Big Data: The Game Changer for L&D

Change the conversation with senior clients by getting in the big-data game.

As an officer of the company, the CLO must understand all aspects of the business, what success looks like in every function, and make sure learning programs are aligned to driving success. The days of managing course catalogs are gone.

Even if it’s not in the CLO’s job description, we’re responsible for some part of our company’s strategic workforce planning: knowing where the business is going and the human capital needs to get there.

We must hold ourselves to ever-higher standards when it comes to business fluency. We need it to earn the respect of our revenue-generating peers, and we need it to fully do our jobs.

Reading business books and periodicals is critical. And, if you read any type of business publication, you know Big Data is the next big thing.
Luckily, CLOs can also take advantage of Big Data to address all of these issues:

Better understand business challenges and skills gaps in order to develop the right learning solutions; Prove you’re impacting the business with solid results; and Become a strategic advisor with intelligent, insightful analytics.

Data makes it possible

The CLO — the learning and development partner to the business — needs to embrace using Big Data to be most effective. First, document the goals and objectives of each organization, working down from the top to ensure goal alignment throughout. Ten, dig down to individual business functions and their performance metrics. For instance, your “client” in the Sales Department may be trying to increase deal size and win rate, and have baseline measures and specific goals. Break those goals down into the competencies, behaviors and actions that drive their achievement. Ten establish learning programs to specifically target those metrics, breaking them down goal-by-goal.

Remember to show what skills, activities and behaviors the employees were doing before and after, so you can point to how they’ve improved because of the learning or enablement interventions you drove. Here is where Big Data is so exciting. By triangulating data sources, you can chart the impact of your programs.

How it’s done

Cloud Talent Success was formed early in 2012, and we’ve seen fantastic results thus far. Having a structured approach to present to the department was critical, especially given the rocket-fueled growth and market expectations our corporation was experiencing.

Overall approach

Measurement is foundational to all aspects of what we do. It covers the full learning and enablement lifecycle. These aspects include:

  1. Learning Inventory – To determine how to build formal, informal and social learning, we analyze performance using CRM and other data to identify skills gaps and success drivers.
  2. Learning Program Design – We first define business, process and learning metrics for each sales stage, then translate these into KPIs and core competencies around which we design courses.
  3. Learning Schedule – Regularly tracking sales rep performance on key metrics, we can identify strengths/weaknesses and suggest individualized learning and mentoring intervention.
  4. Learning Evaluation – Every program has one or more objectives — like prospecting or closing — around which we build custom metrics. Before-and-after course surveys measure self-reported confidence (versus knowledge assessment) and actual execution against goals.
  5. Business Impact – Very simply, we measure pipeline performance (opportunities created and won, average deal size and sales cycle, conversion ratio) before and after learning. This includes quarterly tracking of overall sales performance versus goals and the market. This approach enables us to systematically plan, design, execute and evaluate the effectiveness of our sales rep training, measuring against real business numbers.


Data analysis is truly the key, because Big Data without powerful analysis is just simple math with lots of numbers. Here’s how we approached it.

STEP 1: Driver Analysis – A critical first step was analyzing success drivers. We drew data from four sources to study their influence on sales attainment:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system: Identifying more than 110 variables, like average deal size, win ratio, sales cycle length
  • Learning Management System (LMS): Courses taken, self-evaluations, timing of training and more
  • Performance Management System: Manager ratings, goal setting, performance reviews, learning plans and more
  • Employee Records: Hire date, manager, sales experience, prior domain experience and more

We then used advanced statistical techniques, including univariate analysis, regression modeling and structured equation modeling to determine key influencers of performance and quantify their impact. Lastly, we converted these influencers into KPIs and set targets.

STEP 2: Business Impact Analysis – Here we merged three data sources, CRM, LMS and the Commissions file (which tracks attainment versus quota for each sales person), then analyzed before-and-after performance impact. Quite honestly, it was a simple download to Excel from each source, followed by a data merge. For example, to measure training’s impact on pipeline, we tracked performance for a certain period of time before and after a key sales course completion, isolating the impact of seasonality (for example, Q4 usually being the busiest quarter).

Change Management

At our highly data-driven company, it was not difficult to convince stakeholders conceptually that performance measurement and training accountability were good ideas. Politically, however, we took a prudent approach.

First, we got buy-in. We created advocates and partners by building consensus with various stakeholders outside Cloud Talent Success when designing, conducting and presenting the results of the measurement model. For example, Sales Operations handled most data analysis, so their support was critical. We gained initial buy-in from the Sales Ops director, then met with him regularly so he remained familiar with, and felt ownership of, the driver analysis.

We also met regularly with other sales team leads (like Strategic Sales and Enterprise Sales) for “workshops,” at which we presented data and asked for input (versus saying, “The data shows X, so let’s do Y”). When we later presented recommendations reflecting their ideas, it was easy for them to say “Yes.”

Next, we adopted the change. We operationalized the measurement strategy and recommendation process by making the data essential. For example, sales leaders love data especially that which provides new and critically important insights not only on training impact and needs, but on specific competencies and their impact on sales performance. This stuff gets pretty addictive.


We’ve seen a myriad of benefits from data-driven decision-making. First, learning is clearly linked to business goals. Sales Ops managers and Cloud Talent Success had all used different metrics to measure success and guide skills development efforts. Our analytics helped all teams to collaboratively focus on one set of metrics. Learning is tied to key performance indicators (KPIs). Data analysis identifying lead indicators of sales success drove development of KPIs and, in turn, learning initiatives.

Second, the business results are irrefutable. Course-specific metrics and before-and-after sales performance tracking have proven learning efectiveness over four quarters, Q2 2012 to Q2 2013. Often dramatically, we’ve increased all critical KPIs, including deal size, number of opportunities, number of deals won, and win ratio. Attendees of “Sales Coaching for Managers” helped their teams improve value of opportunities created by 69% and value of deals won by 107%.

Significant onboarding improvements were noted. Thanks to both new and revamped learning programs based on data and analysis, our 275 new hires in 2012 significantly out-performed 2011 peers in pipeline quantity and quality and nearly halved time to quota. Attrition dropped 80%.

More funding, more clout

Extraordinary business impact results for our clients is the best possible outcome, but more funding, resources, scope and clout are very nice, too. As a result of our first year efforts, we saw:

  • Improved Training Participation and Compliance: Training time often loses out to field time. Measurable business impact has helped reverse attitudes and increase compliance scores.
  • Increased Learning Frequency: When analysis indicated that completing “Sales New Hire Boot Camp” within 30 days of hire improves opportunity creation and closure, course frequency was increased from quarterly (to drive economies of scale) to monthly (to ensure sales success), yielding a significantly higher financial return over one year: millions more in revenue versus $80,000 in additional costs.
  • Budgets Protected: Business impact analysis helped persuade Sales Department leaders to continue U.S. and global training allocations despite a Q4 2012 company-wide travel freeze.

True strategic partnership

Our team stepped up as strategic advisors by presenting undisputable data analysis on the top sales success drivers, top capability gaps by geography and segment, and what initiatives could close the gaps. As a result, Cloud Talent Success has developed a roadmap for the entire sales enablement community, and Sales Department leadership has assigned a business operations program manager to actualize these recommendations. Attitudes toward training throughout the company have shifted.

Everyone on board

Shifting the conversation as a learning staff from execution to advisory is hard and requires all hands on deck. Everyone on the team has to get oriented to having business partner conversations. I empower my team by delegating authority early and often, so they can build credibility through their business client relationships. I need everybody to be engaged and contributing to our success, and I have the best team in the world doing just that.

Originally published in Elearning! Magazine