Building a DEIB–Analytics Partnership: What DEIB & PA Teams Should Know to Partner Effectively

Posted on Tuesday, August 16th, 2022 at 6:00 AM    

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Understanding the need for a DEIB–PA partnership

Why focus on the partnership between DEIB and people analytics (PA) leaders?

In the summer and fall of 2020, companies made big promises to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in their organizations. At the time, one of our first questions was how organizations would show the progress made on those commitments. While DEIB metrics—measurements designed to understand DEIB—are the obvious answer, how to select, collect, use, and maintain those metrics isn’t so clear.

Thus, our research initiative on DEIB metrics and analytics was born. The first article in this series, “DEIB Analytics: A Guide to Why & How to Get Started,” provides leaders with a plan for how to begin using DEIB metrics and analytics. The second article, “DEIB Metrics: An Essential Guide,” provides definitions of what DEIB metrics are and how they can be used.

This third article in the series focuses on how DEIB and people analytics leaders should partner to identify, measure, maintain, and distribute those DEIB metrics.

Why write an article on this DEIB–PA partnership? For several reasons. As shown in Figure 1, the way that DEIB and PA leaders partner (or not, as in the early days) has changed substantially. PA is increasingly at the center of DEIB metrics efforts as organizations ensure that they have consistent data sets, analysis approaches, and contexts across the board. However, PA leaders shouldn’t do this work without the support of DEIB leaders—since DEIB brings an essential level of theory, nuance, and context to the data. By DEIB and PA leaders partnering, you can clearly and consistently:

  • Define terms
  • Identify consistent data sources and analysis approaches
  • Appropriately interpret data
  • Develop targeted and appropriate action steps
  • Create ongoing accountability

The combined expertise of DEIB and PA leaders enables you to make all these things happen.

“People Analytics leaders can help answer questions that DEIB leaders didn’t even know how to ask.”

—Hallie Bregman, Owner, The Bregman Group

PA is increasingly central to organizations' DEIB metrics efforts

Figure 1: The evolution of DEIB approaches over time | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Despite challenges, there is a known path to partnership

While you should (in theory) collaborate, it doesn’t always seem intuitive for PA and DEIB leaders to work together in practice. Why is this?

  • First, many DEIB and PA leaders have historically come from different perspectives, such as social justice for the former, and math or statistics for the latter.
  • Second, your individual responsibilities often have very different. Many DEIB leaders, for example, are charged with creating community and connection—and taking a data-driven approach may not be prominent on your radar. By contrast, PA leaders primarily focus on data and measurement; your only experience with DEIB may be through their participation in DEIB-related initiatives.
  • Third, your reporting relationships are often very This can result in a poor alignment of priorities and little insight into each other’s work, especially if either DEIB or PA is outside the HR reporting structure.
  • Finally, the data used by DEIB in the past hasn’t necessarily been the same as that used by PA—making it more difficult to create alignment on even simple reporting.

All of this culminates in the challenges outlined in Figure 2.

A look at the causes and effects of challenges to DEIB analytics work due to differences between PA and DEIB leaders

Figure 2: Differences between DEIB and PA leaders can impact the work | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Yet, our interviews revealed that common approaches could enable a strong DEIB / PA relationship to develop and thrive.

This article is designed to help DEIB and PA leaders better understand each other—and create a partnership that will enable you to succeed. We identify 3 components of an effective partnership in this article, outline the responsibilities of DEIB and PA leaders and provide specific examples of how to make this relationship more effective. We also provide a series of exhaustive checklists in the appendix to help you get started.

As always, our research is designed to accelerate good ideas within the people management field. Some of the concepts in this article may fit your organization’s unique circumstances, while others may not. Even better, some of these ideas may inspire new insights and approaches.

Whatever your reaction to the work, we’d love to hear about it. Please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] with any insights, questions, or feedback.

“One of the biggest challenges to a successful DEIB and people analytics partnership is that most DEIB leaders don’t have technical backgrounds. As a result, there is a disconnect between diversity leaders and people analytics leaders.”

—Sean Fay, Co-Founder, The Context Factory

What is DEIB?

Before we dive into the heart of this paper, let’s start by defining what we mean when we say diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (see Figure 3). Everyone in your organization should be on the same page when it comes to understanding DEIB—which starts with a single, common set of definitions.

What are DEIB metrics?

Building on the information on the previous page, defining what we mean when referring to DEIB metrics is essential. Figure 4 provides specific definitions for, as well as examples of, metrics for each DEIB area. Everyone in your organization should be on the same page when it comes to understanding DEIB. After introducing a single, common sets of definitions for DEIB, you then need to define and differentiate the metrics for each of the 4 aspects of DEIB.

Figure 4: RTR’s definitions for DEIB metrics | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Building a DEIB—PA partnership

3 practices for building a DEIBPA partnership

Our interviews with DEIB and PA leaders revealed several things they’re doing to build a successful partnership. We grouped our findings under 3 broad practices, with specific areas that leaders should consider when developing the partnership (see Figure 5).

  1. Understand your partners context. When starting a new relationship, you must understand how the other team operates. This involves becoming familiar with each other’s reporting and governance structures; specific concerns; priorities; and, responsibilities.\
  2. Form a DEIBanalytics partnership by aligning your objectives, responsibilities, and expectations. A partnership built on clarity around who is responsible for what, along with the overall goals, allows you to achieve greater alignment. This becomes easier with both of you supporting each other in your work, as well as among your teams and throughout the organization as a whole.
  3. Work together effectively within your organizational network. A successful DEIB–PA partnership is also a result of you both working together with other functions, teams, and leaders within the organization. Remember: You need to be strategic and tactical in building relationships with IT, business leaders, marketing, finance, and other functions to help ensure the success of your work and your partnership.

3 practices for DEIB and PA leaders to adopt to build a successful DEIB-PA partnership

Figure 5: 3 practices to build a DEIB–PA partnership | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Practice #1: Understanding your partner’s context

DEIB leader’s context: A primer

Before beginning any partnership, you must understand your partner’s circumstances. Let’s start with the DEIB leader’s context.

To start, you need to have a good understanding of the environments in which your DEIB leader works. For example, DEIB leaders typically have up to 5 different stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, communities, and shareholders.

Further, in many global organizations, DEIB leaders operate within a complex and demanding governance structure, an example of which is shown in Figure 6. All of these different groups require time with your DEIB leader and their teams. Note: HR—where PA teams often report—is just one of many constituents.

To help you understand your DEIB partner’s context, you should ask them the following:

  • To what extent is working with DEIB your full-time or part-time responsibility?
  • How big is the DEIB team?
  • To whom do you report? How strong is that relationship? What other reporting relationships exist?
  • What other resources (e.g., budget, indirect reports, external resources) do you have?
  • What experience do you have in collaborating with PA teams on DEIB data?

DEIB leaders operate within a complex and demanding governance structure

Figure 6: Example DEIB Governance Structure* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

PA leader’s context: A primer

Similar to DEIB, PA leaders also work in complicated situations.

As shown in Figure 7, PA leaders interface with various organizational stakeholders, while managing a team of technical experts. Their organizations also tend to have different governance structures (see Figure 8), impacting how they will work with DEIB.

To help you understand your PA partner’s context, you should ask them the following:

  • To whom do you report? What other reporting relationships exist?
  • What types of services and support does your team offer?
  • How is your team structured? What are the types of expertise of the people within that team?
  • How long has your team been doing their work?
  • What other resources (e.g., budget, indirect reports, external resources) do you have?
  • What experience do you have in collaborating with DEIB leaders on DEIB data?

“Our DEI group has great people, but I just don’t know if they are doing what we need right now and don’t know that they even have the skill set to do it. I don’t know how numbers-focused they are or how numbers-focused they should be. Right now, our DEI team is more like project management, focusing on things like benefits. They handle a lot of other stuff versus looking at data.”

—Global people analytics leader, international consumer packaged goods company

PA leaders interface with several organizational stakeholders while managing a team of external technical experts

Figure 7: Example PA team structure and stakeholders | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Organizations often have one of these two types of governance structures for PA—impacting how PA and DEIB interact

Figure 8: 2 common types of PA governance structures | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“The combination of qualitative and quantitative data is ideal, but at the end of the day there is nothing that data will tell us that we don’t already know as Black people. I know what my experience was as an African-American man who worked for 16 years in roles that weren’t related to improving diversity. It’s as much heart as head in this work.”

D&I Leader

Appreciate each other’s concerns

It’s one thing to understand each other’s contexts—but it’s another entirely to appreciate your partner’s concerns about working together.

Given the different silos DEIB and PA leaders often work within, it’s easy not to understand your partner and where they’re coming from. Based on our research, we’ve identified some common concerns each can have about the other (see Figure 9).

Be aware: This is a prime opportunity for you to lean in and address those concerns directly with your partner.

In some instances, it can require creating specific protocols or practices to address the concern, such as a standard expectation that new analysis will be reviewed by both partners. In other instances, it may need both groups to engage in certain situations together, such as when interpreting results with a senior HR business partner.

Some of these concerns will likely be addressed when you and your partner align on goals and objectives (we discuss this next). For other concerns, you both may need to acknowledge these exist, and then decide to address them on a case-by-case basis.

Some of the top concerns we heard from DEIB and PA leaders alike were regarding the work, as well as each other

Figure 9: Common concerns for DEIB & PA leaders | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Understanding your partner

One of the keys to building a good partnership is understanding the context within which your partner operates.

According to a PA leader we interviewed: PA leaders need to be aware that most DEIB leaders don’t have analytical training. Similarly, PA leaders often don’t understand the nuances and challenges associated with DEIB work. He recommends DEIB leaders be wary that the work can become all about the data—losing sight of the ultimate goal to drive DEIB—a potential danger if there’s no shared vision or established foundation for working together.

“ A lot of that came down to communications and getting clear on priorities and responsibilities.”

—PA Director, a global technology company

A similar sentiment was echoed by the global head of PA at a large tech company, according to whom the entire relationship boils down to communication. One of the things he did when he joined the company as PA Director was to identify why the existing partnership between the PA and D&I teams wasn’t working successfully. This was followed by trying to understand the goals they were trying to achieve together. Ultimately, the teams worked on:

  • Gaining clarity around priorities
  • Obtaining the help they needed to drive those priorities
  • Defining the specific responsibilities on both sides

“The biggest challenge to building a partnership between PA and DEIB is understanding what you expect from the partnership. A lot of DEIB leaders call on PA when something is broken or needs to be explained to the senior leadership. PA needs to build on this dependency and get to a point where we are able to work together from the start.”

Manager of PA & HR M&A, global logistics company

Some DEIB leaders, for their part, are often worried that the drive for statistical precision may overcome the intuition side of DEIB. Some of these leaders expressed concern that people in underrepresented populations might understate or purposely inflate information provided to focus groups because the level of trust is too low. In those instances, the data aren’t very helpful.

“Analysts must challenge the traditional minimum confident n, pushing themselves to look beyond the limited hard data. They don’t have to prove that the difference in performance ratings between blacks and whites is “statistically significant” to help managers understand the impact of bias in performance reviews … We may have to place a higher value on the experiences shared by 5 or 10 employees—or look more carefully at the descriptive data, such as head counts for underrepresented groups, and average job satisfaction scores cut by race and gender—to examine the impact of bias at a more granular level.”

Maxine Williams, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Meta

Practice #2: Forming a DEIB–PA partnership by aligning on objectives, responsibilities & expectations

Identifying clear objectives

From the start, perhaps the most crucial item for DEIB and PA teams is to shift their mindsets from being 2 separate teams to being 1 integrated alliance—the DEIB–PA partnership.

While there doesn’t have to be any sort of official creation of a team (or even the naming of one!), these 2 groups must:

  • Align around common objectives
  • Share insights and learnings freely
  • Think of themselves as each contributing equally to the DEIB metrics and analytics effort

To do this, start by ensuring everyone understands the organization’s people priorities for the year— and how those translate into DEIB and PA strategies and objectives.

From there, identify the common objectives and / or where enough overlap exists to articulate new common goals. Share this information broadly within and outside the partnership to enable a broader alignment of stakeholders.

While objectives aren’t always set or aligned at the beginning of the calendar year, it’s still essential for the PA and DEIB leaders to align—even if it means the 2 leaders discuss some hard questions about priorities.

Real-World Threads

Developing partnerships with new colleagues at a manufacturing organization

One PA leader we interviewed works for a leading electronics manufacturer. This leader shared with us how her company’s new D&I function hired an external consultant to look at the company’s people data—only to realize that it caused more questions than answers!

Switching into consulting mode, the leader and her team worked closely with the new D&I team to help them clarify their objectives, based on both the numbers and the organization's talent strategy. As this leader related to us,

Take a step back. You have limited resources. You've got limited time to play the diversity numbers games. First, get your numbers right. Then figure out:

  • Are we going after diversity?
  • Are we going after inclusion?
  • Are we going after equity?

What of these 3 things are you after because they are all very different.

The leader and their team then aligned their DEIB efforts around those clear objectives. This helped everyone understand what was and wasn’t possible.

A stray red thread …

One of the more interesting trends we observed through our interviews is that many PA and DEIB functions started within their organizations around the same time or within a few years of each other.

We discovered an unexpected benefit of this: The functions could “grow up together” or lend insights to each other around how to navigate being a new function within the same organization.

This situation creates a cohesion and openness between the 2 functions. It also means that they’re more forgiving of mistakes each function makes, as they’ve recently experienced similar missteps.

If your DEIB and PA functions are about the same age, then some questions to consider include:

  • How might my team share what we’ve learned about growing our influence within this organization?
  • How can we help the other function with prioritization and growth?
  • What can we learn from the other function about their journey to date?

Clarifying specific responsibilities

Another important part of the process of forming the DEIB–PA partnership is to clarify the specific responsibilities of the constituent teams. Figure 10 shows that some responsibilities belong to each group, while others are shared. Note: There may be more responsibilities than those outlined in Figure 11 and some of them could belong to different groups, depending on your organization’s structure.

After identifying the respective responsibilities, next you must put in place those practices or approaches that’ll codify how the shared responsibilities will be executed. For example, will the PA team first develop a list of data-related DEIB definitions and then run it by the DEIB team? And how will new data definitions be added?

Some of these process decisions may be determined by how the PA team supports the DEIB team (see the Uber Real-World Threads for an example). But many of these decisions won’t be, so you need a plan to make sure that all responsibilities are clearly delineated.

Breakdown of responsibilities for DEIB and PA teams individually, as well as those responsibilities shared by both teams

Figure 10: Responsibilities for DEIB & PA teams | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“But to discover the effects of bias in our organizations—and to identify complicating factors within groups, such as class and colorism among Latinos and others—we need to collect and analyze qualitative data, too. Intuition can help us find it. The diversity and HR folks described using their “spidey sense” or knowing there is “something in the water”—essentially, understanding that bias is probably a factor, even though PA doesn’t always prove causes and predict outcomes. Through conversations with employees—and sometimes through focus groups, if the resources are there and participants feel it’s safe to be honest—they reality-check what their instincts tell them, often drawing on their own experiences with bias.”

Maxine Williams, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Meta

Real-World Threads

Dividing responsibilities to unite on action

At Workday, the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO), Carin Taylor, understands that the PA team is uniquely positioned to help the organization in many ways.

It all starts with data and insights. Specifically, the PA team can help by providing insights that lead to actions, followed by outcome measurements to track if the actions result in changes.

For example, Taylor shared that—through data collected via their belonging index—the PA leader helped her identify that the female Asian population was having a different experience at the company, as compared with other populations. By having access to these insights, the CDO and her team could act on them.

By creating a unique Journey for this population, Taylor and her team could see the difference that the actions made through improvements in the belonging index.

Having done this, the diversity team could then go back and ask themselves what else they could do to improve the experience of their female Asian population—making it an iterative and, equally importantly, an intentional process.

Creating a service-level agreement between partners

As part of identifying relevant responsibilities, the PA leader should put in place a formal service level agreement (SLA) for how PA will work with DEIB. It’s important to align expectations on what and when the PA team can deliver specific services.

Typically, SLAs should include:

  • Services offerings. This describes the services provided, the conditions of the service availability (such as time window standards for different levels of service), responsibilities of each party, escalation procedures, and cost / service tradeoffs.
  • Management approaches. This defines measurement standards and methods, reporting processes, and contents and frequency.

Some SLAs also include delivery metrics that are reported monthly or quarterly. While this is more common with external vendors, it can be useful for internal relationships—by creating a clear set of standards for the metrics that both parties can refer to if they’re dissatisfied with how things are going.

“When I took on the role of people analytics leader, the feedback we got from our D&I team was that the partnership was not working. The SLA was broken and there was difficulty understanding what the priorities were. The relationship was damaged on both sides, and we had to work on fixing that. Fast forward 3 years and it is one of our strongest and most collaborative relationships. Our D&I team is doing leading-edge work and has played a major role in our culture change at the company, and this has been driven by some really incredible analytics and tools from the PA team. Both our CDO and I would agree that we could not have done it without the other.

—RJ Milnor, Global Head of People Analytics, Uber

Real-World Threads

How a global DEI director developed a solid partnership with PA

At a European multinational lighting corporation, the Global DEI director has built a partnership with the PA team founded on mutual respect and acknowledgment of the importance of the work. The

DEI team considers the PA team as the owner of the data—and the ones who can guide DEI on getting the most meaningful insights and usage from the data. In addition, the DEI team always publicly acknowledges PA’s contribution as DEI relies on their expertise in analyzing and synthesizing the data.

For their part, the DEI team acts as guide and coach for PA on such items as from where PA can get the relevant data and the value of integrating different data. The DEI team shares with PA the context around their request and how the data will be used.

Creating a system for ongoing alignment

DEIB and PA must have a system for ongoing alignment, particularly around requests made of the PA team.

In organizations with a centralized PA team, often a single location exists where requests are recorded before they are triaged to the relevant team or individual, according to the SLA.

“Alignment on the outcomes that you are trying to drive is one of the most critical components that make the partnership between people analytics and the Global Diversity & Inclusion team successful. Our CDO always appreciates insights the people analytics team provides.”

—Dawn Klinghoffer, Vice President of the HR Business Insights, Microsoft

In organizations for which a PA team member sits with the DEIB team, it’s still important to make requests transparent and formal. This enables broader insights into what analysis is being requested—and consistently requested analysis can be systematized. Additionally, the PA person can stay aligned to the broader goals, even if they don’t necessarily have complete visibility into them.

Whatever the exact scenario, PA and DEIB leaders should discuss requests and changes regularly. This communications flow between the partners supports the ongoing alignment of efforts to the highest priority work.

“You cannot get to decision-making without aligning on the basics first. It took 18 months to get us aligned on the definition of ‘headcount’. Unless there’s a single definition, we could not move to the next level of conversation.”

—Product Manager, a large technology company

Real-World Threads

Wayfair creates alignment between PA and DEIB

Wayfair—a U.S.-based e-commerce company that sells furniture and home goods online—was able to build a system to enable ongoing alignment between PA and DEIB.

The company hired a person for the role of DEI analytics at the same time as the first global head of DEI came onboard. This way, the company could ensure that the DEI strategy was data-driven from the start—and would underpin everything around DEI with deep insights.

Real-World Threads

Partnering to build a thoughtful approach

Having set ambitious goals for 2019-2020, Snap Inc., the parent company of Snapchat noticed that representation numbers stayed largely the same with underrepresented U.S racial groups in leadership roles. There was only a marginal increase from 13.1% to 13.6% among leadership roles. In fact, other areas, such as the number of Asian employees in leadership roles, saw a decrease in representation from 16.5% to 14.3%.

To improve its DEI numbers, the company began capturing an inclusive dataset from its team members.

The company leads with the belief that DEI needs to be weaved into everything it does. Additionally, Snap leaders see data as an essential tool to drive its DEI goals in the right direction.

However, with data collection come data privacy and security challenges, especially when gathering sensitive employee data. The company realized it needs to be thoughtful about the data it collects depending on the different contexts in varied geolocations.

The PA team partners with the DEI team, along with external cultural experts, to understand what demographic categories or groups they should consider in countries outside the U.S. That way they can ensure they’re being thoughtful when describing an “underrepresented” group, that’s actually underrepresented in that jurisdiction. Snap also includes information about LGBTQ+ status and first- generation college graduates in the Diversity Annual Report; previously these questions had only been asked in the U.S. The company recently started sending out the survey to those in Canada and Australia.

Due to the access to DEI insights, the company has built additional plans and created greater empathy around the work. It has also helped them to drive accountability mechanisms to create a more inclusive and diverse organization.

“There is a little bit of difficulty with collecting information in specific countries, and we have to be really careful about which questions we ask. We report on gender globally, but we report on race/ ethnicity only in the U.S. at this time. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve kind of slowly started to add on additional countries where we’re collecting that information, because we want to make sure that we get it right.”

Kami Tillman, Head of Data Science and People Analytics, Snap

Supporting each other publicly

Another critical component of the DEIB–PA partnership: The 2 groups publicly support each other.

DEIB metrics are sensitive and subject to scrutiny. So, if DEIB and PA teams don’t present a united front with the data and insights, then it’ll be even harder to get other leaders to act on those metrics.

Some of the ways in which the DEIB–PA partners can communicate their cohesiveness to the organization at-large include:

  • Presenting together at large-scale events (e.g., town halls and / or business unit-specific meetings)
  • Writing internal articles, blogs, and / or participating in videos on DEIB metrics and progress on them
  • Writing external articles and / or presenting together at conferences
  • Collaborating on discussions with senior HRBPs and business leaders

Remember: DEIB and PA leaders should defer to their partner when questions are outside their expertise and / or responsibilities. In other words, both partners must have a clear understanding of each other’s strengths in order to be (and appear) collaborative.

Real-World Threads

Communication is key to the success shared by the DEIB and PA teams at Workday

In the beginning, even though the PA team members at Workday were involved in the DEIB work, they didn’t see themselves as the owner of the work. Over time, this changed.

The CDO is responsible for putting in place the VIBE (value, inclusion, belonging, and equity) strategy. The PA leader helps by providing the data, and measuring inclusion, belonging, and equity.

The back and forth between these 2 leaders has created a dialogue that allows them to explore ideas—so they are clear about where they currently are with the VIBE strategy and what progress they need to make. As a result, this successful partnership between DEIB and PA is less about the strategy they put in place—and more about the conversations and dialogues that allow them to explore ideas that make a real difference.

As Carin Taylor, Chief Diversity Officer for Workday, explained,

“Earlier it was all about the data, instead of the insights. The insights are so critical to be able to pull out stories and key points from the data to understand how we need to think about this. Our people analytics leader does a phenomenal job of thinking about the insights and piecing together information, which helps me be a better business leader.”

Real-World Threads

Aligning on priorities and creating a plan for working together

In the past, the PA team at Uber was built on a model that included a D&I-dedicated analyst as part of the team. Key challenges with that model included:

  • The team couldn’t prioritize requests across the entire enterprise
  • The work was tied to the capabilities of one individual

The company then adopted a new model by which the PA team is organized, based on 3 pillars (see Figure 11):

  1. Data & Product Strategy team handles information governance and product building
  2. People Science team comprises industrial organization (IO) psychologists and data scientists
  3. Decisions Science team acts as consultants / business partners and focuses on problem identification

The new model allows the D&I and PA teams to collaborate more effectively and efficiently. Once the PA team understands the priorities of the D&I team, they can leverage the 3 pillars to assign the appropriate resources to the work and to parallel process requests—which they couldn’t do with a dedicated analyst.

While the Data & Product Strategy team helps the D&I leader gather the correct data and insights, the other 2 teams work to ensure that the insights are turned into actions.

Another reason the DEIB and PA teams are aligned on their priorities: They’re part of the same people leadership team and report to the CHRO. This allows them to connect frequently and gives them visibility into each other’s work. The PA leader and Chief Diversity Officer work together to develop priorities by first identifying the org’s overall goals.

All of these factors have played a significant role in building a solid partnership between the two teams.

The new PA model enables better alignment of PA with the D&I function, allowing both to work together more smoothly and effectively

Figure 11: Old and new PA models from Uber | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Practice #3: Working together effectively within your organizational network

A complicated web of relationships

While it’s incredibly important for DEIB and PA leaders to be aligned and work together effectively, they must also work well with the rest of the organization.

As shown in Figure 12 at least 8 different types of organizational stakeholders could be involved in the work of the DEIB and PA teams. Given this significant number of stakeholders, DEIB and PA leaders must be aligned to reduce confusion and conflict.

From our interviews, we have prioritized these relationships based on the impact and frequency with which DEIB and PA leaders need to work with these groups. Roughly speaking, we have put them into the following categories:

  • Top priority. HR, and legal & privacy teams
  • Critical priority. Business leaders, IT / centralized data teams, finance, and compensation
  • Important priority. Corporate social responsibility, external communications and marketing, and external vendors and consultants

For the rest of this section, we discuss these different stakeholders and why they’re critical. We also outline how DEIB and PA teams can work with each group.

There are various stakeholders for DEIB and PA at differing levels of priority as represented by each stakeholder group

Figure 12: DEIB & PA stakeholders | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Top-priority relationship: HR

The most crucial relationship that PA and DEIB partners must navigate is with the broader HR function (see Figures 13 and 14).

When PA and DEIB both report to HR, the partnership is much easier—because both functions are aligned with HR’s overall goals.

Further, leaders of both functions have an opportunity to align themselves, so they can achieve those common objectives.

Conversely, it’s far more difficult when PA and DEIB report into different functions—because it becomes much easier to lack upward and horizontal alignment (between DEIB and PA).

In this situation, there’s a significant onus on the PA and DEIB leaders to understand the overall business and talent strategies—and then align their teams’ work to those broader strategies as well as to each other.

Regardless of the reporting relationship, DEIB and PA leaders must understand:

  • The overall business and talent strategies
  • The CHRO’s responsibilities when it comes to DEIB
  • The needs of business units and functions that result from working with individual HRBPs
  • How to collaborate with COE leads to integrate DEIB metrics into their work on talent practices
  • What support is needed from HRIT to access critical people data
  • How DEIB metrics and analytics can help HR operations teams be more effective

When it comes to driving the relationship with HR, both PA and DEIB teams should take equal responsibility.

PA teams should be responsible for identifying the metrics and processing requests, while DEIB should take the lead in influencing talent strategy and practices.

More than 80% of chief diversity officers (CDOs) report either directly to the CEO or CHRO

Figure 13: In the organization, to whom do CDOs report? | Source: DiversityInc. Best Practices, 2021.

More than 75% of PA leaders report one level below the organization’s CHRO

Figure 14: In the organization, to whom do PA leaders report? | Source: Insight222 Limited, 2021.

Top-priority relationship: Legal & privacy teams

Another critical relationship for the DEIB–PA partners is with the legal and privacy teams, a relationship for which they have equal responsibility in building and maintaining. It’s essential to collaborate early and often with these groups, especially given the sensitivity of DEIB data and variances of privacy laws among different countries.

Based on our interviews, we identified 3 different archetypes of legal and privacy teams (see Figure 15):

  1. The less said, the better.” These leaders see their job as eliminating—as much as possible—any potential risk to the business. An effective way to get them to move on DEIB metrics and analytics is to work with senior business leaders to help these leaders see why this analytical work must be done.
  2. I say no until you convince me to say yes. These leaders see their job as shutting down any bad or poorly thought- through However, once DEIB and PA leaders develop a clear data collection, analysis, and distribution plan—with a clear business objective, these leaders can be swayed to support DEIB metrics and analytics plans.
  3. I want to help you do this work safely. These leaders are the ones that all DEIB and PA leaders hope they have. They understand the need for this work, may already have some experience doing it, and collaborate and brainstorm on safe, legal, appropriate solutions.

For example, while PA takes the lead in ensuring appropriate data are collected and shared, DEIB might educate and provide broader context around why it’s important to share the information

We’ve discovered 3 common types of legal and privacy teams that DEIB and PA teams find themselves working with in their organization

Figure 15: 3 common types of organizational legal & privacy teams | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Critical relationship: Business leaders

While the DEIB and PA team may be responsible for driving the quantification and interpretation of DEIB metrics and analysis—business leaders must be involved in this work since they (see Figure 16):

  • Influence the practices that impact DEIB
  • Need to understand the underlying logic of how DEIB is measured so they can encourage it
  • May be held accountable for meeting DEIB metrics
  • May be fearful of being held responsible for meeting DEIB metrics
Given this situation, DEIB and PA leaders must work with business leaders to understand their perspectives on the current state of DEIB in their part of the business.

Some business leaders are very interested in making progress on DEIB metrics, while it can be a bit of a “check-the-box” activity for others.

Understanding business leaders’ levels of interest in DEIB metrics is essential, so that the analysis and insights can be tailored to what they care about most. Some of our interviewees worked with those more passionate business leaders and developed truly insightful metrics that business leaders used to drive significant changes.

The point is: The person with the strongest relationship, who is most likely to get the business leader's attention, should lead the conversation.

When determining which team (DEIB or PA) will take the lead with business leaders, the decision will be very organization- and leader-specific. In some organizations, PA has the strong data-focused relationship with the business leaders, so bringing DEIB data into the conversation will be very natural. In others, the DEIB leader has a stronger relationship, so it might make sense for the DEIB leader to begin the conversation and then pull in the PA leader when necessary.

In other situations, it may be that the DEIB and PA leaders work with the senior HRBP, as that person has the relationship with the business leader regarding all “people topics.”

“It’s unlikely that a C-suite leader will come to people analytics with a tactical question. Most often, it’s a strategic question based on a business need. It is up to us to translate that into a research question, find out the answer through data, and translate it back into a data-driven story that provides clarity on the larger strategic issue.”

—Jeremy Shapiro, Executive Director, Workforce Analytics, Merck

Several reasons exist as to why business leaders are integral to DEIB analytics

Figure 16: 4 reasons why business leaders are important to DEIB analytics | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“There is often a hesitation or reluctance on the leader’s part to open their doors to analytics due to fear that it might reveal some unpleasant findings about their business, which makes it hard to establish a good working relationship.”

—People analytics practitioner

Critical relationship: Compensation & finance

Let’s talk first about the compensation team, as this relationship especially matters when looking at pay equity issues.

Pay equity is one of the more approachable DEIB topics to address—meaning that it’s something the centralized organization can influence directly—and different geographies are enacting laws that require pay equity transparency.

Therefore, many organizations address it relatively early in their DEIB journey.

If DEIB or PA already has a working relationship with the compensation team, then it makes sense for that team to lead.

In terms of the DEIB and PA teams’ relationship with the compensation team, a few critical items of focus include:

  • Ensuring the compensation data and other DEIB data are consistent
  • Being able to put the results of the pay equity analysis into the context of other DEIB metrics and priorities provided to business leaders
  • Collaborating with business leaders, compensation, and finance to determine the highest priority compensation adjustment actions
  • Working with compensation and finance to identify and align any metrics that’ll be used in compensation decisions

Again, which group (DEIB or PA) leads the relationship with the compensation team will depend on the existing relationships in place.

Turning to the relationship with finance, it’s almost a certainty that the PA team will have experience working with that team due to their other responsibilities.

However, if neither has such a relationship in place, then it makes sense for PA to lead the discussions—as PA leaders are often already well-versed in compensation technicalities and will probably be able to get to the appropriate analysis faster.

“ We were reporting to the C-suite when the CFO made it clear that they did not see any value in our report. Once we walked them through it, the CFO was amazed at the insights and told us that it was a rich discussion. Once we were able to show the value, they became highly engaged in our work.”

—People analytics practitioner

In this vein, the PA team should (with input from the DEIB team) focus on actions, such as:

  • Aligning on critical data sources and ensuring data / analysis consistency
  • Showing the financial impact of DEIB when needed
  • Putting a monetary value on DEIB events / initiatives

“For our CFO, is gold. He is using people analytics to understand what’s on the horizon and if they can forecast better, based on the human capital data. We actually built a CFO dashboard for him. It’s a great relationship to have because he does not see people analytics as a service function. It’s very much a partnership of equals.”

—Head of global people analytics, multinational consumer products company

Critical relationship: Centralized IT & data operations

Centralized IT and data operations teams are important to the DEIB–PA partnership because they can help:

  • Access centrally managed technologies and data
  • Identify and provide access to novel data sources
  • Troubleshoot technical or data-related difficulties
  • Share novel data collection, analysis, and distribution practices

From our interviewees, we heard 2 common challenges when it comes to working with centralized IT and data operations (see Figure 17):

  • Trust. Many organizations haven’t historically had a data-led PA or DEIB function, so they’re not accustomed to accommodating requests for access to centralized systems or data. Therefore, requests for support are usually met with suspicion.
    Typically, organizations get around this by leveraging senior leaders who can provide a rationale, or by showing the type of work done in the past and how it was used. In addition, providing information on data privacy and security often help.
  • Time. Many IT projects were put on hold during the pandemic, and centralized IT and data teams were overwhelmed. Teams have been managing this by reducing project scopes to the most necessary items, finding other resources who could do some of the work, and / or leveraging senior leaders to help with the reprioritization of work.

PA leaders should take the lead—with DEIB’s input—when it comes to driving the relationship with IT and data operations.

The PA team should:

  • Share information on how data and technologies will be used to reduce hesitations and fear about data sharing
  • Showcase the broader impact of the work on the business overall
  • Find additional resources when IT lacks the bandwidth

Time and trust are 2 common challenges experienced by DEIB and PA teams when working with IT and data operations

Figure 17: 2 common challenges in working with IT & data operations |Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Important relationship: Corporate social responsibility

The next set of relationships concerns how DEIB metrics and analytics are shared outside the organization. Many companies include DEIB efforts within their corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. As a result, communication with that team on appropriate DEIB metrics—some of which may end up in an annual CSR report—is essential.

But there’s more to it than that. As noted in this article by Dr. Rohini Anand, the well-known former Chief Diversity Officer of Sodexo, DEIB and CSR are often working toward similar goals but from different perspectives:

“… We sometimes approach the same goal from different starting points. Take gender equality. We both want it, but D&I might focus more on recruitment and leadership, whereas CSR might focus more on community empowerment. These can seem like different goals, but they are, in fact, merely different approaches to the same end: improving quality of life.”

To that end, it’s essential for DEIB to take the lead in driving this relationship to understand CSR’s goals, and to align the DEIB metrics and analytics approach to support those goals as much as possible. For many organizations, this relationship will likely build over time, with some initial, relatively “easy” shared metrics at the beginning and more complex metrics with time.

The point is to work across organizational silos and to align on a standard set of measurements and approaches. Without this, CSR and DEIB will look poorly in front of business leaders.

The PA team can serve as a subject matter expert (SME) on the appropriate metrics that’ll serve the purpose of both CSR and DEIB. Also, as the relationship between DEIB and CSR matures, PA can be brought in to identify the next-level or more complex metrics, and how they should be shared.

Real-World Threads

Portland Trail Blazers leverage CSR team to inform community engagement efforts

An example of a successful partnership with the CSR function comes from Portland’s professional basketball team, the Trail Blazers. In 2016, the team’s leadership made a commitment to advance DEI within and outside its organization. The team’s leadership understands that DEI should inform not only their internal culture-building initiatives, but also their external community engagement efforts.

To that end, the organization inaugurated an Equity Team that, over the course of 18 months, convened 7 executive-led strategic planning committees to craft a new approach to their DEI and CSR initiatives.

“Both D&I and CSR, fundamentally, are about reaching out to disenfranchised communities, bringing new market insights to the table, and driving collaborative solutions to business challenges. They are also both skilled at helping the business to understand new, broader definitions of success that will be relevant for the evolving marketplace.”

Dr. Rohini Anand, former Chief Diversity Officer, Sodexo

Important relationship: External communications & marketing

While your organization’s CSR team may share some DEIB metrics externally, it’s fairly certain that your external communications and marketing teams will be very involved in any external communication efforts (see Figure 18).

Some organizations release a dedicated DEIB report that needs to be developed in conjunction with the external communications and marketing teams. Others involve the external communications and / or marketing teams when communicating about DEIB metrics in financial reports or other situations.

While these are very pragmatic ways the DEIB–PA partnership may well engage with the external communications and marketing teams, much more possibility exists in this relationship. These teams:

  • Are experts in understanding how to tell stories effectively—meaning they could be beneficial to the DEIB and PA teams as they work to creditably tell stories based on data
  • Can share resources that might be useful in communicating about DEIB, such as this Diversity Style Guide
  • Can also give some larger context to other critical messaging, both within and outside the organization

The relationships with external communications and marketing can provide DEIB and PA with opportunities to tie some of their own messaging to these more prominent topics. This insight can also serve as a starting point for identifying new data types and analyses that the DEIB and PA teams might want to use in the future.

DEIB should take the lead in working with external communications and marketing teams.

As the “natural” owner of DEIB work, DEIB leaders are responsible for crafting the story and messaging around the insights and how they tie to the broader business goals. On their end, PA leaders should help by:

  • Providing DEIB leaders with the insights that shed light on the progress of the organizational goals
  • Ensuring that the metrics are interpreted and reported accurately
  • Answering questions that arise from the external communications and marketing teams

5 ways external communications and marketing teams can help DEIB and PA teams in their work

Figure 18: Examples of how external communications & marketing can help DEIB and PA teams | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Important relationship: External vendors & consultants

Many organizations turn to external vendors and consultants when they need:

  • An external review / perspective on DEIB metrics
  • A separate party to do data collection and analysis so as to maintain privacy / independence
  • More bandwidth to complete data collection / analysis / recommendations
  • Specific expertise / insights

It’s essential to consider whether the external vendor / consultant relationship will be short- or long-term in nature. Due to the sensitivity of the data, this is especially important to consider with DEIB metrics and analytics.

  • Shorter-term contracts may mean the DEIB and PA teams limit the data shared to reduce some of the risks to the
  • Longer-term relationships may require some additional data privacy and security

In addition, it’s crucial to get the most relevant internal teams aligned on the reason for bringing in the external vendor / consultant and the scope of that party’s work. We’ve heard of way too many instances in which DEIB practitioners brought in external consultants to do DEIB metrics and analytics work without any consultation with the PA team. As a result, the work effort was wasted because the external team lacked adequate data or nuance to interpret the data in a meaningful way.

While DEIB leaders might often find themselves leading the work when it comes to working with external vendors and consultants, DEIB and PA leaders must work together and take equal responsibility.

Given the long-term nature of identifying, measuring, and distributing DEIB metrics, you must have everyone aligned on the work being done and who’s doing it. This is one of the areas in which it makes sense to go slow in moving forward.

“The DEI team hired a vendor for reporting. The team would send the vendor our SAP data and the vendor would send it back to us in some kind of a format that would be used for reporting. Looking back we can see that the numbers and reporting were very inconsistent.”

—Global People Analytics Director, a multinational consumer products company

You should partner closely to make sure:

  • The services and technology offered are truly needed, and aren’t already being done in-house or by previously purchased tech
  • A plan is in place as to how the data and findings from the consultant will be used
  • Clarity exists around who is ultimately responsible for driving and implementing the recommendations and actions that come out of the review and analysis

“I see people analytics departments outsourcing DEIB analysis to external consultants, who will run multivariate regression models and provide independent assurance. The outcome often shows no significant bias. Well, of course, because there is no policy to pay people differently! I wish DEIB leaders would analyze potential bias in all the moments that matter. Then they will really see what’s happening.”

—Dirk Jonker, CEO and Founder, Crunchr

Next steps

Getting started

Now that you’re familiar with the practices required for a successful DEIB–PA partnership, what should you do next?

The 3 practices should be embedded as part of the broader strategy for both PA and DEIB teams. Here, we offer a few steps that you—as a DEIB or PA leader—can start taking immediately.

Step 1: Do a quick audit of where things currently stand between DEIB and PA with the organization. Some of the questions to help you do this include:

  • Is there a formal partnership between DEIB and PA within the organization?
  • Does leadership support the relationship if it exists?
  • How often do DEIB and PA leaders interact or meet?
  • Does senior leadership understand and value PA's role in DEIB?

Step 2: Identify the gaps and build on the practices. Determine the areas in the partnership that need attention and which of the 3 practices discussed earlier should be leveraged. Think through the following questions:

  • Do DEIB and PA leaders have a clear line of sight into each other's work?
  • Is there clarity between the 2 teams regarding responsibilities and expectations?
  • Do you have in place an intake process for DEIB requests, data sharing, and communication of insights?
  • What other relationships do DEIB and PA teams need to leverage within the organization?

Step 3: Communicate and share broadly the work you are doing together. Sharing your successes and lessons learned within the partnership is essential to supporting each other. Think through the following questions to understand how you can get started:

  • How are we currently sharing our work with others in the organization?
  • Is our senior leadership aware of our work's impact on the organization?
  • Are there external opportunities we can leverage to showcase our work?
  • Are we leveraging resources (e.g., community groups and other industry leaders) to get feedback and insights on what else we should be doing?

We also provide a series of exhaustive checklists for each of the 3 practices in the appendix. Use them as a "grab-and-go" list of actions to start building your own successful DEIB analytics partnership.

“There are people who partner with people analytics reluctantly because they need data, and then there are others who want to work with them and use their brain. Diversity leaders should strive to be in the latter group because only then will they gain the insights needed to be successful in their work.”
Chief Diversity Officer, a global retail company

Final thoughts

Over the last 2+ years, many events, trends, and changes have thrust DEIB and PA into the spotlight. While they may be on the stage together, these 2 teams have very different backgrounds and don’t always have the “chemistry” they need. Yet, they must play their respective parts to help organizations through these unprecedented times.

We discovered from our research 3 critical practices which DEIB and PA teams should do to build the kind of partnership that will allow them both to flourish:

  • Understand each other’s contexts
  • Build a plan for partnering
  • Manage the complex organizational network together

By doing these things, PA and DEIB leaders can partner effectively to deliver high-quality DEIB metrics and analysis to their organizations. This partnership will enable organizations to make higher-quality, data-backed decisions that ultimately impact millions of lives.

We strongly encourage you to complement this study with our previous study on DEIB analytics: DEIB Analytics: A Guide to Why & How to Get Started and DEIB Metrics: An Essential Guide. If you still have questions, please reach out. We love to learn from you.

Note: for Appendices, including research methodology, and checklists for getting started please download the PDF report.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging: Designing for a Post-Pandemic World

Posted on Tuesday, July 12th, 2022 at 6:00 AM    

Download This Research[/button]

Organizations still have a long way to go when it comes to DEIB

It's been more than 2 years since the murder of George Floyd. Two years since business leaders published statements promising to address the systemic inequities within their organizations. Two years since organizations began hiring new diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) leaders, reexamining practices, and investing in new programs and systems. So, what results have we seen?

To date, the results of these actions haven't been great. According to the Edelman Trust Index, most employees under age 54 don't believe that companies are living up to the promises made to address racism within their organization. Further, trust in employers to respond appropriately to systemic racism and racial injustice has declined. As shown in Figure 1, this is particularly the case in populations impacted by racially motivated events, such as the mass shootings of Asians in Atlanta, GA in March 2021, Taiwanese in Laguna Woods, CA in May of 2022, and of Blacks in Buffalo, NY also in May of 2022.

Figure 1: Perceptions of trust among U.S. employees toward their employers | Source: Edelman, 2022.

Though issues of race are the most prevalent at the moment, they're not the only areas for which employees are dissatisfied with their employers’ responses. For example, data from PwC shows that 80% of employees believe their organizations don’t gather and analyze data on compensation, performance, hiring, and promotions discrepancies. Further, nearly 40% of total respondents from a survey of 1,543 workers, the majority of whom identify as Black, Hispanic / Latinx, Asian, female, and LGBTQIA, believe their company’s commitment to DEI is likely to drift in the future.

Even CEOs recognize the problem: According to Deloitte, 41% believe there's a lack of trust around DEI in their organizations.

“The taken-for-granted assumption that one could just get a position of leadership and then behave however one chooses to and get away with it…is not really panning out. The context has changed.”

Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor, University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Employees still expect organizations to act

Despite employees’ dissatisfaction with their organizations’ progress over the last few years, they still expect companies to take action on issues of racial injustice. Americans still trust their employers more than any other type of institution to do what's “right” when it comes to racism. Similarly, 66% of Americans think businesses should act on racial injustice issues, while 68% believe people should be able to discuss the topic at work (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Expectations of employers by employees on racial injustice issues | Source: Paradigm, 2021.

Further, 58% of the U.S. general population indicate that an inclusive work culture with a strong and well-supported diversity program is critically important to attract and retain them. Further, in organizations that have made “a lot” of progress in addressing racism and racial inequities in the workforce, employees have higher levels of loyalty, employer advocacy, and commitment.

The questions this study answers

Given everything that's happened in the last few years, we took a step back and asked a few critical questions:

  • What are some of the fundamental shifts we’ve seen related to talent—and how will this impact diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)?
  • What is a holistic way leaders can think about their DEIB efforts, thereby more effectively defining and integrating their DEIB strategy with other activities?
  • What trends do we see moving forward that could influence organizations' 2022-2023 strategy?

This study is based on a review of more than 70 articles, and interviews with 10 DEIB leaders and 20 HR leaders.

RedThread's definitions of terms: DEIB

Fundamental shifts

The earthquake beneath the talent landscape is shaking up DEIB expectations

Over the last few years, we’ve seen some tectonic-level shifts in the talent landscape. These include:

  • Change in power dynamics in favor of Over the last year, we’ve seen the Great Resignation as well as a massive rebellion when it comes to employees returning to the office (office occupancy rates have plateaued at 43%). Further, the gig marketplace and alternative work arrangements are increasingly attractive to employees, with many opting for those roles in lieu of a corporate job.
  • Demand for skills that are in under-supply results in a greater focus on retention, promotion, and talent The last few years’ whiplash-like changes in the business environment have highlighted organizations’ talent deficiencies. Leaders realize they don’t have the skills they need in their existing workforce—and they can't fill their organizations’ demand for skills from the external talent market. Therefore, leaders are focusing on retaining employees and developing them with the skills the company needs.
  • Rising importance of human capital For companies, more and more of their business is people-driven, resulting in investors taking a growing interest in human capital metrics. The SEC, for example, is now requiring public companies to report on those metrics—including diversity metrics—in their financial reports.

As a result of these major shifts, leaders could not simply make their 2020 DEIB promises and move on to the next thing (see Figure 3). Instead, they see a situation in which:

  • Employees feel empowered to demand change with Nearly 60% of those aged 35-54 and 70% of those aged 18-34 have advocated or acted against racism—and they're carrying those expectations of action into their workplaces. Another 82% of employees expect CEOs to do something to address systemic racism and racial injustice.
  • Leaders must respond to employees demands to make progress on It’s clear that leaders must address racism or risk losing employees. While 40% of employees would consider leaving their company if they don’t trust it to fulfill its DEI commitments, 56% would not recommend their company as a place to work.
  • The public is monitoring progress on With the current SEC requirements to disclose diversity data—and more requirements coming soon—investors, employees, and the media are all holding leaders accountable for moving the needle on DEIB metrics. While some organizations have shared minimal diversity data, it’s unlikely that scenario will remain tenable.

Figure 3: Leaders need to follow through on their DEIB promises | Source: Edelman 2022, Deloitte 2022, Just Capital 2021.

“A role that was once focused on race and gender has grown in complexity and inclusion of individuals spanning military status, special needs, LGBTQ, generations, and more. What was once a focus on workforce (people) now includes workplace (culture) and marketplace (business).”

—Jackson Lee Davis IV, Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, MassMutual

Real-World Threads

Gentech and Chipotle make DEIB everyone’s job

DEIB isn't the sole responsibility of human resources. In 2019, Genentech CEO Alexander Hardy created the role of chief diversity officer (CDO) and decided it should report directly to him. Additionally, managers of departments are required to complete D&I action plans that are then shared with their teams and, in some cases, the entire company on its intranet. The departmental action plans help create ownership so that it's not just the CDO’s responsibility to drive D&I.

These steps have allowed the company to expand its commitment to D&I beyond hiring and retention, and into every aspect of its business and company culture.

Similarly, at Chipotle the diversity strategy is not seen as a responsibility of one department. The company’s program includes mentorship, virtual roundtables, and quarterly training. For the company, the most effective programming is an ongoing cadence of events that genuinely engage its workforce and features a diverse group of individuals from various departments. It believes that when employees make real connections, it helps cultivate an environment where they can thrive and pursue their passions with like-minded coworkers.

“Prior to the creation of the Chief Diversity Office, our D&I efforts sat within HR. Alexander understood the need for an enterprisewide mindset and a seat at the decision-making table for us to think bolder than representation—and truly advance equity within Genentech’s business.”

Quita Highsmith, Chief Diversity Officer, Genentech

A shift within a shift: The rising importance of purpose

An underlying theme of the shift in power dynamics toward employees is their greater desire to align their personal purpose with the purpose of their respective organizations. According to Gartner, as of January 2022, within the U.S. employee population:

  • 52% question the purpose of their day-to-day job
  • 56% want to contribute more to society
  • 65% are rethinking the place work should have in their lives

Leaders increasingly understand the need to identify, articulate, and act on their organization’s purpose. As identified in Figure 4, an organization's purpose is a clear and concise statement that inspires people to deliver value to multiple stakeholders.

An organizational purpose that considers multiple stakeholders—also known as stakeholder capitalism—is not some new-fangled idea that some fringe companies are doing. In fact, the Business Roundtable, an organization comprised of the largest companies in the world, released an updated “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” in August 2019.

In this statement, “181 CEOs committed to pursue a more holistic approach to serving stakeholders more broadly renouncing the concept of shareholder primacy.”

Figure 4: Purpose vs. everything else | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Organizational purpose: A clear and concise statement that inspires people to deliver value to multiple stakeholders.

Purposeful organizations focus on the same stakeholder types as DEIB leaders

The focus on purpose has a direct consequence for DEIB efforts, as the multiple types of stakeholders identified by the Business Roundtable (see Figure 5) are the same ones on which DEIB leaders traditionally focus.

This means that DEIB leaders should have more support for their efforts, as organizations try to fulfill the idea of organizational purpose.

But with that broader support also, potentially, come more cooks in the DEIB kitchen—and more scrutiny of DEIB efforts. This makes it more important than ever to have a clear and holistic approach to DEIB.

Figure 5: 5 organizational stakeholders | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Developing a holistic approach to DEIB

“This work is about culture and change management, and so we need to be looking for behaviors, practices, or norms that need to change.“

—Mary Ellen Connerty, Director, Diversity & Engagement, O’Melveny & Myers LLP

Creating a holistic DEIB approach

When youre developing a new DEIB approachreally a DEIB systemyou need to answer these 6 questions (see Figure 6):

  1. Why is my organization focusing on DEIB?
  2. What goals are we trying to achieve and for whom?
  3. What is our strategy to achieve those goals?
  4. What levers are we trying to pull to enable that strategy? What are the supporting activities that pull those levers?
  5. How will we use technology to scale our operational activities?
  6. How will we use data, analytics, and metrics to create transparency and enable accountability?

Figure 6: 6 questions to align DEIB efforts | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

A holistic DEIB system is one in which every organizational process, action, policy, and decision is looked at through a DEIB lens.

Start with your organization’s “why”

There are typically 3 reasons why organizations focus on DEIB:

  • Alignment to organizational purpose
  • “Right thing to do” (RTTD)
  • Business case for D&I

Right now, though, there’s another reason:

Other competing priorities. A recent Deloitte study revealed that majority of senior leaders believe their organizations' commitment to DEIB will take a back seat as other competitive threats surface.

This skepticism of organizations’ commitment to DEIB means it's even more important than ever for organizations to follow through on their commitments.

Making it happen: Understanding the why

When you open the discussion to “why” your organization is supporting DEIB, it's critical to be sensitive to the organization's specific context, environment, and leaders’ perspectives.

Different leaders are at various stages in their journey to understand and embrace DEIB. One of the benefits of the greater openness we’ve seen is that many leaders are now more open to further learning.

Regardless of specific leaders’ perspectives, the important thing is to align on the overall why for the company.

“Begin with why this is important to you. Align it to the long-term value of the firm, the purpose of the firm, and your value system.”

—Mary Slaughter, Former Managing Director, EY

Why: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ Why are we focusing on DEIB (i.e., alignment to purpose, market / societal expectations, business outcomes)?

❏ How does that reason align with our business strategy?

❏ How does this reason(s) align with our internal talent expectations and our external brand?

❏ What are the specific DEIB changes that impact our organization?

❏ What are senior execs’ experiences with DEIB and how can we use those to align on a vision?

What does your organization want to achieve?

The next big question to answer is what your goals are, both long term and short. Some examples of typical goals we heard are:

  • Ensure talent pipeline diversity
  • Move the dial on leadership diversity
  • Identify barriers to belonging while putting inclusive practices in place
  • Enhance representation among middle management

It’s important to be very clear on these goals, and (as we discuss later) to have clear metrics and accountability in place for these goals.

Real-World Threads

TD bank conducts an audit to review internal DEIB policies

Canada’s Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Bank) has created goals for the company for 2025 to increase the representation of Black, Indigenous, and minorities at the vice-president level or higher. To achieve that, the company began by conducting its first-ever racial equity audit in 2022.

The audit will scrutinize TD’s internal employment practices for racial bias and allow the bank to use its findings to inform future business practices with Black, Indigenous, and other racialized customers. It includes a third-party assessment by an outside law firm and TD staffers' contributions.

The purpose of the audit is to help the bank review its employment policy and understand how it operates. The bank is also committed to applying the lessons learned in its work with customers and communities. While the company started by looking at its operations and employee experience at the bank, its DEIB strategy has expanded to include how it interacts with and serves its customers and communities. The company’s approach to DEIB recognizes the intrinsic link to other dimensions of its business, and the impacts of racial equity on customers and communities.

In addition to focusing on representation, the company also tracks inclusion through an employee experience survey that it reviews from the perspective of different communities to understand the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and underrepresented employees at TD.

“If you don’t have that strong, inclusive culture within your organization, if you don’t have an understanding of how racism and discrimination can manifest—including in the form of microaggressions—then you’re not going to be able to achieve that sustainable progress you want to see.”

—Diana Lee, Vice-President of Diversity and Inclusion, TD Bank

And, for whom?

While it’s important to have high-level goals, you should consider focusing on goals for specific subsets of stakeholders (see Figure 7).

For example, you may have specific goals for C-suite leaders and middle managers, as those groups are critical to making DEIB a reality.

In addition, you may have goals for specific demographic groups, such as gender, race / ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, social / economic classification, age, disability, and religion.

For the last few years, there’s been a huge focus on both female and Black employees. We expect to see goals around representation and engagement of these populations to continue.

Figure 7: 5 stakeholders of organizations, including DEIB subgroups | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Making it happen: Listening for better goal-setting

When setting goals, it's essential for you to understand the range of perceptions and experiences of different stakeholders. This can mean leveraging a range of data sources (e.g., interviews, focus groups, surveys, demographic data, digital exhaust, etc.) to get a holistic picture of current state and gaps.

Recommendations and feedback from diversity councils, resource and affinity groups, people committees, and diversity advocates comprise an integral part of understanding where you stand and where you need to go.

“Every strategy must start with listening. We must veer away from making assumptions on what people need and how they need it, and listening forms a core part of that.” —Sheree Atcheson, former Global Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Peakon

Goals: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ Where are we currently?

❏ Where are the existing gaps?

❏ What is the experience of each of our stakeholders in working with our organization?

❏ How frequently are we listening to stakeholders?

❏ Are there specific roles or groups, such as executives or middle managers, whose approach needs to evolve so we can drive change?

❏ What has changed and are we addressing that in our goals?

❏ How will the goals we set align with our business strategy and objectives?

“Understand the business you’re in and figure out how D&I can enhance the bottom line. Such efforts can’t be an HR initiative; they ca be separate from corporate strategy. This is about engaging the entire organization on issues related to diversity.”

—Rohini Anand, Global Chief Diversity Officer, Sodexo

What is a strategy anyway?

We have read about a lot of different DEIB “strategies”:

  • The 3 Ps: People, partners, and places
  • The 4 Pillars: Workforce, workplace, industry, and community
  • The 3 Is: Individuals, infrastructure, and impact

While these are useful methods to keep track of all the ways you can operationalize a strategy, they are not a strategy.

Instead, a strategy helps you understand what you should be doing—and, as a result, what you should not be doing—to achieve the established goals.

A DEIB strategy supports the purpose and drives the organizational culture.

Think of it this way: Your strategy to win a marathon may be to go fast the first 13 miles and slow the last 13 miles (and just hope you make it!). Or it could be to go slow the first 20 miles and sprint the last 6.

But a strategy wouldn't be to put on your running shoes, clothes, and drink water! They may be necessary to running the race, but they're not your strategy.

A business strategy is “… a set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, generates a desired pattern of decision making.” Source: Harvard Business Review, 2007.

So what’s a DEIB strategy then?

A DEIB strategy, similarly, is a set of guiding principles that helps your organization achieve its DEIB goals. The DEIB strategy should help you make decisions about the activities to engage in and those you should forego to achieve your goals.

What does this look like in real life? As an example, let's assume a company’s goal is:

To be the most inclusive organization in tech.

Sounds lofty, right? Well, then the strategy could be:

To create inclusive experiences for employees from their first interaction to their exit interview.

This strategy clarifies that the organization will focus on all of the talent lifecycle and specifically focus on inclusion (diversity, equity, or belonging may be a secondary focus).

It also gives the organization a set of guidelines for making decisions, for example:

  • Is this talent selection process inclusive? Nope? Let’s change
  • Is this leadership program inclusive? Kind of. Let’s evolve it.
  • Is this event inclusive? Yes! Great, how can we do more of them?

How are DEIB strategies changing now?

We asked every interviewee if their DEIB strategy is changing and the results were mixed.

Organizations that already had a clear strategy indicated they plan to stay the course. These companies have amplified their efforts for Black employees and their communities, but haven't planned significant strategic changes.

"Having a collective strategy around what were doing not only to hire the best talent but also to retain talent and develop talent is important. One of the reasons were seeing strong results is because of how weve treated our people , and a lot of that has been led by HR."

Cynthia Bowman, Chief Diversity and Inclusion and Talent Acquisition Officer, Bank of America

For those organizations that are relatively early in their DEIB journey, we find are much more likely to indicate they're planning to adjust their strategy. Generally speaking, this means developing a much more explicit focus on inclusion and belonging for Black employees, and a greater level of openness for difficult conversations about racial justice.

" to make sure were talking about inclusion and equality at every level, and that it is front and center in the board room and in the management room. We can set hard targets for ourselves and make those transparent to our board and measure them like we measure other outcomes like financial results.

—David Kenny, CEO, Nielsen

Strategy vs. goals: What’s the difference?

Once you've set your goals, the next step is to figure out how to achieve them and lay out a strategy for it. You may fall short at this stage as setting goals and objectives is often confused with an actual strategy.

While DEIB goals are what you hope to achieve, a strategy is a specific action plan that will help you get there.

It's critical that you be extremely detailed and descriptive in laying out the specific targets and how you strategically work to achieve them. Unlike goals, which can be both short and long term (1-5 years), a strategy should cover a short-time period (e.g., 1 financial year) and needs to be revisited often.

" You can’t take exactly what someone else is doing, put it in your organization and think it will work. You’re not really focusing on your own culture and diagnosing your own issues. You can learn what others are doing, but you have to figure out what challenges you’re trying to solve for your own company.”

—Monica Jackson, Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, Eaton

Real-World Threads

Building on progress through conversations at Bank of America

Bank of America’s commitment to DEIB is reflected in its numbers. Its global workforce is half women, and in the U.S., 49% of its workforce are people of color. Half of the company’s board of directors is diverse, and it’s among just 9 S&P companies with at least 6 female board members. In 2021, the bank increased its commitment to racial equality and economic opportunity to $1.25 billion over 5 years.

One of the ways the bank builds on its diversity efforts and advances that success is through its “Let’s Get Real” courageous conversations series. These conversations allow employees to empathize, understand their differences, and contextualize some of the takeaways and lessons. Held across the organization globally, the conversations are led by members of the board, the CEO, most of the management team, multiple employee networks, and many employees who’ve been able to talk about the issues that matter to them.

The conversations cover different topics—intersectionality, mental health, equity, and inclusion—and have helped people check their own biases and reflect on how to be more consciously unbiased. Another area is helping people get comfortable with difficult conversations and providing them with the necessary tools to talk about sometimes difficult topics to drive more conversations around inclusion and equity.

Bank of America encourages its people to be proactive and have deliberate conversations. It wants them to listen to others instead of replying right away, and challenge themselves to see where that person is coming from. The bank encourages people to have authentic conversations.

Making it happen: Refining the strategy

Similar to goal-setting, involve different stakeholders right from the start in refining the strategy.

Incorporate different groups with varied experiences to get their perspectives on how goals can be achieved. Strategy setting should be a highly iterative process.

Our interviews revealed 3 findings crucial to this step:

  • Collaborate with business leaders on how the DEIB strategy will work for their business and enable them to achieve their objectives
  • Work with HR and other teams, such as talent acquisition, learning and development, and leadership development, to revisit policies and practices to ensure that the strategy is baked into every process
  • Using the strategy setting process—and the resulting communications—as a way to get everyone onboard with the actions to come

Strategy: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ Who needs to be involved in creating the strategy (including middle and frontline managers)?

❏ Do our goals and strategy support each other?

❏ What specific activities will help us achieve those goals?

❏ What practices / policies need to be shifted?

❏ How can we embed DEIB strategy and activities into the business strategy?

❏ Does the strategy align with the overall purpose of the organization?

“Solving DEI&B starts with understanding the human brain and how we relate to one another. If we don't learn how to talk openly about this complex subject, if we don't learn how to spot bias in our own behaviors, and if we don't learn how to act inclusively and have empathy for others, all our procedures in the world won't change our individual experiences.”

—Mary Slaughter, Former Managing Director, EY

Moving on from strategy: Focus first on the levers, not activities

It’s super easy to rush from strategy to specific programs, initiatives, and events. Don’t make this mistake.

Instead, identify the levers your organization most needs to focus on to drive DEIB outcomes (see Figure 8). This allows you to be more purposeful about your organization's DEIB activities.

For some goals, it may be best to focus on some of the levers, while, for others, you might want to influence all of them.

For example, if your organization’s challenge is senior leaders' support, then you might want to focus on understanding those leaders’ individual beliefs / behaviors, and making low-risk policy or program changes. If, instead, your challenge is middle-manager support, then you might focus on understanding those leaders’ beliefs and behaviors, but also tackle driving changes in all other areas, too.

Figure 8: Levers that drive DEIB outcomes | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Select DEIB activities based on levers

Once you’re clear on the levers you're trying to influence, then identify the activities that could be appropriate. Figure 9 offers an example list of activities that impact DEIB levers. This list is not exhaustive. You should build out your own list—and adjust your assessment of the extent to which the activities influence the levers for your organization.

Generally speaking, it's better to have activities that influence multiple levers. That said, a specific talent activity may serve an important purpose for a single lever.

For example, a statement on the organization’s perspective regarding racial injustice during the summer of 2020 was incredibly important. However, since it only influences one of the levers, it needed to be backed up with other activities that can impact DEIB outcomes.

Figure 9: Example activities that impact DEIB levers | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

DoorDash promotes internal talent through its “Elevate” program

In early 2019, DoorDash, the food-delivery startup, implemented a DEIB program, Elevate, an internal sponsorship project designed to help advance the careers of women of color.

Because the executive team was already convinced about the need for such a program, leadership buy-in was quick. However, the program founders spent significant time educating leaders on the differences between mentorship and sponsorship. Specifically, they clarified that managers may offer support, training, advice, and coaching as part of mentorship, but a sponsor should also be an active advocate.

The program is designed for women of color who aspire to hold leadership positions. Participants (called fellows) receive sponsorship from senior management for 6 months. The fellows engage in several activities throughout the program, including attending:

  • One-on-one coaching sessions with an external executive coach
  • Executive sponsor meetings with company directors and C-suite members
  • Career workshops
  • Leadership team meetings

The activities aim to help them gain visibility, understand the language leaders speak at that level, and widen their network.

To track success, the company runs surveys before and after each program iteration. The surveys measure satisfaction rates for participants, including what they thought of the coaching and their sponsor. It also tracks retention and promotions of attendees, as well as internal mobility.

After 3 cohorts, Elevate has shown signs of success.

Within 6 months of completing the program, 38% of fellows earned promotions, a significant increase as compared with their non-Elevate peers. Additionally, 20% of alumni took lateral steps within the company.

“Rather than just focus on recruiting and getting more senior women of color externally, we wanted to focus on investing in talent internally.”

Bie Aweh, Senior Learning and Development Manager For Women, Non-Binary and Underrepresented Talent Development,DoorDash

Making it happen: Enabling levers & activities

While strategy may be set by a subset of leaders, it comes to life through everyone. Therefore, it's essential for you to share details of the strategy throughout the organization and to distribute the authority to act on it broadly.

This means that once the influential levers and activities have been identified, you must provide tools, resources, and empowerment for everyone in the organization to take action.

Levers & activities: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ How do we enable action at every level?

❏ Who is responsible for which parts of the strategy?

❏ Have we clarified what decision-making rights leaders have?

❏ What role does everyone need to play?

❏ How can we enable individuals at all levels to drive DEIB?

❏ What tools and resources do people need to implement the strategy effectively?

Tech: The great scaler

For a long time, the combination of technology and DEIB—beyond training and ensuring accessibility—wasn't a thought that crossed most DEIB leaders’ minds.

That has changed. In our initial report from February 2019, Diversity & Inclusion Technology: The Rise of a Transformative Market, we identified 89 vendors in the space. In our most recent report on DEIB technology, we identified more than 100 vendors that offer solutions across all parts of the talent lifecycle.

As in so many other areas, DEIB tech can dramatically expand the scale and impact of your DEIB activities. However, just as with any technology implementation, it's essential that you have all other critical decisions—your “why,” goals, strategy, and levers / activities—made before you select any tech. Otherwise, you could be selecting technology that will scale your efforts … in the wrong way.

Before implementing any new technology, you should analyze your existing tech for biases that may exist either within the systems themselves or in how they're used. Then apply that same criteria to any new tech you may implement.

“DEIB technology is enterprise software that provides insights or alters processes or practices, at the individual or organizational level, in support of an organization's efforts to become more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and to enable belonging.”

Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

DEIB tech: You may already have it

When we think about DEIB tech, there are 3 types of vendors:

  • DEIB Focus vendors: These vendors’ primary business is helping organizations address their D&I An example of this is a vendor whose product focuses only on reducing unconscious bias during hiring.
  • DEIB Feature vendors: These vendors offer features or functionalities that cater specifically to D&I needs, but their primary business includes more than D&I. An example of this is a recruiting software vendor whose product can make all resume names / identifying information “blind” to minimize unconscious bias.
  • DEIB Friendly vendors: These vendors do not address D&I as their primary focus, and they don't market themselves specifically as doing so—but their features or functionalities could positively impact diversity and inclusion in organizations. An example of this is a recruiting software vendor that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to recommend appropriate candidates to hiring managers.

It’s important to understand these differences because they can emphasize that your organization may already have technology—a “Feature” or “Friendly” tech—which can be leveraged for DEIB purposes.

Critically, many vendors have added DEIB features to their offerings (see Figure 10) in the last 2 years, making it more likely than ever that your existing tech already has some capabilities in this area.

After reviewing your existing technology, if you don't have a way to scale your strategy and activities, then consider some of the DEIB Focus technologies that may help you achieve your goals. Our DEIB tech research can help you find solutions.

Figure 10: Types of DEIB tech vendors, 2021 vs. 2019 | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Making it happen: Using tech to drive impact

One of the biggest benefits of technology is that it can help identify insights which either have been missed or considered too politically sensitive to surface. By tracking, measuring, and analyzing actions and behaviors, tech can highlight biases that otherwise wouldn't be discussed.

71% of people believe business leaders are incapable of recognizing racism around them.

Technology: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ What technology do we currently have that can be leveraged for DEIB purposes?

❏ How can we leverage tech to raise awareness among people on issues around DEIB?

❏ Which technologies do we need to add to help us meet our goals?

❏ Are there certain technologies that we need to get rid of?

“It’s my responsibility as the CEO of this company to make sure it doesn’t fall off the agenda. I think by setting goals for ourselves in the short, medium, and long term, we can then hold ourselves accountable. And I expect the GM team to hold me accountable.”

Mary Barra, CEO of GM, speaking about inclusion

Data: Creating transparency & enabling accountability

One of the biggest shifts weve seen is a higher level of focus on identifying, analyzing, and democratizing DEIB data.

  • Identifying DEIB data: While organizations have tracked diversity data for compliance reasons for years, the focus has shifted more broadly. Organizations are now trying to understand the employee experience for diverse populations and how that differs from the majority We’re also hearing about organizations seeking more forward-looking metrics—not just pipeline or representation metrics, which are backward-looking.
  • Analyzing DEIB data: Historically, given the perceived sensitivity of this data, the analysis and reporting of DEIB data have been done by a small group of The recent proliferation of data technologies has expanded the groups that can access and analyze these data, making it more likely to be done.
  • Democratizing DEIB data: Given higher expectations from employees and other stakeholders, organizations are sharing more data on DEIB than The key will be in ensuring accountability for changes, which is a responsibility of both organizational leaders and stakeholders.

Real-World Threads

Accountability at Bank of America

Bank of America continues to make progress on its commitment to DEIB due to the support provided by its Global D&I Council, which is chaired by the bank’s CEO. The council comprises several senior executives across businesses and regions. The CEO attends every session. The council helps set priorities and hold the bank accountable to drive progress. Additionally, the bank’s board and CEO oversee culture, and hold the organization and DEI team accountable for their work to support internal talent and address societal issues.

The progress is reflected in the bank’s Human Capital Management Report, which shows that the progress for underrepresented groups is largely due to their accountability and governance structure. In addition to making progress in the gender diversity in its global workforce, It's closing gaps at senior levels and management teams are significantly diverse. Currently, 3 out of 8 business lines at the bank are women-led.

Real-World Threads

Intel promotes DEIB transparency and accountability

Since 2015, Intel has publicly shared percentages around its D&I data as part of its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) work. Further, in 2019, Intel made its pay data public and announced that it had achieved gender pay equity globally and race / ethnicity pay equity in the U.S. In 2022, Intel decided to go a step further and share raw data in addition to the percentages in its reports.

This level of transparency for Intel has resulted in increased accountability and a desire to do better when achieving its DEIB goals. The results are indicative of the efforts.

In 2020, the company had 1,250 women and 380 underrepresented minorities (URMs) in senior leadership roles. The company’s target for 2021 was to reach 1,375 women in senior leadership. It surpassed its goal by 74, ending the year with 1,449 women in senior leadership roles across the globe. The U.S. URM numbers for senior leadership roles also increased to 444.

Even though the company continues to push its efforts, it has witnessed a drop in some places. For example, it saw a decline in technical roles held by women from 25.2% in 2020 to 24.3% in 2021. The company has set goals to exceed 40% representation of women in technical positions by 2030. To achieve this, the company will be implementing targeted programs to increase the number of women hired for technician, engineering hardware, and software roles through sourcing, pipelining, and workforce development initiatives.

The company aims to increase the representation of Black / African American employees in senior, director, and executive-level roles in the U.S. workforce by 10% by the end of 2022. It also plans to achieve 30% female representation in technical entry-level hires and $1.4 billion in annual spending with diverse suppliers.

"We are looking at being transparent and holding ourselves accountable like we want our employees and the industry to hold us accountable. We're taking this year to reassess and ensure that our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work is truly forward-thinking and will get us to a great place by 2030."

—Dawn Jones, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Vice President of Social Impact, Intel

Making it happen: Data, analytics & metrics

Many companies can fall into the trap of “check the box,” for which DEIB efforts become something you have to do because it's required. By tying efforts to actual metrics that are reported and connected to potential rewards, you can embed accountability.

Additionally, establishing metrics that can be tracked consistently might be one of the most crucial steps you can take in the process.

In every organization, there is a need for a set of standardized metrics that can be applied across the business, and customized metrics that are specific to each business, to ensure equitable measurement.

—Crysta Dungee, DEI leader

30% of business, HR, and D&I leaders are aware that their organizations collect and analyze D&I data, compared to only 15% of employees.

Data, analytics & metrics: A checklist to jumpstart your efforts

❏ What data will help us understand if we're making progress toward our goals?

❏ Do we have both forward-looking and backward-looking goals? How can that data be consolidated into 3–7 metrics we can track consistently?

❏ Which metrics can be connected to either carrots or sticks to drive accountability?

❏ And for whom? What data / results must we share with everyone?

❏ What other data / results should we share with other audiences?

❏ How often must we share that data with those stakeholders?

“If we want to make change, we have to have a target and accountability. If is important, we attach a number and a timeline to see if we’re making progress on that.”

—SVP, Head of People Sustainability and Chief D&I Officer, Technology company

Trends for 2022 & 2023

Trend #1—Ensuring return to office isn’t return to 2019

One of the most remarkable sets of data from the last few years compares the return-to-office preferences of different demographic groups. As shown in Figure 11, most underrepresented populations prefer to be in the office much less frequently than their white colleagues.

Figure 11: Percentage of U.S respondents who prefer a hybrid or fully remote work arrangement | Source: Future Forum Pulse, 2022.

Qualitative research reveals that one of the primary reasons for this is the significant reduction in microaggressions and other types of harassment when employees worked remotely. As employees are in the office more regularly, leaders need to be aware of this issue, and implement workplace practices, behaviors, education, and resources to mitigate it.

There's also the topic of employees who return to the office much less often, as they require the flexibility they've found over the last several years. Research shows that, among knowledge workers, underrepresented populations desire flexibility much more than other populations.

This is also the case for working parents, for whom 57% of working mothers and 48% of working fathers want to work remotely 3-5 days per week (see Figure 12). However, the same research shows many working parents (46%) fear that working remotely will negatively affect their career trajectory (as compared with just 34% of nonparents).

Figure 12: Percentage of working parents (knowledge workers) who want to work remotely 3–5 days a week | Source: Future Forum Pulse, 2022.

As leaders look to adjust their return-to-office policies, they should consider (if they haven't already) how they'll design their talent practices to minimize the impact of proximity bias. This is especially important since it appears underrepresented populations may take more advantage of flexible work arrangements.

Approaches, such as the following, can go a long way in addressing this issue:

  • Analysis of performance scores or promotions by in-office time
  • Ensuring every employee has a career conversation
  • Making access to information about development and promotions more transparent

Trend #2—Auditing existing talent practices and technologies through a DEIB lens

Due to the events of the last 2 years, organizations have a higher level of insight into the challenges of underrepresented populations. Many DEIB-specific resources have been launched to help address these challenges, such as employee resource groups (ERGs), hiring a DEIB leader, and providing DEIB training.

While helpful, these approaches don’t address systemic bias. To do this, leaders need to look at their talent systems—their practices and technologies. Figure 13 highlights DEIB-related practices that U.S. employees believe would help their companies’ long-term success while also benefiting DEIB.

Figure 13: Perception of whether the following DEIB-related policies have a positive impact on a company’s long-term success | Source: Just Capital, 2022.

One of the most important places to start looking is where critical talent decisions are made—hiring and advancement. Analyzing those talent processes for potential biases is a really good place to start. For example, one organization we’ve spoken with has put in place a “candidate advocate” on interview and promotion panels to listen specifically for potentially biased comments (e.g., “She’s got a young kid at home, so she probably doesn’t want this opportunity.”). Other standard practices include having diverse hiring / promotion panel slates.

Another area many companies are focused on today is pay equity. Many organizations can help companies analyze existing pay practices and plan for appropriate adjustments.

Trend #3—The increasing importance of DEIB metrics

We define DEIB metrics as:

Metrics that help leaders analyze and monitor the state of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within the organization.

As alluded to earlier, DEIB metrics are increasingly required by investors, customers, and candidates. It's important to note that we'll soon see more required disclosures from the SEC, which will heighten the need to produce high-quality DEIB metrics.

However, external disclosures are not the only reason to focus on DEIB metrics. Instead, organizations should provide DEIB metrics, along with a straightforward narrative around them (especially around why they may not be able to change as fast as some desire), to dispel rumors and distrust within organizations. As shown in Figure 14, a substantial percentage of employees don't trust colleagues to tell them the truth about racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the organization.

Figure 14: Percentage of employees who trust other individuals to tell them the truth about racism, diversity, equity & inclusion within their organization | Source: Edelman, 2022.

Part of the reason for the lack of trust is this: Companies can appear to be “cherry-picking” the specific metrics they share. As shown in Figure 15, some metrics, such as board data disclosures and overall workforce diversity numbers, are commonly reported by companies. However, some of the metrics which could potentially cast companies in a more negative light, such as racial / ethnic pay ratio or diversity targets by race / ethnicity, are less reported upon.

Figure 15: Percentage of America’s largest employers addressing racial equity in 2022, by metric | Source: Just Capital, 2022.

As we all know, providing metrics around DEIB won’t necessarily change everyone’s mind. However, by being clear about where the organization is on DEIB and why specific metrics are being shared versus others, leaders can start to build trust with employees. Over time, regular disclosures of metrics—and improving those metrics—can strengthen employees’ trust in this topic.


The time is now for DEIB leadership

Here & now

The last few years created a unique set of conditions that made people, organizations, and society more open to making meaningful changes to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging than ever before.

Create a holistic DEIB system

While it remains crucial that you create DEIB strategies aligned to specific needs, you also need to create alignment across the entire DEIB system— from “why” the organization focuses on DEIB down to leaders’ data, analytics, and metrics. This will create a much more cohesive and stronger system to support DEIB.

Be prepared

Our research indicates that organizations need—and employees demand—to take action on DEIB. By creating an aligned DEIB system (see Figure 16), your organization will be better prepared to tackle whatever comes next.

Figure 16: 6 questions to align DEIB efforts | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Performance Management for Hybrid Work

Posted on Tuesday, June 28th, 2022 at 2:36 PM    

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Many of us are beginning to return to the office (RTO). Who could have imagined it would take more than 2 years? What an experience we've lived through. So, it's safe to say none of us are the same as when those first shelter-in-place orders were announced in early 2020.

For one thing, we've collectively lived through a grand experiment in remote working. And, as it should be with any experiment, we've learned a lot. For example, we've seen that:

  • Certain work can get done better in distributed environments than in the office
  • Not all work needs to be done synchronously
  • Through improvements in technology and process, we can work in new and often more effective ways
  • People can be much more self-directed and effective than many had imagined

We've also been reminded of just how much humans are social creatures. This has been reinforced by situations where in-person work interactions truly allow us to flourish. After 2-plus long years, there’s an incredible attraction to be together again with our teams—to create together, rejoice in being alive together—in a physical workplace.

Now’s the time for us to move to the next phase of the experiment—hybrid working. As we enter this period, the question becomes,

How can we keep the goodness of both situations—distributed (remote) and in-person work—while enabling our people and organizations to perform effectively?

While we have many components to do this, one area that many organizations are overlooking is performance management.

In this report, we focus on a few things:

  • The critical levers for performance management (PM) and how they've evolved thus far since the start of the pandemic
  • Why those specific levers are especially critical to hybrid work
  • How to audit your organization's current practices and get started

This research is based on a number of different studies we've done over the years on PM, as well as the results of our 2021 survey of employees and HR leaders on performance management. See the appendices for the nitty-gritty methodology. This report gives you the data, insights, and practical suggestions you need to prepare your organization for this next grand experiment.

Performance management: Critical to the hybrid work experiment

PM is always important—it:

  • Touches every employee in the organization
  • Provides clarity on goals, objectives, and performance
  • Influences incentives

While important, PM is far from perfect—its limitations and potential biases have been documented by many.

Unfortunately, many biases will likely be exacerbated in a hybrid work setting (see Figure 1). For example, managers may be susceptible to proximity bias when assessing performance if some employees are in the office more than others. To potentially overcome these biases, employees may begin to come into the office more often, even if it’s not where they get their best work done.

There are several PM biases that can be exacerbated in remote work

Figure 1: Common performance management biases & their potential impact on remote workers. Source: RedThread Research 2022.

To ensure that employees can perform as effectively as possible—and managers can support them fairly—leaders need to make sure PM works for all in this new hybrid work world.

While this might feel a bit daunting (or not even be on your radar at all), let us assure you this is possible. After all, we've just been through a global pandemic and have learned some important lessons that we can apply to the future. Not only that, our RedThread data show that some organizations and managers have already adjusted their practices to better suit a hybrid work environment. So, your organization may already be further ahead than you know.

Introducing the new 3C model

While a wide range of practices can be considered essential when desiging performance management for hybrid work, the question, of course, becomes:

Which practices and behaviors matter most?

When we first conducted this study in 2019, we introduced a model that organizations needed to focus on most to drive PM. The model was comprised of 3 levers:

  • Culture. Promotes the values and norms of the organization to drive organizational performance and engagement
  • Capability of managers. Plays a role in creating the right environment to drive individual performance
  • Clarity. Enables individuals to understand their contribution—in the present and the future—to drive engagement

Our latest research provides an updated model of 3 levers that organizations need to focus on when it comes to PM in current times. As readers can notice in Figure 2, some elements of the old model remain important, while others have evolved.

There is a 3C model that organizations should focus on for PM in hybrid work

Figure 2: The 3C model for modern performance management. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

The 3 levers that organizations should focus on in a hybrid world are:

Culture. A culture that clearly promotes the organization's values and prioritizes people became an even bigger priority for leaders during the crises of the past 2 years. As companies look to implement new ways of working once again, they need to maintain their efforts to reinforce a high-performance culture. This lever has evolved in 2 important ways when compared with the 2019 version:

  1. Culture now includes the new subfactor of “clarity” (that was its own separate lever in 2019). A high-performing culture must now provide employees with clarity around their goals and performance.
  2. Another subfactor from our 2019 model, “future-focus,” is now renamed “fostering growth.” Organizations need to provide opportunities that help employees grow in their current roles and no longer view development as future-oriented.

Capability of managers. Few others have played a more impactful role in employee experience and performance during the pandemic than managers. Leaders will continue to rely on managers for their culture-building efforts and to empower employees to perform effectively in the future.

Connection. This is a new lever that organizations need to focus on. The pandemic and subsequent changes in work made the annual performance conversations obsolete for many. Several of these companies increased employee check-ins during the pandemic, which resulted in improved levels of engagement for many. Moving forward, enabling connections between employees, their managers, and the broader organization will be essential to employee performance.

Beyond our data, real-world stories also reflect the criticality of culture, capability of managers, and connections. Over the past few years, several companies have revisited their PM processes to understand what’s working and what needs changing—to ensure continued performance and career development.

A culture of continuous feedback and check-ins, along with clarity and alignment around expectations, are welcomed and encouraged widely. The latest example comes from Google, which recently did away with its biannual performance reviews. The new approach, Googler Reviews and Development (GRAD), involves feedback and check-ins throughout the year, twice-a-year promotions, investments in internal mobility, and once-a-year formal performance reviews.

Why should organizations use the 3C model?

Focusing on the 3Cs positively impacts several talent and business outcomes that leaders care about. Our findings revealed that companies—which focus on culture, capability of managers, and connection—are more likely to have:

  • High engagement. Organizations that focus on the 3Cs are 1.6 times more likely to have high engagement. We know that employee engagement impacts retention, productivity, turnover, and employee health. It became a top priority for leaders during the pandemic—and continues to be critical as companies figure out their next chapter around planning work.
  • Met business goals. Companies that focused on the 3 levers were 1.5 times more likely to have met their business goals in 2021. The pandemic has made it challenging for companies to set business objectives and even more difficult to achieve them as the instability continues. For companies looking not just to survive—but to be successful during such times—and instill confidence in their stakeholders, it’s critical to meet their business goals.
  • High NPS scores. Organizations that focus on culture, connection, and capability of managers are 4 times more likely to receive a positive NPS from their employees. The rise of the “Great Resignation” has focused companies on improving employee loyalty. Similar to employee engagement, NPS data give organizations a general sense of how employees feel—meaning a low score, especially during a crisis, can be terrible news.
  • High manager effectiveness. Companies that score high on culture, connection, and capability of managers are 3 times more likely to have employees who rate their managers as effective. Managers impact an employee’s engagement to a great extent. Managers also play a central role in their employees’ development and career journeys—making it imperative that managers possess the capabilities required to enable effective performance.

The 3 levers in our model (see Figure 3) can impact one, a few, or all of the critical outcomes mentioned above. For example, our data show that organizations should focus on building manager capabilities if they want to drive higher engagement, NPS, and manager effectiveness, in addition to meeting their current business goals. Organizations should consider connection-building if they only want to impact manager effectiveness.

Depending on which outcomes organizations want to drive, they should focus on 1, 2, or all 3 levers. In Figure 3, we look at each of these levers and the outcomes they influence.

There are several talent and business outcomes that are positively impacted by the 3C model

Figure 3: Outcomes impacted by each lever of the 3C model. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

In the following sections, we take a deeper dive into each of these 3 levers, discuss why they’re important, and look at how some PM practices should change to better fit the hybrid world of work.


Culture is the shared assumptions, values, and behaviors that determine how people do things within a company which helps them and organizations thrive. When redesigning PM, organizations should look at how each of these—assumptions, values, and behaviors—impact current practices.

In this section, we take a closer look at culture:

  • What it is and why it matters
  • Role of culture
  • Highest priority practices to change

What it is & why it matters

When we looked at the importance of culture as a lever, we found that it significantly impacts all the talent and business outcomes that organizations care about. As we see in Figure 4, organizations that focus on culture experience significant positive results with NPS, manager effectiveness, past business performance, and employee engagement.

The Culture lever has a positive impact on NPS, manager effectiveness, business goals, and employee engagement

Figure 4: Impact of culture lever on individual & organizational outcomes. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Additionally, in comparing 2021 data with 2019, we notice that culture's impact on employee engagement has grown significantly. In 2019, we found that organizations which did well in creating a high-performing culture were 32% more likely to experience high employee engagement. In 2021, this likelihood nearly doubled to 63% (see Figure 5).


Organizations with a focus on culture, experience high employee engagement

Figure 5: Likelihood of high employee engagement in organizations focusing on culture, 2019 vs. 2021. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Role of culture

While culture is extremely important, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what aspects of culture matter most for PM. Our 2019 research revealed 3 cultural elements⎯feedback, fairness, and future-focus⎯that organizations needed to focus on to drive performance. However, organizations must now rethink culture for hybrid work—and our new model reflects this change. To build a high-performing culture for a hybrid world of work, organizations must continue to do what they’re already doing—and provide employees with focus and clarity around their goals. (See Figure 6)

There are 4 aspects within the culture lever that organizations should focus on

Figure 6: Aspects of the culture lever from the 3C model for modern performance management. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

A few things to note about the culture lever in 2021 when compared with 2019:

1. Clarity, an independent lever in 2019, is now a critical aspect of the culture lever. Culture took on new meaning during the pandemic. With remote work, companies have had to:

  • Become explicit about the work that needs to be done
  • Show how it ties to the company’s overall mission and goals
  • Provide employees with the support and resources to do it

This means that organizations can’t rely on individual managers' varying capabilities and enthusiasm to provide clear goals and feedback. Instead, organizations must have a cultural competency around clear goals and feedback—so that, if employees don’t get what they need, then they’re empowered to ask for it. As such, our analysis revealed that “clarity” is now a part of organizational culture.

2. Growth continues to be an important part of culture, but is no longer solely future-oriented. As mentioned earlier, we renamed the subfactor “future-focus” from our 2019 model to “fostering growth.” In 2021, we saw a new urgency overtake upskilling and continuous L&D (as they apply to PM) as employees encountered both complex and mundane challenges that they hadn’t faced before the pandemic. For this reason, we no longer see growth and development in the performance context as being about preparing for the future, but rather as essential to executing the job today.

As organizations look to put in place practices and processes for hybrid work, they must consider these 4 areas under culture—feedback, fairness, fostering growth, and focus and clarity—as guiding lights for driving performance.

We know there’s a greater likelihood of new and existing biases creeping up in a work setting in which some portion of the workforce is remote. Organizations that are rethinking their culture should intentionally design and implement practices that address these biases. Specifically—by promoting a culture of fairness and trust—organizations can avoid halo / horn bias, whereby good or bad traits can dominate perceptions. Similarly—by encouraging feedback and emphasizing clarity—organizations can make sure that managers receive constant information and feedback on employee performance, thereby avoiding proximity, primacy, and centrality biases.

For example, Salesforce implemented “Flex Team Agreements” after receiving feedback from employees that they needed greater flexibility. These agreements are broken down into 3 levels—office-flexible, home-based, and office-based—and help provide clarity to employees on what's most important for them, including how many days a week they come into the office and what kind of work they’ll continue to do at home.

Teams can also decide how they communicate and what behaviors are most important to them. For instance, the Employee Success team agreed to “no meeting Fridays” and monthly wellbeing days. The team also prioritizes in-person meetings twice a year, volunteer days, and end-of-quarter celebrations to keep everyone feeling connected.

Similarly, IBM was able to build trust and psychological safety by replacing a system of once-a-year performance conversations with a culture of continuous feedback. Based on input from employees, the company put in place a new performance development process called “Checkpoint”—where feedback is self-driven and centered around providing a more holistic evaluation of employees.

To ensure strategy alignment across departments, offices, and countries, 5 key dimensions—or core values—were created:

  • Business results
  • Client success
  • Innovation
  • Skills
  • Responsibility to others

In addition, IBM partnered with a PM technology solution to have one platform for check-ins, feedback requests, and goal-setting. The company has been able to move past traditional questions like, “Did you accomplish your yearly objectives?” to questions like, “How are we performing? What are the skills needed? How does this impact my career?”

Highest priority practices to change

So, what are the specific practices that lead to a high-performing culture? Depending on the outcomes that leaders want to influence, our data revealed specific practices which are important.

Figure 7 breaks down the specific culture practices used by high-performing organizations. While there are certainly more practices which organizations can adopt, we include only those that have a significant impact on outcomes.

There are specific practices under the culture lever that drive talent and business outcomes

Figure 7: Practices that positively impact talent & business outcomes, culture lever. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Patagonia redesigns performance management with a focus on culture

When Patagonia decided to redesign its PM process, leaders wanted to make sure that the changes aligned with the company's strong culture of being a place at which people were proud to work. The existing PM approach was traditional top-down and rigid—whereas the company’s culture was more bottom-up, open, collaborative, and heavy on authenticity.

The company decided on 3 design principles to guide its reinvention of performance at Patagonia—more dynamic, more democratized, and more data. To make it dynamic, the company put in place 3 new performance tools:

  • Quarterly stretch goals
  • Quarterly check-in conversations
  • Continuous crowdsourced feedback

Each tool (stretch goals, check-ins, and feedback) was built to allow employees to drive the process, while managers provide support and help them improve. Managers took on the roles of guide, coach, and advocate on behalf of their employees. To enable more data usage, the company integrated digital tools that collect data on the frequency of feedback, and networks of people giving and receiving feedback.

Employees still meet with their managers in the first month of the new fiscal year and set a few high-level, yearly targets—but they avoid getting too detailed about them (see Figure 8). After that, employees begin using the 3 optional (but highly recommended) performance tools.

In the first month of each new quarter, employees write 3–5 quarterly stretch goals. Then they ask for feedback from their peers and managers using digital tools. In the first month of a new quarter, they use the digital platform to fill out a check-in form that guides them through self-reflection questions. Finally, they schedule a 30- to 60-minute check-in meeting with their manager.

Patagonia adopted a regenerative approach to their performance management

Figure 8: Patagonia’s regenerative performance approach. Source: People + Strategy Journal, SHRM, 2017.

By applying this "regenerative performance" approach, the company has created an ongoing cycle that supports continuous growth and performance improvement year over year.

Capability of managers

Given the spotlight on managers during the pandemic, it comes as no surprise that capability of managers continues to be a crucial lever for driving performance management.

In this section, we take a closer look at this lever:

  • What it is and why it matters
  • Role of capability of managers
  • Highest priority practices to change

What it is & why it matters

Organizations are increasingly relying on managers to:

Our data (see Figure 9) reveal that organizations, which focused on building manager capabilities, were highly rated by their employees on NPS, manager effectiveness, engagement, and the likelihood of meeting business goals in 2021.

The capability of managers lever has a positive impact on talent and business outcomes

Figure 9: Impact of capability of managers lever on individual & organizational outcomes. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Role of the capability of managers

Managers play a central role in making hybrid work successful. Similar to conditions during the pandemic—shifting priorities, work practices, and differing experiences of employees—require organizations to rely on managers to lead effectively. This is especially true as companies think about making sure the new working conditions are fair and equitable for everyone.

Findings from our data indicate the evolving nature of the manager’s role in today’s work environment. As we see in Figure 10, in addition to providing coaching, exhibiting candor, and clearing barriers for employees⎯as it was important for them to do in 2019⎯managers must also now exhibit confidence and care.

There are 5 aspects of capability of managers that organizations should focus on

Figure 10: Aspects of the capability of managers lever from the 3C model for modern performance management. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

The addition of confidence and care for managers’ capabilities isn’t surprising for a few reasons:

  • Having confidence in employees and trusting them are fundamental elements for a thriving work environment, especially in times of crisis and upheaval. Our Responsive Manager study revealed that—among the behaviors adopted by managers in organizations that are highly responsive to disruptions—trust and showing respect toward employees greatly impact enabling effectiveness. For example, the computing company NVIDIA exhibits confidence and trust in its employees with its “the project is the boss” philosophy. This approach leaves it up to the employees (and their schedules) to decide when work is completed, as long as the project is finished as expected.
  • Care, a practice that has become extremely important over the past 2 years, is now seen as foundational to a manager’s role. Managers need to be supportive, flexible, and inclusive to help employees feel a sense of stability and empowerment, along with feeling valued, during a time of crisis. For example, one of Microsoft's steps to be successful at hybrid work is to encourage managers to care for employees’ unique needs in and outside of work, and their career aspirations and goals. “Care” is part of the company’s manager framework that was introduced a few years ago and on which the company continues to lean heavily.

Organizations must double-down and invest even more in manager capabilities as they move toward hybrid work environments for a few reasons:

  • Preventing biases. Managers—who fail to recognize work that lacks a direct line of sight (between the manager and employee) and continue to promote those they physically see in the office—will inadvertently exacerbate the common PM biases in a hybrid work setting.
  • Managing split teams. Hybrid work means teams with employees who might have different work schedules and days when they come into the office versus working from home. This means taking into account the different needs and challenges that can arise unexpectedly and on short notice. Companies need managers who are able to effectively solve these challenges while displaying consideration and care.
  • Overseeing employee wellbeing. According to one study, 56% of employees report improvements to their mental health as a result of the hybrid work environment—and managers played an important role in that during the pandemic. As companies set long-term policies around hybrid work, they need managers to be responsible for leading this charge.

Highest priority practices to change

So, where should organizations focus? Our data revealed specific practices and behaviors that managers should look to adopt.

In Figure 11, we list them along with the specific talent and business outcomes they impact. While organizations can adopt several other practices, we include here only those that have a significant effect on the outcomes.

There are specific practices under manager capabilities that drive talent and business outcomes

Figure 11: Practices that positively impact talent & business outcomes, capability of managers lever. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Zillow equips managers to better support their teams

In order to better assist their managers during the pandemic, Zillow, an online real-estate company, set up cohorts of managers across the organization. The purpose of the cohorts was to allow managers to engage in rotating 1:1 conversations with their peers to troubleshoot their current managerial challenges.

These conversations offered safe opportunities to engage in vulnerable conversations that focused on how managers can commit to specific actions to support the wellbeing of their team. Managers were able to practice empathy with their peers, ask specific questions to understand their challenges, and articulate their own circumstances in response to probes.

As a result, the conversations offered managers the opportunity to fail in a safe space and be better prepared to help their employees. This also promoted a coaching culture within the company, with managers offering each other ideas and advice outside of structured times.

Clarus Commerce consistently reinforces trust & confidence in its employees

The philosophy at Clarus Commerce, a small advertising and marketing company, resembles that of a winning sports team. The leadership works to:

  • Hire good people
  • Train them through practice and preparation
  • Coach teammates to back up each other
  • Learn from their mistakes
  • Accept wins and losses together

Once the new hires are ready, leadership lets the players play.

Once play begins, or the new hires have proven they’re capable of tackling projects on their own, managers will only step in a limited number of times. The field of play at Clarus is set by goals and budgets. Within these boundaries, it’s up to the workers to execute. This empowerment enables the company to move quickly according to conditions on the ground and diligently to meet changing customer needs.


Much has been said about the importance of connection-building during the past 2 years. As such, we weren’t surprised (although excited!) to see it emerge as a lever in our new model.

In this section, we take a closer look at the connection lever:

  • What it is and why it matters
  • Role of connection
  • Highest priority practices to change

What it is & why it matters

Connection surfaced as a modern PM lever for a few reasons:

  • Genuine relationships within a company can help to create a workforce that’s generally more satisfied and less stressed
  • Research shows that a top challenge among remote workers is loneliness—add to that ambiguity over expectations and goals due to a lack of frequent conversations—and it’s a sure-shot recipe for a disengaged and unproductive workforce
  • Bonding connections (within-group interactions) and bridging connections (across-group interactions) that are important for collaboration and innovation deteriorated from the virtual work environment during the pandemic—organizations need to be intentional about rebuilding these connections to drive growth

One of the primary ways that leaders build a connection with their employees is through check-ins. Our research shows that the frequency of daily check-ins increased by 8% from 2019 to 2021, while that of monthly structured conversations increased by 10% from 2019 to 2021 (Figure 12).

The frequency of check-ins and conversations increased in 2021 compared to 2019

Figure 12: Frequency of daily check-ins & monthly conversations, 2019 vs. 2021. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

These increases in conversations (connections) occurred for the following reasons:

  • Organizations shifted to more continuous goal-setting approaches that required frequent conversations between managers and employees
  • Leaders feared that employees might feel cut off from company culture—resulting in a greater effort to engage employees through frequent check-ins
  • Managers lacked previous levels of visibility into an employee’s work—resulting in managers speaking with their team on a more regular basis
  • The informal means used before the pandemic to provide “in-the-moment" feedback to employees disappeared—leading managers to set more frequent conversations

As many organizations implement policies that require the workforce to return to the office for some portion of the week, it’ll be tempting for managers to let go of these habits—this would be unwise.

Our findings reveal that 70% of employees want more daily or weekly check-ins than they’re having with their managers. Although low as compared with other levers, connection has a significant positive impact on manager effectiveness (see Figure 13).

Organizations with ineffective managers could end up losing critical talent. While the impact isn’t necessarily high, we believe it’s just as important because of how it impacts other PM levers for a few reasons:

  1. Companies need to foster connections through regular and frequent conversations. This is especially critical to empowering managers to build trust and show candor with their employees. This can have a positive impact on the capability of manager lever, too.
  2. A culture of feedback and clarity requires frequent conversations. Quick check-ins are a great way for managers to give “in-the-moment feedback,” and clarify employee goals and expectations. This can have a significant impact on the culture lever as well.
The connection lever has a positive impact on talent and business outcomes

Figure 13: Impact of connection lever on organizational outcomes. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Role of connection

We believe that building and managing connections will continue to be important—if not more so—as hybrid work becomes a reality for many. A few reasons for this include:

  • Addressing the “fear of missing out” (FOMO). Employees who continue to work entirely from home or for some portion of the week might experience anxiety due to the fear of missing critical information or being left out of important decisions. Frequent check-ins with their managers can provide opportunities for employees to discuss and address such concerns, as well as alleviate their sense of FOMO.
  • Staying connected. Employees need to feel connected with their workplace and a part of the company culture—which can be challenging to maintain in a hybrid work environment. Connections built through informal check-ins can assuage some of the fears and feelings of being disconnected.
  • Avoiding bias and discrimination. Because remote work offers a better experience for women and people of color, they’re more likely to prefer working from home than others. Organizations must provide and promote opportunities for frequent conversations between employees and managers in a hybrid workplace setting to avoid proximity bias from creeping in. Regular conversations can help address concerns, provide the necessary support, and ensure they’re not forgotten or passed over for development opportunities.

Figure 14 provides an overview of this third lever in our PM model.

There are 2 aspects of connection that organizations should focus on

Figure 14: Aspects of the connection lever from the 3C model for modern performance management. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Highest priority practices to change

As we mentioned earlier, connection's impact on organizational outcomes is low as compared with other PM levers. However, organizations mustn’t ignore this lever for a few reasons:

  • Employees want more conversations. Our survey findings show that about 70% of employees want more daily or weekly check-ins than they currently have
  • Companies need connections to drive the other levers. Those wanting to implement a culture of clarity, feedback, and coaching will find it hard to succeed without implementing processes that encourage frequent conversations and communications between managers and employees

So, what are the specific practices on which organizations focus? Our data reveal one practice that organizations should look to adopt¾quick check-ins. In Figure 15, we outline the practice and the outcome it impacts.

There are specific practices under connection lever that drive talent and business outcomes

Figure 15: Practices that positively impact talent & business outcomes, connection lever. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Spotlight adopts more frequent conversations between employees & managers

Before COVID-19, Spotlight, an analyst relations firm, had a PM process in place that consisted of employees and managers having development conversations on an annual or biannual basis. Once the pandemic hit and employees shifted to a remote work environment, a clear need surfaced for more frequent development conversations. Company leaders received feedback from employees asking for more frequent conversations and 1:1s with their managers.

As a result of this feedback, the company:

  • Executed focus groups to understand the specific pain points around its current performance management process as experienced by managers and direct reports
  • Researched practices instituted by other companies to address similar pain points
  • Leveraged technology to make the process easier and execute the changes

Because of these steps, Spotlight was able to redesign its PM process—so it’s now comprised of practices, such as providing continuous feedback, weekly check-ins, and monthly 1:1s with managers.

Early results from these efforts show that employees generally report a more positive experience with their managers. The company has seen an increase in employee scores on questions around employee relationships with their managers, their levels of trust toward them, and development investment from them.

UCHealth makes conversations an integral part of its PM process

UCHealth’s mission is to improve lives through learning, healing, discovery, and human connection. The healthcare system of hospitals and facilities wants everyone who connects with the organization to have a positive experience, thus making UCHealth an attractive employer in a tight marketplace. The company believes that relationships are the most potent and essential lever which leaders can pull to influence behaviors, align employees’ work, and inspire the workforce.

Over 2 years, the company collected data to understand its Employee Value Proposition (EVP) and found 2 things that mattered most to employees and for retention:

  • Personal, instead of transactional, relationships
  • Opportunity for growth

Unfortunately, the existing PM process eroded the company’s EVP as it didn’t help employees focus on growth, improve performance, or build connections with leaders. Instead, it focused on:

  • Evaluating performance to provide ratings for merit-based pay increases and bonuses
  • Giving feedback on past performance
  • Satisfying regulatory and legal requirements and internal processes

After collecting feedback and data through conversations and forums, the organization decided to revamp its PM process. The overall objective was to design a process that:

  • Supports retention
  • Encourages relationships rather than being transactional
  • Helps grow and move talent
  • Provides a forum for comparative rating for merit-based raises
  • Aligns with UCHealth’s overall objectives and mission

In 2019, the Organizational Development and Learning Services team revamped the process to reduce the administrative burden. The following year, it decided to formally shift the focus of performance reviews from evaluation to “Career Conversations” around professional development. “Career Conversations” drive inspiring discussions between employees and their managers about the employee’s performance, growth, and opportunities at UCHealth. They’re mandated for everyone and framed around 3 core sections for all leaders and employees.

Managers begin by asking employees if they’re willing to take on extra and challenging work. Starting with this section allows the organization to focus the bulk of the conversation on discussing growth and career development. Questions in this section are not rated, and encourage useful dialogue between employees and managers. The following 2 sections cover discussions around whether the employee is getting their current job right and if they are a good teammate. The organization evaluates these sections on a 5-point rating scale.

Overall, the new process provides equal opportunity to all employees to manage their development, while simultaneously fulfilling the need for comparative ratings to inform the annual merit pay increase and bonuses.

UCHealth emphasizes that leaders go beyond transactional relationships, and build deep and meaningful connections with employees. It also invests in helping leaders build interpersonal skills—and holds them accountable for meaningful conversations with employees throughout the year through “Career Conversations”, stay interviews, and other informal check-ins.

Because of the critical role that managers play in the new process, the organization:

  • Helps managers improve their interpersonal skills by building deep connections and relationships
  • Provides resources, such as formalized learning opportunities and courses, to help leaders hold conversations
  • Provides opportunities to role-play different scenarios to help leaders prepare for difficult conversations

“The challenge of the next decade for organizations will be to figure out how to create a space where individuals can feel heard, aligned, and part of something bigger while still getting the work done.”

Matthew Gosney, Vice President of Organizational Development and Learning Services

By designing a PM process that puts an onus on building connections and holding meaningful conversations around growth and development, UCHealth is actively working on addressing this challenge and fulfilling its overall mission.

And the results are proof that these efforts are working. The organization improved its internal promotion rate significantly from 37% to 67% over the last 5 years, with considerable improvement over the previous 2 years. The organization is on track to achieve what it sees as the ideal mix of internal versus external hiring.

A secondary benefit of these efforts is improved representation in the company’s talent pipeline. The organization improved its Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) representation in its talent pipeline by 40% in the last 2 years. It also tracks performance metrics around ratings and promotions on the backend, and analyzes them by demographic data to identify biases and discrimination.

What now? Getting started

Now that we know which practices and areas impact performance management, how can organizations get started on applying these across the organization? Different companies have different needs, which means they might focus more on some areas and practices versus others.

One thing is certain—performance management as we know it no longer works.

Companies that redesigned their PM processes in the recent past already see the benefits of doing so. According to our data, in organizations with redesigned PM processes (within the last 2 years), 56% of employees believe their evaluation process is fair and consistent, as compared with only 36% of employees in organizations that haven’t redesigned their PM processes (see Figure 16).

Employees in organizations with redesigned PM perceive the evaluation process to be fair and consistent

Figure 16: Employee perceptions of the fairness & consistency of their performance evaluation, by organizations with / without a recently redesigned PM process. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

So, what should organizations do? In Figure 17, we outline the 5 steps organizations can take to kick-start their modern PM journey.

There are 5 steps organizations can take when starting their modern PM journey

Figure 17: 5 steps to kick-start modern performance management journey. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Step 1: Identify what matters most

While most organizations will agree that engagement, NPS, meeting business goals, and manager effectiveness are all important outcomes they want to drive—each company will differ in which of these outcomes matters the most, given where their individual business is today. This is why the first step to redesigning your PM process should be identifying the outcome you want to impact most.

Our research shows that engagement is one of the primary reasons organizations conduct performance management—and this has changed significantly over the past 2 years. As shown in Figure 18, almost 45% of organizations reportedly managed performance to engage employees in 2021, as compared with only 26% in 2019.

More organizations manage performance to engage employees in 2021 compared to 2019

Figure 18: Percentage of organizations that manage performance to engage employees, 2019 vs. 2021. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

You can better identify your priority areas by:

  • Clarifying your organization’s philosophy for PM—specifically answering the following questions:
    • What are we hoping to achieve by managing performance?
    • How does that tie to our organization’s overall values and purpose?
  • Pinpointing the desired state or the specific outcomes your organization needs to achieve
  • Specifying what the success of PM practices should look like and how it can be measured

For example, a U.K.-based IT consulting company with a history of acquiring many companies follows a very clear philosophy when it comes to performance management. The company conducts PM to help employees understand:

  • Where they currently stand
  • Where the company needs them to be
  • How they can get there

Even though the company made changes to its practices around manager check-ins and goals over the past 2 years due to the pandemic, the overall purpose of managing performance didn’t change.

Step 2: Determine gaps in the current approach & with the 3C model

The next step is to take inventory of the existing practices within the organization, identify the ones that map to the areas you want to impact, and identify the gaps.

Voice gap” is the difference between how much voice and input workers feel they ought to have versus how much they actually have¾that exists between workers and leadership when it comes to topics that impact them in the workplace. Employees want to participate in decision-making around policies and practices that affect them, such as performance management. Therefore 2 of the most important things for organizations to do in this step are to collect feedback and be open to discussions.

Organizations can execute this in several ways. Figure 19 offers a few steps that we’ve outlined.

There are certain practices that organizations can use to audit their current PM approach

Figure 19: Practices to audit your current performance management approach. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

For example, Old Mutual Wealth decided to set a customer-centric strategy to ensure the company meets its business goals and recovers from the financial crisis. The company realized that it needed to leverage performance management to bring the new strategy to life. Leadership identified organization-wide, customer-first behaviors that were incorporated into employee performance reviews, manager feedback systems, and an all-employee survey.

The changes spawned a new culture throughout the organization in which everyone took responsibility for their decisions—starting with the CEO, who clearly said that nobody would be blamed for giving him bad news. Within 12 months, 90% of the firm’s U.K. and European insurance books were replaced by new products aligned with the board’s vision. And Old Mutual’s share price more than doubled in 5 years.

Step 3: Ideate & brainstorm solutions

Once the gaps are identified, you may find it tempting to start work on adding in the missing practices needed to drive performance and to weed out the ones that go against the desired state.

We recommend against doing this—in favor of taking some time to be sure you understand the root cause and gain others’ input before moving forward. Specifically, organizations can take these actions at this stage:

  • Identify root causes of the reasons for the gaps in performance practices
  • Brainstorm potential approaches to address the root causes
  • Test out assumptions on what the implications of those potential approaches would be
  • Consider different variations of practices that could potentially work
  • Conduct research to understand practices adopted by others with similar challenges
  • Do a technology audit to understand how it’s currently used and identify any opportunities for leveraging it more effectively

When it comes to technology, many organizations look to fix a process with technology—but remember: If you simply automate a bad process, then you’re enabling the organization to do bad things faster. Technology should help managers and leaders have better conversations, and provide timely feedback—instead of turning these into tasks for managers to check off their lists. As pointed out by a leader during our research, if managers don’t understand their role in enabling performance and conversations, and giving feedback, then no amount or kind of technology will matter.

Once covered, these steps should make it easy for your organization to narrow down the areas to focus on, allowing it to quickly identify the specific practices needed. Practices for different outcomes should be coordinated and should reinforce each other.

For example, Behavioral Learning Center Inc., a healthcare organization, improved employee engagement and enabled manager effectiveness by adopting a culture of feedback and clarity. New practices adopted by the organization allowed managers to assess and provide continuous feedback to their employees flexibly and frictionlessly.

Managers can also complete evaluations and on-field assessments using smartphone apps, along with initiating feedback as soon as a project is complete. After implementing the tool for real-time feedback, the company witnessed a marked increase in employee engagement, with a decrease of 30% in voluntary turnover.

Step 4: Socialize & refine focus areas

Once the practices and outcomes are identified, the next step is to get feedback. Organizations must continue to refine the focus areas by soliciting feedback on what is and isn’t working. Again, organizations should seek input from employees and managers about their pain points with the new process and the challenges they face.

For example, when an IT consulting company decided in early 2022 to change its performance appraisal process and the role managers play, the company made sure it had support and buy-in from executive leadership. The affirmation from the top helped socialize and communicate the importance of the changes to the other leaders.

The company also refined its focus areas by coaching less tenured managers to ensure they have the necessary skills to lead their teams. In addition to providing training and courses for them, the company looked toward the more experienced and senior managers to support these efforts.

Another essential element to sharing information and continued refinement is using data and insights to track and identify areas of improvement. In 2019, Infosys began using analytics to drive manager enablement in the company.

The company designed “MaQ” (Manager Quotient), a tool to empower the manager community to meet their current and future challenges in a personalized way. The end objective was to make MaQ the one-stop shop for all managers—to find out how they’re doing as managers, as well as chart and track their L&D paths to improve their managerial styles.

Within 12 months, more than 51% of its people managers were using MaQ to either view their assessments or learn small nuggets on managerial effectiveness.

Step 5: Communicate & manage change

Communication must start at the top and be reinforced at every level. Organizations should use different channels on hand to socialize the message around those practices and behaviors that need to be changed. These messages must clearly explain why this is important, and how they align with the business objectives and priorities. The communications should cover 3 core areas (see Figure 20).

Organizations should think about the why, what, and how when communicating PM changes

Figure 20: Communicating performance management changes. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Many organizations see the PM designing process as once and done. If the past 2 years have taught us anything, it’s that you can never be entirely prepared for what comes next. With hybrid work as the preferred option for many, organizations will constantly have to be vigilant and monitor those areas that will define their next steps.

To that end, we encourage organizations to focus on how they can continue to make PM relevant for the future—and enable employees to perform to the best of their abilities in a constantly changing environment. This means organizations need to put in place a plan to ensure which practices and processes are revisited and reviewed regularly. Decisions to revisit or reform PM practices can be driven by several factors, such as response to a crisis, declining employee productivity and engagement levels, or a change in leadership.

At a minimum, organizations must always keep a check on the “employee pulse” to understand the value they’re getting from the existing processes. By making sure they’re checking with employees and regularly collecting their feedback, organizations can determine which areas they’ll potentially need to focus on and the steps that can help them get there.


With rising consumer prices, talks of an impending recession, a national baby formula shortage in the U.S., and mass shootings, the first half of 2022 has been rocky for many of us, to say the least. The pandemic has blurred the lines between personal and professional, and there’s little evidence of things returning to how they were 2 years ago. Companies looking to retain and develop their talent will likely find themselves pressed to do more to help employees address challenges. One such thing that companies can do is build a PM process that is fair, transparent, and free of bias.

By focusing on culture, building manager capabilities, and encouraging connections, organizations can better engage employees and improve manager effectiveness while meeting their business goals. Organizations should proactively plan and integrate these practices when designing performance management for hybrid work.

Given the ongoing and upcoming changes surrounding the workplace and hybrid working, many organizations will likely revisit their existing PM practices. Whether they listen to their employees and implement processes that ultimately help them develop and perform their best remains to be seen.

Choosing learning methods that “fit” your org

Posted on Tuesday, June 14th, 2022 at 2:09 PM    

The goal is fit

In times of crisis and uncertainty, organizations tend to default to what they know best.

At the height of the pandemic, for example, more than one L&D leader asked me the best way to get all of their classroom training online. While we have accepted for years that learning happens all the time in all the places, one little global pandemic threw L&D back into classroom mindset.

In the process of climbing out of the pandemic, however, a lot of people practices got better. And that is particularly true of learning and development. Managers got better at giving feedback; L&D got better at offering existing resources; and tech made it easier to personalize learning for employees more broadly.

The list of options organizations recognizes for developing employees is long. We know because we classified them all last fall in our study: Next Gen Learning Methods: What to use, how to choose, and when to cut them loose. And while knowing the universe of tools available is helpful, it can also be overwhelming. As Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group said:

It's the idea of using methods in a more integrated fashion. It's choosing the right method for the right purpose.

Our most recent study is aimed directly at that problem. It isn’t enough to know what’s available. L&D leaders must also know how to choose learning methods that fit their organization. What do we mean by fit? We mean:

• How well does it fit the business need?

• How well does it fit the culture?

• How well does it fit the audience?

• How well does it fit the available resources?

Including data from an extensive survey, interviews, and roundtables, our latest study hopefully helps leaders to determine how well methods “fit” with their goals and constraints.

There are 4 things to consider when choosing learning methods that fit your organization.

Figure 1: 4 considerations when choosing fit-for-org learning methods. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

A note: Throughout this report, you’ll see references to learning culture or high learning culture index or a strong learning culture. This measure is an average of 6 questions we asked survey participants:

To what extent are these statements true in your organization?

1. Enables me to plan my career.

2. Enables me to find development opportunities.

3. Enables me to access content and opportunities to grow my skills.

4. Enables me to experiment with new knowledge and skills.

5. Enables me to connect with others for learning.

6. Enables me to perform better in my current role.

The average of these 6 questions gives us a good indication of how well organizations are building a learning culture. Our research explores how well those organizations with strong learning cultures compare to the rest of the population.

Fit the business need

Choose based on how well a learning method fits your business need

To put it succinctly, learning methods should fit a particular business challenge. Over the past few years, the role of L&D functions has been elevated, as senior leaders have asked them to lead reskilling, mobility, and in some cases DEIB initiatives. More L&D pros are also being asked to participate in workforce planning and talent mobility discussions. As a result, we have seen a shift in L&D’s mindset: from caring mostly about how the employee will engage (which is still important) to a more balanced approach that also carefully considers the business need.

We saw this different mindset in our interviews and at our roundtable. Gina Mouch, Senior Training Specialist at the University of Michigan, got right to the point when asked how her organization chooses learning methods:

It really depends on the business goal.

We also saw this mindset reflected in the cold, hard data. Figure 2 shows us that 80% of L&D pros in organizations with a high learning culture index consider the business challenge to a significant extent when determining which methods they should invest in. That is a whopping 34 percentage points more than their peers in other organizations.

L&D pros, in high learning cultures, significantly rely on business needs when identifying development methods

Figure 2: % L&D pros, in high learning cultures, significantly rely on business challenge criteria when identifying development methods compared to L&D pros in other organizations, n=162. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Just as interestingly, while their peers in other organizations listed cost as the number 1 way to choose a learning method, organizations with a high learning culture index listed cost as 4th, after business challenge, implementation, and procurement.

While some organizations are already doing this, it bears repeating: start with the business reason for any employee development initiative. As Chris Casement, previously Managing Consultant for System-Wide Learning and Innovation at Sutter Health said:

The reason we implemented that mentoring program was tied to a business reason.

Measure how well a learning method fits by looking at business results—not smile sheets

While implementing methods that align with business goals is key, investing in methods that meet those goals is equally important.

When L&D pros were asked how L&D understands the methods that are most valuable to employees, again, those with high learning culture indexes relied more heavily on all the approaches we asked about more than their peers in other organizations.

L&D pros consider business results when choosing the most valuable methods.

Figure 3: % L&D pros, in high learning cultures, use certain approaches to understand what methods are most valuable to employees, compared to everyone else, n=162. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Of note: the number 1 way L&D pros in high learning index organizations determine what is valuable is how well a method meets business needs. Usage data and evaluations follow closely.

L&D functions with strong learning cultures are measuring their learning methods against business results and keeping an eye on how valuable (or frequently used) those methods are to their employees.

Other organizations are still highly reliant on evaluations (their number 1 answer), followed by anecdotal feedback.

The sheer difference in reliance on these methods is jarring: 42 percentage points for business results and 26 percentage points for usage data.

This indicates that those organizations with strong learning cultures are listening more—not just with their ears, but with data—to understand what learning methods are important and valuable.

Real World Thread – Learning methods that meet a business need

L&D functions hold more ownership over big workforce development initiatives that allow them to respond to business challenges. At Healthcare Consultancy Group, Elizabeth Robinson, EVP of Talent Development, is an influential L&D leader who recognized the organizational need to upskill her workforce.

To do this, she and her team began using skills assessments. These assessments are intended to measure an employee’s skills around each of the organization’s core competencies. Based on the results, L&D then helps employees to craft intentional learning pathways to address any skill gaps.

For example, they currently have a research-based profiler that looks at eight different skills needed for innovation, one of the organization’s core competencies. Based on the results, L&D assists the employee by mapping out various learning and development activities. The goal is to build the employee’s innovation skills in a pathway that’s customized to them. Elizabeth was able to meet the business challenge by maintaining a sharp understanding of the organization’s current state and creating a solution using learning methods that aligned with its needs.

Fit the culture

Balance methods that support all learning behaviors

Culture is often defined as “the way we do things around here.” Implicit in that definition is “doing” things. Learning cultures, then, are defined by learning or development behaviors employees demonstrate.

Enter RedThread’s Employee Development Framework. This framework describes the behaviors organizations should encourage and enable for a strong learning culture. Figure 4 shows these 6 behaviors and the learning methods that align with them.

66 learning methods categorized into 6 behaviors within Employee Development Framework.

Figure 4: Learning methods in Employee Development Framework. Source: RedThread Research, 2021

When choosing learning methods, organizations should understand what their options are, and which behaviors the methods are likely to encourage or enable.

The goal is not to invest in all methods, but to identify methods within each behavior that work within the confines of the organization.

As such, learning functions should understand

  • The extent of the learning methods they are providing or enabling
  • The alignment of those learning methods to the behaviors they’re trying to encourage
  • The effect those learning methods are having in promoting that behavior

An easy way to think about it may be to visualize all the methods associated with all of the employee development behaviors as the entire universe. Organizations should be looking for the constellation that works best for their organization.

Strongly consider the methods that matter more to learning culture

Much to our surprise, our research revealed a number of learning methods impact learning culture more than the rest.

While learning methods are only a portion of how a learning culture is enabled, they do play a role. In fact, when we statistically analyzed the 49 methods, we collected data on to determine what (if any) effect they had on learning culture, a model emerged that identified 13 learning methods.

There are 13 methods that support a strong learning culture, organizations should invest in these.

Figure 5: 13 methods for a strong learning culture and the behaviors they support, n=1532. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

Together, these 13 learning methods explain 23% of learning culture. Figure 5 describes these methods and categorizes them by the learning culture behavior they support.

While that number may not seem huge, it is significant. Organizations can account for 23% of their culture by implementing and supporting these 13 methods.

Organizations should consider how they are utilizing and enabling these methods. Organizations can ask themselves:

  • To what extent are these methods available to employees?
  • How well does our organization enable these methods?
  • What role can L&D play in ensuring their availability?
  • How do these methods integrate with others offered?
  • How well do these methods integrate with the organizational culture?
  • How do these methods connect employees to each other?

Experiment to find methods that fit your culture

Choosing the right learning methods for a given organization is often about experimentation. There are no hard and fast rules on what will work best within a given culture, so L&D functions often find themselves using trial and error to determine which ones are best.

Interestingly, our data showed that organizations with high learning culture indexes are experimenting more than other organizations (Figure 6). That is, they aren’t putting all their eggs into a single metaphorical learning method basket.

L&D pros in high-learning cultures who experiment with new methods to a significant extent.

Figure 6: % of L&D pros in high-learning cultures who experiment with new methods to a significant extent, n=91. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

Chris Casement, previous Managing Consultant for System Wide Learning and Innovation at Sutter Health, saw this to be true within his organization:

What the pandemic enabled us to do is jump ahead about 4 years on some pioneering experiments and push the envelope on how we engage people through different mediums.

In our conversations with leaders, we found that L&D functions approach the alignment of methods to culture a bit differently than other organizations. These high learning culture organizations tend to be more:

Flexible and agile

Organizations that experiment more tend to adopt flexible and agile mindsets and systems, allowing them to quickly adjust when it becomes apparent that changes need to be made to the methods they have chosen.


Learning leaders in organizations where experimentation is prevalent are more apt to use data for decision-making. More of them tend to run controlled experiments, use A/B testing, and examine usage data to determine if learning methods are working.


L&D functions that experiment tend to be more circumspect, meaning that they are less likely to fall in love with a solution and implement it with brute force. They tend to take a wider view of learning methods, determining if and how they fit and sunsetting them if they don’t.

It also turns out that organizations with high learning culture indexes also just use more methods than everyone else. On average, those in high learning cultures support 21 methods compared to everyone else, who support an average of just 10 methods (Figure 7).

High learning culture support more methods compared to everyone else.

Figure 7: Number of learning methods supported in high-learning cultures vs everyone else, n=1533. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group, expressed her support for this sentiment:

We're using most methods, but we want to make sure that we are pushing ourselves on how we use those methods, strategically and creatively.

While we’re certainly not preaching quantity over quality, we are finding that experimentation and using more methods go hand in hand. Organizations that consistently experiment spend their energy identifying the best methods for their broad employee base.

Don’t forget human connection

We’re at a point in history where human connection really matters. Before the pandemic, many learning strategies (and the tech that supported them) focused on self-service learning—the Netflix of learning, as some people called it—and the ability to both scale and personalize development opportunities with tech.

We’re seeing the pendulum swing, however. Spending 2 years alone in our home offices has taken its toll, and organizations are now actively seeking ways to bring humans together. This effort is particularly important as organizations navigate their way through hybrid and remote work.

The desire to connect is also manifesting in employee development, and came through loud and clear in our roundtable and interviews for this study.

A talent development leader working at a large manufacturing organization we spoke to recognizes the role L&D functions can play in connecting people:

Because so many are now faced with all these ripple effects of what's happening, one of our priorities is to create more opportunities for learning that connects people.

Given this desire for connection and the role L&D can play, leaders are carefully considering the methods they’re investing in and deliberately choosing those that bring people together.

We found that over half of the 49 methods we investigated involve at least 1 other human for learning to take place. (Peer or manager feedback, for example, requires personal connection, whereas something like internet does not.)

Over half of the learning methods we identified involve a high level of human touch.

Figure 8: Methods and their usage, by high, medium, and low human touch, n=1532. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

We think human connection is an important variable, both because many organizations desire to reconnect, and because human interaction introduces other challenges to consider: lift on the organization (which we’ll talk about in a minute), variability to the learning experience, and additional systems and processes. Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group puts it this way:

Yes, having more connection in terms of communities of practice and mentoring and coaching to further support development—it's a really important thing for us right now.

As organizations identify the methods to invest in they should consider the level of human touch for each, and its ultimate cost and benefit.

Use methods that fit people into other methods

One of the oldest new ideas in L&D is that of blended learning. For decades, L&D teams have been identifying ways to use several methods together to teach courses or concepts. This seems to have become even more important since the pandemic.

Figure 9 shows learning methods that have strong correlations: the darker the square on the chart, the more likely it is that the organization offers both types of learning methods (row and column).

Connect methods correlate more with more methods than any other behavior.

Figure 9: Correlation matrix of learning methods representing correlations greater than 0.5. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

Interestingly, the Connect behavior correlated more with other methods than any other behavior. It had both high and numerous correlations with learning methods within its Connect category as well as with other behaviors.

Leaders we spoke to backed this up. Christel Londt, Last Mile Capability Manager, said,

started to move away from traditional e-learning because people just don't retain the knowledge. Now we combine e-learning with discussion forums and role-playing—we want people to build a community to share their learning and experiences with one another.

In our roundtable, leaders spoke of particular methods they are using to add a human element, including

  • Remote classes with an attached lab or cohort aspect
  • Coaching as part of leadership development
  • Manager involvement in employee development initiatives
  • Communities of practice with a mentoring aspect

This research backs what we’ve known for ages: people learn from people. But we’re seeing new iterations as some of these methods become both more measurable, digitally enabled, and integrated with the work itself. We’re excited to see what comes next.

Real World Thread – A mentoring program to ignite connection

Employees want to learn by connecting with those inside and outside their organization.

Chris Casement, who used to be a Managing Consultant responsible for system-wide learning and training at Sutter Health, saw the desire to learn via connections. In response, his team supported a variety of hybrid programs, including a new-grad mentorship program for incoming nurses at Sutter Health.

Being in the healthcare industry for many years, Chris knows about the impact of high turnover and burnout rates on nurses. Post pandemic, it's even more critical to support new nursing graduates as they transition into a new job and signal to nurses looking for a job that they won’t be alone here, they’ll be developed and supported.

By the end of this mentoring program's first year, the number of mentors increased from 3 to 25. Chris attributed much of the program's success to how it was built, delivered, and enabled by human connections.

Fit the audience

Consider overall preferences in your organization

While some methods can be tied specifically to a stronger learning culture, the appropriateness or fit for many of them depend on the target audience. To this end, L&D functions should consider their audience, its needs, and its preferences as they round out their offerings. Christel Londt, Last Mile Capability Manager said:

We analyze the needs of our target audience, understand their requirements, which helps us determine what will work best for them.

It should also be noted that the methods that fall under the Discover behavior aren’t actually used for learning per se, but rather for finding opportunities for learning. After much debate, we left them blended in with the other methods, as we feel that discovery of development opportunities is key to a strong learning culture.

Top 25 methods most relied on by all employees

Figure 10: Top 25 overall methods, n=1609. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

A few high-level observations about the entire audience—all job levels, locations, business sizes, and industries—before we dive into different sub cuts:

  • All but 1 of the top 25 methods tie to all of the behaviors of a strong learning culture. None of the methods in the Top 25 are tied to Experiment behavior. This isn’t surprising, but it is slightly disappointing.
  • All the methods in the Discover behavior made this list, except for Automated Recommendations. Employees rely heavily on these methods to identify opportunities for learning.
  • Most learning behaviors have an outlier method– one that is relied upon significantly more than the rest.

While this data and these observations can be useful to L&D functions, the data becomes even more interesting when we looked at different cuts.

Because learning cultures are nuanced, we compared reliance on learning methods across different groups. Our data showed some subtle and some not so subtle differences that are worth considering when choosing what to invest in. We explore these subsequently.

Use methods that fit the management level

Not too surprisingly, employees at different leadership levels rely on different learning methods (Figure 11). This was particularly true of the senior leaders who participated in our study.

Senior leaders rely on different methods compared to managers and individual contributors.

Figure 11: Comparison between senior leaders, managers, and individual contributors, n=1609. Source: RedThread Research, 2022

Many L&D functions (and leadership development functions) intuitively take some of these differences into account. As employees move up the proverbial leadership ladder, some things change. For example,

  • Senior leaders likely don’t have the same leadership support that others lower in the organization might (because they may be near the top).
  • Senior leaders often have responsibility for strategy and sensing—both of which are often supported better with external resources (professional networks, videos, articles).
  • Senior leaders leverage relationships and connection to get work done, and apparently to learn as well. They are more likely to leverage social and professional networks, peer feedback, and customer feedback.

Methods for individual contributors—and to a large extent, managers—tend to be the ones that help them perform in their roles (manager feedback, formal reviews, peer feedback). These employees also rely more on methods that are provided directly by the organization.

Choose methods that fit org size and maturity

This likely goes without saying: organizations should focus on methods appropriate for their size. It might be unreasonable, for example, for a 20-person organization to create all kinds of custom e-learning.

Interestingly, though, the methods employees relied on didn’t differ much between large organizations and small organizations.

In fact, most statistically significant differences could be tied to the maturity of the people processes in the organization. In other words, employees appear to rely on whatever they have access to.

For example, in Figure 12, goal setting is relied on more within midsize and large organizations. This seems consistent with the fact that by the time an organization reaches midsize, goal-setting systems are usually in place. For small organizations, goal setting is not relied on as much because that method is not standardized yet.

Larger organizations rely on methods that reflect their maturity.

Figure 12: Top methods relied on in large organizations compared to reliance in methods in midsize and and small organizations (significant differences only), N=1609.

This gives us a small hint not just about the methods employees would prefer and rely on, but also the methods that organizations are offering.

Figure 12 clearly shows that large and even midsize organizations are apt to have more systems and processes in place that aid in employee development.

This is interesting on 2 fronts. First, L&D functions in many midsize and large organizations fail to recognize the value of these systems for employee development and may be able to leverage them more. Second, small organizations default to courses for developing their employees (we even made this mistake in our tiny company).

In cases where a full-blown L&D function is not an option, organizations can leverage these other systems, likely already in place, to ensure that employees continue to develop.

Preach what you practice

When we compare how L&D pros learn to how others learn, we see some fairly large differences. We included this nugget just for L&D pros because it highlights a few important points.

First, L&D pros may not be practicing what they preach. Although as a function, they have historically focused on more traditional ways of developing employees, we don’t see any of those methods in their top 10 list. Instead, they are utilizing internet, articles, and professional networks to learn.

L&D pros don't rely much on formal learning for their own development

Figure 13: Top 10 learning methods relied upon by L&D pros, compared to everyone else, n=214 (L&D pros), n=1609 (everyone else). Source: RedThread Research, 2022

From our interviews, we know L&D pros have long been wanting to move away from courses and have started to move in that direction. The knowledge that they aren’t relying on courses much themselves could be a catalyst for change.

Second, we again see the evidence of human connection in this data: 63% of L&D pros significantly rely on professional networks for development, significantly higher than their peers in other functions (by 27 percentage points). They also rely on social networks and peer feedback more than their peers. The takeaway: If it’s important for them, they should be enabling it for others, as well.

Finally, L&D pros have an obvious bent toward learning: of the 49 methods we gathered data on, L&D pros utilize 46 of them at a greater rate than their peers. It’s hardly surprising that they would tend in this direction: it’s their vocation.

So? L&D pros could consider a bias toward learning a potential blind spot, acknowledging that learning may not come as easily or naturally to all employees. Utilizing methods that integrate development into the work itself (like enabling manager and peer feedback) can alleviate some of this bias.

Real World Thread – Choosing the right method for the organization’s size

Organizations should choose learning methods that align to their size and maturity. Larger-sized organizations usually have more institutionalized employee development processes and systems due to the maturity of their organization.

Gina Mouch, a Senior Training Specialist on the Michigan Dining team at the University of Michigan (UofM), understands this concept well. She is one of almost 40,000 employees working at UofM, a university that’s also been around since the 1800s. For employee development in particular, processes for learning and growing staff are not only part of the culture, but they are entrenched into the employee development system.

As a training specialist for over 3 years on the Dining team, Gina relies on standardized processes put in place for employee development. For example, skills assessments are used consistently in the hiring process for Dining staff. It is essential that Gina and her team understand right away where someone needs to upskill and where they are proficient. This helps to drive the development efforts and training content for her staff.

Even now, Gina and her team are looking for ways to further leverage this current process in place to personalize learning for incoming staff as well as start to understand how the focus on skills can add to the value proposition in the hiring process.

Fit your resources

Don't forget low or no cost methods

Like other functions, L&D departments likely undergo a budget approval process toward the end of the fiscal year.

During that process, methods are considered: which ones they will continue to support, which ones they can afford to invest in, and which ones they may have to sunset. Cold hard cash—the cash that shows up on the L&D balance sheet—is a big factor. As one talent leader at a large manufacturing organization said:

Our end goal is to have skill-based career planning, but for budget reasons we've had to postpone that. Now we're trying to use what we have—our LXP—to help people record their goals and skills.

Often, however, L&D functions fail to consider alternatives to expensive methods. Figure 15 classifies the 49 learning methods we have data on into low, medium, and high cost (cost being money out of pocket that shows up on the L&D function’s balance sheet). Each method also shows the percentage of respondents who identified that method as being relied upon significantly.

Interestingly, slightly more than half of the learning methods that employees rely on are low or no cost to the L&D function.

Cost-conscious L&D functions should look for ways to encourage and enable the use of these learning methods, which are less expensive but still meet employees’ needs.

Many learning methods are low or no cost to an organization.

Figure 15: Methods and their usage, by high, medium, and low cost, n=1532. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

For example, Goal Setting and Manager Feedback have high usage, 46% and 52% respectively, and incur low out-of-pocket costs to the L&D function (and in most cases, the organization as a whole).

L&D can partner with other functions across the organization, to provide guidance, reminders, feedback, and data to encourage employees to utilize these methods.

One other observation: Some of the most expensive learning methods are not the ones employees rely upon the most. Granted, this could be because fewer organizations offer them due to their cost, but it may also indicate investments that could be redeployed into more effective options.

L&D should also take time to understand how valuable these learning methods are to their employees before doubling down on them.

Take into account organizational lift

When considering potential learning methods, one of the factors that is often overlooked (or at least not quantified) is the amount of lift on the organization. We define organizational lift as the effort exerted by the organization (IT, PR, managers, leadership, etc.) to implement and support the employee development method.

Interestingly, L&D pros in organizations with a high learning culture index do pay attention to organizational lift. In fact, 61% of L&D pros in high-learning culture organizations significantly consider implementation when determining learning methods, compared to 40% of L&D pros in other organizations. There are 3 reasons it’s important to consider organizational lift.

Investigation may prompt a different method

Often, once L&D functions understand the organizational lift required by a given method, they reconsider the method altogether. Figure 14 classifies the 49 methods we examined into high, medium, and low lift. It also shows the percentage of respondents who rely on the method significantly.

Considering lift can help L&D functions find fit-to-org solutions that still meet employees’ needs.

Think through whom L&D needs to collaborate with to implement a method

Our roundtable and interviews told us that L&D leaders actively collaborate with their peers in other functions to identify the changes to culture, tech, leadership, and communication necessary for getting a learning method off the ground.

In situations where L&D doesn’t own the method outright, their focus should be on, first, accounting for it in a development method, and second, on helping the owner make it more effective and efficient—through processes, necessary aids or guides, skill development, or knowledge.

What shows up on the balance sheet rarely explains the total cost to the organization

Considering organizational lift helps L&D functions identify all costs associated with a given method. Those costs may appear as time, effort, and resources. For example, IDPs (individual development plans) are used broadly and require a fairly large organizational lift. Collecting data about or from IDPs may require extra effort on the part of L&D. Employees and managers will spend time putting them into place and tracking against them. In some cases, software needs to be implemented, maintained, and integrated.

Most organizations utilize IDPs, but they often don’t consider the full lift it requires to get them done. Organizations understand that they’re valuable and would probably do them anyway. But when L&D functions properly take into account the full scope of the lift, they can identify ways to simplify processes, provide tools, and increase communication to make sure they are more effective.

Methods and their usage vary in terms of how much effort or lift is needed by the organization to implement it.

Figure 14: Methods and their usage, by high, medium, and low organizational lift, n=1532. Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real World Thread – Using cost-effective methods for development

L&D teams have always needed to be mindful of cost when choosing learning methods, and this was especially true during the pandemic when profits were uncertain.

For one large organization in New Zealand, the operational demand within the business exploded at the height of the pandemic. They needed additional resources but were under resource constraints. The learning and development team had to quickly and cost-effectively upskill a large part of the organization to support the new demand.

The team decided to create and distribute standard operating procedures, checklists, and job aids to those transitioning to operational roles. These learning methods enabled employees to learn while on the job and fulfilled low-cost criteria. Even the learning and development team had to shift to working as operational staff and saw first-hand the usefulness of the resources they had distributed.

Learning methods that allow workers to learn while doing their jobs have been adopted by other teams across the company as a cost-effective learning strategy.

Wrap up

More than anything, this research has given us empathy for the position of today’s L&D leaders. The decisions they’re facing, coupled with the expectations placed on them, are putting them under a load of pressure.

Choosing the right learning methods may be a small piece of their overall responsibilities, but it’s a balancing act: not all methods work in all situations, and not all methods stay valid in an organization or for a specific function long-term. And the post-pandemic work environment is likely to continue to shift for some time in the future, making learning needs even more fluid.

The good news is that there are choices—lots of them. This body of research has identified 66 methods that contribute to employee development, and provides data on 49 of those methods.

Another piece of good news is that with that data, L&D leaders can be more confident about their choices. No organization needs to consider all the methods. The L&D leader’s role is to consider the universe of methods and choose the constellation that fits best.

And, as a reminder, by fit we mean:

  • How well does it fit the business need?
  • How well does it fit the culture?
  • How well does it fit the audience?
  • How well does it fit the available resources?

We strongly encourage you to complement this study with our previous study on learning methods: Next Gen Learning Methods: What to Use, How to Choose, and When to Let Them Go. If you still have questions, please reach out. We love to learn from you.

Note: for Appendices, including study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.

Small organizations = less than 100 employees. Midsize organizations = 101-1,000 employees. Large organizations = 1,001 employees and above.


People Analytics Technology 2022: Full Report

Posted on Tuesday, June 14th, 2022 at 4:00 AM    

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2021 brought its own set of challenges beyond the continuation of COVID-19: a rise in job resignations, the beginning of high inflation (which is still perniciously present), and the start-stop pattern of planning for hybrid work. Now that we are fully in 2022, we continue to manage those challenges, which are exacerbated by the persistence of COVID and its variants, the war in Ukraine with its far-reaching impacts, and a rise in commodity prices. Leading a business is never easy, but the past few years have been especially volatile.

To address this volatility, leaders have turned to people analytics like never before. When workers weren’t physically present, people analytics provided insights into their needs. When organizations needed to pivot to meet changing customer needs, people analytics helped leaders identify staff with the skills and capabilities to lead those efforts. And when leaders needed to understand why employees were leaving in droves, people analytics provided insights and helped stem the tide. In short, people analytics has been a beacon of rationality and calm in a world that has had little of either during the past few years.

For these reasons, understanding the people analytics technology (PAT) market is more important than ever. These PAT tools are helping millions of leaders make better choices about their people in a time when uncertainty and confusion can cloud decision-making capabilities. Therefore, understanding what’s happening in this market—and what needs to come next—are critical to leaders’ abilities to manage the next phase of volatility and uncertainty yet to come.

Figure 1: Methodology for People Analytics Tech Study 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

This PAT study is our third and builds on the rich knowledge we’ve built up—as well as the feedback our readers have provided to us—over the last few years. As you see in Figure 1, our study relies on 2 vendor surveys, 1 customer survey, and hour-long briefings / demos with most participating vendors.

This study is designed to roll up our insights on the market broadly and provide information on the specific categories within it. For more about specific vendors, check out our People Analytics Tech tool, which vendors can update on a 24/7 basis.

As always, we aim to help you better understand the PAT market and, thus, enable you to make better people decisions with the help of technology. We are grateful to all the vendors and customers who participated in our study—and without whom this report wouldn’t be possible.

After reading this study, if you have further questions, then please reach out to us at [email protected].

Key findings

  1. Employee engagement and experience continue to be the biggest vendor category. Of the 58 vendors in our survey, a large percentage (42%) fall into the employee engagement and experience category—making it the biggest vendor area within our PAT study. It was also the dominating category in 2020, albeit with a smaller percentage of vendors (34%).
  2. 2021 saw the biggest market growth, along with high levels of investment. Based on our calculations, the PAT market size is $3 billion, with a growth rate of 53% for 2020–2021 and a 5-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 80%. Among the vendors, 47% reported receiving investment funding in 2021.
  3. Prices for large customers have gone up. More vendors (34%) are now charging $500,000—$1,000,000 in subscription fees for companies with more than 50,000 employees, as compared with only 23% of vendors in 2020. Conversely, fewer vendors now serve smaller companies than in 2020.
  4. Vendors help customers by focusing on attrition and wellbeing. The vast majority of vendors (73%) reported attrition as a primary talent area of focus in 2021—with almost half also focused on wellbeing, an increase of 14% since 2020.
  5. Use cases are shifting over time, but vendors might be slow in responding. The shift in use cases comes as people analytics practitioners (PAPs) export data out of vendors’ systems for additional analysis in other tools, while non-PAP users increasingly rely on data for business decisions and adopt it Vendors should focus on non-PAP users to ensure continued usage.
  6. Data ethics and privacy are a priority for most vendors. More than 80% of vendors work with their customers to ensure compliance with different legal requirements in different regions and countries. Additionally, more than 70% design guidelines and policies—and align stakeholders around data collection, access, and sharing of insights.
  7. Customers are less satisfied than before, but vendors have high expectations for the future. Average customer Net Promoter Scores® (NPS) for vendors fell to 58 in 2022, as compared with 67 in 2021. Yet, 55% of vendors anticipate more than 30% growth for 2022.

Market trends

Employee engagement & experience continue to dominate the solution market

The largest vendor category (at 42%) in our study continues to be the employee engagement / experience / voice category. This is similar to our 2020 study in which 34% of vendors fell into this category—making it the most dominant (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Vendor Solution Categories, 2021 vs. 2020*† | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

We didn’t find this surprising for a few reasons:

  • Employee engagement / experience has become a top priority for organizations over the past 2 years. As we see in Figure 3, when we asked customers about the top challenges they’re trying to solve for, both employee engagement and experience were among the top 5.
  • The employee engagement / experience software market has traditionally been a busy space with growing potential. According to one source, the total investment made into this market in 2021 was more than $200 million and the total addressable market (TAM) for employee engagement solutions in 2022 is $77 billion. As surveying capabilities became a common commodity in the space, many vendors upped their game by adding measurement and analytics capabilities—thus moving into the people analytics space.

The percentage breakdown for the remaining categories remains similar to what we saw in 2020—suggesting that vendors are both continuing to focus on their areas of expertise and, as our data show later in this report, doubling down on differentiating themselves within their submarkets.

Figure 3: Top 5 Customer Challenges | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Foundry drives employee engagement by using a PAT solution

Foundry, a U.K.-based company that develops creative software for the digital design, media, and entertainment industries, faced a challenge—it lacked a safe space for employees to provide feedback.

In March 2020, Foundry embarked on its first-ever employment engagement survey using a PAT solution that focused on employee engagement.

The results showed that learning and development was one of the biggest areas of concern among employees. For example, more than half of those questioned (54%) agreed that good career opportunities existed for them at Foundry, while only 55% said they had access to the learning and development needed to do their jobs well.

Because of the insights from the data, the company was able to launch a series of efforts aimed at improving employee engagement. For example, the company revamped its internal movement policy with a fair application process to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in applying for any role.

It also put in place a mentoring plan that grew from an initial 20 pairings of mentors and mentees to 50 within the space of 12 months, along with the creation of Foundry Guilds—knowledge-sharing groups that bring together people with similar interests to talk about best practices and challenges.

As a result of its efforts, Foundry’s overall engagement score increased by 11% between the March 2020 and April 2021 surveys.

2021: The biggest market size yet with significant investment

The PAT market grew at an unprecedented rate in 2021. We calculated the market size at more than $3 billion for 2021 (see Figure 4). Overall, the market grew at the following rates:

  • 53% growth rate for 2020—2021
  • 80% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) for the past 5 years

Figure 4: PAT Market Size & Growth, 2016–2021* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

For those who read our 2020 research, you may notice that we’ve updated the revenue numbers for 2017—2020. This is because we have several new participants in our study and a number of older participants provided us with updated figures for previous years.

Vendors indicated that growth has been driven by both new and established customers which expanded their user base beyond people analytics practitioners (PAPs).

Growth’s also been partially driven by significant investments in the space. As Figure 5 shows, almost half of the vendors participating in our study received funding in 2021. Additionally, about one-third of vendors reported undergoing a merger, an acquisition, or some type of ownership change. This isn’t surprising as we know record investments ($30.8 billion by some estimates) had been made in work technologies in 2021.

Figure 5: Measuring How Growth Occurred in the PAT Market for 2021 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Vendors are charging more & moving away from serving smaller companies

When we compare subscription fees vendors charged in 2021 with those of 2020, we observe (see Figure 6):

  • Vendors charge more for very large In 2020, 23% of vendors charged subscription fees in the range of $500,000—$1,000,000 for companies with more than 50,000 employees. In 2021, this increased to 34%.
  • Fewer vendors serve small and midsize A larger percentage of vendors no longer serve companies with fewer than 10,000 employees,:
    • 21% of vendors don’t serve small companies with less than 1,000 employees, as compared with 13% in 2020
    • 13% don’t serve midsize companies with 1,000—10,000 employees, as compared with 5% in 2020
    • Only 8% of vendors offer a low subscription fee of less than $50,000, as compared with 23% in 2020
    • 63% of vendors charge a higher ongoing subscription fee of $50,000—$100,000 for midsize companies, as compared with 43% in 2020

Figure 6: PAT Subscription Fee Range, 2021 vs. 2020* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

While the pandemic made people analytics a must-have for larger companies with enough resources, it’s possible that this also resulted in smaller companies putting their investments in PAT on the backburner since they likely had fewer resources to spare.

“ tool itself is totally effective, there might be 2 challenges: one is the pricing, and the other is consultancy required to effectively translate .”

—Large telecommunications company for an employee network and communications solution

2021 necessitated different approaches

Similar to 2020, vendors quickly responded to customer needs last year. The pandemic, growing resignation rates, and a shift from remote to hybrid work required leaders to seek insights–based on real-time data and from multiple sources–to make the best informed decisions.

Our data reveal that vendors responded to these needs. As with previous years, in 2021 vendors demonstrated a much clearer understanding of their own strengths and the characteristics that set them apart in the market.

As we see in Figure 7, in 2021 vendors differentiated themselves based on their data integration, collection, and engineering capabilities—as well as ease of use—as compared with 2020.

Figure 7: Changes in Primary PAT Capabilities | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Customers appreciated this. When asked about the strengths of the PAT solution they utilize, customers cited ease of use and data integration capabilities among the top 3 (see Figure 8). Additionally, many customers also listed advanced analytics as a top strength. This is likely because multisource analysis platform solutions—that offer predictive analytics, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI)—received a significant number of customer feedback responses.

Figure 8: PAT Vendors’ Top 3 Strengths, According to Customers | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“Extremely knowledgeable team and focused feature set. Solves a massive integration problem that would be impossible otherwise.”

—Small real estate company for an employee engagement / experience / voice solution

Data ethics & privacy are a priority for most vendors, but only some are focused on education

When it comes to data ethics, security, and privacy, the majority of vendors take the lead in collaborating with their customers. As we see in Figure 9, more than 80% of vendors

comply with the different legal requirements in different regions and countries. (This does, of course, make us wonder what the other 17% are doing, but we will take that up with them separately!) Companies increasingly look to their technology partners to understand how policies differ across regions as well as their potential implications.

Figure 9: PAT Vendors’ Role in Data Ethics & Privacy* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

In addition, we also see that many vendors are working closely with their customers to design guidelines and policies, and align stakeholders around data collection, access, and sharing of insights.

The one area in which we see only some vendors taking the lead is education. Our data indicate that about half of vendors reported working with their customers to educate the broader organization on data ethics and privacy. This is a bit surprising and seems counterproductive to their other efforts in the area.

Without helping their customers gain an understanding of the complexities and legal challenges surrounding issues of data ethics, vendors may find it hard to align different stakeholders and move ahead with their work. It’s possible that vendors still see this as a job for the legal teams. However, as adoption of these tools scales across organizations, we hope to see more vendors envisioning this as an integral part of their role.

Use cases are shifting over time

Over the course of our conversations, we began to see that how organizations use PAT is changing, depending on the organization’s level of people analytics sophistication and the type(s) of users. Figure 10 is a simplified depiction of how organizations currently use these technologies.

  • Phase 1. PAPs use vendor tools for understanding a specific HR area (e.g., engagement), integrating data from other HR data sources (e.g., HRIS), and presenting it in dashboards; senior leaders begin to leverage dashboards.
  • Phase 2. PAPs use vendor tools to integrate a broader set of people-related data and some operational data, and provide a continuous stream of data; other leaders increasingly use these more robust dashboards and insights.
  • Phase 3. PAPs use vendor tools to export the integrated data, to add it to a data lake or run additional analyses on tools of their choice, such as Tableau and Power BI; leaders broadly adopt the dashboards and other capabilities to answer business questions.

As shown in Figure 10, once PAPs move to Phase 3, the level of usage of the tool declines for them. Importantly, though, this is when the tools can achieve broader scalability via adoption by business, HR, and people leaders—if the tools target those non-PAP audiences. Unfortunately, most don’t.

Figure 10: A Shift in Use Cases for PAT Solutions | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“Adding users is a bit cumbersome and, depending on the end-user, they may have some difficulty with understanding the complexity if there are a lot of dashboards / reports.”

—Small healthcare company for an employee engagement / experience / voice solution

Overall, customers aren’t as happy as before, but multisource analysis platforms are a bright spot

We saw a dip in customer satisfaction levels for 2021 when compared with 2020. Specifically, we saw a decline in NPS® from 67 in 2020 to 58 in 2021 (see Figure 11). This NPS is based on 21 vendors with 5 or more customer responses.

Figure 11: Average Customer NPS Score* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

A few potential reasons for the decline in NPS include:

  • Some vendors may not be doing enough to cater to the needs of non-PA leaders, resulting in a poor experience for them (see the first quote below)
  • The pandemic made everything urgent, which shortened the required timeline from deployment to insight: this may have been challenging for many vendors (see the second quote below)
  • With an increasingly crowded market space and rapid growth, theres growing competition, along with customers’ high expectations of vendors to provide unique and differentiating capabilities (see the third quote below)

Given that employee engagement / experience / voice and multisource analysis platforms (MSAPs) are the 2 biggest categories in our study, we analyzed those categories specifically to see if their customer NPS scores varied from the average. As you can see in Figure 12, on average, the multisource analysis platforms received an NPS score of 64, while vendors in the employee engagement / experience / voice category received an average NPS of 58, suggesting that customers are happier with MSAPs, as compared with other vendors.

Figure 12: Average Customer NPS Score for Multisource Analysis & Employee Engagement / Experience / Voice Platforms | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“The concept and idea is good, the analytics is good—but the content and features are not attractive for users.”

—Large technology company for an employee engagement / experience solution


“Flexibility is good for what you can build / do in the application. But for strategic workforce planning, it needs to be more robust and aligned to the overall WFP process if it wants to be a successful player in this competitive market.”

—Small healthcare company for an employee engagement / experience / voice solution


“They do not deliver the roadmap and are way behind what the competition can offer.”

—Large technology company for an employee engagement / experience solution

Vendors have high expectations for 2022 & made business changes to meet them

Vendors expect to see continued growth in the future. Specifically, for 2022 (see Figure 13):

  • All vendors expect growth of at least 6% or more
  • More than half of vendors expect growth greater than 31%

Figure 13: Growth Expected by Vendors in 2022* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Our briefings revealed that vendors expect this growth to be driven by a few factors. Specifically, customers are:

  • Using people analytics to implement and manage hybrid work
  • Exhibiting a growing emphasis on using data and metrics for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)
  • Preparing for more SEC reporting requirements around human capital metrics

The optimism is perhaps also driven by business changes made by vendors to meet customer needs. Vendors reported that they (see Figure 14):

  • Adjusted their products, roadmap, and / or marketing strategy to meet the needs of the changing 2022 environment
  • Are offering greater technical and admin support, as well as resources, to customers as part of their subscription
  • Changed their sales and pricing models

Figure 14: Business Changes Made by Vendors for 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Our briefings also revealed that vendors are actively engaging with the wider customer community to understand emerging issues, and creatively working to help customers solve them—through better data capabilities, partnerships, and expansion into other talent areas. As customers face more nuanced challenges while navigating the complexities of hybrid work, we expect to see more vendors make such business changes.

Vendor capabilities

Vendors are helping solve current challenges

Vendors are actively working on solving the pressing challenges that organizations face today, such as (see Figure 15):

  • Managing employee engagement and experience. Similar to 2020, the top challenge is issues around employee engagement and experience.
  • Enabling action through insights. Companies need help identifying insights that can drive action, prioritizing efforts, and finding areas of need. Several vendors reported this as a primary challenge they’re helping to resolve.
  • Providing insights across areas. Companies need contextual insights to make better decisions―which means pulling in data from many different sources to get a holistic picture. Vendors are increasingly helping customers gain such insights.
  • Designing a data-based HR strategy. Several vendors report helping customers design an HR strategy based on data—linking talent and HR decisions to business outcomes, and identifying objective KPIs to track and measure.
  • Advanced workforce planning. The pandemic recast strategic workforce planning as a priority for companies. Additionally, the conversation around skills has accelerated, making workforce planning a top area of focus.

Figure 15: Top 5 Customer Challenges That Vendor Solutions Help Address | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

C.H. Robinson uses PAT to design return-to-office policies
When the pandemic struck in early 2020, C.H. Robinson, a large transportation and logistics company, knew it needed to bring employees into the conversation. The company leveraged its employee engagement and experience solution to deploy pulse surveys in June 2020 and spring 2021 to measure employee sentiment about returning to work. The data collected from the surveys helped design the company’s plan for supporting new post-pandemic ways of working.

The data revealed that employees had mixed emotions about returning to the office. While about 50% of employees were comfortable with the idea, others were concerned about work-life balance and safety. Employees favored staggered scheduling, physical distancing, and frequent cleaning. The company decided to do a deeper dive into restructuring the post-pandemic work experience.

As a result of the data and feedback collected from employees, the Return to Office team partnered with executive leadership to develop a flexibility model using employee work personas—in-office, 2 hybrid groups, and remote workers. The goal was to ensure that all groups had the support and clarity they needed around how and where each group works.

The company also worked to create:

  • An Employee Experience Journey Map as a guide for understanding the emotional journey for both employees and managers
  • A more robust communication change management plan, targeting different messages to different personas

It also built resources for managers to have a reference for interacting with each of the different employee personas.

Vendors focused on areas of top priority

In addition to asking vendors about the primary challenges they’re helping to resolve, we also asked about the top areas of talent management on which their solutions are focused.

As we see in Figure 16, most vendors (73%) reported attrition and employee engagement as their primary areas of focus. Interestingly, attrition wasn’t even featured among the top 5 areas of primary focus for 2020. This increased attention isn’t surprising, though, when we consider that conversations around the “Great Resignation” dominated a good part of 2021.

Figure 16: Primary Talent Areas of Focus by Vendor Solutions, 2022 vs. 2020* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Another unsurprising, but worth acknowledging, finding—almost half of the vendor solutions in our study now focus on employee wellbeing. The number of vendor solutions focusing on this area grew significantly from 34% in 2020 to 48% in 2021. This growth is primarily driven by the increase in vendors that focus on employee engagement and experience.

As companies continued with remote working in 2021, tracking and managing employee wellbeing has become an integral part of the employee experience. In this new era of growing focus on mental and physical health at work, it’s great to see vendors offer capabilities that allow customers to identify, solve for, and facilitate conversations around burnout, collaboration overload, and isolation.

Real-World Threads

CAPLAN corporation leverages PAT to understand attrition
CAPLAN corporation is an information technology and services company based out of Minato, Tokyo, Japan. The company faced a major hurdle in identifying the reasons for employee turnover as HR had no visibility into people data collected across the employee lifecycle. As a result, significant people decisions were being made solely based on intuition.

Leaders hypothesized that newer workforce members (those with the company for less than 3 years) quit the company at a higher rate. Additionally, they believed that issues with lack of transfers between merged entities within the company might be one of the reasons for the turnover.

Because the company lacked a PAT tool to help visualize the historical data on its employees’ career paths, leaders had no concrete way of testing the hypothesis.

The company decided to leverage a multisource analysis platform to help with the challenge. Connecting employee attributes data revealed that CAPLAN’s hypotheses around newer workforce leaving the company wasn’t true. In fact, the attrition rate for high-tenure employees was higher than that of newer employees. This helped the company realize that it needed to focus on cultivating the careers of the more tenured workforce.

Further, the company discovered that almost no personnel transfers existed between its merged companies. This confirmed for leaders that the company wasn’t functioning as a cohesive unit. By leveraging the PAT solution, CAPLAN found clarity and alignment on wider organizational issues that needed to be addressed to improve its people strategy and processes.

Vendors make it easier to connect data

One of the most positive findings from this year’s study is that vendors are making it easier for customers to pull data from different sources and technologies. As we mentioned earlier, customers also see this as a top strength of PAT solutions.

We expected to see the majority of vendors continue to use traditional methods, such as CSV or flat-file upload, to connect data with a few exceptions. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to see that a large number of vendors have built API integrations, connectors, or some other designed integrations to pull continuous data from different systems.

As we see in Figure 17, almost 50% of vendors have designed integrations to connect data from HRIS systems. While CSV continues to be the method of choice for vendors integrating sales, CRM, and employee survey data, several vendors have built APIs for cloud-based technologies and learning systems. Particularly interesting, we found that more vendors have built APIs to integrate data from work technologies, such as email, Slack, and MS Office365, than use a flat-file upload. This makes sense, given the structure and continuous nature of the data.

Figure 17: Most Common Technologies With Which PAT Solutions Integrate | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Additionally, almost half of the vendors offer capabilities to integrate existing employee data with other internal and external sources (see Figure 18). As companies look to connect more and more data for better contextual insights, we expect to see these capabilities become tablestakes in the future.

Figure 18: Percentage of PAT Vendors That Integrate Internal & External Data | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“Insightful data, good user experience, seamless integration with IT.”

—SMB technology company for an employee engagement / experience / voice solution

Vendors may not be responding quickly enough to changes with end-users

The vast majority of vendors (93%) continue to focus on PAPs as their primary end-user (see Figure 19). Additionally, when compared with previous years, there’s a decline in usage frequency by all other groups except people managers.

Figure 19: Current End-Users, 2019 vs. 2020 vs. 2021* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

This growing gap is indicative of what we heard during our vendor briefings and found in our surveys. Vendors now understand the value propositions their solutions can provide for different users—but they’re not doing enough to attract greater usage from non-PAP users.

We heard from numerous vendors about their efforts to design user experiences around a specific set of users and provide them with targeted capabilities. However, given the significant gap in usage between PAPs and all other users, clearly vendors need to do more. For example, vendors should consider:

  • Surfacing relevant insights for HR and HRBP users that tie in directly with business priorities—benchmarking those against other business units and making it easy to share those insights more broadly
  • Giving tool access to employees, so they can see insights based on data collected about them and compare their own historical performance with that of other teams

For years vendors have said they would expand their end-user focus: We’re still waiting

In our first study in January 2019, we asked vendors the extent to which different users were current users and the extent to which those users would use the solution in 3 years’ time.

Well, now it’s nearly 3 years later. When we compare vendors’ predictions from 2019 about usage rates at the end of 2021 with the actual rates from the end of 2021, it’s a bit dismal (see Figure 20):

  • Business & C-suite leaders. The estimate from 3 years ago was 72%; actual usage is 51%
  • People managers. The estimate from 3 years ago was 81%; actual usage is 56%
  • Employees. The estimate from 3 years ago was 54%; actual usage is 23%

Figure 20: Current End-Users, 2021 vs. 2019 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Here’s the really depressing part: All of those actual usage percentages for 2021 are lower than the actual usage numbers given in 2019.

With the near stagnant levels of usage by non-PA leaders and the shifting use cases we discussed earlier, vendors could face a real challenge if they don’t start providing value to non-PA leaders and thereby increase their usage.

C-suite leaders & employees are the most infrequent users of PAT insights

Current tool usage by non-PAPs has been stagnant for the past 3 years. This can be partially explained by the low frequency with which these groups use insights from their people analytics solutions.

In our survey, we asked vendors to tell us about the frequency of different users receiving and using the insights from their solutions, even if they don’t access the solution themselves. As we see in Figure 21, PAPs are at the top, with more than 60% of vendors reporting that PAPs receive insights from their solution on a daily or weekly basis. Given the critical role that people analytics can play for C-suite and business leaders, it’s surprising to see that only one-third of all vendor solutions provide these user groups with continuous insights. Even more depressing is the fact that only 19% of vendor solutions do this for employees.

Figure 21: Percentage of Vendors Indicating User Groups Receive Insights on a Daily or Weekly Basis | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

As we’ve previously highlighted in our research, insights from people analytics can be crucial for driving the CEO’s agenda and making data-driven people decisions. The pandemic has made this all the more urgent and necessary. Similarly, the pandemic has changed the way employees feel about work. In a recent survey, 50% of employees agreed that the pandemic changed the expectations they have of their employers—one of which is their employer provides them with more control over their work. Sharing insights and data with employees is one way companies can do that.

“ has enabled us to transform to a data-driven HR organization. Not only the HR division makes use of it, it enables line managers unfamiliar with both data and HR to understand and incentivize, to look into their people data through a simple and beautiful UI/UX.”

—SMB media and entertainment company for a multisource analysis platform

Vendors need to offer more targeted capabilities for non-HR users

As we indicated earlier, the near constant level of usage by non-PA leaders could be due to the fact that vendors aren’t providing enough value to other user groups. One way vendors can do this is by providing targeted capabilities that help non-PA leaders use the tools for their own specific purposes. This includes providing them with insights that are relevant for them and are also based on their team data, as well as recommending actions suited to their roles and levels. Some vendors are doing this, but more needs to be done.

As we see in Figure 22, when it comes to non-HR users such as people managers, a little more than half of vendors report providing them with recommendations for relevant analyses. While this is certainly more than the number of vendors doing this for PAPs (34%), it’s not enough—people managers need more support and guidance when it comes to analytics.

Figure 22: Vendor Capabilities Offered by Vendor Solutions, HR Users vs. Non-HR Users* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

If the aim of people analytics is to drive decision-making by putting the right insights in the hands of the right people at the right time, then the majority of vendors are falling behind.

For non-technical users such as people managers who need to take action based on data, a tool that helps them to prioritize based on business needs is critical. Similarly, although 70% of vendor solutions provide customized insights to business and C-suite leaders, there’s certainly room for growth.

Real-World Threads

Uber puts people analytics in the hands of its people leaders
People data housed in different places and systems made it hard for Uber, a large mobility as a service company, to quickly conduct analyses on its workforce across the entire organization—and put needed insights in the hands of its leaders. Answering simple questions around headcount, for example, was often a challenge as no processes were in place to do such analysis on a repeatable and scalable manner.

The company decided to work with a vendor whose solution would allow comprehensive information on its people to be delivered to business leaders through an attractive and intuitive interface.

Uber wanted to empower all business leaders, not just HR leaders, with data and analytics. The company pursued a self-service model that enables users, rather than having a large analytics team do customized analyses with specialized tools and raw data.

The vendor helped design an “Uber People Dashboard” based on a previously used design that was tested with a group of users. The idea was to fast-track 80% of the solution, then iterate to get to a 95% solution by co-developing improvements.

Weekly feedback gathered from users showed that different user groups had very different needs. For example, leaders with small teams didn’t value analysis of headcount or past attrition as much as leaders with 200—300 employees. However, both types of leaders were interested in predictive analytics.

Uber rolled out its new people analytics solution to a broad group of business and HR users over a few quarters. Among business and HR users, more than 50% actively use the solution.

Understanding the PAT market: Our 2×2 matrix

A crowded marketplace

We continue to use our matrix approach to classifying the PAT market, for which we compare 2 aspects of solutions’ capabilities—usage frequency and data sources. (See Appendix 1 for more details; note that a firm’s placement up and to the right in the matrix is not necessarily better.)

The number of logos on our matrix (see Figure 23) has almost doubled since our first PAT study in 2019. A few things caught our attention this year:

  • The majority of new vendor participants have survey capabilities. In particular, we’ve seen a crowding of vendors in the 2 quadrants to the right of the Y axis, indicating a greater focus on more continuous analysis driven by employee listening.
  • More vendors are integrating data than before. We’ve observed the addition of vendors above the X axis, meaning a larger number of vendors are:
    • Pulling disparate internal organizational data (e.g., sales, CRM, learning data, etc.) as well as external data (e.g., labor market data)
    • Combining active data collected directly from employees with passive data, such as metadata or data from collaboration tools (e.g., Slack, MS Teams, etc.)

Figure 23: People Analytics Tech Market Solution Matrix | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

(For information on individual vendors, see our People Analytics Tech vendor tool:

Understanding the market

While the 2×2 matrix is helpful to understand market changes, it’s not necessarily as helpful as it could be to identify the vendors you need to do certain types of analysis. We have, therefore, for the first time with this research, also grouped vendors according to 4 categories of actions that they help practitioners perform (see Figure 24):

  • Plan. Vendors grouped under this category primarily concentrate on helping customers with strategic planning around their current and future workforce, based on internal organizational data and external labor market data. The subcategories within the plan category include:
    • Workforce planning
    • Labor market analysis
  • Manage. In this category, vendors focus on helping customers manage their existing talent by connecting different HR processes under one system. Currently, only one subcategory exists within this area:
    • HCM / HRIS
  • Discover. These vendors help customers discover and identify insights around their existing talent by connecting disparate data sources from HR, as well as non-HR systems. The subcategories include:
    • Multisource analysis platforms
    • Employee networks and communication
  • Engage & learn. Vendors in this category help customers understand their employees—and, thus, engage and develop them by bringing together data collected directly from employees, as well as data from systems in which they work. Subcategories are:
    • Employee engagement / experience / voice
    • Learning analytics

Figure 24: PAT Vendor Solution Categories | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Plan: Workforce planning

As shown in Figure 25, workforce planning technologies integrate data from a range of sources and are used often (depending on the organization’s current talent needs), but not continuously.

Specifically, workforce planning technology can:

  • Enable planning and finance professionals to identify the supply and demand of talent, and plan for current and future talent needs
  • Integrate internal HR data to identify needs with external labor market data to provide insights on workforce supply
  • Provide insights around internal mobility and skills identification

The workforce planning technology market tends to be hot when the talent market is at its extremes—either growing quickly (as we’ve seen for the last 18 months) or contracting rapidly (as we may see soon). It’s during extreme times of change—specifically the need to rapidly acquire talent or to determine which talent must be kept in times of layoffs—that leaders turn to the insights provided by workforce planning.

Figure 25: Workforce Planning Technologies | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

That said, strategic workforce planning works best when it’s done on a regular basis. It takes consistent effort to understand specific talent markets, plan and execute talent strategies, measure change, and then make adjustments. One-off projects don’t fully leverage the power of strategic workforce planning. As data become easier to integrate, our expectation is that strategic workforce planning will be used more consistently within organizations.

“Increased collaboration and accountability (more people involved), increased availability of insights (faster analysis and planning), increased accuracy of workforce needed and its cost.”

—Small professional services company for a workforce planning solution

Plan: Labor market analysis

As shown in Figure 26, labor market analysis technologies integrate data and are used frequently, especially in hot talent markets. In particular, these technologies:

  • Collect and analyze external talent market data (e.g., from the S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but also from LinkedIn and job boards) to help organizations with their current and future hiring needs
  • Help companies understand compensation trends
  • Provide insights into the types of talent that competitors are hiring and in which geographies

Figure 26: Labor Market Analysis Technologies | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

We’re starting to see a focus on skills data by these vendors—a growing trend that’s being driven by the necessity to understand current skills and plan for needed future skills. As a result, we’re seeing labor market analysis platforms collate skills information for organizations from labor market data, such as job vacancy posts, to identify “in-demand” skills and general trends.

Also, we see more partnerships and integrations between labor market analysis platforms and other vendors, particularly those that integrate many data sources. For example:

  • Visier, a multisource analysis platform, partners with EMSI, a labor market analysis vendor, to help customers with job classification and insights on
  • Claro (recently acquired by WilsonHCG) feeds benchmarking data via a widget to another multisource analysis platform, eqtble, to provide customers with insights on the labor market next to their talent metrics.

This is a smart move as it not only allows vendors to leverage more data for better contextual insights, but also makes it easy for users to access more information in one place.

Manage: HCM / HRIS

As shown in Figure 27, HCM / HRIS analysis technologies are less uniform in their distribution on the matrix than are other categories due to how they’re used. Specifically, these technologies:

  • Provide analytics capabilities embedded as part of their HCM / HRIS solution
  • Target HR practitioners as their primary users
  • Cover many talent areas, including candidate selection, attrition, performance, DEIB, compensation / total rewards, and succession planning
  • Conduct analyses based on data primarily collected by the HCM system with capabilities to integrate additional data

A major benefit for customers that use the people analytics technologies offered by their HCM / HRIS systems is that they’re able to access all their data and analyses within one place. Further, they’re often also able to action decisions made as a result of analyses (i.e., increasing the compensation of certain people, approving promotions, or allocating budget for compensation increases). Also, fewer data security and privacy risks exist in this case as all data resides in one system.

The technologies in Figure 27 are leaders in the HCM space and have, in recent years, added people analytics capabilities as part of their solution offerings. For example:

  • ADP offers the ability for customers to integrate external data, as well as employee survey data, and provides insights geared toward front-line managers delivered via their mobile application
  • Workday HCM is able to integrate insights from its Workday Skills Cloud for customers, along with analyzing data from its HCM and financial systems

Figure 27: HCM / HRIS Platforms | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

“So far, the solution has reduced manual tracking of many items. It has a very comprehensive amount of data collection for HR.”

—Small government / military organization for an HCM / HRIS solution

Discover: Multisource analysis platforms

As shown in Figure 28, multisource analysis platforms (MSAPs) tend to be used very frequently and integrate data from other systems. In some cases, MSAPs also create that data.

Specifically, these solutions can:

  • Integrate and analyze data from HR and other operational systems, and distribute insights at appropriate levels of security throughout the organization
  • Provide insights to people analytics and HR leaders—and, increasingly, to business leaders and managers
  • Offer data architecture capabilities along with a data warehouse for storage
  • Offer insights on the skills and behaviors being exhibited in organizations

Figure 28: Multisource Analysis Platforms | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

By bringing together disparate data, MSAPs can create a single, integrated source of data truth that can then be used to answer critical questions about what’s happening with the workforce. Our research shows that effectively using integrated people analytics data can help impact businesses in terms of millions and sometimes billions of dollars. These significant business outcomes are typically the result of people analytics teams working to help answer strategic business questions, with the support of the CHRO and senior business leaders, who make the final decisions.

Yet, the people analytics team is only so big in any organization. By putting data into the hands of more business leaders, managers, and employees, organizations could enable more people to make better, data-backed decisions about people—and, thus, better enable those organizations (and people!) to thrive. This represents a critical future direction for MSAPs.

“It truly democratizes data in a self-service manner across the enterprise and enables people insights to be accessed at scale.”

—Large healthcare company for a multisource analysis platform

Discover: Employee networks & communications

As shown in Figure 29, vendors in this subcategory are mainly used on a continuous basis and can be both data creators as well as integrators. Specifically, the solutions in this space:

  • Collect passive data (from collaboration tools, emails, calendars, ) and / or active data (from surveys, forms, etc.) on employee networks to understand the relationships and collaborative behaviors among them
  • Target people managers, PAPs, and employees as users
  • Provide insights around DEIB, burnout, collaboration patterns and overload, isolation, and wellbeing
  • Offer some of the highest levels of security around data access and privacy due to the nature of data collected

These vendors offer what are commonly referred to as organizational network analysis (ONA) tools. Readers should notice that only one vendor is in the bottom left quadrant of Figure 29, Innovisor. Based on our last briefing with the vendor in 2019, it’s the only one in this subcategory that solely focuses on creating data by collecting information from employees via surveys. All other vendors in this space collect active as well as passive data (data from work technology and collaboration tools), and integrate the 2 data types to provide insights around employee networks.

Figure 29: Employee Networks & Communications Platforms | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

ONA has become especially useful for organizations looking to understand how employee networks have changed over the last 2 years. We know that connections which are important for collaboration and innovation deteriorated with virtual work environments during the pandemic. We expect to see a continued focus on these tools in a hybrid work world as well.

Engage & learn: Learning analysis

As shown in Figure 30, learning analysis platforms tend to be used with different levels of frequency, depending on the vendor and its customers. These technologies can:

  • Provide customers with insights around employee learning, knowledge, and skills
  • Collect data from systems and tools that employees use to learn or work, such as multimodal learning resources (e.g., formal, informal, and on-the-job learning), and employee behavior and performance data
  • Help admins understand utilization and cost implications of different platforms

Figure 30: Learning Analysis Technologies | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

The learning analysis category is sparse because these technologies are still a bit of a niche offering. Many learning organizations are not very mature at using analytics, continuing to rely on Kirkpatrick Level 1 “smile” sheets or rudimentary analysis run in Excel. Further, learning analytics aren’t often within the purview of people analytics practitioners, so PAPs haven’t necessarily been a potential buyer of these technologies.

All that said, there’s clearly a need for learning analysis technologies. For example, as we think about the big push toward understanding skills, a critical part of “upskilling” is in understanding which learning experiences actually drive the acquisition of critical skills sets and the timeline on which those are acquired. Further, as organizations are analyzing how learning happens with hybrid work, they’ll need more sophisticated tools to measure effectiveness. Learning analysis platforms have the potential to provide this type of insights.

Engage & learn: Employee engagement / experience / voice

Representing 42% of the vendors in this year’s survey, employee engagement / experience / voice platforms create data and, in some instances, integrate data from other systems (see Figure 31). They tend to be used very frequently by organizations. Specifically, they can:

  • Help companies track and manage employee engagement, experience, and voice
  • Collect active data from employees via engagement surveys, pulse surveys, and / or feedback forms
  • Collect and integrate passive data from collaboration tools (such as Slack, MS Teams, emails, calendars, )
  • Integrate HR data with non-HR data, such as information from sales and CRMs

The employee engagement / experience / voice category has experienced some of the most significant growth during the pandemic. It’s also seen some of the greatest market activity in the last few years—with Workday purchasing Peakon, Perceptyx purchasing Waggl and Cultivate, and Visier purchasing

Figure 31: Employee Engagement / Experience / Voice Platforms* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

*Yva was acquired by Visier during the compilation of this report. Although it’s featured under “Engage & Learn” in this report, moving forward it’ll be covered in the “Discover” category.

We expect to see employee engagement / experience / voice vendors continuing to augment their survey data (which measure perceptions) with passive “objective” data (that reflects what’s actually happening). This passive data will almost certainly come from collaboration analytics tools—which use the metadata from work tools such as Slack, MS Teams, emails, and calendars, to understand how people work together. Therefore, we also expect to see some action with other vendors in this space, such as Glickon, Network Perspective, RSquared, Swoop Analytics, and Worklytics.

"They are great to work with and the tool works for what we need it for, but still would like the experience side and the engagement side to talk to each other.”

—Large healthcare company for employee engagement and experience solution

Final thoughts

What’s next for the PAT market?

We foresee a few trends for this tech market in the near future.

  • More use of collaboration and digital exhaust. The market is clearly headed in this direction—the recent acquisition of by Visier is an indicator of this. Employers increasingly want to understand how their people work and collaborate, especially in a hybrid world of work. The combination of passive data with active data can help leaders better understand how work gets done.
  • Widgetization of one technology into another. As more and more vendors partner with each other, they look for ways to make it easy for customers to access the different insights. We’re starting to see this with vendors integrating their tools into other software, similar to embedding a We expect to see more vendors adopt this approach to provide customers with greater contextual insights.
  • More partnerships between vendors. We’re already seeing a large number of PAT vendors from different categories partner with each other to provider a broader set of capabilities to their customers. For example:
    • Visier has partnerships in place with Medallia and EMSI
    • Medallia has a partnership with Humanyze

We expect to see such partnerships become more commonplace as organizations adopt hybrid work models, and require new and different types of data to understand and manage their workforce.

Wrapping up

People analytics continues to be a guiding light for many in these turbulent times. Findings from our research show that the PAT market continues to gain momentum and grow stronger. Even though our data revealed lower customer satisfaction scores than we’ve seen in the past, we’re optimistic about the market, and believe in its ability to help lead organizations by separating fact from fiction and myth.

Our vendor briefings and conversations with practitioners further strengthen our belief that the market is moving in the right direction when it comes to solving the toughest challenges faced by its customers, such as:

  • Integrating disparate data
  • Managing employee wellbeing and attrition
  • Understanding skills
  • Providing advanced analytics capabilities to answer workforce-related questions

Vendors are highly optimistic about the future and anticipate more growth moving forward. There’s certainly a growing appetite to work with people data within organizations. We look forward to continuing to watch this market and how it evolves in the coming months, and reporting these changes to you next year.


Appendix 1: Summary of methodology

This study is a culmination of 5 months of qualitative and quantitative research (see Figure 32).

Figure 32: Methodology for People Analytics Tech Study 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

We kicked off our People Analytics Technology study early in 2022—and did a few things differently this year. For example, vendors were required to complete 2 surveys, Vendor and Market, in order to participate in the study (instead of 1 robust survey as in the past). A couple of reasons for this include:

  • Having 2 separate surveys allowed us to capture information and compartmentalize it between market trends and vendor trends more While the majority of findings from the Market survey are included in this report, the information from the Vendor survey are shared in our updated PAT tool.
  • Going forward, our Vendor survey will remain live 24/7—allowing vendors to update us about changes to their solutions as and when they happen, without waiting a full year. The Market survey will be conducted annually.

Similar to previous years, we conducted 60-minute live briefings with 40 vendors and reviewed recorded briefings for 3 of them (vendors had the option of providing prerecorded briefing videos if they preferred). The briefings took place from January to April 2022.

In addition, we also conducted a customer survey. Customers were asked to:

  • Share the challenges they’re using the solution to solve
  • Give feedback on the vendor’s strengths and areas of improvement
  • Determine a customer Net Promoter Score® (NPS) for their vendor

Vendors were also asked to share case studies, representative screenshots of their technologies, and logos with us.

Each vendor was required to receive a minimum of 5 customer reviews to be included in our study, with no limit on how many reviews they could receive. We received 5 or more customer reviews for 21 vendors as of the end of March 2022.

A total of 43 vendors completed our surveys. In addition, publicly available data for 15 vendors were included in the dataset, bringing the total n to 58.

2×2 matrix

Once our qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis were complete, we revisited the 2×2 matrix that we introduced in our 2019 report. Our matrix compares 2 aspects of vendors’ capabilities—usage frequency and data sources. This approach allows us to identify some points of differentiation and categorize vendors in different, meaningful segments.

Understanding the X-axis

Starting with the X-axis (see Figure 33), we range from solutions that users tend to use / access on a frequent basis (e.g., quarterly, bimonthly, or monthly) on the left side of the matrix to solutions that are used on a continuous / always-on basis (e.g., biweekly, weekly, or daily) on the right. Please note: We’re specifically thinking about how frequently users tend to utilize the solution, not the frequency with which it’s updated or can give insights. We focused on user frequency because it allows us to understand, from a practitioner’s perspective, how frequently a solution tends to be used— which can help us understand how and by whom it’s used.

Figure 33: Details of the X Axis from the People Analytics Technology Market Solution Matrix | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

For example, the solutions on the left side of the model tend to be used to consistently check in on specific areas of interest. These are leveraged by HR, people analytics, and other business leaders who are looking to make strategic talent decisions.

As we move toward the right, we see solutions that both provide analysis for strategic, organizational decision-making, and inform users about themselves or their team. Many of these solutions’ typical primary users are people analytics or HR—but the vendors have expanded (or are in the process of expanding) their user groups to include senior leaders, managers, and employees.

On the far-right side of the graphic are solutions that both tend to be used more continuously, which lend themselves to more operational (nonstrategic) adjustments, and alert individuals about their own or their team’s behavior. Obviously, when this type of data is pulled together and analyzed longitudinally, it could inform strategic decision-making as well. These vendors tend to focus more on providing greater accessibility to data and sharing insights directly with employees in the form of nudges, individual reports and dashboards, and notifications.

Understanding the Y-axis

On the Y-axis, we classify solutions as follows—from whether vendors collect (via any method) and “create” the data themselves, as shown at the bottom of the graphic, to whether they integrate the data from other sources (e.g., government data, other third-party solutions, or other internal technologies), shown at the top of the graphic. Note that almost every vendor in our study pulls data from the HR information system (HRIS) for basic demographics, hierarchy, location, and other facts, so we don’t “count” integration with HRIS as one of the integrations on this axis.

Figure 34 indicates how the scale changes. At the bottom of the model, we have solutions that “create” data primarily by collecting it directly from employees (i.e., engagement, onboarding, exit surveys, etc.). Moving up the axis, we add in solutions that collect data as well as integrate other data captured on employees, such as wellbeing or performance management data, via their own tools.

Figure 34: Details of the Y Axis from the People Analytics Technology Market Solution Matrix | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Moving up further (closer to the X-axis), we have solutions that still capture data but also integrate a wide range of data sources (e.g., 360-feedback data, financial / business outcome data, work productivity data like email or Slack / MS Teams, and customer experience data).

Finally, toward the top third of the Y-axis, we have solutions that primarily integrate data from others. Unlike those on the bottom, the majority of these solutions don’t offer the capability to collect data. A number of them work in tandem with those lower down on the matrix as part of the bigger people analytics technology ecosystem.

When we put all of this together, we end up with 4 different quadrants with distinct characteristics (see Figure 35):

  • Accumulated analytics. Vendors in this quadrant rank high in their ability to provide users with a longitudinal view of data, including insights that enable strategic talent decisions. Data tend to be aggregated and integrated from several sources, including external data. The insights from these vendors can be used by teams on a frequent basis to track specific areas of interest.
  • Snapshot analytics. Vendors in this quadrant are data collectors and provide insights that are reviewed for strategic talent decisions on an event-driven basis. These vendors are primarily focused on active data collection, though they may also have some newly introduced data integration capabilities.
  • Targeted analytics. This quadrant includes vendors that focus on a specific talent area (e.g., engagement / experience, performance management, wellness). They collect data directly from employees—enabling both quicker deployment and adoption, and access to insights and analysis by multiple teams on a very frequent or continuous basis. Several of them push insights directly to employees to promote faster action.
  • Guiding analytics. This quadrant includes vendors that integrate data from several different sources and which are used very frequently to continuously. This combination of elements enables users to frequently access deep and broad information that can guide strategic organizational decisions, operational decisions, and individual’s decisions about themselves or their team. Our mental model for solutions in this section is like a guided missile—they can give insights that can change the trajectory quickly.

Figure 35: People Analytics Technology Market Solution Matrix | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

It’s important to note that none of these quadrants is superior to the others. In fact, there’s likely a place for all of them in an organization’s people analytics technology ecosystem. However, by putting technologies into these boxes, we can start to think about what that ecosystem might look like and how organizations might begin to build them.

Appendix 2: Vendor demographics

This year, a total of 43 solutions participated in our study. We included publicly available information for an additional 15 vendors, bringing the total to 58. The demographic breakdown of survey participants by year founded, number of employees, and HQ location is shown in Figures 36–38.

Figure 36: Vendor Founding Year, 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Figure 37: Vendor HQ Locations, 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Figure 38: Number of Employees for Vendors, 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Appendix 3: Customer demographics

We received a total of 128 customer responses. The demographic breakdown for the customer respondents by industry, roles, and number of employees is shown in Figures 39–41.

Figure 39: Customer Respondent Industries, 2022* | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Figure 40: Role / Job Functions of Customer Respondents, 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Figure 41: Number of Employees for Customers, 2022 | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.


Less DEIB training, more learning equity

Posted on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 at 5:52 AM    

L&D's DEIB commitments are growing

As we head further from the catalytic events of summer 2020, it’s heartening to see that organizations are continuing to ramp up efforts on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). For example, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) reported that 39% of organizations have introduced DEIB programs in the past 2 years. And organizations appear committed to continuing this trend: A study by Traliant and WBR Insights reported that 79% of organizations planned to allocate more budget and / or resources to DEIB in 2022 compared to 2021.

Like their broader organizations, L&D functions are doing more to foster DEIB. LinkedIn Learning’s 2 most recent annual workplace learning reports (2022 and 2021) indicate that L&D functions plan to deploy more DEIB programs in 2022 compared to 2021. In addition, more L&D functions said they own or share responsibility for DEIB efforts in their organizations (Figure 1).

L&D commitments to DEIB efforts | Sources: LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Reports, 2021 and 2022

Figure 1: L&D commitments to DEIB efforts  |  Sources: LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Reports, 2021 and 2022

These growing commitments make a lot of sense: L&D functions should be more involved in DEIB efforts. With their broad and cross-functional reach and their ability to influence expectations for the ways people work and interact with one another, L&D functions are uniquely positioned to drive the kind of deep and widespread culture change that DEIB requires. As Emma Birchall, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Ericsson, put it:

You can’t overstate the importance of L&D in DEIB. L&D is the part of the organization that translates the business strategy into signals to individuals and teams about how they execute on the strategy.

Moreover, improving DEIB is (or should be) an enterprise effort. In our experience, DEIB efforts that are seen as 1 group’s job face an uphill battle. DEIB culture change isn’t something that can be achieved if only 1 team, no matter how dedicated and capable, is committed to it.

As L&D functions continue to become more deeply embedded in their organizations’ DEIB efforts, partnering with teams across the organization—especially DEIB teams—will be key. We touch on this idea of partnership throughout this paper.

3 reasons L&D isn’t more effective on improving DEIB (yet)

Despite the growing sense that L&D functions can and should do more to improve the DEIB cultures in their organizations, many are not contributing as effectively as they could. We see 3 reasons for this:

  1. Lack of organizational DEIB policy / guidance. Many of the leaders we talked to said they were waiting for an organizational DEIB strategy to be developed before they started incorporating DEIB into employee development experiences.
  2. Defaulting to training. In many organizations, it’s assumed that training is all L&D functions do (or should do). This can lead to an over-focus on DEIB training as a strategy for effecting change. There’s a good deal of research indicating that one-off, compliance-focused diversity training alone does not improve DEIB in organizations. The article “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” by F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, gives a good overview of why this may be.
  3. L&D’s own blind spots. In the learning survey that we conducted in December 2021, about 75% of L&D respondents were white (Figure 2). This lack of diversity may make it difficult for L&D functions to recognize their own biases. For example, in our survey, 50% of L&D pros who identified as white said their L&D function proactively applies a DEIB lens to learning opportunities. Only 36% of those who did not identify as white agreed with the same statement.
RedThread learning survey L&D respondents by race / ethnicity (n=288) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Figure 2: RedThread learning survey L&D respondents by race / ethnicity (n=288) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021. See appendix for survey methodology and respondent demographics.

Jeffrey M., Senior Manager for Organizational & Leadership Development at a commercial space company, articulated the challenges associated with a lack of diversity within L&D functions in this way:

If you don’t have like me, or someone Latino or Asian on the team, then there’s a certain lack of diversity of thought that’s built into the development opportunities that are offered.

Fortunately, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. There’s a lot that L&D functions can do—starting now—to more effectively drive DEIB cultures in their organizations. That’s the focus of this study.

Focus on learning equity

In our lit review on DEIB & learning, we identified 4 main areas L&D functions consider when approaching DEIB (Figure 3):

  1. Delivering DEIB training. L&D functions deliver training on topics like unconscious bias, with a focus on making the training more effective and “stickier."
  2. Making all training more DEIB. L&D functions adapt the language, visuals, physical and virtual spaces, etc., for all trainings to make them more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
  3. Developing employees’ DEIB skills. L&D functions identify the skills that will drive a DEIB culture in their organizations and focus on enabling employees to develop those key skills.
  4. Focusing on learning equity. L&D functions take a systemic approach to DEIB in employee development. They make the systems and processes of employee development more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
L&D functions consider 4 approaches for their DEIB efforts

Figure 3: 4 ways L&D can improve DEIB in their organizations | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Our research focused on this 4th approach: learning equity. We chose this focus largely because much has been written on the first 3 approaches, but learning equity is a relatively new concept for organizations. This systemic approach was described by Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb:

DEIB has to be not just a piece of what you do, but woven throughout everything you do.

In addition, there’s a correlation between a systemic focus on DEIB and high performance. In our learning survey, 61% of L&D pros in high-performing organizations said their L&D function proactively applies a DEIB lens to employee development, versus 36% of L&D pros in the rest of our dataset.

3 elements of learning equity

Our research indicates that organizations are making development opportunities more diverse, equitable, and inclusive by paying attention to 3 specific aspects of employee development (Figure 4):

Learning equity depends on 3 aspects of employee development: discovery, access, and participation

Figure 4: The 3 elements of learning equity | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

  • Discovery is how employees find out about development opportunities. Employees use a range of formal and informal methods to get information about the opportunities available to them
  • Access is which employees can take advantage of a development opportunity if they want to. Employees’ access to many development opportunities is determined by the organization, often based on an employee’s role, skills, job function, job level, or management status.
  • Participation refers to which employees actually participate in the development opportunities they have access to.

L&D functions should assess Discovery, Access, and Participation in their organizations to identify where systems and processes may be inequitable or hamper diversity and inclusivity. With a more nuanced understanding of where the gaps are, they can take more targeted actions to close those gaps and improve learning equity.


Discovery is a critical component of learning, as it’s what connects employees to the opportunities they need. Some of the ways employees discover opportunities to learn and grow include:

  • Informational emails from the organization
  • Newsletters
  • Assigned or required training
  • Searching / browsing on the internet, intranet, LMS, LXP, or other learning platform
  • Automated recommendations from learning systems
  • Recommendations from senior leaders, managers, peers, or colleagues

Even when several of these methods are available to employees, some groups of people face consistent and systemic barriers to discovering opportunities.

For example, many L&D functions rely on email to share info about development opportunities. But if a large portion of the workforce doesn’t have an email address or can’t easily check their work email regularly, then defaulting to email isn’t an equitable or inclusive method for Discovery. As one roundtable participant put it:

It's inequitable if L&D sends an email about a development opportunity and 30% of your workforce doesn't use email.

We also know—for example, through research we did on DEIB skills—that information about opportunities often flows through informal channels. Some opportunities, like job rotations or special assignments, are open only to those who know about them.

Interestingly, our research found that high-performing organizations make opportunities more transparent (Figure 5). About 81% of employees in high-performing organizations reported their organizations are transparent about the development opportunities that are available, compared to 61% of employees in other organizations.

High-performing organizations make development opportunities more transparent. 81% of respondents vs 61% of respondents agree.

Figure 5: Respondents who agree their organization is transparent about the development opportunities available to employees, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1521) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

L&D functions can make employee development more equitable and inclusive by making all opportunities explicit and transparent to everyone. With this transparency, employees can find and take advantage of the learning that’s right for them.

Making Discovery more equitable and inclusive

This research uncovered a number of challenges associated with Discovery, as well as some effective ways that L&D functions are addressing those challenges.

Challenge 1: Organizations make access to opportunities too narrow

Historically, organizations make development opportunities available only to employees with an immediate or obvious need. In general, this choice applies not just to costly opportunities, but even to the ones that are free or inexpensive.

This narrow focus limits Discovery: Employees are told only about the opportunities that the organization feels they need, rather than having the choice, freedom, and equity to determine their own career path.

Action: Increase transparency about what’s available

To the extent possible, L&D functions can make Discovery more equitable and inclusive by becoming much more transparent about all the development opportunities that are available.

For example, they might:

  • Remove limitations based on role, function, seniority, etc. from what’s visible / searchable in the LMS or LXP
  • Review any matching or recommendation algorithms to ensure they’re equitable and inclusive
  • Communicate directly with employees rather than relying on managers to disseminate information about opportunities
  • If there are different newsletters or email distribution lists for different target audiences, publish those lists and allow employees to opt into them
  • Implement a talent marketplace to make projects, gigs, rotations, jobs, mentoring opportunities, etc. more explicit and discoverable by anyone in the organization. This doesn’t necessarily mean implementing a new tech tool: It can be done in a low-tech / low-cost way with spreadsheets, or it can be an add-on to existing learning or HR systems

Making opportunities visible to everyone, even if not everyone gets Access to them, at least enables employees to see more options—to envision different paths they might pursue.

Challenge 2: Different groups of employees use different methods to discover opportunities

Part of what drives inequities in Discovery is the simple fact that not everyone accesses information in the same way.

In our research, we saw some of the largest and most consistent differences in Discovery between frontline and not-frontline workers. Frontline employees often experience challenges using some of the most common methods that L&D functions rely on to share information about opportunities (e.g., email).

Action: Tailor Discovery method by employee group

Leaders said they put a lot of effort into understanding how different groups of employees discover info about development opportunities. Two specific ideas for uncovering these differences are:

  • Experiment with different channels. Do some A/B testing. Try putting the same message in different communications channels (e.g., email, chat, intranet, etc.). Track open rates and clicks by employee group and by channel to find out who’s accessing the message where. Reach out to the IT team for information from systems the L&D function can’t pull data from.
  • Ask for feedback. Many learning leaders said they value their relationships with Employee Resource Group (ERG) leaders and DEIB team members in part because these individuals can provide insight into how certain employee groups find information about development opportunities.

Mike Murphy, Director of Inclusion and Community Programs at CFA Institute, talked about the importance of having data to identify obstacles to Discovery:

Let’s say I've reached the entire 70-person marketing team but only 12 of the huge IT team. You have to have the data and then ask: What was the obstacle? What's keeping me from getting that message to all the places they are?

With a more nuanced understanding of how different groups of employees acquire information about development opportunities, L&D functions can adjust their efforts to utilize the channels that target audiences rely on the most.

Action: Cast a wide communications net

Another approach is for L&D functions to communicate more, and more widely. Many leaders talked about the need to overcommunicate. They suggested:

  • Repeat messaging multiple times in multiple channels
  • Leverage influencers in the organization—such as ERG leaders—to get the word out about development opportunities
  • Don’t assume tech is best: Think broadly about all the communications channels available. Sometimes paper flyers in a break room are most effective

Leaders emphasized the importance of trying multiple ways of sharing info about development opportunities to increase the chances that all employees will find what they need.

Challenge 3: Some employees have more time and ability to find opportunities

To be sure, employees have a responsibility for their own learning—and part of that responsibility is finding relevant development opportunities.

However, it’s also true that employees’ ability to find opportunities can differ based on the strength of their networks, how much time they can spend looking for opportunities on the clock, their position within the organization, their location, their tech capabilities, and more. Some employees are more privileged in their ability to Discover opportunities than others.

Action: Make Discovery easier for all

L&D functions can make Discovery more equitable and inclusive by making it more automatic and embedded in employees’ work. Some specific ideas include:

  • Embed information about opportunities into the places employees do their work—such as chat, browsers, intranet homepages, point of sale systems, time clock systems, etc.
  • Incorporate information about opportunities into processes that all employees go through, such as performance and development conversations, onboarding, required / compliance training, or open enrollment for benefits. All these events offer touchpoints where employees could potentially share information about their skills and interests and receive information about opportunities.
  • Use tech to match employees with opportunities based on their skills, abilities, experiences, and desires. The recommendation engines in many learning tech systems, especially LXPs, are intended to surface relevant opportunities for employees.

One company makes Discovery easier by asking employees, as part of their regular development planning process, to identify and write down the skills they’d like to work on. This information is fed into the LXP so that it can make recommendations based on those skills.

Real-World Thread: Making Discovery a 2-Way Street

Ericsson, a multinational networking and telecommunications company, has over 100,000 employees around the world. Unsurprisingly, these employees have very different development needs and goals.

To address the challenge of enabling such a varied population to discover development opportunities, Ericsson is taking the burden of Discovery off the employee’s shoulders as much as possible.

To do this, the company is implementing a skills-based learning tech ecosystem that will match employees with opportunities based on their skills signature.

CLO Vidya Krishnan described:

The ecosystem should be intelligent enough that you don’t have to find the opportunities. They find you. It’s a 2-way street.

The skills signature will comprehensively and holistically describe not only what an employee can do now, but what they want to do in the future. This will allow matching algorithms to surface highly relevant opportunities to employees of all kinds.


Access to employee development refers to who can take advantage of a development opportunity if they want to. Access is determined by things like:

  • Nominations for select programs
  • Logins / permissions to view / consume certain courses in an LMS or LXP
  • Manager approval to participate in development opportunities
  • Technology (access to computer, tablet, mobile, good internet, etc.)
  • Technical capability / tech savvy
  • Cost (particularly the ability to pay for opportunities that are then reimbursed)
  • Time zone
  • Language

In the past few years, some organizations have been working to make Access more inclusive. For example, RedThread's research on coaching found they’re offering coaching in various forms to more employees. They’re also opening courses to more participants (which, in many cases, became possible as in-person courses were put online during the pandemic) or removing restrictions on inexpensive or free content.

Valarie Williams-Foy, Organizational & Staff Development Lead at the University of London, described how the university opens Access to all employees:

We were founded on the value of access, as we were the first university in the UK to allow women. We allow anyone to register for any development opportunity.

In high-performing organizations, more respondents agree that employees have equal Access to development opportunities (compared to employees in other organizations). Figure 6 illustrates this difference: In high-performing organizations, 84% of employees agree employees have equal Access, compared to 58% of employees in other organizations.

High-performing organizations offer more equal Access to development opportunities.

Figure 6: Respondents who report people in their organization have equal access to development opportunities, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1521) | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Of the 3 aspects of learning equity, Access is the one with the biggest power differential between employees and organizations. No matter how hard some employees try, they may not be given Access to certain opportunities. This means it’s especially incumbent on organizations to ensure the Access they do provide is as equitable and inclusive as possible.

Making Access more equitable and inclusive

L&D functions are taking targeted actions to address 3 challenges associated with making Access to development opportunities more equitable and inclusive.

Challenge 1: The way skills / abilities are defined, prioritized, and measured may cause Access to be inequitable

In many organizations, there are assumptions and implicit biases that influence how skills and abilities are defined for various tasks and roles. If these assumptions are not reviewed, identified, and addressed, then the criteria used to measure skills and match employees with opportunities may be inherently inequitable.

Action: Make decisions about Access transparent and equitable

As with many DEIB efforts, simply bringing transparency to decisions can help improve equity around who gets Access to development opportunities. To make decisions more transparent, L&D functions can do the following:

  • Establish and publicize standardized criteria for any nomination-based opportunities. Criteria can be based on, for example, employees’ current and needed skills, tenure / experience, and career desires. Leaders in this research noted that it’s important to review nominations to ensure they adhere to the criteria.
  • Review and revise any underlying or foundational documentation—for example, skills or competency definitions—that might inform decisions about Access to development. This effort can ensure the inputs to decisions about Access are themselves as unbiased and inclusive as possible. It’s likely that some of this documentation lives outside the L&D function, so partnering with other functions is critical here.
  • Consider removing human decisions altogether. It’s possible to implement tools or matching processes that can automatically give employees Access to content and opportunities. For example, some internship, apprenticeship, and rotational schemes simply assign people to teams or projects, rather than managers selecting people for their teams.

We particularly like the idea of removing human decisions where possible. In our experience, automatic matches (rather than manager selection) can add more diversity of thought to a team—since nobody is selected for “fit”—and are often more successful than managers or employees might expect.

Challenge 2: Legacy systems, processes, and assumptions can make Access inequitable

Most organizations have legacy systems and processes like HiPo nomination schemes or manager approvals for many opportunities that might limit Access for certain people.

In some cases, for example, managers are reluctant to approve employees’ requests to participate in development opportunities. Often this reluctance is driven by a belief that their teams won’t be able to meet targets if they spend work time learning—or, if the opportunity is a rotation or gig, a fear of losing the employee down the line. In other cases, employees aren’t given Access to courses because the courses aren’t deemed relevant to their work or their career path.

All these legacy systems create potential biases in Access that prevent certain employees from benefitting from some (often highly valuable) development opportunities.

Action: Track Access metrics and step in when something isn’t right

L&D functions can make some of these legacy systems more equitable and inclusive largely by shining a spotlight on who has Access to what, so that inequities become more obvious. To do this, L&D functions can track Access metrics, identify gaps, and step in when something doesn’t look right.

For example, one leader shared that for a HiPo program he ran, he noticed only 9% of nominees were women—when women made up 38% of the target audience for the program. He used this data to get buy-in to rewrite the nomination criteria for the program. The number of women nominees rose shortly thereafter.

Other leaders shared similar stories and emphasized that they couldn’t have intervened or made changes without data. They track access metrics such as:

  • Nomination numbers for select programs / opportunities
  • Amount spent per employee on development
  • Number of employees with access to mentor or sponsorship programs
  • Number of employees who have regular career conversations with their managers

These metrics can be sliced and analyzed by categories like frontline status, gender identity, age, seniority, job level, or race / ethnicity (in some countries). Which data cuts are most important will depend on which employee groups are underrepresented in your organization.

Challenge 3: Logistical and operational barriers can make Access inequitable

Logistical and operational factors like timing, language, tech, and cost can all be barriers to Access. For some employees, particularly those on the front line, it can be difficult to Access development opportunities while on the clock. For others, being in the “wrong” time zone or speaking the “wrong” language might prevent them from accessing development opportunities.

When it comes to online and remote learning, tech access is a big issue for some organizations. Some employees may not have the right device(s) or a strong enough internet connection. Some may not be able to afford better internet if they’re working from home, for example.

And affordability is an issue not only for employees but for companies: It can be expensive for organizations to open up access to more employees.

Action: Collaborate to identify and address common barriers to Access

L&D functions should identify and eliminate as many common barriers to Access as possible. In many cases, this means working with leadership, IT, HR, and other teams to make changes.

To address the time challenge, one approach is to try formats or methods that do not require employees to step away from their work for extended periods of time. Some leaders are experimenting with microlearning, for example, so that employees can access development in short snippets. To address some of the other challenges, L&D functions might:

  • Provide devices to all employees
  • Offer learning stipends and / or prepay for outside opportunities rather than providing reimbursement
  • Offer learning methods that allow for flexible schedules
  • Allow local teams to tailor or translate language
  • Offer events at times that work globally, or multiple access times
  • Open opportunities that have little or no marginal cost per employee to all employees, whether or not the opportunities are directly related to their role

These logistical and operational barriers were cited again and again in the course of this research—yet they may not be entirely within the L&D function’s control to fix. In these cases, having strong relationships with other functions can help pay for and provision some of the solutions suggested here.

Real-World Thread: Tracking Access metrics to improve learning equity

South Africa is 1 of a handful of countries with strict reporting requirements on companies’ training spend. Organizations are required to track and report how much they spend to train different groups of employees. These reports prompt companies to show that they have provided equal training opportunities to all employees.

At one major bank in South Africa, the head of learning solutions points out that this reporting isn’t just a check-the-box exercise. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business because it helps increase the quality of all employees at the bank.

The bank tracks Access metrics like how much money is invested in training people from disadvantaged groups. Reports are broken down by job grade, race, gender, and disability status. The reporting requirements have been tightened in recent years to prevent companies from favoring training spend on certain job levels. These tighter requirements complicate the reporting, but ensure a fair distribution of investment across employees at all levels in the organization. Now, reporting targets are set by job grade and job band to drive equity in investment.

Each year, the company spends a percentage of payroll to develop a certain band of employees, with the goal of developing a strong, diverse pipeline of employees moving into job bands and job functions that currently have less representation.


Participation refers to which and how many employees actually take advantage of the development opportunities available to them. Our past research found that employees participate in employee development by doing 6 things:

  • Planning their development and careers
  • Discovering opportunities (as discussed above)
  • Consuming learning content and experiences
  • Experimenting with knowledge and skills
  • Connecting with others for learning
  • Performing better on the job, and learning while doing it

Participation in development opportunities encompasses all 6 of these behaviors, and there’s a wide variety of methods that employees can use to engage in them. The research we did on learning methods found 66 learning methods, and we’re sure there are more.

High-performing organizations enable more Participation in employee development (Figure 7). For this discussion of learning equity, we broke down our survey respondents’ answers by age, frontline status, gender identity, and race / ethnicity. Across all groups, more employees in high-performing organizations reported their organizations enable them to participate in these 6 employee development behaviors, compared to employees in other organizations. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

High-performing organizations enable more Participation by all employee groups

Figure 7: Respondents who agree their organization enables them to engage in each learning behavior, to a significant or very great extent, by business performance (n=1530). Similar percentages were found when we looked at these 6 behaviors by employee group. | Source: RedThread Research, 2021.

Still, we know that Participation in most organizations isn’t as equitable or inclusive as it could be: Most organizations have groups of employees who aren’t participating in development as much as they could or should. The challenge for L&D functions is to find those groups of people, figure out why they’re not participating, and fix what’s causing those inequities.

Making Participation more equitable and inclusive

We discovered 3 primary challenges associated with Participation, as well as targeted actions that L&D functions can take to address those challenges.

Challenge 1: L&D functions need better insights on Participation

To make Participation as diverse, equitable, and inclusive as possible, L&D functions must understand where the inequities in Participation in their organizations are and what’s driving those differences.

Data is critical to gaining that understanding with some level of detail and nuance. Without data, actions might be well-intentioned and seem reasonable, but potentially lead in the wrong direction.

Action: Analyze Participation data to identify and address inequities

Data about Participation tends to be more readily available than data about Discovery or Access. Most L&D functions track Participation rates: “butts in seats” is one of L&D’s most well-established metrics. If demographic data is available, L&D functions can use it to slice and dice their Participation data to see where there are differences, and to understand who’s taking advantage of which opportunities.

L&D functions can analyze available data to answer questions about Participation such as:

  • How do Participation rates vary by gender, ethnicity, age, frontline status, or other demographics that matter to our organization?
  • What differences in Participation show up if we look at various intersectional identities?
  • Are different groups of employees participating in different types of opportunities—for example, required training vs. stretch or rotational assignments? Who and why?
  • Are some groups of employees spending more time on development opportunities than others? Who and why?
  • Do some groups of employees participate in a greater range of development opportunities than others? Who and why?
  • Do some groups of employees have stronger connections to more senior or more influential people in the organization who can help them grow? Who and why?

Tania Tiippana, an OD consultant working with a multinational manufacturing company, emphasized the importance of gathering data from all employee groups:

I asked, “Do we have data about how things are working in South Korea? In Poland?” We didn’t. So we did a global needs analysis and tracked participation by gender, location, and so on to find the gaps.

Although the answers to the above questions won’t make Participation more diverse, equitable, and inclusive by themselves, they can help L&D functions prioritize and decide where to take action.

Challenge 2: Messaging about opportunities may exclude certain employee groups

The language and visuals used to market development opportunities matter a lot—they’re often what makes the first impression about an opportunity to an employee. If employees perceive that an opportunity is not inclusive of “people like me,” they may choose not to participate.

Many L&D functions are discovering the various ways their organization’s messaging about opportunities isn’t inclusive, from gendered language to images that only show people of particular ages or ethnicities.

Action: Ensure messaging is DEIB

L&D functions appreciate that messaging should be inclusive and applicable to a broad base of employees. We heard of many efforts in L&D functions to broaden the language they used to describe opportunities, particularly ensuring that the language and visuals represented their organization’s employee population. Specifically, L&D functions were:

  • Including broad representation of different genders, ages, races / ethnicities, and worker types (manufacturing, office, retail, etc.) in visuals and language, aligned with the demographics of their workforce
  • Ensuring language does not exclude certain groups of employees—for example, using highly competitive language or analogies that only certain people understand (such as sports metaphors)
  • Implementing processes to regularly review all messaging through a DEIB lens

A number of leaders recommended partnering with the DEIB team to assess how inclusive the messaging for development opportunities is. Many DEIB teams offer fairness audits. They can review messaging and outreach strategies, and make recommendations for improvements.

Challenge 3: Some opportunities aren’t designed inclusively

Sometimes an opportunity might be inequitable or exclusive because it’s not well-designed for certain groups of people. Participant demographics can also be a source of exclusion. If there are no members of underrepresented groups participating in the opportunity—or in the roles an employee might attain through a particular development path—employees considering the opportunity might be less likely to start down that path.

Action: Incorporate diverse perspectives when developing opportunities

One of our favorite insights from this research is that no matter how much we think through something, it's likely to be biased if only a few people are doing the thinking.

Leaders advised doing one simple thing to reduce this bias: Bring more people into the process. There are 2 main ways to do this:

  1. Add perspectives to the L&D function itself. There are lots of ways to bring in new perspectives: permanent hires, special projects, rotations, gigs, internships, apprenticeships, and more. One leader advocated for recruiting people from underrepresented groups to L&D early in their careers, so that there’s a pipeline of more diverse L&D thinkers and leaders into the future.
  2. Ask for feedback. Many, many leaders talked about how they solicit feedback from lots of people in their organizations. They ask for input from ERG leaders, the DEIB team, and focus groups / interviews of employees who are representative of the organization’s employee population.

Based on these diverse perspectives, L&D functions can make changes to things like the format of an opportunity, who participates, or even what opportunities are offered.

Action: Get intentional about demographics

Demographics matter for Participation. But they matter in different ways for different opportunities. Sometimes it makes sense to intentionally build diversity into the participant pool of an opportunity, so that no matter who looks at the opportunity they see someone participating who looks like them. Other times there’s a need to craft development opportunities solely for members of specific underrepresented groups.

The common thread is intentionality. Leaving demographics to chance is where bias and inequity can creep in. This intentionality can also help ensure there is a pipeline of employees from underrepresented groups ready to move into more senior / more visible positions, so that employees coming after can picture themselves on similar paths.

Real-World Thread: Building diverse cohorts

A multinational aerospace corporation has an L&D function that is strongly committed to ensuring diversity within the cohorts that participate in their leadership development programs. There are 3 levels of programs for aspiring, new, and current leaders.

The L&D function believes that if everyone in a cohort looks and thinks the same way, they’re going to get less value from the program. So they scrutinize the demographics of each cohort and ensure each one has diverse representation.

Kevin B., a former DEIB leader at this company and participant in the new leader program, believes that the value he got from the program derived largely from his interactions with other participants. He reflected:

If you have a homogeneous, cookie cutter class, you’re not going to learn a lot. In my cohort, I made tremendous friends with a couple of guys from the UK. I even had someone from the Saudi royal family in my class, which was amazing.

Kevin noted that in some cases it can be helpful to do the opposite—to bring together members from 1 underrepresented group. But in general and for most topics, he believes diverse cohorts learn better from one another.

Wrapping Up

We’ve come away from this research convinced that improving learning equity is one of the best ways L&D functions can contribute to the DEIB efforts in their organizations. Figure 8 summarizes the challenges associated with the 3 elements of learning equity (Discovery, Access, and Participation) and some actions L&D functions can take to address each challenge.

Figure 8: Summary of challenges and actions for the 3 elements of learning equity | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Looking forward, we expect L&D functions will continue to make strides to improve DEIB in their organizations—and we think those strides should be focused on learning equity. We hope the ideas in this paper have given L&D functions some concrete ideas about the steps they can take to move their organizations toward employee development that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all.

Note: for Appendices, including study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.

Future-proofing L&D: Developing the Right Skills

Posted on Tuesday, April 19th, 2022 at 3:21 PM    

In December of 2021, ByteDance, which owns the better-known TikTok, dissolved its learning & development function. According to CNBC, the entire department was let go over the holiday break in a virtual meeting.

Their reason for this drastic move? ByteDance felt that “many learning events, such as online talks of mediocre quality…that could easily be found on the internet didn’t make good use of their employees’ time.” In an internal memo, ByteDance also mentioned that initiatives were more feel-good activities with limited and questionable value.

In short, L&D wasn’t cutting it.

L&D’s Oh Sh!t Moment

The ByteDance story—and other stories we've heard—indicate that L&D functions may be having an "Oh, sh!t!" moment. L&D functions are facing bigger, more complicated challenges than they have before. These challenges are causing L&D functions—and senior leadership—to reevaluate what they do, how they do it, and the skills they need to do it well.

Yet this moment comes at a time when L&D functions have never been more visible. The past 2 years have created renewed awareness of the importance of employee development. Indeed, L&D functions are being called upon to solve some big problems.

Many senior leaders are looking to L&D functions to guide skills, skills data, upskilling, reskilling, and mobility, in an effort to meet the needs of their ever-changing environments. Our data indicate that L&D is being involved in larger strategic discussions and workforce planning in about 50% of high-performing organizations. A percentage that high would have been unheard of a decade ago.

L&D functions are participating in more strategic discussions, both workforce discussions and business strategy.

Additionally, according to Glint's 2021 Employee Well-Being Report, “Opportunities to learn and grow” is the most important driver for a great work culture, a stewardship owned by the L&D function. Employees expect more than page-turner courses or day-long events. And if we connect the dots, opportunities to learn and grow affect culture, productivity, engagement, and retention.

The problems L&D is tackling—upskilling, agile workforces, mobility, work culture—aren’t small. They’re big and important and relevant, which is both a blessing and a curse. L&D has been seeking a “seat at the table” for years. They finally, undeniably, have one. The question now is, do they have the skills they need to do something at that table?

Learning and Development Skills

We want to start by acknowledging that some good work has been done to identify skills L&D pros need. Of note are LPI, ATD, and Training Industry, all of which have capability models outlining L&D skills.

Our intent with this research was not to create another capability model. Instead, we are interested in the skills that L&D pros in high-performing organizations think they will need to focus on developing to meet near-future needs.

All the Skills

To avoid bias (and to make our lives harder), we asked 300 L&D pros the following open-ended question:

What are the top 3 skills you feel L&D functions will need for the future?

We coded their answers, combining those that were similar, and grouped them into larger skills groups.

In all, L&D pros identified 39 skills. These skills were then categorized into 7 skill groups. The graphic below shows the relational focus of these skills and groups. The larger the bubble, the more L&D pros mentioned the skill. The percentages represent the percentage of the total number of skills mentioned that fall into each category.

Skills L&D people think they need for the culture, high performing compared to everyone else.

Figure 2: L&D Skills for the Future n=641. Colored bubbles = high-performing orgs; Gray bubbles = Everyone else. | RedThread Research, 2022

Click graphic to enlarge, or see our infographic for this study.

The skills identified by L&D pros were varied and nuanced. They give some insight into the kinds of challenges L&D pros and functions may be facing.

In fact, in looking at the names of the larger skills groups, we see many indications that L&D’s influence is expanding, as its responsibility:

  • Leadership: skills to lead inside and outside the L&D function
  • Data & Decision-making: skills to use data for making better decisions
  • L&D Core: skills to build the capabilities of the workforce
  • Business Core: skills to understand and align with business strategy
  • Managing Relationships: skills to build and maintain relationships, internal and external to the L&D function
  • Readiness: skills to help individuals and functions readily adapt to changing environments
  • Tech: skills to leverage tech to upskill the workforce

This data—the skills identified by L&D pros—tells us that L&D pros need to be more than just instructional designers. They need to know much more than just adult learning theory. In this day and age, and particularly at this very strange moment in history, they need to be entrenched in the organization.

At the same time, we know that focusing on building all the skills will lead to focusing on none of them. Understanding the 39 skills L&D pros think they need is only the first step.

Understanding the ones they actually need is the next.

Skills in High-performing Organizations

Determining which skills L&D people need is an inexact art. The existing literature bases skills recommendations on expert opinion, asking L&D pros and thought leaders what challenges – and skills – L&D professionals will need next.

We took a slightly different tack. Instead of asking experts, we looked at the data L&D pros provided about the skills they thought they needed for the future. We then asked them how their organizations were performing, using these 4 measures:

  1. Met or exceeded its business goals for the last three years
  2. Responds quickly to marketplace changes
  3. Innovates faster than its competitors do
  4. Customers are more satisfied than its competitors’ customers

We then combined these 4 measures into one score and assigned that score to each L&D pro that gave us data on skills. Finally, we identified those L&D pros with scores in the top 25% to determine which were associated with high-performing organizations.

Finally, we compared the skills that L&D pros in high-performing organizations were focusing on with the ones L&D pros in other organizations named. The results, shown in Figure 3, revealed some interesting differences.

L&D pros focus differently on these skills groups if they are in high-performing orgs

Figure 3: Focus on Skills, L&D Pros in High-performing Organizations vs. L&D pros in other organizations n=641|RedThread Research, 2022

The results got even more interesting when we combined our observations from this data with the insights we gathered from interviews and our roundtable.

Four differences stood out to us. L&D pros in high-performing organizations likely:

Are already focusing on leadership skills

We know that L&D pros in high-performing organizations participate in workforce and strategy discussions significantly more than their counterparts in other organizations.

So while it may look like L&D pros in other organizations are more focused on Leadership skills than those in high-performing organizations, it's likely because they perceive those skills as a need. L&D pros in high-performing organizations have likely already acquired them.

Have already built data into their decision-making process

Anecdotally, higher-performing organizations are more attuned to Data and do more information-gathering, and it is more ingrained in the way they currently operate. Other L&D pros may not have developed these competencies or the systems to support them in their work, resulting in a higher recognition of the need to meet future (or current) needs.

See connecting their work to the business strategy as key

L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus significantly more on Business Core skills. Both the quantitative data and the data collected from our interviews and roundtables indicate that L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to draw more explicit connections between what they do and the goals and strategy of the organization. They also tend to have a deeper understanding of the business goals, and they tend to make decisions based on those goals.

Focus on relationships more than their counterparts do

Finally, as we'll see throughout this report, L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus more on relationships.

High-performing organizations tend to have L&D pros who understand their place in the larger ecosystem and value their relationships with other functions.

These 4 broad differences can give us high-level insight into where L&D pros may want to focus. However, the devil, as they say, is often in the details.

We also saw differences among the 39 individual skills between L&D pros in high-performing organizations and their counterparts in other organizations.

The Skills Groups

In the following sections, we’ll provide more information about each of the 7 skills groups, including the individual skills within each. Our goal is to explore why each group and their respective skills may be important at this point in history.

We’re also interested in the blind spots—the places where L&D functions may be over- or under-emphasizing certain skills. To determine what those blind spots may be, we compare the skills that L&D pros are focusing on in high-performing organizations with other L&D pros may be focusing on.


L&D pros view their own leadership skills as the most important group of skills for the future. Twenty-one percent of all skills mentioned fell within this category.

Leadership skills: consulting, leading others, motivation / engagement, strategic alignment, influencing, coaching , an DEIB.

Figure 4: Leadership skills groups, n=136| RedThread Research, 2022

That 21%, validated by our interviews, are indicators of the breadth of leadership responsibilities L&D pros currently have. Kirsten Jackson, a Director of Leadership Development, told us:

We’ve really done a lot of work in the last couple of years to make sure L&D has a seat at every table—tables at the business function level to understand development needs, but also tables at the enterprise level to understand leadership expectations, goals, and how L&D can support them.

But it isn’t just these significant initiatives that L&D pros find themselves leading. In our research, we found that a lot of L&D functions are becoming much more strategic and intentional about employee development. They offer more learning methods and integrate more development opportunities into the workplace than in the past.

These changes from reactive to proactive, from just-in-case to just-in-time, and from learn-in-a-classroom to learn everywhere, require L&D functions to change the hearts and minds of business leaders and employees alike. Leadership skills like consulting, coaching, and motivation and engagement ensure that L&D professionals will be able to make these adjustments.

Leadership: Blind Spots

These findings don’t constitute hard and fast recommendations. Each L&D function should consider all of the variables – internal and external, that may affect the skills they need. That But we did identify some areas that may be getting either too much focus or not enough from the L&D professional population as a whole.

L&D pros in high-performing orgs focus more on Motivation / Engagement and Coaching.

Figure 5: Leadership skills focus, L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=136 | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on Coaching, Motivation & Engagement, and DEIB

L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus almost twice as much on Coaching and Motivation & Engagement as their counterparts in other organizations.

We have observed that organizations, particularly those adopting hybrid and remote practices, are continuing to look for ways to connect and engage with employees. A stronger focus on Coaching and Motivation & Engagement can help organizations build those connections into their development practices.

Gina Montefusco, Associate Director of L&D, at United Healthcare Group, sees Coaching as a crucial skill for internal L&D leadership as well as external consulting:

Coaching is super important. You can use it to understand your business better and be more comfortable asking questions. I do think that my coaching experience has made me a better consultant overall, because now I ask questions differently.

In our 2022 yearly trends report, we mention that the human is becoming more critical. The fact that L&D pros in high-performing organizations are focusing on skills that further that mission is not lost on us.

We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention the abysmal showing for DEIB skills. While we are happy that this skill showed up at all, the percentage of L&D pros that mentioned it is pretty low. And it's even lower among L&D pros in high-performing organizations.

LinkedIn Learning’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report says that 55% of L&D functions own or share responsibility for DEIB initiatives. L&D pros should be building these skills and looking for opportunities to align their work with DEIB initiatives.

Focus on a broader set of Leadership skills

L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus more evenly across key leadership skills while L&D pros in other organizations tend to focus quite heavily on just some of them.

This uneven focus may mean that L&D pros are putting too much focus on some while ignoring others. For example, L&D pros in other organizations focus more on Consulting (6 percentage points more) and Influencing (7 percentage points more) than those in high-performing organizations.

This focus on specific skills may be key to being effective in their particular organizations, but L&D pros should at least consider how they’re spending their development time and money, and what those skills can get them.

Data & Decision-making

Within Data & Decision-making, the top skill mentioned by L&D pros was Data Analysis. In general, we think that a focus on data skills is good, and it has been missing from most L&D functions for years.

We grouped Data Analysis with other skills used to make better decisions, as Data Analysis is a tool rather than an end unto itself. To be useful, Data Analysis must necessarily be tied to questions, which are ultimately tied to decisions. Other skills in this group are highlighted in Figure 6 below.

Chart, diagram, bubble chartDescription automatically generated

Figure 6: Data & Decision-making skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=113 | RedThread Research, 2022

As L&D pros take active roles in bigger, more strategic conversations, the need for skill in Data Analysis grows. One L&D leader mentioned that data was a language that businesses speak. Data Analysis is crucial for L&D pros as they try to identify the skills organizations and individuals need and then identify experiences that will help them grow those skills.

Many leaders mentioned that they’re looking more deeply at LMS, LXP, and other learning data to understand what their users need. Some have also started to analyze data outside of L&D. Another L&D leader, for example, looks at engagement data:

We look at data from many sources. So, for example, we look at employee engagement scores—questions like, “Do you feel supported by your manager?” This data helps us understand what our leaders will need in the future.

It’s great that L&D is focused on data. Where it gets tricky is how “data” is defined and what other sources L&D pros should be considering, which brings us to a blind spot for Data & Decision-making.

Data & Decision-making: Blind Spots

While L&D pros have started to focus on leveraging data for decision-making, they may be failing to develop other skills that could help them make sounder decisions. And by the way, this is true for all L&D pros. In this case, there was no significant difference for those in high-performing organizations.

Chart shows that L&D pros focus heavily on Data Analysis in this skills group.

Figure 7: Data & Decision-making skills focus, L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=113 | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on different data-gathering skills

Data-gathering skills include External Environment Analysis, Data Literacy, and Research. These activities may not always result in hard numbers, but many of the insights they yield can be key to better decisions. Not all data is quantifiable. Trust us. We're researchers.

Focus more on decision-making skills

Problem-solving and Strategic Thinking fall within this subcategory. Frankly, we’re a little surprised we didn’t hear more about them. As L&D pros exercise these skills, they’ll likely see more possibilities and solutions.

So, to sum up: L&D pros recognize the need for better decision-making. And they recognize that Data Analysis skills are a big part of that. But they shouldn’t develop these skills at the expense of other underdeveloped skills.

L&D Core

Not surprisingly, L&D Core is important to L&D pros. Several pros pointed out the importance of these skills to their job and, if they were a leader, their employees’ jobs.

And rightly so: L&D pros bring an essential and unique skill set—one that no other group has—to help organizations solve the development challenges they face.

Learning Experience Design and Training Delivery top the list of skills L&D pros feel they need in the L&D core skills group.

L&D Core: Training delivery, content curation, Learning Experience Design, Upskill, Content Creation, and Learning Science.

Figure 8: L&D Core skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=105 | RedThread Research, 2022

Training Delivery and Learning Experience Design top the list of essential skills in L&D Core. This is not surprising, given that many L&D pros get degrees and certifications in these skills, and have based their careers on their application.

However, what was surprising was the number of other skills that popped up in this skills group. Human-Centered Design, for example, or the Ability to Upskill, have been recognized only relatively recently as skills that L&D pros need.

Another unsurprising but still growing skill was Content Curation. Its relative prominence hints that L&D pros understand that their responsibilities go much further than creating a course. It may have more to do with assembling the right information and creating the right context and experience.

When we talked to L&D pros about the skills they need specific to L&D, we heard traditional answers, but with a twist. For example, where Training Delivery used to be all about facilitating classroom initiatives, L&D pros mentioned new methods used to “deliver” learning, including coaching, stretch assignments, and external content.

L&D leaders are also looking for broader skill sets when it comes to L&D Core. Ryan Cozens, Learning & Development Lead, Well Health, said:

I think instructional design is an important skill, but it can’t be the only skill. There have to be mindsets and behaviors tied to that. I’m not just looking for someone with the ability to design really incredible self-directed asynchronous learning; I’m looking for someone who understands and can see the bigger picture.

Indeed, L&D Core skills are changing. L&D pros are looking at traditional skills differently, and they're introducing new ones for the future.

L&D Core: Blind Spots

L&D Core skills were the 3rd most important group of skills identified by the L&D pros we surveyed. But, as we saw above, when we look at the focus of L&D pros in high-performing organizations versus those in other organizations, we see they rated L&D Core skills at the same level as Business Core.

Relative differences between focus for L&D pros in high performing orgs and everyone else.

Figure 9: L&D Core skills focus, L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=105| RedThread Research, 2022

That Business Core and L&D Core are considered equally important is telling. It indicates that L&D in high-performing organizations are likely more aligned to and focused on business challenges than more traditional L&D functions.

There are also some key differences between the particular focuses of L&D pros from high-performing organizations focus and those in other organizations. Two caught our eye.

Focus more on Experience Design and Upskilling the Workforce

First, L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus more on Learning Experience Design (7 percentage points more) and Upskilling the Workforce (8 percentage points more) than their counterparts in other organizations.

These differences might indicate that L&D pros in high-performing organizations are more attuned to the entire experience of learning and ensuring that the workforce has the right skills. This, in concert with the other skills they find essential, may indicate a more holistic, intentional approach to learning in general.

Focus less on Training Delivery and Learning Science

This brings us to the second big difference. L&D pros in high-performing organizations focused significantly less on Training Delivery (12 percentage points less). While Training Delivery was the most important skill in L&D Core for L&D pros in other organizations, it was 5th out of 8 skills for those in high-performing organizations.

Likewise, while L&D pros mentioned Learning Science as a skill they thought they needed for the future, not one L&D professional in a high-performing organization mentioned it. Does this mean Learning Science is not necessary? Absolutely not. But it does mean that L&D functions that focus too heavily on traditional learning science, without considering the new context (technology, mindsets, motivations, etc.), may not be using their L&D development time or dollars in the best way.

Business Core

Increasingly, L&D pros consider themselves a part of the business rather than an entity that serves the business. This idea came through loud and clear in the research: L&D pros identified skills that are necessary for collaborating with other business functions.

Business Acumen and Marketing top the list for important Business Core skills, according to L&D pros.

Bubble chart showing relative difference between L&D pros groups for Business Core.

Figure 10: Business Core skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=87 | RedThread Research, 2022

Figure 10: Business Core skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=87 | RedThread Research, 2022

Among the skills mentioned in the research, Business Acumen topped the list. Leaders mentioned 3 aspects of Business Acumen.

Understanding organizational goals and strategy. L&D pros are more proactively evaluating their business direction and determining the best ways to build a skilled workforce than in previous years. Brandon Wolfram, HR Manager for Learning and Performance Solutions at SaskTel, put it this way:

We used to get more operational requests—things like, “Hey, we need some training on this topic,” or “Can you put something together on this.” Now, we get requests like, “Can you partner with us to solve this complex business challenge.

Understanding business basics. L&D functions are professionalizing. Many see themselves not as a traditional cost center but as a contributing member to business growth. As such, project management, change management, and their creativity and innovation muscles are increasingly important.

Speaking the same language. For years, L&D functions have embraced adult learning theory and the research surrounding it. While that is all good, leaders we spoke with understand the need to ditch wonky L&D terms in favor of vocabulary used more broadly.

Focusing on Business Core skills draws them into the business itself, erasing any invisible lines that may have kept them separate. These skills also make it easier to participate in larger strategic discussions.

Business Core: Blind Spots

The blind spots that L&D pros may have around this skills group come down to 2 individual skills.

Comparison chart for skills in Business Core skills group

Figure 11: Business Core skills group – Focus of L&D pros in high-performing organizations vs L&D pros in other organizations. n=87 | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on Creativity & Innovation

First, L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus significantly more (19 percentage points more) on Creativity and Innovation than their counterparts in other organizations.

The importance of this focus in high-performing organizations aligns with what we heard from learning leaders in our interviews and roundtables. Drew Goodrich, the Director of Learning Enablement at Intuit, spoke about the importance of Creativity & Innovation for his team:

Let's get inspired by anything that’s working and done well and takes hold and gets people to do things. That's a lot more creative than just standing up PowerPoint slides or doing a breakout session—let’s get creative.

L&D pros in high-performing organizations are less likely to worship the status quo. They tend to focus on finding creative solutions to business challenges and taking more risks.

Focus less on Marketing (courses)

L&D professionals in high-performing organizations and their peers in other organizations also focus differently on Marketing.

Marketing, in this case, refers to using marketing techniques to encourage employees to participate in learning interventions. While L&D professionals in general seem to see this as a critical skill, L&D professionals in high-performing organizations were not as interested (9 percentage points less).

While it's beneficial for L&D, focusing too heavily on Marketing may indicate a fairly traditional approach to learning: “If you create an awesome course and market it the right way, they will come.”

That L&D pros in high-performing organizations are focusing so much more on Creativity & Innovation indicates that they may also be broadening their views of learning, including methods that may not be as easily “marketed” in the traditional sense.

This means that L&D pros should likely broaden “marketing” to include strategies that make all learning opportunities “discoverable.”

Managing Relationships

Several skills mentioned by L&D pros had to do with building and managing relationships. We grouped these skills into the larger skills group, Managing Relationships.

Bubble chart for Managing Relationships Skills group. Communication is largest.

Figure 12: Managing Relationships skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=73 | RedThread Research, 2022

L&D pros who spoke with us in the roundtable and in interviews identified 3 areas where they found managing relationships crucial.

First, L&D pros found it necessary to manage the organization's relationship with L&D. Learning is an entirely voluntary activity—you can force someone to complete an e-learning course, but you can’t force them to learn the content.

L&D pros spoke of developing trust with the organization —communicating the benefits of consistent development and empathizing with employees when creating and delivering initiatives. One leader emphasized the importance of listening as a part of communication:

I think the hardest part is hearing. Not just hearing enough to fall in love with the problem, but hearing enough to solve the problem. And then creating.

Second, L&D pros increasingly see their networks and relationships with others in the organization as the key to their success. Some mentioned these relationships in the context of understanding key aspects of the business in order to meet their development needs. Others mentioned these relationships as crucial to getting things done. Relationships were crucial for tasks from understanding who to speak to in procurement to identifying the strongest SME for a specific project. Another leader said:

I’m a big believer in networking: getting to know lots of different people, and not getting too deeply dug into one particular discipline. Because if you do, you forget how all of these things are connected.

Finally, L&D pros also mentioned the need for Relationship-building and Networking as key to increasing their own knowledge and understanding. They also mentioned the need to identify the best ways to build those skills in the employee population at large.

Managing Relationships: Blind Spots

Consistent with our finding about Networking, we found that L&D pros across organizations place value on skills around Managing Relationships.

Comparison chart - high-performing vs. everyone else - Managing Relationships Skills Grouips

Figure 13: Managing Relationship skills focus – L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=73 | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on Collaboration & Teamwork

When we look at the focus on specific skills, however, there is a different story. Collaboration & Teamwork received significantly more attention (14 percentage points more) by L&D pros in high-performing organizations.

This focus indicates that L&D pros in these organizations realize that learning cannot just be the responsibility of the L&D function. It has to involve everyone in the organization. Drew Goodrich at Intuit says they leverage collaboration to help with strategy:

It's good there’s a lot of teamwork and collaboration and co-creation and co-planning. Getting everyone involved and getting everybody’s hands on it means you’ll actually stick to your strategy.

In essence, part of L&D's job is to deputize the organization – get everyone on the same page and build cross-functional systems that support a learning culture. That can only be done through carefully managing relationships.


When asked, 10% of L&D pros identified Readiness skills as necessary for the future. Readiness skills are those universal skills that allow L&D functions to do their jobs in ever-changing, often chaotic circumstances. L&D pros recognized 4 skills within that category.

Bubble Chart: Readiness skills. Agility is largest, Resilience is smallest.

Figure 14: Readiness skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=67; note: n=24 for L&D pros in high-performing organizations | RedThread Research, 2022

The past couple of years have required significant change for most organizations. That need has also trickled down to L&D functions. They have had to adapt many traditional training methods to serve hybrid and remote employees. They are also being tasked with leading initiatives such as DEIB or Return to Office (likely more than once).

These changes are forcing L&D pros to be more adaptable, agile, resilient, and efficient.

The Readiness skill group the majority of them spoke of them as capabilities needed by the L&D function, not necessarily the individual. Many talked about changing mindsets, systems, and processes to make the function itself more adaptable and agile.

For example, L&D leaders mentioned they were doing things like:

  • Moving away from traditional waterfall development processes and toward agile approaches, because waterfall slowed them down too much
  • Recognizing the perishable nature of learning and encouraging L&D pros not to fall in love with any one solution. Thinking instead of the lifecycle of the solution and put into place evaluation triggers and plans for sunsetting or replacing them
  • Adapting to immediate needs versus making sure that something is 100% perfect before launching
  • Experimenting and taking risks, gathering data, and adjusting as they go instead of only measuring at the end

One leader summed up all of these ideas as she described how her L&D function was becoming more nimble:

We need to be OK with putting something out there that isn’t 100% polished, because we need to move fast. Then we see what happens. Then we need to gather feedback and adjust.

The funny thing is, we’ve been paying lip service to these skills for years. But recently, probably prompted by external events, L&D pros are doing more than just talking about them.

Readiness: Blind Spots

L&D pros from all organizations put the greatest focus on Agility in this category. They also agree that Adaptability & Flexibility are important skills. But then we see some differences.

Comparison bar chart - Focus on readiness skill, high-performing orgs vs. everyone else.

Figure 15: Readiness skills focus, L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=67; note: n=24 for L&D pros in high-performing organizations | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on Resilience

L&D pros in high-performing organizations focus on Resilience more than their peers in other organizations (7 percentage points more). The 2011 journal article “What Is Resilience?” describes Resilience as positive adaption, or the ability to maintain or regain mental health.

From our interviews and roundtable discussions, we learned that L&D leaders are looking at Resilience in 2 ways.

First, L&D leaders recognize the changes their own functions have encountered recently and understand that Resilience is key to quick adaptation.

Second, L&D pro are considering how Resilience can be taught, encouraged, and systematized within their organization so that their workforce can handle future changes and disruptions.

Focus less on Efficiency & Productivity

Interestingly, L&D pros in high-performing organizations tend to focus significantly less on Efficiency and Productivity (9 percentage points less). We’re fans of efficiency, and we think all L&D functions should strive to be more efficient and productive. But we also know that change is often messy, requiring inefficiencies and experimentation to find new and better ways of doing things.

The combination of these 2 things—greater focus on resilience and less on efficiency—likely lead to more experimental and risk-friendly environments.

L&D functions may want to consider how much respective focus they put on Resilience and learning from mistakes versus institutionalization and standardization.


Finally, Tech. Nine percent of L&D pros mentioned Tech skills when determining which skills will be needed for the Tech plays a pretty important role in the work of L&D pros, and that role appears to have been magnified as organizations were forced to adopt remote and hybrid work models.

Even before the pandemic, however, L&D pros saw tech as a way to engage, scale, personalize, evaluate, and quantify learning. Organizations had also started to move toward a digital mindset. As organizations have begun to adopt skills a skills mindset, tech has only become more critical.

L&D pros identified tech skills in basically 2 flavors, as shown in Figure 16.

Bubble chart showing relative difference in focus for L&D pros in high performing orgs.

Figure 16: Tech skills group – % of focus on each skill, n=60; note: n=14 for L&D pros in high-performing organizations | RedThread Research, 2022

L&D pros overwhelmingly identified skills related to using tech more effectively in their roles. In fact, Tech Use was the second most mentioned skill overall—second only to Data Analysis. However, we want to note some nuances in the interviews that we feel are important.

First, L&D pros mentioned that as their organizations have fully embraced hybrid and remote work, many employees lack the skills necessary to work in these environments effectively. Karen Dowdall-Sanford, Senior Director of L&D at Flyhomes put it like this:

Once again, there’s a skill set specific to virtual collaboration and how you use Teams or Slack effectively. There’s the technical skill set of just understanding the tool, but then there are also norms and practices and behaviors that run into how to do it effectively.

L&D pros appear to understand that they need skills to help others develop skills in virtual collaboration—something we think we’ll see more of.

Second, some L&D pros mentioned 2 skill sets that fall under tech use. First, a skill set needed to use the tech effectively. Second, a skill set associated with creating the right environment around that tech. Tech that doesn’t integrate with the organization doesn’t work. Mitchel McNair, Global Learning & Career Consultant at Dow, said it like this:

We’re doing some things in technology, but the huge technology piece is probably the easiest piece. The bigger challenge is the culture and processes and L&D work design.

The other piece of the Tech skills group is Tech Strategy. Tech Strategy focuses less on the skills needed to use individual technologies and more on how the technologies work together to create the experience.

Tech Strategy often involves tech outside of the L&D function, such as tech that is leveraged from other business functions. (Teams and Slack are good examples).

A strong tech strategy also identifies places of intersection with other business tech and ensures that the learning tech roadmap aligns with the vision of the larger organization.

Tech: Blind Spots

Comparison bar chart - Focus on tech skill, high-performing orgs vs. everyone else.

Figure 17: Tech skills focus, L&D pros in high-performing orgs vs. L&D pros in other orgs, n=60 note: n=14 for L&D pros in high-performing organizations | RedThread Research, 2022

Focus more on Tech Strategy

None of our research indicated much difference between the focus of L&D pros in high-performing organizations versus those in other organizations. All L&D pros focused heavily on Tech Use.

Frankly, we wish we had an explanation for this, as we expected to find the opposite. However, it looks like high-performing organizations are still, as are most talented L&D pros, thinking about what the tech can do and less about how it fits together.

Therefore, the blind spot associated with technology is common to all L&D pros, regardless of their organization’s performance. All L&D pros should focus more time and effort on creating the experience, including determining how technology pieces fit together, the overall technology strategy, and how it aligns with the organization’s tech strategy.

Wrap Up: Upskill, L&D

Undoubtedly, organizations are focusing on upskilling their workforces. And, undoubtedly, L&D pros have a big role to play in that effort. Exciting times are ahead, but L&D pros need to be prepared.

To use a well-known metaphor, L&D pros are sitting in an airplane experiencing some turbulence. The oxygen masks have dropped, and L&D needs to take the time to put theirs on first before ensuring that employees get theirs on as well.

So upskill, L&D. We learned a lot in this study about where L&D pros should focus their efforts. Knowing is half the battle. The other half – making the time and actually doing the development – is the harder part, but we think crucial to the continued efficacy of L&D functions everywhere.

Note: for Appendices, including skills definitions, study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.

DEIB Metrics: An Essential Guide

Posted on Wednesday, February 9th, 2022 at 2:44 PM    

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At this point, the business case for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) is clear. Our own research (see Figure 1) shows the relationship between having a strong DEIB culture, and critical individual and performance outcomes.1

Yet, for years, the representation of diverse populations in organizations improved almost imperceptibly.

Then we had a global pandemic and the rise of a social justice movement, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Along with that came the heightened awareness that the pandemic was impacting diverse populations much more—particularly for women and people of color who were dropping out of the workforce at higher rates than other populations. As a result of this confluence of events, organizations began making big promises on DEIB in the summer of 2020.

When this happened, one of our first questions was how organizations would show that they’d made good—or at least made progress—on those commitments. While DEIB metrics measurements designed to understand DEIB—are the obvious answer, how to select, collect, use, and maintain those metrics is not so clear.

Thus, this research initiative on DEIB metrics and analytics was born. The first article in this series, “DEIB Analytics: A Guide to Why & How to Get Started,” provides leaders with a plan on how to begin using DEIB metrics and analytics. We’ve shared an 8-step guide with details on the actions and considerations that organizations need to take to effectively implement DEIB metrics.

Figure 1: The impact of a strong DEIB culture on individual & organizational outcomes | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

This article: An essential guide to DEIB metrics

This report focuses more narrowly on the appropriate metrics and analytics for DEIB. We aim to provide DEIB leaders, people analytics practitioners, HR business partners, workforce planning and talent management leaders with:

  1. A foundational understanding of the different metrics that can be used to measure and track their DEIB performance
  2. Insights on how those different metrics might vary, depending on their org’s sophistication with DEIB and analytics

This article is based on a wide range of information, including our research on:

  • People analytics technology2
  • DEIB analytics3
  • DEIB strategies4
  • DEIB technology5
  • A literature review of DEIB and analytics6
  • Interviews with ~20 people analytics and DEIB practitioners

Our research focuses specifically on the people within an organization’s existing workforce. We know a number of other DEIB metrics exist that orgs should also consider, such as those which apply to their supply chain, community efforts, ESG (environmental, social, and governmental) requirements, etc. While critical, those areas are outside the scope of this report.

We would also like to mention that this report is the first of its kind, in that it attempts to provide a holistic look at all talent-related DEIB metrics. Any first try will miss some critical elements and we acknowledge this report may be incomplete. We invite you to share any suggestions, feedback, or additions you think appropriate by emailing us at [email protected].

The DEIB space is evolving quickly, and we will only make progress by putting out our best ideas and amending them quickly as new information becomes available. Thank you for being part of that process and pushing forward toward greater opportunities for all.

Defining DEIB

Let’s start our essential guide by defining our terms (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Definitions of diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB) | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Why are DEIB metrics & analytics important?

Some of the common reasons why leaders start to focus on DEIB metrics and analytics include:

  • Creating a clear business case for DEIB
  • Measuring the return on investment (ROI) of DEIB expenditures
  • Tracking the impact of critical DEIB initiatives

In addition to these, a few more reasons why orgs should use DEIB metrics and analytics include:

  • Busting myths or addressing anecdotes that may or may not be true
  • Checking assumptions about DEIB
  • Meeting consumer, investor, and employee expectations when it comes to progress on DEIB

While these are all good reasons to use DEIB data, one of the most compelling motivations for why DEIB is critical was articulated by one of our interviewees:

“Companies have been setting diversity goals for decades but have struggled with “goal-getting”—meaning the clear accomplishment of those goals—because of a lack of feedback and data to help them get after those goals every day. Without any feedback on progress, companies lose sight of the goals.”

—Phil Willburn, Head of People Analytics & Insights, Workday7

Why do orgs find DEIB data difficult to use?

Many leaders struggle to use DEIB data for reasons such as the following (see Figure 3):

  • Challenges in identifying and using appropriate metrics. Historically, very few orgs have attempted to track metrics for DEIB and even fewer have ventured beyond collecting diversity data. Often, leaders are unsure which metrics can and should be measured for DEIB. Even if they’re able to identify them, leaders then often face challenges around tracking and integrating the data.
  • Legal, security, and privacy issues. DEIB data involves sensitive information—and this comes with legal and security challenges around data collection, storage, and usage. As a result, some orgs hesitate to collect and use it. Additionally, employees may be hesitant to provide it, due to data privacy and access concerns.
  • Poor alignment with goals. Orgs find it challenging to use the data if there’s no or poor alignment between the data collected and the overall DEIB goals that the company wants to achieve. As result, there can be a sense of helplessness, which can render the data not as helpful.
  • Data responsibility issues. Because DEIB data can reside in multiple systems under several functions (e.g., HR, D&I, IT, sales), there can be a lack of clarity around who is primarily responsible for the data and how / when it can be shared.
  • Data interoperability issues. Related to the previous point, orgs often find it challenging to use data collected in one system on another due to integration issues and capabilities of the tech solutions in place.

Figure 3: Challenges to using DEIB data by orgs | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

For this article, we focus on the first bullet to help orgs identify the range of metrics they can use.

“When you have members of a minority group who are leaving at a higher rate, that’s telling you something is wrong, and it helps steer you to where the problems are. It needs to be measured at quite a low level in the company because that’s the way you find where your hot spots are.”

—Fiona Vines, Head of Inclusion and Diversity and Workforce Transition, BHP8

Clarifying diversity metrics

Diversity metrics: Measurements, based on employee data, to understand the inherent and self-evident characteristics of the current and future workforce of an organization.

As we highlight in our report “DEIB Analytics: Getting Started,” the essential first step to creating diversity metrics is collecting appropriate demographic data. Essentially, the data collected should allow orgs to answer 3 questions:

  1. What does our current workforce look like across different levels (hierarchy) and functions / business units?
  2. Who are we hiring (internally and externally) across different levels?
  3. Who is leaving the org and at which level(s)?

It’s important that leaders not only look at simplistic diversity numbers, such as gender or race / ethnicity—they also need to consider multilevel diversity, known as intersectionality, such as Black women or gay Asian men. This additional analysis helps leaders understand their workforce at a more nuanced level, and make better recommendations and changes.

Many orgs track basic diversity numbers: 96% of U.S. companies report the gender representation of their employees at all levels and 90% report gender representation at senior levels.9 However, far fewer orgs look at intersectionality: Only 54% of companies track gender and race / ethnicity—such as Black or Latina women in senior leadership.10

Figure 4 is a list of common demographic data that we’ve seen orgs collect (for a more comprehensive list of data that could be collected, please see our definition in the earlier section). It’s important to note the significant legal limitations in different countries as to which of the following can be collected and stored. Your org’s legal counsel should always be involved in determining which data to collect.

Figure 4: Commonly collected diversity demographic data | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

While comparatively easy to collect and analyze, orgs should be wary of trying to do everything at once when it comes to diversity metrics. Leaders should first figure out the immediate challenges or business issues they want to solve for and identify the appropriate metrics accordingly.

Examples of diversity metrics

Figure 5 offers a list of the metrics that orgs can use to measure diversity. Many orgs already collect most of these metrics through their human resource information system (HRIS) or applicant tracking systems (ATS). By adding a demographic lens to these metrics, orgs can quickly understand the state of diversity within the org.

Figure 5: Metrics to measure diversity | All items should be measured by number and demographic distribution, unless otherwise stated. | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Using diversity data to improve hiring11

As part of its diversity goals, an industrial manufacturer wants to achieve 50% female parity in leadership roles by 2030, and create a globally diverse workforce with inclusive leaders and teams. In order to do so, the company needed an accurate picture of their current workforce diversity mix and the recruiting pipeline.

Working with a technology provider, the company looked at its recruiting pipeline to better understand how women and minorities move through the full process from recruiter review to meetings with the hiring manager. A review of the talent acquisition process revealed that the number of women applicants was disproportionately lower than their male counterparts. Additionally, as women moved through the hiring process, they were more likely to be dropped during the interview process.

To tackle these challenges, the company implemented:

  • Programs for hiring managers, including unconscious bias training
  • Workshops on inclusive conversations to enable a better hiring experience for women and minority candidates moving through the process

As a result of these actions, the company is in a better position to meet its 2030 goals. It’s also working to attract more women and minority job applicants through strategic partnerships with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers, among others.

Understanding equity metrics

Equity metrics: Measurementsbased on employee perception data collected directly from employees, and objective data based on employee actionsto understand differences in renumeration, benefits, opportunities, and access for different groups within an organization.

Equity metrics can help orgs understand the effectiveness of their processes, and identify unfair or biased systems, practices, and policies. Research conducted in 2021 revealed that when employees are treated fairly, they’re:12

  • 8 times more likely to look forward to going to work
  • 3 times more likely to have pride in their work
  • 4 times more likely to want to stay a long time at their company

Equity metrics can be measured from data collected via several sources, such as:

  • Learning and development data
  • Performance management data
  • Payroll
  • Employee engagement / experience data

Ensuring fairness in the distribution of resources, opportunities, and access can help leaders address existing systemic inequities within the orgs. The point to note here is that the distribution needs to be fair, not equal. The difference between these two concepts is shown in Figure 6.

Thus, the goals of measuring and tracking these metrics should not be to ensure equality or sameness for everyone, but rather to:

  1. Detect areas in which systemic inequities exist
  2. Identify differences in capabilities, resources, and needs
  3. Implement systems and process that take these into account

While orgs have a strong case for creating a fair and equitable environment, many struggle to do so. For example, our 2021 study on performance management trends revealed that only 48% of employees believe their performance evaluation process is fair and consistent.13 As orgs continue to manage unique needs and challenges for different employees, leaders will increasingly need to address issues around managing fairness and equity across varied employee experiences.

Figure 6: Visualizing equity

Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 201714

Examples of equity metrics

Below is a list of metrics that orgs can use to understand, measure, and track equity. All metrics should be analyzed by the different demographics collected by the org to understand the differences in opportunities, access, and renumeration for various groups.

Figure 7: Metrics to measure equity | All items should be measured by number and demographic distribution, unless otherwise stated. | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real-World Threads

Using people analytics to create a more equitable environment

  • Uber.15 Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uber’s People Analytics team found that employees with children younger than 5 years of age scored lower than the company average on engagement and satisfaction metrics. To help provide them with the support they needed, the company added some flexibility options to help those employees balance childcare with work.
  • A midsized U.S. law firm.16 Upon auditing its performance evaluations, the company found that only 9.5% of people of color at the firm received mentions of leadership in their performance evaluations—more than 70 percentage points lower than white women. The company changed the evaluation form that broke down job categories into competencies and asked that ratings be supported by at least 3 pieces of evidence. They also developed a 1-hour workshop to teach everyone how to use the new form.

As a result of these changes:

  • Comments with constructive feedback for people of color increased from 17% the year before to 49%
  • Women also received greater constructive feedback (from 10.5% the previous year to 29.5%)

Identifying inclusion metrics

Inclusion metrics: Measurementsbased on employee perception and objective datato understand the current state of integration, acceptance, and respect experienced by employees in an organization.

After diversity, inclusion is the most common area that organizations tend to measure. According to a 2018 study, a little more than 50% of orgs measured inclusion.17 While the focus and urgency around this area has increased over the years, few orgs are doing anything beyond tick-the-box exercises.18

“Let's say that the engagement score for our company is high at 80%, and that makes us happy. And then you realize that 80% of your employees are White—which means that you’re not really hearing the voice of those under-represented groups. Inclusion analytics is about pulling that out, and making sure you have a good sense of where everybody's falling on all of your core metrics.”

—Hallie Bregman, PhD, Global Talent Strategy and Analytics Leader19

There are a few reasons why orgs should focus on understanding and measuring inclusion. Orgs with an inclusive culture:20

  • Are twice as likely to indicate they met business goals from last 3 years
  • Are 81% more likely to indicate high customer satisfaction
  • Have employees that are 45% more likely to stay
  • Have employees that are 2 times more likely to give a positive Net Promoter Score® (NPS)

If these reasons weren’t enough, the volatility of 2020 and 2021 has resulted in many companies facing tough questions around their efforts in this area. According to a recent analysis of S&P 500 earnings calls, the frequency with which CEOs talk about issues of equity, fairness, and inclusion on these calls has increased by 658% since 2018.21

Inclusion metrics can help orgs understand whether employees feel:

  • Accepted by others in the workplace
  • Integrated into and a part of the wider organization
  • Respected for their work by others

As alluded to above, orgs can typically approach inclusion metrics in 2 ways—employee perception data and object data. We explain the differences between the 2 in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Employee perception & objective data for inclusion | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Examples of inclusion metrics

Figure 9 offers a list of metrics that orgs can use to understand, measure, and track inclusion. These include metrics that directly impact an employee’s sense of inclusion (e.g., mentor relationships and strength of connections with others), as well as some not-so-obvious metrics that can drive inclusion (such as the average distance between office and home, which can adversely affect employee experience).

Figure 9: Metrics to measure inclusion | All items should be measured by number and demographic distribution, unless otherwise stated. | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real World Threads

Understanding and embedding inclusion within everyday behaviors

When it comes to inclusion analytics, an international electronics company believes in embedding inclusion in everyday behaviors, activities, and processes across the company. It’s been collecting data and doing the research for more than 5 years to understand the key behaviors that impact inclusion at the organization. Because of its groundwork, the company was able to identify 4 metric areas that they needed to track and analyze on a regular basis:

  1. Net Promoter Score
  2. Job fit
  3. Employee engagement score
  4. Intention to turnover

The people analytics team approaches these metrics in 2 ways, by:

  • Checking in with new hires and collecting the data from them
  • Making sure that all employee surveys administered by the org contain questions that tie into these metrics

By collecting this information regularly, the company has been able to identify pain points and concerns experienced by diverse populations, especially in the current times—and plan initiatives and appropriate decisions around topics, such as vaccinations, return to offices, rollouts of wellbeing programs, and measurement of the financial impact of those programs.

Specifically, the company has extended its remote working policy because they determined that return to office will disproportionately impact their female workforce and potentially increase their turnover by 33%. It also rolled out a $300 COVID Wellbeing credit that can be used towards children’s tutoring costs, wellbeing app subscriptions, tax preparation costs, etc. to help employees—especially parents and caregivers who are more impacted by the pandemic. Additionally, the company re-examined and adjusted its communication and approach on vaccine education as result of employee feedback.

In addition to these measures, the people analytics team has also been able to use insights from inclusion analytics to identify areas in which different groups need support. For example, the company found that its millennial workforce needed and wanted greater support for financial planning as part of its benefits program. The company added specific financial wellbeing offering in its annual benefits open enrollment to support Millennials and Gen Z.

In another example, the company was able to build more inclusive policies around statutory and floating holidays that take into account the fact that employees with different religious backgrounds might want to take different holidays.

As a result of these efforts:

  • Net Promoter Score of the company increased by 7%
  • Confidence in Leadership increased by 8%
  • Employee Engagement increased by 5%

Defining belonging metrics

Belonging metrics: Measurements, based on employee perception and objective data, to understand if employees feel valued and supported within an organization.

While closely related to inclusion conceptually, it’s important that orgs pay equal attention to measuring and understanding belonging. We explain how belonging is different from inclusion in Figure 10. A high sense of belonging among employees can result in:

  • An increase in employee happiness and employee engagement, which in turn impacts employee retention22
  • A significant increase in job performance23
  • A reduced turnover risk and a decrease in employee sick days24

Analytics based on belonging metrics can serve as a leading indicator of critical diversity outcomes as well. Specifically, belonging metrics can help orgs to:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the sense of security experienced by employees
  • Find out if employees feel connected with the org’s values and purpose
  • Bolster their ongoing efforts around inclusion and equity

“When someone is experiencing a sense of Belonging, they feel freer, they feel more creative and their opportunity to potentially have an impact at work is significantly increased.”

—Kate Shaw, Director of Learning, Airbnb25

Figure 10: Belonging versus inclusion | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Examples of belonging metrics

Figure 11 offers a list of metrics that orgs can use to understand, measure, and track belonging. While some metrics speak to belonging directly (e.g., a belonging index as part of an engagement survey), others should be used in combination with one or more additional metrics to gain a better understanding. For example, by looking at metrics around the number of resources groups offer and the participation rates for them, orgs can try to understand if employees feel supported. Employee feedback comments specific to these topics can provide even more context of the underlying issues.

Figure 11: Metrics to measure belonging | All items should be measured by number and demographic distribution, unless otherwise stated. | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Real World Threads

Using nontraditional metrics to add depth to understanding26

A number of companies look beyond the obvious metrics and data to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of DEIB within their orgs. For example:

  • Cindy Owyoung, the Vice President of Inclusion, Culture, and Change at Charles Schwab, looks at the metrics around growth and vitality of the company’s employee resource groups (ERGs). By tracking metrics such as the number of ERGs and the number of participants in them, the company is able to really understand the work Schwab’s ERGs are doing and whether they are providing value to their members.

In addition, these metrics can also be indicative of whether employees have the support they need to be able to participate in the ERGs and do the work that needs to be done.

  • Zoom Video Communications is another company that lays emphasis on such metrics. According to Damien Hooper-Campbell, the company’s Chief Diversity Officer, these nontraditional metrics “serve as bellwethers.” The company looks at metrics around the ERGs and keeps a track of the number of allies who are active in ERGs.

According to Hooper-Campbell, “If you have a women’s employee resource group, do you have any men who are part of it? How many non-Latinx folks are part of your Latinx employee resource group and are contributing to it, or coming and listening to it?”

Such metrics can offer a more nuanced understanding of the extent of support experienced by different groups across the org.

DEIB metrics: Strengths & limitations

DEIB metrics are most effective when multiple types of metrics are combined to gain a clearer picture of DEIB holistically. (See Figure 12.) For example, by combining inclusion metrics with equity metrics, orgs can understand not only that different groups may be feeling less included, but also the specific reasons (e.g., unequal development opportunities or biased performance reviews) for it.

Figure 12: Strengths & limitations of DEIB metrics | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Using data sources for DEIB

Now that we’ve covered the specific metrics, let’s look at the data sources orgs can use for them. Orgs should keep a few things in mind when using such data:

  1. All data should be looked at with a demographic lens. For example, the number of trainings accessed by the workforce would mean little unless analyzed to see if white women access training more often than Black women.
  2. Data are more powerful when combined with other data. For example, data from the HRIS that shows exit rates should be combined with data from exit interviews, surveys, and employee comments on external review websites.
  3. Connectivity between data sources is essential to being able to use the data effectively. Data interoperability, or the ability for different data between systems to work together, is a necessity in order for orgs to drive DEIB. As such, they should look for tech and tools that enable them to do that.
  4. The partnership between DEIB and people analytics functions is critical. As we mention in our report “DEIB Analytics: Getting Started,” DEIB and PA leaders often come from different backgrounds and parts of the org, which mean partnership challenges may exist that must be addressed. The insights and expertise of both groups are necessary to use and interpret DEIB metrics effectively.

Common data sources for DEIB

Figure 13 shows that most of the data sources can be used for more than one DEIB area.

Figure 13: Data sources for DEIB metrics | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Beginning the DEIB metrics journey

Orgs at the beginning of their DEIB journey should try to answer the question: What’s the current state of DEIB within the org? As such they should focus on 2 things:

  1. Understanding the state of diversity
  2. Identifying “low-hanging” challenges—areas that need attention and are easy to quickly start working on

When it comes to selecting metrics, orgs should start with the basics, like:

  • Getting their basic demographic data in order
  • Measuring metrics around headcount, retention, and turnover to understand diversity
  • Leveraging employee perception data—such as engagement surveys, feedback, and focus groups—to understand how different groups perceive DEIB at the org

Orgs should ensure that the selected metrics are clearly tied to overall strategy and that processes exist to track their progress.

A people analytics leader we spoke to mentioned creating a Python script to pull different metrics that they’re already collecting around talent acquisition, internal mobility, performance, engagement, and exit rate to understand where the biggest gaps are between different employee groups. This allowed them to quickly identify areas with the biggest gaps, start working on them, and track progress over time.

“The DIB world is so enormous, and you could do a thousand things. It's hard to understand where to start and where to focus your efforts. We should be intentional about identifying our biggest gaps. Every company has some problems around DEIB, but we should work on finding where our biggest internal gap is and focusing on that first.”

—Head of People Analytics, a large technology company

Figure 14: Questions to ask yourself | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Moving up to an intermediate level with DEIB metrics

Once the orgs have a clear sense of where they stand or the “what,” they need to understand the “why,” such as:

  • Why do certain groups experience a low level of inclusion and belonging?
  • Why are certain groups being promoted at lower rates than others?

Orgs can begin to supplement existing data to gain a deeper understanding of the systemic issues that impact DEIB. When it comes to metrics, orgs should look at data from existing systems:

  • Learning & development data
  • Performance management data
  • Payroll data
  • Wellbeing data
  • Data from employee feedback comments

A technology provider shared an example of a customer project that conducted text analysis on data from employee feedback to understand why promotion rates for women were low in a company. The analysis revealed that the existing initiatives to drive promotions favored men and received positive feedback from them, as compared with women. Some of the concerns that surfaced included difficulties faced by women around childcare and the inflexibility around work schedules. The analysis of the data allowed the company to identify the systemic issues that were negatively impacting promotion rates for women and their overall DEIB efforts.

“Metrics are a way to communicate what’s important. Orgs should limit themselves to how many metrics they push. It’s like the weather, I don’t want a million different metrics to know if the weather is good of not. Orgs should figure out the goal (what is ‘good’ weather) and the metrics should help achieve that.”

—Dirk Jonker, Chief Executive Officer, Crunchr

Figure 15: Questions to ask yourself | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Using a mature approach to DEIB metrics

The questions orgs should look to answer at this stage are:

  • How can we address existing issues and drive our DEIB efforts effectively?
  • How can we measure progress longitudinally?
  • What creative analyses or approaches might help us answer questions we haven’t yet been able to answer?

When it comes to metrics and data, orgs should consider complementing existing data with:

  • Network data
  • Communication data from sources such as emails, calendars, meetings, etc.
  • Workplace tech data from tools used by employees to get work done such as Zoom, SharePoint, Slack, Teams, and Asana
  • Employee reviews and comments on external websites

Orgs should consider using advanced approaches to people analytics such as connecting text analytics with social network data. Text analysis can help orgs identify existing gaps in inclusion. Network analysis can help identify influencers. Orgs can relay feedback to influencers and leverage them to fill those gaps and drive greater efforts.

DEIB is a continuous effort rather than a “once-and-done” approach. Orgs should look externally to compare their performance to avoid becoming complacent in their efforts and update their goals regularly. Specifically, orgs should look at how other high-performing orgs that rank high on DEIB are performing, instead of industry or national averages.

“When it comes to selecting metrics, don’t go with the flow, and get something off the internet or another company. How you define metrics really matters, and orgs need to be intentional about what and how they measure them.”

—Lydia Wu, Head of Talent Analytics and Transformation, Panasonic North America

Figure 16: Questions to ask yourself | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.


When it comes to DEIB, orgs need to do more than provide training and courses to employees. They need to think about and approach it in a holistic manner so that it’s built into the way the business is managed, instead of something that’s an afterthought or special.

To that end, orgs need to:

  • Understand where they currently stand and how are they perceived by their employees. They should know what issues currently exist.
  • Understand why those issues exist. Orgs need to find out the reasons why they are falling short in those areas.
  • Identify what can they do to fix them. Orgs should plan their targeted initiatives and interventions in order to get the maximum value and results from their efforts.

In order to achieve that, companies need to apply a greater focus, and put more emphasize on using metrics and data than they currently do. As we’ve mentioned before, the growing demands from customers, investors, and employees around more action on DEIB is likely to keep increasing. Orgs stand to lose a lot more if they do nothing, not just in terms of lagging performance, engagement, and innovation—but also in future talent that’s going to place a lot more importance on these issues going forward.

It's time companies take their DEIB data seriously. Moving forward, we hope to see a greater acceptance of and creative thinking around how these data and metrics can be used to enable all people and do their best work.


Below we share our own as well as indices used by other organizations to help understand their DEIB culture.

Figure 17: RedThread’s DEIB index | Source: RedThread Research, 2022.

Figure 18: Gartner inclusion index | Source: Gartner.27

Figure 19: University of California San Francisco’s Belonging Index | Source: University of California San Francisco.28

Modern Performance Management Trends

Posted on Wednesday, December 15th, 2021 at 11:04 PM    

The past few years have been a difficult journey for most organizations. To manage, orgs have had to dramatically change their practices, especially when it comes to performance management. While we heard from leaders and read articles about how different companies are approaching performance management in 2021, we wanted to understand in-depth how performance management is evolving in current times, and specifically how is it different from 2019 in terms of philosophies, practices, and approaches.

Our latest study compares our fall 2019, fall 2020, and new fall 2021 data on performance management practices. We also conducted a literature review of more than 60 articles, a roundtable discussion with over 25 leaders, and a quantitative survey of 621 HR leaders and employees and conducted over the summer and fall of 2021.

As you will read in the report, there are some very exciting changes happening in orgs, such as:

  • Employees having a much clearer understanding of their goals and expectations
  • More frequent conversations between employees and managers
  • Increased transparency in terms of compensation and feedback

Yet, there are some real concerns, too. For example, managers’ openness to new information and providing employees with autonomy have both declined since the fall of 2020. Further, less than half of employees indicated that the performance assessment process is consistent and fair.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done on improving performance management and we hope this report will help you more quickly identify areas of needed focus.


Learning methods: What to use, how to choose, and when to cut them loose

Posted on Tuesday, November 30th, 2021 at 3:02 PM    

The panic—and the opportunity

The pandemic forced most L&D functions to throw out their tried-and-tested, in-person, instructor-led-learning playbooks. Indeed, in the early months of the pandemic, one of the most common questions we got was, “How do I get all my learning online, ASAP?”

And then there were several months when leaders realized that they might never get all their classroom training online, and what’s more, maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. Even before the pandemic, it was increasingly clear that the waterfall development methods, reliance on courses, and one-size-fits-all approaches of the past were no longer working.

Leaders realized they might never get all their classroom training online, and what’s more, maybe that shouldn’t be the goal.

For one thing, these approaches haven’t supported the ways employees learn for a long time. Survey after survey has shown that employees learn more through the informal stuff—and therefore rely more on it—than the heavy, expensive courses L&D functions have tended to focus on.

And for another, the logistics of traditional learning approaches keep orgs from being as agile and responsive as they need to be in an unstable and fast-changing world. Today orgs can’t afford to wait 6 months for a training course to come online, constantly take employees away from their work to learn, and narrowly define “learning” so that only the formal stuff counts. Instead, they need a continuously upskilling workforce. And even the very best instructional design team can’t do that by themselves.

As orgs settle into new ways of working—hybrid, remote, flexible, whatever—leaders dealing with this new reality are hyperaware of the need to do learning and upskilling differently. And not just different-for-this-point-in-time, but differently forever. The ways people work have changed and will continue to change; the ways they learn must help them keep pace with and even stay ahead of those changes.

The ways people work are changing; the methods they use to learn must help them keep pace with those changes.

Learning methods—literally, the ways people learn—are key to the question of how orgs can enable learning and upskilling differently. There’s a wealth of learning methods that can be leveraged in different ways to help employees develop their knowledge and skills.

To do this, though, L&D functions must know what those methods are and decide on the right ones, in the right combinations, for their org.

Which brings us to this study. Over the past few months, we’ve investigated both the methods themselves and how organizations are choosing them. We looked at over 60 articles, hosted a roundtable on the topic, and talked in depth with 15 learning leaders.

This report outlines what we found. Specifically, we’ll introduce:

  • An overview of learning methods and how they align to RedThread’s Employee Development Framework
  • How leaders are deciding (on a continual basis) what methods work best for their orgs
  • Real-life examples of how orgs are leveraging learning methods in different ways to help employees develop

The next section introduces a comprehensive list of learning methods we’ve found in our research and discusses some of the major trends we’re seeing. We then examine how those methods map to the RedThread Employee Development Framework and how different methods enable different employee behaviors.

(Mostly) familiar methods, new applications

When we started this research, we were in search of the novel: innovative learning methods that cropped up in response to (or in spite of) the pandemic. But, surprisingly, most of them were familiar to us. Figure 1 shows the major learning or development methods we found through our literature review, interviews, and roundtables.

Figure 1: Learning methods in this research | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

That isn’t to say we didn’t see innovation: if we hadn’t, this would be a very short paper. But it didn’t take the form we expected. While the discrete learning methods were familiar, some of the ways those methods were being utilized were surprising.

While many learning methods are familiar, the ways they’re being used are new and innovative.

We’ll provide specific examples throughout the paper; here are the general trends we’re seeing.

More automation

Unsurprisingly, we have all gotten much better at using technology over the past 2 years. Also unsurprisingly, that improvement has yielded greater know-how about automating learning. Many of the vendors we spoke to are actively taking the “stupid work,” like curation of learning content, off the plates of L&D professionals and using automation to enable employees to find the learning content and opportunities they need.

More personalization

As L&D has gotten better at automation, we’re also seeing more personalization as orgs move away from rote, unchanging learning paths to something much more dynamic. We’re not just talking about branching scenarios: L&D functions are leveraging learning methods that help to personalize the entire development experience, helping both the individual and the org accomplish their goals.

Leveraging the existing

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ve seen that in the past couple of years. Many L&D functions are leveraging what already exists—content, technology, ways people are already learning—instead of investing in or developing new ones. For example, one company we spoke with ditched a “social learning platform” for WhatsApp groups, which accomplished the same goals in a platform employees were already using.

More in the work itself

The increasingly urgent conversations in many board rooms and in cyberspace about skilling, reskilling, and upskilling have changed the types of methods orgs are choosing for development. Traditional methods like classroom training will always have their place, but increasingly apprenticeships, individual development plans, job rotations, and stretch assignments are being leveraged to build skills while the employee is doing the work. Our friend Chris Pirie likes to say, “Learning is the new working.”

More self-service

The pandemic made asynchronous and self-service learning an imperative, building on the fact that employees are increasingly likely to create their own career paths rather than following traditional, predictable ones. In response, orgs are offering more self-service, employee-driven learning methods, rather than curricula that serve only the most obvious or common career paths.

More combinations of methods

We mentioned earlier that many of the methods identified by this study are familiar. What’s new, though, is that more combinations of those methods are being used to accomplish certain development goals. L&D leaders are thinking more holistically about using learning methods to accomplish a goal—so a leadership course may have a coaching element, an on-the-job capstone project, and technology that nudges participants toward the right behavior, rather than relying solely on classroom instruction.

In the midst of all this innovation, it might be helpful to introduce a structure that shows how all these learning methods can complement one another and be used systematically toward org goals. That's where we turn next.

Learning methods and the Employee Development Framework

A few years ago, we introduced the RedThread Employee Development Framework, shown in Figure 2. This framework describes the behaviors orgs should be enabling in their employees in order to have a solid learning culture. We use this framework to make sense of the world of employee development and to help leaders identify any gaps they should be paying attention to.

Figure 2: RedThread Employee Development Framework | Source: RedThread Research, 2019

The Employee Development Framework offers a structure leaders can use to understand the universe of learning methods.

The Employee Development Framework shows that L&D functions should focus their time on enabling employees to:

  • Plan: Understand their career options and the development they’ll need to get them where they want to go.
  • Discover: Find the opportunities and content that will help them develop the knowledge and skills they need to take their career in the direction they want.
  • Consume: Easily access relevant learning content—a challenging feat, given the amount of content available.
  • Experiment: Practice new knowledge and skills on the job; try, fail, and learn from that failure.
  • Connect: Learn from one another to gain new knowledge and skills.
  • Perform: Learn on the job and improve performance at the same time.

For this study, we mapped the learning methods we identified earlier in this report (Figure 1 above) against the 6 behaviors in the Employee Development Framework. The results are shown in Figure 3 below. Similar methods are then grouped together under each behavior. This clarifies which learning methods can be leveraged to enable which behaviors.

Different learning methods fall into different categories and enable different behaviors.

We see, for example, that courses enable consumption, talent marketplaces enable experimentation, mentoring enables connection, and so on.

Figure 3: Learning methods in the Employee Development Framework | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

The remainder of this section addresses each of the 6 behaviors and the categories of learning methods that enable them. We’ll also highlight real-life examples of orgs using these learning methods to enable each behavior.

Figure 4: Methods for planning development | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Plan their development

Helping employees plan their careers hasn’t always been considered part of L&D’s job. In recent years, however, L&D functions have recognized that career planning is a critical part of employee development: As L&D moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach to development, employees will need help figuring out what their own paths look like.

But L&D functions aren’t the sole owners of career planning. It touches other areas like performance and workforce planning. To successfully enable employees to plan, L&D functions need to work with other HR teams and business units to ensure systems, policies, processes, and methods are synced up. And as we’ll see below, some of the methods that support planning may not be owned by the L&D function, either, highlighting the need for close collaboration.

Learning methods that enable employees to plan their careers fall into 2 broad categories (shown in Figure 4):

  • Information gathering
  • Development planning

These 2 categories approach planning in different ways. Let’s look at how they do this in more detail.

Methods for information gathering

Info-gathering methods help employees collect information about the skills they have and the skills they need. Methods in this category include:

  • Skills assessments
  • Skills ratings
  • Informational interviews
  • Critical org skills definitions

These methods help employees develop a clear understanding of their own current state as well as the “skills market” they will likely face in the future. Leading practices surface info about both the supply side (employees’ skills) and demand side (org needs) of that market.

Methods for development planning

Development-planning methods help employees identify and commit to the development activities they’ll undertake to achieve their goals. They enable employees to plan their development activities, and their order. Methods for doing this development planning include:

  • Career coaching
  • Individual development plans
  • Goal-setting
  • Action planning

Orgs leveraging these methods well tend to tie together development planning, performance, and the employee’s and org’s skills needs. While learning and skills platforms are making this more possible, it takes some insight on the part of talent leaders to align all the methods, as well as the motivations for using those methods.

Real-world thread: Digitizing the career development plan

Career development plans (CDPs)—also known as individual or personal development plans—are one method orgs use to link development planning, performance, and skills. Until relatively recently, though, CDPs tended to be manual, static, and paper-based: An employee filled out a form that listed their goals and planned development activities. The employee had to find development opportunities themselves, list those activities on the form, and update the form as activities were completed. All too often CDPs would be filed and forgotten because they quickly felt irrelevant.

Career development plans are becoming more relevant, helpful, and dynamic as they are digitized and linked more closely to development, performance, and skills.

Digitization can help address these challenges by automating pieces of the process and linking CDPs to systems that contain relevant info (e.g., HRIS, learning libraries, skills platforms).

For example, an American multinational tech company makes CDPs that incorporate skills assessments available to all employees. Employees can use the online CDP tool to:

  • Self-assess their skills in an area they’re interested in
  • Ask their manager to verify the skills
  • Receive recommendations for relevant learning opportunities to develop the skills
  • Log activities they do to develop the skills

The CDP tool tracks the difference between current and desired skills and recommends learning paths to close the gaps, updating the recommendations as new activities are logged.1

Digitizing CDPs has 3 main benefits. First, it takes much of the paperwork burden off employees. Second, the automatically updated learning recommendations are far more relevant and useful to employees than a list they themselves created a year ago. And third, data from CDPs can give the org a dynamic picture of the workforce’s current and projected future skills.

Figure 5: Methods for discovering development opportunities | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Discover the right development

Discovery is a critical component of learning: it connects employees to the development (content and opportunities) they need. L&D functions should make it easy and intuitive for employees to find relevant learning opportunities.

It’s a challenge that’s only getting harder as the ocean of learning content and development opportunities gets bigger and bigger. In the past few years, L&D functions and vendors alike have tackled this discovery problem with a vengeance. Earlier this year we offered our take on making sense of the chaos of learning content.2

Orgs are using increasingly scalable, automated methods to help employees find personalized, relevant development opportunities.

Here, we focus on how orgs are using learning methods to help employees discover learning opportunities more easily. Learning methods that enable discovery fall into 3 categories (shown in Figure 5):

  • Centralized “push” communications
  • Employee browsing / searching
  • Recommendations

We discuss each in more depth below.

Centralized “push” communications

Almost all the leaders we talked to said that L&D functions rely on “push” communication methods to tell employees about available development opportunities.

Methods in this category include:

  • Informational emails
  • Newsletters highlighting offerings
  • Nudges to explore or complete assigned training

The big pro of centralized “push” communication methods is that they can be easier to administer and automate. It is relatively easy to send mass emails to specific groups—for example, all new managers are sent a list of available courses, learning pathways, and articles that pertain to them. It’s also getting easier, through technology, to personalize these communications at scale based on preferences or career paths.

Employee browsing / searching

Employees can discover development opportunities on their own by searching or browsing. The “Netflix of Learning” movement relies heavily on employees knowing what they want to consume and how it may benefit their career. Methods in this category include:

  • Searching or browsing on the internet
  • Searching or browsing the org intranet
  • Searching or browsing in an LMS, LXP, or other learning platform

A challenge with these methods is helping employees find development opportunities that are relevant to them. To tackle this problem, many orgs are implementing methods that rely on ratings and reviews to surface the best opportunities. We’re also seeing methods that rely on artificial intelligence to parse massive amounts of text, audio, and video content to draw out themes, assign tags, and serve up highly relevant content.


Learning methods in the Recommend category personalize suggestions for development opportunities for each employee. Recommendations help employees quickly cut through the masses of learning content and opportunities to find something relevant to them. This category includes:

  • Automated recommendations (learning platforms)
  • Recommendations from managers
  • Recommendations from colleagues / peers / social network

Initial, non-scientific observation tells us that employees may value certain types of recommendations over others, as the following example shows.

Real-world thread: Personalized recommendations to help employees discover

Different types of recommendations hold different value to employees—a fact that may influence leaders’ choices about learning methods.

Matthew Daniel, a principal at Guild Education and former head of learning innovation and technology at Capital One Bank, once ran a test to see how employees relied on different types of recommendations for learning opportunities. The results were:

  • Employees relied overwhelmingly on recommendations from a manager or teammate
  • Recommendations from business executives were next
  • Recommendations from the learning tech system or L&D team were dead last, because “What do they know about me?”

Daniel cautioned:

“Keep in mind that not all recommendations are made equal." – Matthew Daniel, Principal, Guild Education3

Although Daniel’s experiment was limited in size, it aligns with our own observations that the more personalized a recommendation, the higher value employees tend to give it. However, we expect to see more and more improvements in learning tech tools’ ability to deeply personalize recommendations at scale. As leaders consider what learning methods to invest in, it’s worth keeping in mind the value of these personalized recommendations.

A final note on methods for Discovery: Discovery has always been important, but it is becoming even more important in the wake of some of the social justice movements. Many orgs are realizing that their Discovery methods are inherently biased. Our work with orgs has surfaced 3 explicit ways this bias makes itself known:

  • Opportunities open to only a few. As orgs make use of more learning methods, they should open those opportunities to as many as possible. One complaint we have heard over and over is that fairly inexpensive (or even, if scaled, free) learning opportunities are only open to some people in some parts of the org. Is there really any harm in opening up a basic accounting class to someone who is currently in supply chain?
  • Not making opportunities explicit. Information within an org often flows through informal channels; many learning opportunities, like job rotations or special assignments, are open only to those who know about them. We have seen a recent push by orgs to explicitly state all opportunities so that everyone knows what’s available.
  • Failing to take data into account. Finally, data can help orgs understand who their message is reaching (or not). One org found that the majority of people taking advantage of an upskilling opportunity were white males, presumably because they had the most discretionary time. Data can help leaders understand how their messaging needs to change in order to provide opportunities to all.

L&D functions have quite a bit of power when it comes to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Understanding the data with a focus on inclusivity can ensure that they wield that power for the good of the employees and the org as a whole.

Figure 6: Methods for consuming learning | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Consume relevant learning content

Enabling employees to consume content is where L&D functions have historically spent most of their time and energy. Creating and delivering training courses is a core L&D competency. Which is great: there will always be a place for courses.

What this research emphasizes, however, is that there’s much, much more to employee development than courses alone—and L&D needs to expand its repertoire of learning methods accordingly.

There’s an abundance of learning methods that enable employees to consume learning content—and L&D needs to expand its repertoire.

Given L&D’s historical focus, it is unsurprising that there’s an abundance of methods that enable employees to consume learning. At their core, these methods aim to deliver relevant (and, ideally, personalized and timely) learning opportunities to employees. They fall into 3 categories (shown in Figure 6):

  • Consuming in groups
  • Consuming individually
  • Interacting with content

Let’s look at these categories in more detail, highlighting leading practices for each.

Consuming in groups

This category encompasses methods that orgs have traditionally thought of as “learning”—instructor-led courses that primarily “download” information from a teacher to a group of students. It also includes other methods that primarily rely on one-way flows of information to a group of people. Specifically, methods included in this category are:

  • Instructor-led courses (virtual, in-person, hybrid)
  • Town halls
  • Live webinars

Because these methods are delivered in a prepared format to a large group of people, they don’t allow for much personalization in terms of content or flow, and generally don’t take into account (too much) individual needs or preferences.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has motivated L&D functions to look for ways to mitigate the shortfalls of these methods. A whole category of tech that integrates with traditional meeting software has popped up to help prevent “Zoom fatigue” and make the online environment more engaging.

Some miss the mark dramatically (conducting meetings via Second Life? For reals?), but we applaud any attempt to engage participants through interactive elements, reflections, discussions, and the like.

Consuming individually

Consuming content individually includes methods where employees receive “downloads” of information individually, at their own pace, and often, without the blessing of their L&D function. Methods in this category include:

  • Self-paced online courses
  • Books
  • Articles / blogs
  • Videos
  • Podcasts
  • User-generated content
  • On-demand webinars

This list shows that orgs are taking content well beyond the simple course. For years, the e-learning course was the default for individual consumption—and there is still a place for it. But orgs are beginning to adapt to the way their employees want to learn, through curated articles and videos, podcasts, webinars, and books.

Some orgs provide access to these learning methods by adopting a next-gen LXP content aggregator to leverage machine learning and create a “front door” from which all learning can be accessed. Others have built content directly into the work, providing access to information where it is most needed. Still others invest in digital or actual libraries to provide access to learning methods that appeal most to employees.

Interacting with content

Learning methods that encourage employees to interact with content add dimension to the experience; instead of being passive participants, employees become active ones, interacting with the content and / or each other. The methods included in this category are:

  • Gamification
  • Interactive apps
  • Adaptive learning
  • Nudges
  • Bots

Leaders tell us that these methods can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how they’re used. For example, apps can be seen as gimmicky or bothersome if used incorrectly. But with the right application and engagement, they can be really helpful. One leader said about a SMS-based learning app:

“An HR business partner in my org is using a texting app to develop new habits. It texts her a little bit of info every day. She told me recently, 'I didn’t realize how much I’ve learned!'" – Kelly Rider, CLO, PTC4

All of these learning methods are enabled by tech and share a potential shortcoming: they can be used as hammers in search of a nail. L&D functions should understand when these methods are most appropriate and utilize them accordingly.

Real-world thread: Implementing a system with little formal training

Professional services firm Deloitte US was launching a project to implement a new technology that would help improve processes in its audit and assurance business. Previous comparable system implementations had been accompanied by roughly 24 hours of classroom training, which created some challenges for employees who often faced huge separations (in terms of time and distance) between learning and actually using the new system.

Deloitte LLC's shift in learning methods made learning more relevant, contextualized, and useful to employees.

Deloitte’s US L&D team, headed by Eric Dingler, Chief Learning Officer, Deloitte LLP, decided to take a totally new, “minimal formal training” approach to onboarding employees to the new system. The team reduced the number of classroom training hours from 24 to 3 and ensured those 3 hours of training were delivered right before an employee started to use the new system.

They also developed over 175 learning assets that were delivered as popups as employees used the new system. The assets, which included videos and text, were based on skills (rather than roles) and aligned to employees’ workflows. Many assets could be skipped if the employee already had the skill. They were regularly updated based on usage data.5

We liked this example because it so clearly demonstrates how a shift in methods can make learning more relevant, contextualized, and useful to employees, driving adoption of new behaviors.

Figure 7: Methods for experimenting with new skills | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Experiment with new knowledge and skills

A well-established and growing body of research points to the importance of experimentation, failure, and reflection in learning.6 The more opportunities employees have to try new skills in realistic environments and then reflect on their mistakes, the better.

The methods we saw that help employees experiment with new knowledge and skills fell roughly into 2 categories (shown in Figure 7):

  • Experimenting within learning experiences
  • Experimenting on the job

Experimenting is a behavior where the L&D function doesn’t have complete control. For example, they can purposely build reflection exercises and role plays into the stuff they create, but they can’t ensure managers help employees learn from mistakes on the job—they can only prepare managers to do so.

L&D functions should put in place learning methods, systems, and processes to make experimentation easier and more natural.

This means that helping employees experiment is more about putting the right learning methods, systems, and processes in place so that experimentation is as easy and natural as possible.

Experimentation within learning experiences

When L&D functions think about enabling experimenting, they usually go straight to experimentation within a planned learning experience. Which is not surprising, nor is it wrong.

L&D functions can have quite a bit of sway in helping employees use new knowledge and skills. A phrase we hear a lot is “experimenting in a safe place.” This generally includes methods like:

  • Sandboxes
  • Simulations
  • Role plays
  • AR / VR / immersive 3D
  • Reflection activities

In each of these instances, employees are given the opportunity to try out their new knowledge in low-risk situations. These types of methods are excellent in situations (and cultures) where mistakes have large consequences, whether those consequences are perceived or real.

Some of the situations where these methods may be the most appropriate option include:

  • Realistic simulations that take participants through catastrophic failure scenarios or scenarios that would be physically dangerous in real life (e.g., nuclear power plants, active shooter scenarios)
  • Role plays that help new managers learn how to give appropriate, non-biased feedback
  • Use of AR / VR to help employees get over their fear of public speaking, or as part of a DEIB training to build empathy

These experimentation methods tend to be a bit more costly than many other methods, and this is where we caution L&D leaders to use some discretion: Many we spoke to are enamored with the idea of AR / VR, for example, but just because it can be used in a situation doesn’t mean it should be.

Experimenting on the job

The methods that fall in this category are some of our favorites—and for good reason. We’ve long been proponents of defaulting to the work first to teach new knowledge and skills. This means that L&D functions should think about developing skills in the context of the work and try to build opportunities into the flow rather than defaulting to learning activities that would take employees out of their job, and therefore out of context. Methods that fall in this category include:

  • Job rotations
  • Talent / gig marketplaces
  • Volunteering outside of work
  • Stretch assignments
  • Job shadowing
  • Reflection activities

Most of L&Ddom understands that these methods are effective. Why, then, are they not used more? We think it comes down to the fact that the L&D function often doesn’t “own” them. They don’t have direct control over the systems that determine job rotations or stretch assignments, for example.

L&D functions often don't "own" the systems that determine job rotations or stretch assignments—but that's changing.

That is changing. In many orgs, for example, the L&D function is one of the strongest proponents of a talent or gig marketplace. They see these marketplaces as a way not just to build new skills and knowledge, but also to collect information about those skills and knowledge, helping the L&D function to determine where the greatest need is.

L&D functions are also being included in larger discussions about talent development in general. Performance, engagement, mobility, and employee development are becoming 1 conversation instead of 4, making it easier to influence how and if these methods are leveraged.

For L&D functions that aren’t yet included in those discussions, we strongly recommend finding a way to be included. One leader we spoke to invited himself to important meetings about talent. Another used her influence to build relationships with her peers in other HR practices so that these methods could be included in the overall development strategy.

Real-world thread: Enabling employees to experiment through job rotations

The L&D function at Boston-based software company PTC is a strong proponent of job rotations to develop employee skills.

PTC’s early-in-career rotational program, which moves junior employees through various business functions over the course of 2 years, has been highly successful, with 100% retention of employees who participate. Similarly, the HR function rotates employees across the various HR teams.

These programs offer 2 main benefits. First, employees get to practice new skills in real work environments, giving them context for the things they’re learning. Second, PTC is building a more agile and resilient workforce by developing employees with transferable, cross-functional skills.

Kelly Rider, CLO at PTC, said:

"We’re more agile now because we can say, for example, 'Oh, this person has skills in recruiting. Let’s pull them over to this project that needs those skills.'" – Kelly Rider, CLO, PTC7

As leaders consider which methods to invest in and how to message their decisions to managers and employees, it’s worth remembering that these on-the-job experimentation methods benefit both employees and the entire org.

Figure 8: Methods for connecting to learn from each other | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Connect with each other for learning

Also known as “social learning,” methods that connect employees to each other for purposes of sharing knowledge and developing skills are already in many L&D functions’ quivers. L&D functions have long been interested in these methods and have tried to codify and formalize them for years.

Tech platforms have been developed to aid in this socialization, but connections often happen more organically: one employee asks her colleague how to do something; other employees attend conferences together, tend to their social media channels, or seek out a mentor.

The L&D function’s role in helping people connect has as much to do with building cultures that encourage sharing as it does with formal processes or tech. For example, coaching has seen a revival in recent years, and is an important formal way to help people connect for learning. Equally important is normalizing virtual collaboration channels, such as Teams or Slack, as ways to collect and share information that could be useful more broadly.

As with some methods for experimentation, L&D functions often do not own a lot of the methods that enable employees to connect. Rather than trying to control these efforts, we’re seeing L&D functions reach out, partner with other functions, and focus on convening people and amplifying what’s good.

The L&D function can help people connect by focusing on convening people, amplifying what’s good, and creating a culture that encourages connection.

For example, a handful of leaders in different orgs gave us the specific example of mentoring programs. Rather than creating mentoring programs themselves, they’re codifying and sharing info about what’s working in some pockets of the org so people who are interested in starting mentoring programs in other areas don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Interestingly, as the pandemic forced many employees into their homes and away from face-to-face work interactions, the value of true human connection skyrocketed.8 This theme showed up as strongly in learning methods as it did in other areas of work: in the roundtable we held as part of this research, a significant portion of the discussion was dedicated to how L&D functions can invest in learning methods that foster meaningful connections between employees.9

Methods that help employees connect for learning fall into 3 categories (shown in Figure 8):

  • Connecting 1:1
  • Connecting groups
  • Connecting to the outside

Let’s discuss these categories in more detail.

Connecting 1:1

It’s not surprising that employees connect 1:1 to learn—one of the easiest ways to find something out at work is to walk down the hall and ask a colleague (or, these days, send them a Slack or Teams chat). It’s hard to beat the level of personalization and contextualization that comes with a 1:1 conversation with someone who’s been there, done that.

L&D functions have some options when it comes to connecting people 1:1. The methods we ran across in this study include:

  • Coaching
  • Mentoring
  • Leader as teacher
  • Expert directories

All of these methods can happen with or without the involvement of the L&D function. Many employees find their own coaches, mentors, and experts who can help them develop the knowledge and skills they need for their career.

For years, L&D functions have tried to provide a more systematic and scalable approach to these methods to ensure that those who need or want this type of experience get it. This is increasingly important as orgs are being scrutinized by their boards and by the public for their efforts to provide equitable access to development opportunities and advancement.

Recently, there has been an uptick in the use of these methods, particularly coaching. Orgs have many creative ways to scale these 1:1 connections. You can read about them in the final report of our recent coaching study.10

Connecting groups

As orgs adopt more team-oriented workstyles and compensate and judge team performance accordingly, it makes sense that employees would also connect more as groups for learning. Methods for connecting groups for learning that we identified from our research include:

  • Employee resource groups (ERGs)
  • Communities of practice
  • Virtual collaboration (Slack, Teams, etc.)
  • Team coaching / training
  • Knowledge sessions (e.g., brown bag lunches)
  • Book clubs
  • Discussion forums

While L&D functions may not have direct responsibility for all the methods listed above, they can either influence their usage or leverage them for learning purposes.

Group-based development both fosters human connection and enables employees to practice new skills with the people they'll be using those skills with on the job.

L&D functions likely own methods like team coaching and knowledge sessions and can therefore structure them in ways most beneficial to the learning goals of the org. Leaders said they’re experimenting more and more with group-based development because it does 2 things at once: it fosters human connection among group members and enables employees to practice new skills with the people they’ll be using those skills with on the job.

L&D functions may not be the sole owner of ERGs and communities of practice, but they can influence them by helping to craft charters and training leaders, and they can leverage them to develop necessary skills and awareness in those taking part—DEIB awareness or wellness, for example. Participants can also be tapped to help L&D functions understand where the development needs are and, in some cases, help develop the content.

One learning leader told us that convening groups across the org is a key way his team supports connection at scale. His org has a strong culture of building communities of practice that connect people across disciplines to share templates, best practices, and insights.11 The central learning team leverages this culture (remember that trend of building on what already exists?) to connect groups for learning.

Connecting to the outside

Finally, orgs use methods that connect employees to people and ideas outside of their own walls. This category focuses on ensuring employees have the external connections they need to be successful, both in their current roles and in their long-term careers. With so much change in almost every industry and function, both orgs and employees benefit when people are able to forge connections outside the org. The methods in this category include:

  • Industry conferences
  • Professional organizations
  • Professional / personal networks

While these methods are sometimes seen as the responsibility of the individual employee, we think that L&D functions should invest to enable them, as they yield pretty large benefits to orgs:

Development opportunities

It’s a (true) cliché that who you know influences what jobs you get; it’s also true that who you know influences the development opportunities you’re able to secure. Our research earlier this year on skills and internal mobility both revealed that employees’ personal and professional networks strongly influence the opportunities they find out about and have access to.12 Enabling all employees to build these relationships is a critical task for L&D functions.

While methods to bring the outside in may often be seen as the responsibility of employees, we think orgs should invest in them because they benefit the org, too.

Bringing outside info in

We’ve worked with a number of orgs this year who’ve talked about the need to “look up and around”—to stay current on trends, leading thinking, and leading practices in a fast-changing environment. Enabling employees to connect to the outside is one way to do this.

Developing interpersonal and networking skills

Networking is an increasingly important skill. Because one person cannot know everything, orgs should enable employees to know the people who know all the things. Conferences, professional organizations, and building professional and personal networks are key. In some industries, such as consulting or sales or politics, a good network is crucial to good performance.

Real-world thread: Supporting employees to connect for learning

We mentioned above that orgs are finding lots of ways to systematize and scale 1:1 connections. One way they’re doing this is by focusing on sharing info, providing guidance that applies to the whole org, and highlighting leading practices.

An org that’s doing this well is a large US insurance company which supports a variety of mentoring initiatives. The central L&D team understands that in an org of 60,000 employees, different business areas have different ways of doing things and that sometimes employees find mentoring opportunities on their own—and that’s a good thing.

Kaitlyn M., formerly a learning leader at this company, said:

“Mentoring happens in the community, at centers of worship, at connections from other companies. Those aren’t things our company can control, nor should we." – Kaitlyn M., former learning leader, large US insurance company

Accordingly, the central L&D team focuses on providing enterprise-wide guidance and sharing leading practices about mentoring in the company. They disseminate answers to questions like:

  • What’s cutting-edge in mentoring?
  • What’s the definition of mentoring at State Farm?
  • What are the qualities of a good mentor?
  • How long should mentoring relationships last?

The central L&D team intentionally looks for answers to these questions inside as well as outside the org. An analyst on the L&D team does research within the org to identify which groups are doing mentoring well. The team then works to formalize and scale these leading practices as enterprise guidance.13

Focusing on org-wide guidance and sharing what’s already working strikes us as a highly effective and efficient way of fostering connections at scale.

Figure 9: Methods for performing | Source: RedThread Research, 2021

Helping employees Perform better on the job

L&D functions should be helping employees learn on the job and perform better while doing it. Performance support has long been part of the L&D repertoire—think standard operating procedures and other methods that attempt to make task performance as predictable and standardized as possible. But there’s more to it than that.

We’re seeing new ways of enabling learning-while-performing in 3 key areas:

Pushing data down

More orgs are enabling employees to access data about their own learning and performance. Data, such as customer feedback, sales numbers, performance reviews, and learning strengths are shared with managers and the employees themselves because orgs are recognizing that the employee is the person best equipped and most motivated to act upon it.

Leveraging employee knowledge

In keeping with the trend toward user-generated content, leaders said they’ve started to invite employees to take a more active role in creating and updating documents related to performance support (such as job aids).

Culture of feedback

Historically, feedback has been given from manager to employee, and in some rare, formal cases, from employee to manager via 360 (or formal complaint to the HR department). However, many orgs are actively looking for ways to make feedback a part of the culture. More on this below.

Orgs are experimenting with learning methods that push performance data down to the individual—the person best equipped and most motivated to do something with it.

Methods that enable employees to perform better on the job and learn while doing it fall into 3 categories (shown in figure 9):

  • Instructions
  • Collaboration spaces
  • Feedback

Let’s discuss these categories in more detail.


For about a century, one of L&D’s primary roles has been to help employees perform certain tasks as similarly as possible. Efficiency, standardization, and predictability were the name of the game—think manufacturing. The instructions category reflects that history, and is all about providing employees with detailed descriptions of how to perform critical tasks in their role. Methods in this category include:

  • Job aids
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Job safety analysis

But there have been some exciting developments in recent years, moving these established methods into the 21st century. Newer approaches to these methods include ways to involve employees in creating and updating the information. People who have done the job are often responsible for updating the documents, reflecting a belief that learning doesn’t need to be prescriptive or from a centralized source—it can be more helpful “from the horse’s mouth.”

Collaboration spaces

If the instructions category is fairly set—“this is how this job is done”—then methods in the collaboration spaces category are more fluid. They’re about creating places for employees to share their knowledge on a topic, update that knowledge as needed, and easily access the knowledge from inside their work. These methods work best, of course, when they’re well-organized or easily searchable so people can find what they’re looking for.

Methods in this category include:

  • Wikis
  • Shared files

In many cases, L&D functions do not own the sources of information for these methods: someone closer to the work does. L&D’s role therefore becomes about providing visibility and accessibility to content, not necessarily creating or monitoring that content.

Because they don’t own the sources or the content, L&D functions often need to work with other HR functions or the business function to make sure employees have the needed visibility and access.


Learning methods in the feedback category give concrete and actionable information to employees about how they’re doing and how they can improve. This is one of our favorite categories, since it can so strongly enable a learning culture.

Feedback gives concrete and actionable information to employees about how they're doing and how they can improve.

Methods in this category include:

  • After-action reviews
  • Performance statistics (e.g., sales revenue)
  • Feedback from customers, managers, and peers

L&D functions often hit this category indirectly: they don’t have direct control over the feedback people give one another, but can influence how those people learn (e.g., they can’t determine if managers are going to provide feedback, but they are responsible for what managers learn) about when and how to give good feedback. They also can help employees seek feedback, which just makes the situation better all around.

Feedback can be tech enabled or not. On the tech-enabled end of the spectrum, a lot can be done by putting actionable data directly into employees’ hands. For example, one vendor we talked with showed us their tech platform, which sends customer ratings and reviews to call center reps within minutes of a service call—allowing the employee to adjust efforts in time for the very next call.

On the less tech-enabled end of the spectrum, we’ve heard a lot about working with other functions to build feedback into processes, as in the after-action review example below.

Real-world thread: Creating a culture of feedback

An L&D function can’t create a culture of feedback alone. But they can influence the culture by working with other functions to implement systems and processes that make feedback part of the way business is done.

The US Navy SEALs have embedded feedback deeply into their culture, partly through the use of their famous After-Action Reviews (AARs). In an AAR, all members of a SEAL team gather immediately after a mission or training session to break down the event in detail. They ask:

  • What went wrong?
  • What did each person do, and why did they do it?
  • What will we do differently next time?

The candid feedback team members deliver to one another in AARs is often uncomfortable, but it’s considered an essential part of how the team gets better.14

We’ve implemented AARs in our teams at RedThread and have found enormous benefit in the structured ways they help us learn from mistakes and improve our work. We’d encourage leaders to consider this and other methods of embedding feedback—first in the L&D function itself and moving out from there.

All the methods

There you have it: The dozens of learning methods we’ve found, the categories they fall into, and the 6 behaviors they can enable (Plan, Discover, Consume, Experiment, Connect, and Perform). It’s a lot—a lot of methods, and a lot of ways they can each be used.

Not all orgs need all learning methods, of course. But L&D functions do need to think about whether they are appropriately supporting each behavior, and whether they have the right mix of methods to enable their employees to build the skills that serve the org’s strategy.

One learning leader, whose team focuses on enabling external customer learning, described her org’s thought process this way:

“We think about the customer’s learning journey and the different methods that are required at every single point. What methods drive discoverability? Adoption? And so on.” – Sonia Malik, Learning Alliances Manager, IBM15

With a clearer understanding of what learning methods are available and how the Employee Development Framework can be used to conceptually organize those methods, let’s turn to the question of what methods might be best for your org—and how to decide.

The right methods in the right combinations

So far, we have reviewed the Employee Development Framework and identified several dozen learning methods that can enable each of its behaviors. Just having a (fairly) comprehensive list of learning methods can help L&D functions begin to think beyond the course and introduce, recognize, or support other ways of learning in the org.

However, as most L&D leaders understand, having information and knowing what to do with it are 2 different things. In our conversations, we heard of 5 innovative ways leaders are deciding which methods work best for their orgs:

  • Understand the messages your methods send
  • Experiment, iterate, push boundaries
  • Design bike paths, not buses
  • Squirrel!: Don’t get distracted
  • Let go of what’s not working

Note that none of these 5 approaches indicates a one-and-done decision. Instead, “deciding” on the right learning methods in the right combinations is an ongoing process of experimentation and improvement, trial and error.

Deciding on the right learning methods is an ongoing process of experimentation and iteration.

Let’s look at each of the 5 approaches to deciding on learning methods in more detail.

Understand the messages your methods send

We heard a consistent refrain from leaders in this research: know your audience. We’d expand this sentiment to: know your culture, and know the culture you want to create. The decisions L&D functions make about learning methods strongly shape how learning happens in the org. That means those decisions need to both fit the current ways learning happens and nudge the org in the direction of the learning culture your org wants to have (or further in that direction, if you’re already on the way).

For example, a business services org we have worked with was heavily relationship-oriented. That feature was a strength of the culture, and one the L&D function wanted to support and enhance. Instead of drowning their employees in a sea of e-learning courses, they focused on events, both live and virtual, coaching, and using leaders as teachers.

When it comes to deciding on learning methods, the saying, “actions speak louder than words” is true. L&D leaders should think carefully about what their learning methods “say” to the org, because those messages help nudge the org toward or away from the culture the org wants to create.

Here are a few examples of intentional or unintentional messages sent by chosen learning methods.

Mandatory individual development plans

An org that institutes individual development plans (IDPs) for all employees and makes them easy to access and linked to learning opportunities and performance data might send the message that, “We continuously develop at this company. We want and expect you to develop while you’re here.”

Locked-down courses

Many orgs have some development opportunities that are limited to certain groups or types of employees. Making those opportunities visible to all, but available to only a few, might send the message that, “This opportunity is only for special people (and you’re not special).”

Coaching for all

An org that actively implements various types of coaching, at least some of which are open to all employees, might send the message that, “We are investing in you. We care about everyone’s development, including yours.”

Job rotations

Orgs that implement job rotation programs and market them widely internally (as opposed to programs that exist but remain largely unknown and unused) might send the message that, “Mobility is important to us. It’s important for you to get exposure to other areas of the org.”

Orgs that invest in sending employees to conferences on a regular basis might send the message that, “We’re interested in your gaining outside perspectives.” Orgs that also encourage employees to present at conferences send the message that, “We want you to be seen as an expert in this area.”

After-action reviews

Orgs that use after-action reviews as a part of how they operate might send the message that, “We learn from our mistakes.”

These are just a few of the potential messages these learning methods might send. Bear in mind that whatever methods you decide on are going to send a message. We encourage leaders to think carefully about what those messages might be and whether they will nudge the org in the direction you want.

Experiment, iterate, and push boundaries

Given how traditionally many L&D functions say they operate, we were pleasantly surprised at the extent to which leaders said they take an iterative approach to learning methods. They try new methods, or new approaches to existing methods. They see what works and improve over time.

This iteration mindset—and it is a mindset—takes conscious effort to embed into the org. Leaders said they make a point to celebrate failures as well as successes, highlighting failures as opportunities for learning. They also work hard to build a sense of community and psychological safety so that all L&D team members feel encouraged to try new things.

Leaders should experiment, see what works, assess what doesn’t, and improve over time.

Another way leaders encourage experimentation and iteration within the L&D function is by thinking about learning as a product. They think in terms of a product development cycle: discovery / understanding needs, developing a minimum viable product, piloting and testing, and so on.

And like good product developers, the L&D function shouldn’t be just an order-taker that simply caters to the current needs and desires of employees or other business functions. Instead, L&D functions have a responsibility to help the org and its employees continually develop. That sometimes means gently helping people step outside their comfort zones by painting a picture of what the future might look like and how they will benefit from that future.

Leaders in this area also obsessively use data and feedback to inform experiments. One leader placed trackers on different pages in a new learning portal and used A/B testing to see which pages were most effective. Others pay close attention to the comments and reviews from employees in their learning systems and adjust based on that feedback.

Real-world thread: Pushing boundaries

L&D leaders can use data to push boundaries. At a Fortune 100 manufacturing org, a new method for cybersecurity training was making some people uncomfortable. The L&D function was able to use data to help people see that it was working.

In early 2021, the central L&D team paired with the IT group’s cybersecurity team and business functions to launch a cybersecurity training. The training sent mock phishing emails to employees, tracked how they handled the mock emails, and recommended follow-on training opportunities in the L&D org’s learning tech platform. The learning tech platform also captured employee comments on the training.

After sending the mock emails, the IT group received about 30 emails (including from one very senior leader) criticizing the training. However, the mock email campaign also received about 300 positive comments in the learning tech platform, and many leaders began sharing the recommended training with their teams.

The central L&D team was able to look at the data and fully contextualize those 30 criticisms against everything else that was going on.

The CLO said:

“All this goodness was happening, and we were able to package all the data to show the full picture to our partners in IT and our senior leaders. That was an early example of not freaking out about something new because we had the data to show it was working." – CLO, Fortune 100 manufacturing org16

This focus on data and feedback can help make the case for new approaches that might otherwise be overcome by org inertia or resistance.

Design bike paths, not buses

We love the following analogy from Eric Dingler, CLO, Deloitte US. Eric shared this analogy to illustrate how L&D functions have historically used inflexible, course-focused learning methods:

“L&D is great at designing buses. We need to get better at designing bicycle paths. Not 1 million paths, sure, but a lot more than 1 per year per level.” – Eric Dingler, CLO, Deloitte US17

Buses accommodate a big group of people but are inflexible in their seating, their route, their destination, and their stops. They’re designed to efficiently get a number of people with the same general need to a place relatively close to their final destination.

Bike paths, on the other hand, may lead to the same destination, but accommodate slower riders or professional cyclists, those out for a Sunday roll or those in a race. People can ride together, but don’t have to. Parents can teach kids to ride on their own along the way. Everyone can stop for some ice cream, and some can even get off the path for a while.

Eric is in favor of methods that act more like bike paths. At Deloitte, he and his team are building learning opportunities that are more flexible and therefore easier for each individual employee to use in ways that work for them: employees can jump on a path whenever they want, proceed at their own pace, and jump off when they’re at their “destination” or need a break.

Note that the analogy doesn’t imply pure chaos or lack of structure. Indeed, L&D functions should still provide a lot of structure to ensure employees get where they need to go. The key seems to be creating systems that allow for flexibility within that structure.

We heard similar sentiments from other leaders when describing their attempts to enable flexibility within structure. One put it this way:

"It’s necessary to provide enough structure so that experimentation happens organically. So that it feels easy and effortless." – Ryan Cozens, L&D Lead, Well Health18

This type of flexibility benefits more than just the employee. Orgs using “bike paths” can respond more quickly to disruption—changes in strategy or worldwide pandemics, say. They also have more data because they have more employee touch points and can therefore better understand what skills they have and where they should focus their development efforts. And they can more easily experiment with new methods and change things that aren’t working without a huge investment of effort, time, or money.

How are leaders going about building flexibility within structure? The exact approaches vary from company to company, but 3 common themes emerged.


If flexibility is the goal, then it makes sense to make learning opportunities more modular so they can be switched around, combined, or removed as needed. This movement toward modularity applies to learning content, sure, but also to the ways learning opportunities are pieced together.

For example, if an org wants all employees to have data analytics as a skill, traditionally they might have sent all employees through the same course. However, if they’re thinking in terms of modularity, they may combine many learning methods to meet the employees wherever they are.

A financial analyst may just need to verify that she already has the necessary skills. An engineer may find he needs a few refresher videos and a practice exercise. And an artist may discover that she benefits from all of the modularized videos, all of the practice assignments, and verification that she has the necessary skill.

Integrated with the work

Leaders also told us that they were trying to integrate the learning with the work as much as possible. This meant different things to different leaders. Those new to the idea focused on “bite-sized” bits of learning that could be easily integrated. Those with more experience were utilizing methods in Experiment, Perform, and Connect, specifically, to use the work as much as possible as the main learning tool.


Most of the leaders we talked to are adopting a skills-based approach to learning methods. The granularity of skills makes it much easier to assemble, break down, and reassemble learning methods, and to set up “create-your-own-journey” learning paths for employees. L&D’s role in this case is to clearly tie methods and content to skills, and to provide assembly instructions for those building their own paths.

Squirrel!: Don’t get distracted

From both the roundtable and our interviews, leaders told us that the first criterion for selecting learning methods should be that the development helps to solve a business challenge. We love this, and we absolutely think it should be applied to learning method decisions.

Knowing the L&D space like we do, and also understanding L&D’s propensity for research and love of tech, we want to point out an obvious but maybe painful truth about this group: we like shiny things. We like new, and we’re constantly looking for things that can help us do what we do (and therefore help employees do what they do) better / faster / shinier.

That said, the well-grounded leaders in our roundtable pointed out that the methods you select should solve a challenge the org is having. While methods don’t tie directly to business challenges (you can use several to solve the same challenge), we agree that a focus on the org, not just the employees and their experience, is key when choosing methods.

The methods you select should solve a challenge the org is having. A focus on the org, not just employees and their experience, is key.

In this study, leaders mentioned 3 questions they ask themselves when considering a new method for their org to keep themselves from getting distracted.

Does the method make financial sense?

There are lots of sexy learning methods out there, and all of them cost money. Leaders spoke not just of finding the budget or justifying the cost, but actually analyzing the method financially to determine whether it made sense for the problem it was meant to solve, including internal resources that will be needed to implement, coordinate, and service it.

Does the method work for the intended audience?

We heard a lot from leaders about the need to know your audience. They ask questions like: Are the methods likely to achieve the goal, given the audience’s needs and preferences? For example, the needs and constraints of an office worker are quite different than the needs and constraints of a manufacturing supervisor. Understanding those differences and choosing methods that work well for them is pretty important when enabling their development.

Does the method work with your org’s tech stacks?

Finally, leaders talked about their org’s tech stack—both leveraging what is currently there and implementing new methods with tech components. Two areas they mentioned specifically were user experience (did this align with what learning meant in the org?) and data (how would this data be passed to other tech or stored in a data lake?).

If the answer was yes to all of these questions, leaders were more comfortable implementing—or even just experimenting with—the method in question.

Let go of what’s not working

Leaders told us that the first thing to do when a method isn’t working is to figure out why. Sometimes a quick tweak, more communication, or better visibility can increase engagement and value to the org. Sometimes it can’t. Sometimes you have to let things die. And sometimes you have to cut them loose.

Saying goodbye

Letting things die is often a challenge for L&D functions. Candidly, there’s an emotional aspect to letting go. L&D teams often work hard to create learning methods that are often successful for a time. Or they work hard on things that just flop. In either case, there can be natural resistance to letting go of methods that no longer work. But as one leader said:

"The world is changing. Don’t get attached to a learning method. If it works, great. If not, move on and find something that works better." – Jeffrey Mills, Manager, Org Learning & Development, QSC19

More tactically, the leaders we spoke with revealed 3 enlightening ways to make it easier for their L&D functions and L&D professionals to let go of what’s not working.

Make methods disposable

Some leaders consider all learning methods as disposable or having a short shelf life. Everything has a life cycle, they said, which means it’s natural for things that no longer work to be pulled out of the system.

This is akin to hand-making valentines. You put a lot of effort in them to benefit someone, but you know they’re likely going to appreciate it (or not) and then toss it on February 15. By having a mindset of disposability, L&D leaders and their teams can make more rational decisions about what to invest in and what not to invest in, both originally and on an ongoing basis.

Implement the strategic pause

Sometimes it can help to simply put time and distance between the realization that something isn’t working and the final act of letting go. One leader said:

“If something isn’t working, we’ll do a ‘strategic pause.’ We stop providing the program and evaluate if it’s really needed. If so, we rework the offering. If not, we find a way to offboard it."
– Roundtable participant, Oct 2021.”20

Delegate the decision to the business function

In orgs that use a charge-back system (business functions contract with a central L&D function to create a learning initiative), L&D leaders can leave the keep / toss decision to the business function. If a program or a piece of content continues to be useful, the business function keeps it alive. If not, they let it go.

Cutting them loose

In some instances, L&D functions may take a more proactive approach to getting rid of learning methods. In such cases, the cutting-loose is planned as a part of the method’s implementation. Orgs focusing on skills, for example, understand that the learning methods, the data, and the tech associated with teaching skills that they’re using in this moment are not the ones they will be using in 3 years—and maybe not even in 6 months.

Tech, data, and methods continue to get better. So rather than just thinking of certain methods as disposable, it’s important to make them disposable. One leader mentioned 2 main ideas.

First, contracts with vendors of all sorts should get shorter. Large learning tech implementations are sometimes 10 years long, which gives plenty of time to implement the tech, work out the bugs, see the benefits, and then ride the wave for a while. However, if your org knows it will be jumping to something better as soon as it’s available, contracts need to be negotiated with shorter terms.

Building an exit strategy into the implementation of learning methods ensures that they won't outstay their welcome.

Second, there has to be an exit strategy. As learning tech gets more sophisticated, it becomes more integrated into an org’s tech stack, and more data flows into and out of the system. When an org plans to kill a method or tech, it needs a plan in place for what happens with those integrations and, even more importantly, that data.

We love the idea of building an exit strategy into the implementation of learning methods. Although it doesn’t apply to all methods, it ensures that when it’s critical, methods won’t outstay their welcome.

Real-world thread: Letting go of what’s not working

When it becomes clear that a learning method isn’t working, the right course of action is sometimes to ditch it in favor of something that does work.

That’s what happened at NASCO, a healthcare tech company. A customer-facing learning program initially created a full user guide to help customers use a NASCO product. As the Workforce Readiness Solutions team watched customer usage, they realized customers weren’t using the guide. Instead, customers were capturing video snippets and using them to train employees on the product.

The NASCO team used that data to adjust their efforts. They started releasing short video snippets, eventually replacing the full user guide with video snippets as a part of the customer’s knowledge management solution.

We loved NASCO’s willingness to let go of a product they’d devoted a lot of time to, and pivot to ensure their learning methods were as useful to their customers as possible.21

Wrapping up

Although most of the learning methods we’ve covered in this report have been around for a while, the ways they’re being used in many orgs are quite innovative. The 6 behaviors in the Employee Development Framework offer a way to understand what learning methods are available and how they can be used to enable different learning behaviors—making it easier to assess whether an org has the right methods, in the right combinations, for their goals.

We expect to see more orgs taking a broader approach to learning methods in the future, because leaders see the value in the flexibility and personalization such approaches offer in a changing business climate. We look forward to seeing how that approach works and continues to evolve.

Appendix 1: Methodology

We launched our study in the fall of 2021. This report gathers and synthesizes findings from our research efforts, which include:

  • A review of 60+ articles, podcasts, videos, and books from business, trade, and popular literature sources
  • 1 roundtable with 28 participants
  • 15 in-depth interviews with leaders on learning methods

For those looking for more info on this topic, you’re in luck: We have a policy of sharing as much information as possible throughout the research process. Please see these articles on our website:

Appendix 2: Contributors

Thank you so much to those of you who participated in our roundtable and interviews. We couldn’t have done this research without you! In addition to the leaders listed below, there are many others we can’t name publicly. We extend our gratitude nonetheless: You know who you are.

  • Adrian Klemme
  • Alison Antolak
  • Ann Boldt
  • Brian Richardson
  • Buck Seward
  • Dan Balzer
  • Deanna Foster
  • Doug Osborn
  • Eric Dingler
  • Erik Soerhaug
  • Jeffrey Mills
  • Jim Maddock
  • John Fallon
  • Kaitlyn Mathews
  • Kate Earle
  • Kelly Rider
  • Kim Ziprik
  • Lisa Ross
  • Rachel Hutchinson
  • Ryan Cozens
  • Sonia Malik
  • Stephen Wilhite
  • Stephen Young
  • Zachary Pfau

In addition, we thank Ferenc Laszlo Petho for graphic design and Jenny Barandich for layout.

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