Ready, set, repeat: big data. This mantra will be with us for some time to come, so let’s get used to it. This is one more technology that is like many others: It starts out as a “Humph!” and later we hear about breakthrough projects related to our function. Eventually it overwhelms all of those in learning and HR who did not attend to it early on.
Here is an action plan: Learn the basics of the concept, become verbally fluent regarding the benefits for the learning function and be ready to work it to advantage for your enterprise.
The term “big data” refers to the technologies and practices by which one records data about users’ online activity, mines this data to find new patterns and trends and uses this intelligence to understand and influence user behavior to meet business goals. Whew. This is the simpler version: Observe everything anyone does on a site, then do something smart with the information.
Big data allows organizations to better accomplish their important goals — increase sales per user visit, tailor offerings for individual customers and customize learning for employees — and its use is growing.
“Many firms are taking on a broader mission of becoming more data driven,” said Dan Mallinger of Think Big Analytics. He said this is because they have seen the payoff: “When you better understand what the user actually wants and does, you are able to drive results.”
You have seen this on the sites you visit. Amazon uses big data to increase revenue per visit by recommending other items based on what you looked at previously. Google uses it to charge more for ads that are targeted to you based on your search history.
The two questions for us are: What can big data do for the learning function and how soon? The quick answer is a lot, and it’s starting, slowly.
For as long as enterprises have provided training, they have gathered data: how many learners, how many courses and how well learners do. This expanded to learning analytics, providing more information, but it is still far from the potential of big data.
“For learning, this is at the very early stages right now,” said Chris Tratar, senior director of product marketing for Saba. “But customers all want to get as much data as they can for metrics and analytics. They are hungry for more information.” That is the starting point: gather more data.
Saba has rebuilt its data analytics platform with key leaders in engineering hired from company core metrics. It can now track 600 data objects, up from 150. In addition to learning data, it tracks performance review scores, succession planning activities and other HRIS information. The system tracks what information employees are consuming as well as what topics they are posting. It tracks who connects with whom, creating social graphs with a visual display of those who are the major communication hubs and centers of influence. This is linked to an intelligent engine which recommends learning activities and knowledge assets for learners. The full power of big data will emerge as these data sets mesh with financial systems and other enterprise business data.
Gary Woodill of i5 Research tracks hundreds of data sources to monitor emerging technologies. He first forecast big data’s use in learning six years ago. “I expect it to be a disruptive technology for the learning function. A few will get it right — maybe a couple of grads in a start-up incubator will crack this nut,” he recently said.
The real promise comes down to simply providing better learning for workers, resulting in people capable of meeting more difficult goals. Big data will put hard data and science back into the equation. It will allow the CLO and CEO to see more clearly what works in building talent and to trace the benefit to business results. Figuring all this out is a new requirement for those who will compete with the best in the field.
Brandon Hall is chairman of Brandon Hall Group. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.