How to Build a Learning and Innovation Performance Lab

Both leaders and learning practitioners can move from being learning producers/providers to strategic advisors.

Few industries can keep theory and practice as proximate and immediate as learning, and treating everyday needs as an opportunity to experiment can lead to better results and innovation.

The biggest challenges may not be cost, time or talent, but corporate preference for transactional rather than consultative support. With some initiative and determination, both leaders and learning practitioners can move from being learning producers/providers to strategic advisors.

Consider these 10 ideas on how to build a performance lab within a learning and development organization:

  1. Stay current with the industry. All professionals need inspiration — even a mad or highly creative scientist. The organic approach to staying current doesn’t work very well, however. Instead, use a systematic approach with a combination of push-and-pull resources, some that come automatically, as well as a select few requiring initiative. Be sure to follow the industry marketplace, professional organizations, conferences, blogs, Twitter feeds, etc.
  2. Keep a running list of ideas to try out. Some experiments will have to go into an annual plan and budget. These are the bigger ideas, and usually only one or two of these is feasible each year. But smaller ideas also can provide opportunities for innovation. Sometimes it the what approach as much as how it is done. Bigger experiments could be piloting a virtual reality simulation, implementing a new LMS, or implementing curriculum-wide adaptive assessments. Smaller experiments could be finally getting polling technology for the classroom, using a micro-game to train the sales team on new offerings.
  3. Track something now, and plan how to track more. A lab without measurement isn’t a very good Begin by working with what already exists. Metrics on completion and self-reported, learner satisfaction are better than nothing, but they are only a start. It’s worth learning what survey features are available in the current LMS to determine if other tools may be needed. Set a goal to do additional tracking with each project. Benchmark and measure changes in motivation, expertise and performance over the course of the learner experience, but also strive for more detailed marketing-style analytics if possible.
  4. Leverage technologies — what already exists and what is easily available. Sometimes, the technology itself becomes the innovation. Focusing on objectives highlights measurement rather than fulfillment and helps establish whether the technical innovation is worthwhile and cost effective. And, if new tech isn’t part of the annual budget, ingenuity with existing in-hou]se tech may be required. More than 70 percent of LMS features are rarely, if ever, used, and many are designed to support strategies like mobile, gamification and social learning.
  5. Be wary of standards and long-term commitments. It always seems like a good idea to put standards and policies in place. It is more efficient and can help with quality. It also can become an obstacle to innovation. If the standards dictate specific tools, UX guidelines and other parameters, designers and developers will play it safe and follow the guidelines. Think twice before committing to long-term approaches or strategies. The industry is changing so fast new approaches and technologies can be difficult to fully anticipate.
  6. Find a good lab partner. Identify a stakeholder with similar goals, someone who is willing to try something different. A good lab partner has lots of needs and is savvy enough to know that a conventional solution may have no advantage over a newer one. Partnership should be more than mere permission to experiment; a partner should be invested in the experiment’s design and its outcomes.
  7. Market the work and build a brand. Without marketing and communication, the momentum from success can be quickly lost. What sort of brand does learning have in the organization? Changing the brand and talking about creating a lab environment focused on outcomes may disrupt the status quo enough to make it easier to find future champions. Be sure to communicate outcomes to stakeholders in a timely way, so the context for the innovation is still relevant. Failures also should be communicated. Knowing what didn’t work and why builds stakeholder confidence that lessons are being learned.
  8. Get out of the content business. Being in the content business will bog down a lab; content updates don’t equate with innovation. Finding the right balance between supporting business units and enabling them to offload content responsibility can be difficult. By working toward a model where learning and development owns instructional strategy and approach while the business units own content expertise, the learning leader can set expectations. This declaration of purpose will raise the bar on instructional outcomes — not content production — and that will underscore the rationale necessary for further experimentation.
  9. Combine research with lab testing. A lot of research already has been done — individual research almost always benefits from contextualization. For example, there is no need to reinvent a UX for mobile learning when there is already excellent UX data available. That said, lab testing can promote a good mix of book smarts and street smarts. Sometimes the rationale for a pilot may be change management rather than technical data gathering. Also, be able to benchmark results against programs that may have published results online to give additional perspective and depth when evaluating results.
  10. Participate in the discussion. Research and thought work is rarely done in isolation. Imagine a novice arriving late for discussion that started long ago. The novice sits down and listens for a short while to better understand the context of the ongoing discussion. Before long, they realize they will get more out of the discussion by participating and contributing their own So it is with any discipline and community of practice. What channels will best enable sharing results, both inside and outside an organization? Lunch groups, online forums, conferences, etc., can provide a venue to share plans and results.

It’s nearly the end of the year, and many will be creating budgets and plans for the next year. It’s a great time to envision an innovation strategy — one that can fuel new ideas and outcomes on an ongoing basis.

Michael Noble is the chief learning officer and executive vice president at Allen Communication. To comment, email