we’re looking for, said Deb Johnson, chief learning officer for Deloitte Consulting.

First, when prioritizing people or projects, consider, in this industry, what the current and future needs in terms of workforce skills are. Where are the skills gaps now, and what skills will these employees need in the future? With answers to these questions, a CLO can hone in on what learning programs to invest in today and tomorrow. The question is never “Is this the right choice?” but rather “Right for whom?”

There is no “right choice” for any given scenario, said Tamara Ganc, chief learning officer for The Vanguard Group. However, there is a choice that has the best effect on the learner. There is tension in balancing what is right for the learner vs. what is perceived as right for the business.

“There’s often an ‘ask’ from the business for a specific training or learning need. Often that may not be what’s best for the learner to actually retain and change their behavior,” Ganc said. “So often we’re in a position to say no to a specific ask because we know the outcome won’t be what the business wants to achieve.”

She recalled a time when a business leader asked for help putting leaders through leadership development. Upon further review, she and her team realized the problem had nothing to do with leadership but that it was a more in-depth talent issue; leadership development would not solve the problem.

Technology and Big Data Trends

Big data is another tool valuable to learning leaders as they make complicated decisions on how employees learn. Defined as “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions” by Google, big data has become a big deciding factor in many business decisions. It can allow learning leaders to see trends they might not have noticed before.

For example, Ganc was able to use it while evaluating 10 different Vanguard University projects from 10 different designers. There was one outlier, one project that performed significantly better than the others. Upon reviewing the data, Ganc and her team noticed the designer of the outlying project had hybrid skills: He could both design and develop the program. Having the hybrid skill set allowed this person to finish the project much quicker than anyone else, and Ganc concluded that in the future of Vanguard University, they should look for talent with those hybrid skills. “That wasn’t what I expected to get out of the data, but it was such a stark difference and allowed us to dig in and maybe change or course in the future.”

Of course, big data can’t replace human intelligence completely. It does allow learning leaders to notice trends and get more nuanced information about the effectiveness of a learning program. For instance, how long did they spend on a lesson? Did they become more productive afterward?

Read More: The Impact of Big Data in Decisions

It may be easier to pull data needed than in the past and to analyze it quicker, but decision-making still requires a human element, Abudi said. “The introduction of big data and the prevalence of technology makes it easier to get the information needed, which may lead to quicker decision-making,” she said. “But relying only on the data is not sufficient. The data does not understand the people of the organization and their needs.”

For example, Johnson said Deloitte changed its learning process using a combination of hard data and conversation. Five years ago, employees began learning through simulations, which was trendy then. Simulations were new and cool at the time, and learners got a lot out of these environments that simulated reality, she said. However, the company recently changed how learning leaders develop new skills, shifting focus to something real.

“Looking at hard data and talking to leaders and coaches, this generation of learners is interested in impact and purpose,” Johnson said. “They want to be part of an organization that they feel is doing good in the world, meaningful purpose.”

After realizing this trend, Deloitte began to embed impact into its programs, such as its milestone program for consultants. When a consultant reached a new career milestone, they used to use simulations or case studies to work on strategic thinking skills. Now, consultants take on a live case with a nonprofit. They get to practice the same skills like doing analysis or making presentations, and make a real impact. The change-of-strategy meant that learners contributed a total of almost 4,000 free consulting hours to the nonprofit.

A similar blend of personal interactions and technology is true for how the learner learns as well, Spires said. For example, at Learning Tree, which provides skills-enhancement training to information technology and business professionals, blended learning is becoming more popular. Traditional instructor-based learning augmented with other types of learning, such as Web-based training modules, has worked effectively for this particular organization.
Vanguard University enjoyed similar success. Ganc recently made the decision to invest in more bite-sized learning because that’s what appeals to her learners now. “Our learners don’t have a lot of time. They need to be able learn at the point of need,” she said. “And while they want formal learning experiences, they also want to supplement it with [bite-sized learning] where they can get in, get what they need, and get out.”

Location, Location, Location

With the resources, the data, the market research, and everything needed to make an informed decision, what’s left is the ‘who’: what team or person is also providing their input? The complexity of the decision-making process affects so many clients, stakeholders and employees, nothing great gets accomplished alone. Decisions are never made in a vacuum, Ganc said. It’s important to understand one’s own personal style and to surround oneself with people who counter that.

Don’t hire yourself as your counterpart, Ganc said, because when people look at a situation from different perspectives, they can make a better decision.

“I am the textbook futuristic, crazy-idea woman, and I’m also an activator,” she said. “So I’ll have these ideas and just want to go. [My right-hand woman] puts on the risk lens for every situation and asks probing questions on execution and implementation. [She’s] the yin to my yang.”

Hiring someone complementary also comes in handy when it comes to big data. It’s one of those technologies that has so many different facets to it and so many different techniques to analyze and implement it, Spires said, that deciding what to do with the data itself requires lots of training and expertise. He found this in both the learning industry and the government.

Indeed, with a similar realization in mind, Vanguard University created a formal project management office to mine the plentiful data and extrapolate trends. The PMO then provides Ganc the data in a simpler format so she can make quick, informed decisions.

With so many people who have a say in the final say and so many business and economic considerations, making learning and development decisions can get messy. But as long as the CLO has one thing in mind, everything else becomes much simpler.

“With every decision I make I ask, ‘Will this enhance the learners retention and their desired behavior or diminish it?’ ” Ganc said. “And as long as I have that lens on every decision I make, hopefully I’m doing what’s best in the end for our learners.”


Andie Burjek is a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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