Beyond the Subject Matter Specialist – seven creative ways to find evidence of a learning need

In the transformed pandemic world, there is an even greater need for aligning learning to the desired performance outcomes. L&D teams should evolve beyond request intake and begin to create evidence-based ecosystems that can thrive with agility.

In most organizations, a business operations team requests the Learning and Development department to create content to meet the new training needs. Often the business team would also identify the modality and the duration of the training. As part of this working intake process, identifying a subject matter specialist (SMS) to support the Instructional Designer in developing the learning objectives, content design process by sharing knowledge, providing feedback on content, and finally being one of the content approvers.

If you are an L&D professional with years of experience, at some point you likely have encountered challenging circumstances working with an SMS. A common experience is when an assumption is made about the exact structure of the content, and sharing existing presentations, expecting only that graphically appealing changes may be needed.

Here are seven creative ways to find evidence of the learning needs to enable L&D for meaningful conversations with their stakeholders and delivering meaningful performance outcomes.

Learner support ticket data.

Imagine a learner accessing a course only for them to be stuck on a slide multiple times. Will there be any retention of knowledge leading to skill development or behavior change? While the learning platforms evolve to accommodate for good and bad reviews from learners, the support ticket data is a gold mine that can be used as evidence to determine the challenges a learner may face from the experience with the learning. Often when there are issues such as learners stuck in a course, facing challenges with interactivity, video speeds, lack of accommodation for disability needs, etc., learners are reaching out to the support teams through support tickets. Executives who encounter an issue during the learning experience may even call the HR, Compliance, or L&D leaders. Harnessing support ticket data can help drive meaningful decisions and create a framework for progressive enhancements. Data from various ticketing platforms can be wrangled, visualized and some key insights can be derived.

Some questions that this data can answer for L&D are:

  • Will the engagements/interactions support learners in meeting performance objectives?
  • What are the ticket volumes and trends predictions for a specific learning object’s consumption?
  • Is video content delivery supported effectively by the organization’s network?
  • How can key learning technologies – learning management systems (LMS), survey tools, video conferencing tools better support the hybrid workforce?
  • What additional support resources may be needed so learners meet the course deadline?

Talent Consultants/Human Resources Business Partners.

The HR team is often asked to solve people’s challenges or consulted while rolling out transformations. They often have insights into what L&D can do to enable higher people performance in the departments they serve. For example, during exit interviews, HR can share insights into additional learning opportunities that can support the employees and potentially decrease attrition – particularly if it’s within 90-days to 1-year, which comes with a high cost to the organization.

Some questions that L&D can ask here are:

  • What feedback have you received or noticed trends that can benefit from L&D intervention?
  • What are the department’s employee attrition rates?  What is the 90-day to 1-year attrition of new talent?
  • What are department leaders asking for L&D opportunities?
  • What are the HR goals, in measurable terms, of supporting employee performance outcomes for business initiatives?

Failed searches for online/instructor-led training content and waitlists for sessions.

L&D often assumes what the employees want to learn based on their conversations with department leaders and SMSs. A place to find evidence of employee learning needs is failed searches for digital content in the learning platforms or waitlists maintained in the learning management platforms for instructor-led sessions. Most LMS administrators or IT departments can help L&D leaders to distill reports on this data. Tracking this data regularly can position L&D to become more proactive and agile to deliver quickly at the point of need.

Some questions that this data can help answer for L&D are:

  • What are the top skills that the employees are looking to learn?
  • What keywords are used and what additional keywords may be necessary for searching courses?
  • Is there a need to improve the search capabilities in the learning platforms?
  • Do we have enough sessions planned for courses for which there is a need?
  • Is there continued interest in courses that have no sessions planned?

Rewards/incentives for learning.

Environmental factors such as any rewards and recognitions for employees who continually learn and perform can contribute to an effective learning culture. While creating a learning solution, finding responses to a sample of these questions can help build a better learning solution.

  • Does the organization provide any rewards towards learning enablement?
  • How are the learners taking advantage of the rewards?
  • What are the types of rewards? What rewards are better received (monetary or non-monetary)?
  • What organizational transformation has occurred due to such incentives?

New joiners in the department.

New employees joining the departments who are either external hires or internal transfers often can provide advice on how to make the onboarding and the on-the-job training better. While there may have been opportunities for such employees to share feedback to L&D via surveys after a course, learning about their learning experiences via a focus group or 1:1 interviews prior to the start of instructional content design closer to the time of learning solution creation is helpful. This can create a more empathetic approach to deliver on solutions.

Some questions that L&D can new joiners are:

  • Did you receive on-the-job training?
  • What would a successful learning course/event look like for you?
  • How do you learn about new information for your job?
  • What motivates you to learn at work?
  • Who are your go-to people for task-related questions?
  • Do you have access to and know where all the work-related resources exist?

Employees who left the department/organization.

Upskilling opportunities are increasingly becoming an important factor in deciding on a new job. When your employees leave the organization or the department, it may be worthwhile asking for feedback via 1:1 discussions or formal HR exit interviews about their experiences with the learning opportunities and effectiveness.  

Some questions that can be asked here are:

  • What new skills did you acquire recently that helped in finding a new role?
  • How did you acquire these skills, on the job or externally?
  • What barriers did you find for upskilling in this role?

Focus groups/surveys with leaders in the department.

L&D often gets involved or solves for a learning solution at a point in time. Learning is continual and beyond L&D it can advance by leaders, mentors, coaches, and team members in the department. Understanding and acting on their perspective could be one of the secret ingredients to the journey. This knowledge can take L&D from creating the course on what the learner should have knowledge about to how the learners can better utilize the knowledge gained, build skills, and perform to meet individual and organizational goals.

Some questions that L&D can ask during these focus groups are:

  • What are the department’s current performance metrics/KPIs?
  • What is the mission and vision of the organization and how does this department contribute?
  • What barriers restrict your employees from learning at work?
  • What are the challenges to the learning ecosystem that could be addressed?

The north star of business performance is enabling higher people performance. Purely focusing on knowledge transfer and interacting with SMSs may yield some short-term value. L&D should transform to support an evolving ecosystem that doesn’t rely solely on input from a handful of SMSs, but instead, looks at other avenues where people are learning, where there is evidence of the learning needs, and how people are being rewarded with experiences that can help them succeed.

Apoorva is a Learning and Performance Technology expert with 16 years of varied experience in the field as a product user experience designer, an instructional designer, learning experience and technology leader, knowledge management leader, and web development leader amongst others. She has worked for Adobe, Infosys, WellCare and is currently working for PwC in their Organization and Workforce Transformation vertical. Her passions are in the use of technology to build and improve learning ecosystems that enable organizational performance.

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