You are here

3 Characteristics of High Impact Learning Departments: Laura Overton Interview

I really like data, whilst I am interested in someone’s views I am particularly interested in evidence and insights based on data. Thus I was excited this week to catch up with Laura Overton. Laura is the MD at Towards Maturity and runs one of the largest corporate learning data collection projects. Over tea at the Institute of Directors she took me through the latest data and their findings on high impact learning departments.

Towards Maturity, is a not-for-profit organisation that provides independent research into learning and performance. I was very keen to learn more about the data that underpins her latest report Modernising Learning - Delivering Results. The research included insights from 600 learning and development professionals across 29 different industries. For the first time Laura’s team looked in detail at the performance of the top ten per cent of learning departments and their characteristics.

Top Performers Significantly Outperform

One of the key findings was that the top ten per cent have significantly more impact on business performance. Laura explains:

“The data from our research shows that the top ten percent are outperforming the average learning department significantly. They have a major impact on the performance their organisations by:

  • ensuring the application of learning in the workplace
  • responding faster to changing business needs
  • improve productivity on the job

They are mature users of technology. They do not simply the provide self-paced elearning courses, they are twice as likely as average learning departments to use:

  • virtual classrooms
  • blogs
  • cloud based content
  • social bookmarking
  • achievement badges”

What is interesting is that what particularly characterises the top ten per cent of learning departments is not their use of technology. The three key characteristics of high impact learning departments that Laura observed from the data were:

  • providing an active learner voice
  • designing beyond the course
  • aligning learning to needs

"The DNA of the top ten percent of learning departments is business focused, learning focused and learner focused.”

1. Engage and Provide an Active Learner Voice

Laura's team has undertaken a number of learning landscape surveys where data is gathered directly from learners themselves. One of the really important findings from the data is the difference between what learners are saying and the perspectives of learning professionals.

“The findings from our learner research in the case of knowledge and office based workers is that:

  • 88% of workers learn through collaboration with others.
  • 80% are willing to share what they know
  • 70% learn to improve their work through Google
  • 85% are finding apps and tools themselves to help them do their jobs better and faster

This does not align with the views of learning managers where only 20% think their staff know how to connect and share. Learners want to learn socially, informally and collaboratively; and they actively want new tools and aids to do their jobs better. However, too many learning departments are not actively engaging with their learners, they are still course focused and are not building productivity support tools and apps.

The top ten percent recognise the importance of the learner voice and actively seek the views of their learners. They welcome innovation, challenge and contribution from their workers. They engage learners and are more likely to use technology to encourage user-generated content and are four times more likely to actively encourage their staff to collaborate in building knowledge resources, using tools such as wiki’s forums, podcasts and videos.”

Laura’s learning landscape research for organisations collects data directly from learners that can provide practical and actionable insights for learning professionals.

2. Design Beyond The Course

The second characteristic that struck me from our conversation is how top performing departments focus on how they can improve performance and how they look beyond the course.

“For the top performers the ‘course’ is only one of many options available for building skills and performance. They actively look beyond the learning course in collaboration with the business and their learners. Nine out of ten believe they are improving the quality of their learning by adopting more blended approaches. They are more likely to use video and learning communities within their blend to share best practice.

Top performing learning departments focus on supporting performance improvement. They are twice as likely to be using apps and tools to support the application of learning in the workplace.”

3. Align with Business Needs

“The top performing departments actively align learning to business needs to help improve performance. 97% of the top ten say their learning initiatives support the skills the business needs compared to just three in five of learning departments. This results in recognition and commitment from their organisations. Business leaders recognise that learning is important and it is resourced accordingly.”

These findings align with my own research last year which found that learning departments that can demonstrate business impact have little trouble getting initiatives funded.

Avoid Throwing Technology at Problems

The answer to meeting business needs is not technology. What Laura’s data demonstrates is that understanding the learner voice, engaging with learners, supporting social learning, designing beyond the course and pro-actively communicating is what really differentiates the top performers not technology. In fact Laura has concerns about how many learning departments turn to the latest technology rather than focusing on how to improve performance.

“The data clearly shows that many learning departments are throwing more technology at their problems and raising expectations but are actually achieving less. This is one of my greatest worries as blind faith in the tools without creating the right foundations could potentially create a backlash against learning technology in their organisations.”


The data from Laura’s research shows clearly that three of the key characteristics of top performing learning departments are:

  • providing an active learner voice
  • designing beyond the course
  • aligning learning to needs

How does this align with your views? Let me know in the comments below. Also if you have not already read the report I would encourage you to download it here Modernising Learning - Delivering Results. Better still, get actively involved in the study and find out what you need to do next to become a top performing learning team.



Back to top