If you’ve ever watched or read great police/detective thrillers, they often talk about the chain of evidence and how critical it is to maintain the links from a process and outcome point of view. If a link in the chain is broken, then the story for the defense or prosecution falls apart.
The same is true in Learning & Development. What chain of evidence is that? The chain that connects learning to application, behavior changes, and ultimately - business outcomes. The links in the chain can be small or big, strong or weak, all depending on the evidence we collect along the way.
This evidence is usually in the form of data we collect that is connected back to the learning event, content, or asset. Typically, we see the smile sheet followed by maybe some post-test data or perhaps a follow-up competency survey to try and show that something was applied back on the job. Ultimately, we try to leap the actual business impact directly caused by training. Why it usually falls apart is that we are looking at the evidence in silos, separated by discrete data points and time. Where we need to focus our efforts is linking all these data points into our own chain of evidence and using it to tell a story. Our business partners are more likely to believe the relationship between learning and business outcome if we can present these links in a coherent, logical manner, much like the prosecution during a jury trial.
I was once told that when telling a data story, “You are not writing a mystery novel with deep character development. Get to the ending and then present the evidence chain linking it all together.” This is exactly what we need to do! Some of it is counter-intuitive, as we want to parade out all of our data and evidence, stand back, and shout “You see! There it is!”
Instead, I might offer the following guidance:
- Collect different levels of data and use different methods. Already collecting reaction data? Great! Still asking if they liked lunch? Not so great. Not all links in the chain are equal. Asking how cold the room was or if they liked the food is not relevant to business outcomes. Instead, ask about relevance, impact, and how they will apply back on the job, and ultimately how the learning will impact individual and business performance.
- Follow up with more links in the chain. Conduct follow-up surveys, hold focus groups, interview managers or coaches of people that went to the training to get their perspective. Yes, it takes time and effort, however getting those personal stories and examples are some of the strongest links you can have. And getting the boss’s perspective further strengthens the link. It’s one thing to rely on learner self-reported data, but when the boss is also observing job application, you have another strong link in the chain.
- Linking to actual business data is the holy grail. However, the business is often reluctant to provide access to or send directly. You may only be able to do this for the most costly and impactful programs.
- Document, document, document. Whatever level of follow-ups you are doing, get it all down. Ask for specific examples, stories, business data (or at least get them to tell you their results) and always bring it back around to the learning. Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about how the training impacted their behavior change and thus influenced an outcome.
- Finally, connect your links and tell your story. Don’t worry about creating a bunch of fancy slides with statistics and graphs. Yes, some data visualization is good and necessary. However, people will remember the story you tell if you are logical, engaging, and bring some energy. Start with what people learned, how you know they applied it, and what kinds of outcomes were reported.
In summary, you do not always have to show causation, nor does all your data have to contain a large impact punch. Sometimes, the most obvious data can tell a great story because it’s not always obvious to your stakeholder. Your goal as the prosecution is to show strong relationships down the chain so that by the time you get to the end, people are nodding their heads in agreement. Don’t be guilty of not using a chain of evidence. Instead, be guilty of being a good learning analyst and storyteller.
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