How to Create a Data-Focused Learning Strategy: Insights from Learning Leader & Author Jenny Dearborn

How to Create a Data-Focused Learning Strategy: Insights from Learning Leader & Author Jenny Dearborn

On almost every L&D leader’s list of top mentors sits Jenny Dearborn. Her resume touts executive roles at Hewlett Packard, SAP, and Klaviyo, plus she is an accomplished author, consultant, and advisor. She stresses the big importance of making learning strategies based on data that actually help businesses — so much so that she literally wrote the books on it. So when she shares her lessons learned for creating and measuring a data-focused learning strategy, we listen.

One big lesson she talks about is that it’s really important to know what you’re going to measure before starting any learning initiatives. She also talks about how crucial it is to connect learning plans with real business goals and outcomes — because wasting learners’ time with training that doesn’t work hurts the company’s bottom line and employee engagement.

And Jenny knows that a focus on data can make learning strategies better, no matter the size of your company. “It might seem easier for big companies, but the steps are pretty much the same, whether you’re small or big,” she says.

So, let’s take a closer look at what Jenny has to say and learn some practical tips for making a learning strategy that’s backed by data.


How did Jenny do it?

Sales & other data-heavy roles

There was a moment that changed everything for Jenny. During a big QBR presentation where she was highlighting how well a recent sales training had gone, the CEO stopped her. He wanted proof that the training was really helping salespeople sell better. Jenny had star ratings from the sales reps who took the training — but that wasn’t enough. She realized she couldn’t get the sales data she needed at that company. So, she decided to find a role where she could access the data she needed to drive (and prove) meaningful outcomes.

In her new role, Jenny and her team started by looking carefully at CRM data to understand all the different steps in the sales process. They figured out where deals were getting stuck and why, and they interviewed the best salespeople and watched them in action.

They wanted to know everything about what makes a salesperson successful. So they broke down each step of the sales cycle into the knowledge, skills, behavior, competencies, and habits a sales rep needed at each stage — and they crafted specific training and tools for each.

Their hard work paid off big time: After they implemented these learning programs, five times more new salespeople were meeting their sales quotas. This success story became a big selling point for the company when recruiting new hires, showing how they support their sales team to be successful. Overall, Jenny’s journey shows how using data can really make a difference in sales and attract top talent to a company.


Leadership and more abstract roles

When it came to leadership and other roles that don’t inherently have as many hard metrics attached to their success, they focused on employee engagement.

First, however, they spent time studying the company’s own leadership values to figure out what makes a leader great and what they value in leaders at their specific organization. At SAP SuccessFactors, they focused on: What are the leadership principles of SAP? What does it mean to be a leader here? What are the leadership values (because leadership is measured differently in different places)?

And so their definition of leadership was being a talent magnet and growing and developing talent underneath you, because they had a strong culture of promoting from within. “Internal talent development and leadership development was super important. It’s not the kind of company where people at the bottom don’t move up as opportunities become available. There’s this expectation that people are moving up the levels all the time,” Jenny shares.

So they analyzed, among other things:

  • How many high performers did a manager have?
  • Did everyone on that team have an active Development Plan? 
  • Did those high performers move up? 
  • Were they promoted within their function or to other functional areas? 
  • Did the manager encourage their top talent to leave their current team and go someplace else, as part of a talent rotation program?


To analyze this, they leveraged engagement survey data and performance management data from the HRIS. But rather than simply taking all of the employee engagement survey results in aggregate, they zeroed in on very specific questions that give them insights into manager effectiveness vs. employee happiness.

Using all this information, Jenny and team made a special training plan for leaders at different levels in the company — including existing managers and people getting ready for leadership roles. This focus on learning and preparation before stepping into leadership roles showed how much the company cared about grooming top-notch leaders ready to drive the company’s success.


Always start with a pilot

No matter what type of role you’re training, it’s smart to begin small to gather the right info. Jenny recommends trying out a pilot program and measuring everything along the way.

A big part of this is picking a small sample pilot group that represents the target audience as a whole. It’s important to make sure this group includes people at all different levels of performance so you can really understand the impact across different levels of employees.

Also, the pilot shouldn’t last too long — Jenny suggests no more than a quarter. You need to spend equal time trying out the program and checking how well it’s working. Following these steps helps organizations figure out if their learning plans are working well and make good decisions going forward.


Common mistakes L&D leaders make

Challenge #1: Overemphasis on level one data

Level one data includes things like the learner’s feelings about the actual class experience (i.e., how much people like the instructor or the room temperature).

For example, Jenny’s team once delivered a sales training where some learners were taught in a nice conference room, and others took the class in a basement room. Those who took the class in the basement gave a lot of negative feedback about the room conditions. But when they analyzed the learners’ performance post-training, those who were taught in the basement performed equally as well as those taught in the nicer room. This illustrates the importance of figuring out what really affects employee performance and not just listening to surface-level satisfaction feedback.


Challenge #2: Lack of data-backed communication with executives

Not backing up your learning initiatives with data when presenting to executives can make it really hard to get their buy-in. Effective communication means understanding the executive team’s priorities and clearly presenting the problem, the cost, and a clear solution. You need to quantify the cost of the existing problem and the potential impact of your proposed solution, closely tying it to concrete business outcomes like improved employee performance or engagement. Jenny’s advice? L&D leaders should enhance their data presentation skills and visual storytelling to convey insights effectively to executives.


Challenge #3: Getting distracted by the latest learning fads and trends

Getting caught up in the newest trends in learning often takes away from what really works. Jenny advises L&D leaders to spend more time figuring out what learners really need and focus on proven strategies, especially when budgets are tight. By sticking to what works and focusing on real needs, L&D leaders can make sure their learning plans are successful in the long run.


The biggest advice for L&D leaders: Do your research

Jenny’s advice highlights how important it is to do your homework and explore data thoroughly before implementing any new learning program. By making sure the training works well before pulling employees away from their regular work, companies can avoid wasting time and money.

Plus, implementing a solution that doesn’t work well can quickly hurt an L&D team’s reputation and can break down the trust between learning leaders and employees. By focusing on data to make decisions and measuring clear results, L&D leaders can continue making their workforce more successful over time.