What it means to be an “L&D Detective”

Recently, gamified LMS platform creators Growth Engineering released their list of “the top 20 L&D experts and influencers you need to know about in 2021.” Along with some of the titans of our industry such as Josh Bersin and Karl Kapp, there were also some nose-to-the-grindstone practitioners on the list.

One of the people on the list was Kevin Yates, a self-described L&D detective doing some of the most important work that can be done in our industry: uncovering the impact and value of learning initiatives.

I had a chance to talk with Kevin about what we should all be doing in the field of learning and development to play the role of L&D detective and uncover the impact and value of our own training initiatives.

Transcript of the Conversation with Kevin Yates

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning & development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn with Endurance Learning and Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, the world’s first and only rapid-authoring tool for instructor-led training. So, it’s a little bit like instant pot for lesson planning for instructor-led training. You throw in a few ingredients such as: what is your topic? How long is it going to be? How many people will attend? Is it going to be in-person or virtual? What are your learning objectives? And presto! You get a lesson plan! If you want to find out more information about that, you can find it Soapboxify.com

Today, I am joined by Kevin Yates, who is a self-described L&D Detective. He also made Growth Engineering’s list of Top 20 Most Influential People this year. Today, we’re going to be talking about how to make L&D effective and how to be an L&D detective.

6-Word Biography about Learning Measurement

Brian Washburn: Kevin, thank you for joining us. Like we always do with all of our guests, we like to have our guests introduce themselves and, kind of, boil down the topic and their careers in six words. So, if I think of today and the six word biography, I would say “measurement is like the Holy Grail”. How would you introduce yourself to our listeners in six words?

Kevin Yates: Hey Brian! First, I just want to say hello and thank you for asking me to join. I’m really excited and really happy to share some thoughts and ideas today around how I measure results for training and learning. I’ll go back to your question, if I were to describe myself or kind of give you a six word biography, what would it be? For me, it would be: “I measure learning’s fulfillment of purpose”. How about that for six words?

Brian Washburn: I love that. And there’s some big words that you got in there, so you’re getting your money’s worth on that. And hello to you! Yeah, it’s always kind of weird giving all of that introduction stuff and then going right into it, so I’m glad you paused us to say hello. 

What Does it Mean to Be a “Learning & Development Detective”?

Brian Washburn: I love this concept of each of us needing to embrace the role of learning & development detective. But before we take this any further with our conversation, can you lay the foundation for this conversation by explaining what you mean when you use the metaphor of being a learning & development detective? 

Kevin Yates: Yeah, that’s a great question. And you know, it’s interesting because a few years ago someone said to me, “You know, like Kevin, you’re kinda like Sherlock Holmes, right? Because you’re looking for facts, clues, evidence, and data that shows the extent to which training and learning are measurably influencing performance, behavior actions and business goals.” And after hearing that person say that to me, I’m like, “Wow, this is kind of like detective work; isn’t it?” Because when you want to validate that training and learning did what it was intended to do, you really are looking for clues and you’re searching for clues. And quite often it is a mystery. It is very much a mystery.

And so, you know, in the spirit of great detectives, like, you know, Sherlock Holmes. And I would even say detectives, like, what is it, Thelma, Shaggy, Freddie and Daphne. And you remember the Mystery Van with Scooby-Doo? 

Brian Washburn: Sure. Right. Mystery Machine. Yep, absolutely. 

Kevin Yates: Right? Mystery Machine, they were solving mysteries, right? 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Kevin Yates: And so similar to, you know, those greats, I’m also solving mysteries. And the mystery I solve is: Did training do what it was supposed to do? What are the results? And in doing so, as an L&D detective, I’m looking for evidence, I’m looking for data, I’m looking for facts and I’m looking for clues. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And so if you think of some of the tools to trade, right, so a detective has, I don’t know, a magnifying glass or in Scooby-Doo, you know, they had Scooby snacks, right? 

Kevin Yates: (CHUCKLING)

Brian Washburn: So they had tools of the trade. What do you think are some of the most essential tools of the trade for anyone who wants to see themselves as an L&D detective?

What Are The Most Essential Tools Used By An “L&D Detective”?

Kevin Yates: Well I think that– well, let me backtrack a little bit because I certainly think that there are tools and technology that supports the work of investigating results for training and learning. But I also think that, in addition to those tools, and I will give you a couple, you really need to be curious.

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Kevin Yates: Curiosity drives everything that I do as an L&D detective. Curiosity drives everything that I do when I am investigating and searching and looking for facts and clues and evidence and data that shows how training and learning measurably impacts or influences behavior and actions, and how it measurably influences business goals. So I think that before you think about your tools, you gotta be thinking about your mindset. And the mindset is curiosity.

Tools Used To Analyze L&D Data

Kevin Yates: Now, just in terms of tools, Tools are going to vary, right? There are some core tools that I have used that supports me in telling the story about results and telling the story about fulfillment of purpose. So those tools include things like Power BI, Tableau, and I’ve even started to use the Google Analytics solution as well. So when it comes to analyzing data, visualizing data and using analytic platforms to help aggregate data and help tell that story those are some of the tools that I’m using.

But then, there’s also in the business in which you may work, the tools that they are using to show results or business outcomes. So, you know, those platforms are going to vary from business to business or organization to organization. So, you know, you might be using things like data warehouses, right? And that varies. You might be using tools like, you know, something that extracts xAPI data, like a learning record store, like an LRS.

So there is varying technology that is leveraged to tell the story of results for training and learning. There are some core tools and those core tools are what I talked about, you know, Tableau, Power BI. But then there are tools that are really going to depend upon the organization with which you work and what you’re using. Again, you may be using a different type of data warehouse from business to business, but that all comes together to help tell that story. And again, you may be using different LRS platforms as well. So those are just some of the tools and technology that I’ve used. 

Brian Washburn: And it sounds like even before you think of tools, I appreciate how you, kind of, said, “well, let’s back up because the first thing you need to do is be curious and then figure out what is it that you’re looking to measure and then figure out what the right tool is”.

Then now, for most people who have been in the field of learning & development for any amount of time, they’re familiar with Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation. And so when it comes to– I get this question a lot and I’m curious of what you think: Which level do you feel is most realistic in measuring L&D initiatives?

Measuring the Effectiveness of L&D Programs

Kevin Yates: So, what’s realistic in terms of measurement? I think that the possibilities for what you can measure are endless. 

Brian Washburn: Hmm. Mm-hmm.

Kevin Yates: If you think about the Kirkpatrick approach, it is a linear approach. Not good, not bad, that’s just what it is, right? 

Brian Washburn: Yep. 

Kevin Yates: And I think that the Kirkpatrick approach is a great foundation for how to think about measurement.

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Kevin Yates: But going back to your question, what’s realistic? I think it’s absolutely realistic to be able to measure the extent to which training, learning and talent development, measurably influences performance and ultimately influences how people are using a performance in a way that helps them achieve an organization or business goal.

So, in the context of Kirkpatrick, where the four levels include: Level One, which is reaction and response. Level Two, which is knowledge. Level Three, which is performance. And Level Four, which is business outcomes. I think that all of those are achievable in terms of measurement. Now where the challenge comes in, Brian, is the extent to which you are ready and prepare for levels three and four.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Kevin Yates: As an industry, man, we got levels one and two down pat. We don’t need to figure that out anymore, right? 

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Kevin Yates: Where we really need to do some work and roll up our sleeves and just really get committed to doing the work, is with measuring the influence of training and learning on, again, what’s referred to in the Kirkpatrick model as level three, which is behavior and performance, and then level four, which is business outcomes.

So, I’ll circle back around to your question, what’s realistic to measure? I believe that there are endless possibilities with what we can measure in terms of results for training and learning. Hope that answers your question. Hope it made sense.

New Conversation Needed With Business Partners and Stakeholders

Brian Washburn: Yeah, it does make sense. And so, while the possibilities are there, do you have any thoughts, in terms of, how? How can somebody go about, you know, finding and getting to level three or level four, and kind of going beyond levels one and two? Because it’s possible, but it’s also hard work.

Kevin Yates: I’m happy to hear you say that because in my messaging and in my conversations I’m starting to do a bit more truth-telling. And you started that by saying it’s hard work. So, here’s what I’d like to say, Brian, measuring results for training and learning can be difficult, but it’s possible. 

Brian Washburn: Sure. 

Kevin Yates: So, I just want to be clear for our listeners in saying that there are days where I am literally scratching my head. There are days where I can not find the answer. There are days where the path just isn’t clear, right? But what I always go back to is the commitment that I have to finding the answer, because I don’t believe that difficult means impossible. I believe that difficult means difficult, right? 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Kevin Yates: So your question was, what can we do to start to focus more on showing results in the influence of training and learning on behavior and business outcomes? What I believe we have to start doing, Brian, is having a very different kind of conversation. We aren’t doing the best job as a profession, as an industry, at having what I like to call discovery-based conversations that give us insight into things like business goals, performance requirements to achieve those goals, identifying performance gaps, i.e. where is performance today compared to where it needs to be tomorrow in order to achieve business goals? We aren’t always having the conversations that give us insight into all the things that contribute to performance, other than training and learning, because training and learning is not a silver bullet and will never, ever, ever solve a problem by itself.

So, I recommend a very different kind of engagement and conversation with our business partners and stakeholders. So I’m about to do a shameless plug here. (CHUCKLING)

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Kevin Yates: In the L&D Detective Kit, which I created and which is free. That’s free dollars and zero cents. It is free and available on my website at kevinmyates.com.

In the L&D Detective Kit, there are nine questions that I’ve identified and those questions are called the Impact Opportunity Interview, right? Because that’s what detectives do. They interview people, right? So, with these nine questions you are able to identify where there’s an opportunity to design and create training and learning solutions that are laser-focused on outcomes for performance and outcomes for business goals. So, it’s these nine questions that we don’t normally ask that I am recommending become part of the conversation. These are going to help us get to a place where we can measurably show how our training and our learning solutions are changing behavior, influencing actions and how those changes in behavior and actions are ultimately influencing business goals.

So I think that what we have to do, Brian, and to bring it back to your question, what do we need to do to get to a point where our training and our learning solutions are measurably influencing performance behavior aspects of business goals? I think we’ve got to change that conversation. We’ve got to ask very different kinds of questions. And we’ve got to use the results of those conversations to inform decisions for how we build training and learning solutions that will have measurable results. Does that make sense?

Brian Washburn:  It makes perfect sense. And for those who are listening, if you are interested in finding the L&D Detective Kit, go ahead and take a look at the show notes. We’ll have a link to that as well. 

The last question that I have for you is for– and maybe the answer is a little bit, “well take a look at the L&D Detective Kit”, but let me ask this anyway. For people who are listening and they’re wanting to do their own detective work, what do you think is the single biggest barrier that they need to remove in order to get started on the path of being a more effective L&D detective?

What Is the Biggest Barrier to Being a More Effective L&D Detective?

Kevin Yates: That’s a good question, Brian, because when I try to narrow it down to the single biggest barrier, I mean, cause I got like three or four in my head. And so, I guess that I have to choose one. And I think that the biggest barrier is actually going to go back to the point that we just talked about. 

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.

Kevin Yates: The biggest barrier is that we are not planning proactively for what fulfillment of purpose for training and learning looks like. 

We are not planning proactively for what we’re going to use to measure results. What usually happens is our training and learning solution is designed, we release it out into the wild, and then we cross our fingers. We hope, and we pray that something happens. And I’m using air quotes when I say “something” because we aren’t exactly sure about what we want to happen because we haven’t planned for it. We haven’t had that very strategic kind of conversation that I talked about using those nine questions that I developed that get you to clarity around business goals, that get you to clarity around performance requirements that achieve those goals, that get you to clarity around performance gaps, differences from where people are today to where they need to be in order to achieve business goals.

We don’t talk about risk. We don’t talk about risk to performance. So again, there’s all these different types of discovery and questions that we need to get answered, so that we can become, you know, data de– rather, L&D detectives. So that we can build training and learning solutions that are measurably going to influence behavior, assets, and performance.

So I think that the biggest barrier, again, bringing it back to your question. I think that the biggest barrier is that we are stuck in an order-taking engagement with our business partners and stakeholders, where they come to us and they say “I’d like one classroom training, two virtual trainings, and a side order of e-learning”. And then we go off and we fulfill that order. We throw it over the fence and then we ask “what’s next?” So what I’m proposing we do is to have a very different kind of conversation where we are diving deep, where it is discovery-based, where we are uncovering business needs, business goals, and performance requirements to achieve those goals. 

Get to Know Kevin Yates

Brian Washburn: And it takes courage to say, “I hear your order. Can we stop for a second? And let’s, let’s dig in here a little bit to make sure that this is the right solution.” 

Kevin, before we wrap up here, I have a few speed round questions for our listeners to get to know you a little bit more. Are you ready for this? 

Kevin Yates: I think so, let’s go. (CHUCKLING)

Brain Washburn: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Kevin Yates: I think the best piece of advice I have ever received is for me to be me, to be authentic in my writing and my speaking, in all that I do. That advice was to not try to be anything else or anyone else, just be who you are. 

Brian Washburn: How about a piece of training tech that you cannot live without?

Kevin Yates: Oooh, training tech that, oh, this is going to sound a little old school. And I don’t even know if we would call it training tech, but I’ll say PowerPoint. (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it is– it’s training tech, right? 

Kevin Yates: Ok, ok.

Brian Washburn: It’s not new, right? But it’s definitely, and there are very few people that can live without it. And before we were recording this, we were saying how we’re both going to be presenting at ATD Ice at the end of August.

And so for anybody who wants to see Kevin and his mad PowerPoint skills checkout ATD Ice also.

The last question I have for you is what should people be listening to – podcast recommendations – or reading these days? 

Kevin Yates: So I really, really recommend the Looop Podcast by David James and maybe you can leave that information in the show notes. David James is out of the UK. He is an incredible leader in the industry and covers a wide array of topics across learning and development. And I have been on his podcast two or three times, but I also listened to it to glean and learn from so many other experts and leaders who are in the industry who have some awesome ideas and awesome insights. So, that is my top recommendation for podcasts. What was the follow up behind that? 

Brian Washburn: Is there anything that people should be reading? 

Kevin Yates: So, I would recommend a book called Measurement Demystified. And that book is by David Vance and Peggy Parsky

Brian Washburn: Yep. They’re fantastic. We had them on this podcast a little while back. 

Kevin Yates: Oh my goodness!

Brian Washburn: It’s such an important book. 

Kevin Yates: It is an incredibly important book and I really liked the title, “Measurement Demystified”. Of course, because I’m solving measurement mysteries, right? So how awesome is it that David and Peggy wrote a book called “Measurement Demystified”? So they are my measurement heroes and it’s an awesome book. 

Brian Washburn: And you mentioned that maybe some of the limitations of Kirkpatrick is it’s very linear, right? And even they said, “you know, Kirkpatrick’s important. And it’s not the only show in town.” 

Kevin Yates: That is correct.

Brian Washburn: And so, I think that what you’re talking about, what’s their book is so important when it comes to measurement.

Kevin Yates: I agree.

Brian Washburn: Well, Kevin Yates, who is the L&D Detective, also made the list of Growth Engineering’s list of Top 20 Most Influential People. Thank you so much for joining us.

Kevin Yates: Brian, this has been awesome and I loved the rapid fire. That was great. 

Brian Washburn: It has been awesome. And thank you everybody else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. If you would like to subscribe, you can find us on Spotify, on Apple, iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, go ahead and give us a like, and that’s how other people will find us. Until next time, happy training everyone.

Kevin Yates: Bye, everybody. 

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