Does Your Company’s Learning Have Gaps? Why They Matter and How to Fill Them

JERRY (JZ): Few things in life I enjoy more than engaging you in a conversation about learning. I am thrilled to dive deep into the topic of learning gaps with you.

MIRIAM (MT): Did you mean the play on words?

JZ:  I think that was subconscious but let’s go with it and dive right in. What do you mean by “learning gaps”?

MT:  My technical definition in the corporate setting would be the differences in knowledge, skills, or competencies among adult leaders in the workplace. It isn’t a challenging concept, and most learning professionals are keenly aware that there are gaps between what their learners know and what they should know. There are also gaps between individual workers. It goes beyond knowledge gaps, of course. We often talk about learning objectives at a high level as things we want our learners to know, be able to do, or believe. There usually are gaps at every level. Employees know some but not all of what they need to know to be successful at their jobs. They have some skills but perhaps not all that their roles require. Or the even more challenging situation in which they have not fully committed to the mission and vision of their organization. They have the knowledge and skills needed but they have not “bought in” to where the organization wants to go. We call this a “belief gap” and it is most difficult to find and fix. 

JZ:  What problems do learning gaps eventually become over time?

MT:  Learning gaps are not static. They grow over time as does the impact on the organization. I think back to my time as a K-12 educator. Getting an 85% on a test is certainly a passing grade on a quiz or a test, but it means that an individual student did not master what was being taught. Over multiple quizzes and tests, the same performance leads to gaps that grow from year to year. The same is true for companies. A lack of mastery of vital processes for production or safety becomes not only throughput issues but also issues core to the well-being of employees.

JZ:  How are learning gaps typically discovered?

MT:  In a corporate setting, learning gaps are typically discovered through things like performance evaluations, production or other quotas, feedback from managers, and direct observations of employee work. Additionally, self-assessments, peer evaluations, and formal assessments can also help to pinpoint areas in which employees may be struggling or falling behind their colleagues. Very practically, let’s say you can see a problem developing in a particular part of your company. It might be a production line or among members of a sales team. When you look closer, you discover that that group of people have several new members who came in with little experience. It is important to first assess the skills gaps of the newer team members compared to both the more experienced team members and then also the expected knowledge and skill levels for their role.

JZ:  I’m glad you brought that up. Knowing where to look seems like a huge part of understanding learning gaps. What types of data and analytics are needed to determine learning gaps?

MT:  Before I answer that directly, I need to point out that the first line of defense is intentionality. By that, I mean learning leaders spend time developing a system of looking for gaps. This means being proactive in the search. Most of the time from what I’ve observed, an effect shows up and then people go looking for a cause. I’d argue that the negative impact of learning gaps could be avoided with some effort to actively look for them before they produce those negative effects. 

JZ: Excellent point. I suppose it might seem a little counterintuitive to search for a problem before something actually is a problem, but losses of time and resources could be avoided by being proactive.

MT: Not identifying learning gaps not only leads to organizational problems but also affects individual workers. They might not be safe. Or they might be highly frustrated being asked to do a job for which they have not been properly trained. No one likes to feel incompetent. Those that do will likely soon be looking for other work and turnover is a huge problem for most of the companies with whom we work. 

JZ: Back to my original question then. Where should we be looking for the right data and analytics?

MT:  Most corporations have reams of data. Often, the problem is not a lack of raw data. It is knowing which data sets are most important to helping us see the gaps and then knowing how to analyze them. To determine learning gaps in the corporate environment, data and analytics such as performance metrics, training completion rates, skills assessments, and employee feedback are crucial. This can be done at various levels. Maybe comparing individuals on a team or comparing one team to another. I call this active data. In other words, data that will likely vary in different time periods.

There is static data that should be considered too. Demographic data, such as education level and work experience, can provide insights into the existence and causes of learning gaps within the workforce. Analyzing this information can identify areas for targeted training and development interventions, facilitating the growth and success of employees within the organization.

JZ:  Is it only quantitative or does qualitative data matter too?

MT:  The one confirms the other. Let’s start by talking about quantitative data. These data sets come in the form of numbers. Most people like numbers because they believe they eliminate the potential for bias. But there is always bias. For instance, while performance numbers can certainly tell a story, we are always working with incomplete data. In other words, we never really have every data point we might want. And so, we analyze what we have available. It might be the wrong data. Or perhaps there is missing data that might lead us to an incorrect conclusion. This is where qualitative data plays a key role. Looking at a spreadsheet might point to particular conclusions, but actually talking to people will help understand if those conclusions are accurate. There is a human side to data analysis when looking for learning gaps. Open and honest conversations not only honor the person, they also provide deeper insight into the true nature of the issue. 

JZ:  Does AI play a role in performing analytics?

MT:  We are in the early stages of using artificial intelligence to help us gain insights into learning gaps, but the potential is amazing. As I said earlier, the most common problem is not too little available data but too much. AI can not only analyze the available data to point to learning gaps. It can even predict where learning gaps will be found which gives learning professionals the ability to see potential gaps before they become a reality. For instance, we could look at the knowledge and skills to carry out a specific role and then look at people with varying levels of education and experience. The next step would be to compare their education, experience, and prior training with performance. That would tell us where the current gaps are on an individual basis. It would also help us better understand how to onboard new employees by knowing in advance which gaps should be addressed first. In the past, knowing such things might require people who are experts in data analytics. Today, many of those insights can be gained quickly using AI. 

JZ:  Once the gaps are located, what is the best way to begin to fill them?

MT:  Finding learning gaps is challenging. Once they are known, filling them takes work but is easier. It involves creating learning paths for groups or, if specific enough, for individuals in the company. Of course, the learning experiences provided need to be engaging and valued by learners which is best accomplished by walking them through the “why” of learning. In other words, being clear about how filling these gaps will benefit them, their fellow employees, and the company overall. People usually are highly motivated to become better at their jobs, which will give them more opportunities to advance. 

JZ:  What are some mistakes you’ve seen?

MT:  The most common is probably a lack of intentionality or being active in looking. To be intentional requires that you have a system in place to be on the lookout for important data. Listen for stories. Talk to the managers and leaders. Ask learners questions about what is working and what is not working. The second most common is a failure to provide a clear path for learners. I try to avoid expressions like “personal improvement plan” because I don’t believe that motivates learners and, in some cases, may carry with it an implicit threat. Better to invite someone on a path while making clear to them how that journey will make their lives better. 

JZ:  What does this look like for companies with a global footprint?

MT:  It is likely that data will be harder to come by and so more effort may be needed to gain the insights needed. If a company only has one location, getting access to performance metrics will likely be a lot easier than if a company has locations around the globe. The second challenge is that you can’t just walk through the company and ask managers and leaders questions. In other words, it is more difficult to develop these helpful relationships. That does not mean it cannot be done. But it will take more work. 

JZ:  Thanks for sharing your insights, Miriam. You’ve given us a great overview of learning gaps and encouraged those of us who are learning professionals to be intentional about finding and filling them.MT:  It is my pleasure to have this conversation. I hope it is helpful for all who want to see people grow in their roles at work.