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The Great British Fact-off: new Towards Maturity benchmark, straight from the oven

towards maturityJohn Helmer reviews ‘New Learning Agenda’, the latest benchmark report from Towards Maturity, and finds a good firm bake and a wealth of nutritious ingredients.

This is a good time for anniversaries. Just as LINE comes up to 25 years at the cutting edge of learning technologies, at the same time Towards Maturity, everybody’s favourite benchmarking practice for learning innovation, is celebrating its tenth birthday.


And here, with this report, is the cake: deep, rich and multi-layered.

Significant as this birthday is in itself, it also means that Towards Maturity is now sitting on ten years of data, which for a longitudinal study means that the value just keeps on increasing. Towards Maturity has marked this anniversary by looking back over that period to see how learning has developed, and by adding a learner perspective in the shape of its Learning Landscape study, surveying over 2,000 learners.

The results make a fascinating read, full of revelatory detail.

Some research reports are all icing. They provide little sustenance once you get beyond the headline results in their executive summaries. Sometimes an infographic covers it, and if we venture any further into the detail of the report it will be merely in order to check the hygiene of the processes (base, methodology, etc.) that support that headline result, and to make sure that a toothsome exterior is not concealing contradictory evidence in the detail that might have revealed another flavour of meaning entirely if differently presented.

The opposite is true with Towards Maturity’s benchmark report, now an annual fixture in the e-learning calendar. To extend the food metaphor, their executive summary – this year with its nine-point New Learning Agenda – begins to seem like a mere amuse-bouche once you get into the main meat of the report. On almost every page there is something nutritious to ingest about what is going on in organisations. This is not just a cake in fact, but a feast in multiple courses.

On page 41, for instance (and not before) we learn that mobile learning has experienced a dramatic and significant rise in uptake, from 47% to 70%, this year. As with other leading-edge technologies however, there is a lag in being able to gain the hoped-for benefits from adoption – something that becomes a tacit theme of the report – and mobile now faces a new array of barriers and blockers that will have to be worked through.

On more general trends, we learn that 56% of learning is currently delivered through face-to-face interventions or in the classroom – which, looking at the past trend, seems to indicate that we could well be reaching a point within these organisations where more learning is delivered on-line than offline. This would surely be a significant moment, and might not be too far in the future.

Some of what we read here confirms existing assumptions – we all knew compliance learning was widely seen as suitable for technology-enabled delivery, for instance.

However, other nuggets confront and even overturn expectations. Learners, it seems, are strongly in favour of courses still, although they equally strongly want to follow them at their own pace. Neither of these two facts about learners was necessarily obvious before we had the data. And although the fact that 31% of learning is delivered outside the remit of L&D might not actually shock us, it’s good to have an actual figure on which to focus our thinking.

Quantifying innovation

Looking back over the ten years of Towards Maturity’s existence, as this anniversary invites us to do, it is possible to see a shift to a more quantified phase of innovation marked by this year’s publication.

What I mean by that slightly opaque sentence is that in earlier years, one could see a marked disconnect between the guru-speak of the conference platform and what organisations like Towards Maturity and the CIPD reported about what was actually happening on the ground.

It was as if every year at the Learning Technologies conference, L&D would imbibe the wisdom about mobile learning, social learning, informal learning etc. and then go home and – to judge from the research – carry on churning out a lot of bog-standard training. What we can see very clearly in this year’s report is the rhetoric of past years at last resulting in change (albeit slow and slightly painful change), and the gap between theory and practice significantly narrowing.

It might well be the case that organisations are having trouble realizing the benefits of transformed learning, as we see evidenced on many pages here, but the new forms of learning are clearly present in the figures – meaning that it is possible at last to track with some specificity the progress of innovations whose presence in the mix was, previously, almost impossible even to detect.

Here’s another sign of change. Five years ago, CIPD seemed to think e-learning was a fad: this year its CEO wrote the foreword to Towards Maturity’s benchmark report.

The existence of an evidence base should mean less reliance, surely, on faith-based innovation – with its attendant evil, religious schism. 70:20:10, for instance, despite all its virtues as an idea, was always a talismanic rather than an empirical set of numbers. While it inspired some, others carped about its statistical underpinnings and viewed it as guru-speak hocus pocus. Now, thanks in large part to Towards Maturity, we have a more specific set of numbers emerging. And perhaps this will result in some more rational discussions about learning.


The New Learning Agenda

To say that some of the most interesting parts of this report are not even mentioned in the executive summary is not to say that it is badly summarized. With such a wealth and diversity of data to draw on, any selection is going to prove an incomplete representation of the whole. Also, different people will be interested in different things. The results on mobile learning alone are well worth a blog post on their own. Watch this space.

Neither does LINE have any quibble at all with the New Learning Agenda around which Towards Maturity has chosen to focus its analysis. Quite by coincidence, we have published a white paper only this month entitled The New Learning Organisation. Towards Maturity’s report puts real flesh on the bones of many of our conclusions in the white paper, and we would recommend reading the two documents as companion pieces.

Personally, I would also recommend a close look at the comparisons made in this report between what L&D says about the needs and capabilities of its learners, and what learners for their part say about L&D. Contrasting perspectives in this way can be extremely valuable in helping L&D to grow as a discipline – as is the benchmarking activity from which this report results.

People like me will be primarily interested in this document as a piece of research – but I am well aware that this is only one aspect of the wider benefit Towards Maturity as an organisation provides to the community of practitioners who actively engage in benchmarking their own organisations’ performance against good practice.


We work in a fast-moving industry and people are time-poor. Friends I discussed this report with have tended to say the same thing – ‘yes, it’s important; yes I downloaded it, but no I haven’t had a chance to read it yet’.

My advice to everyone in our industry would be, find the time and dive in. There is a lot here to reward close attention – and a lot that will no doubt spark interest and debate throughout the year as Towards Maturity and others drill down and explore the results of this valuable ongoing exercise still further.

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This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 15th November 2013.